Jan 20, 2010
Barack Obama went to Boston to rally voters and got a pie in the
face. He lost his innocence as the valiant young president and also lost
his sixty-vote majority in the Senate. Now we will find out what the man is
made of--either a true political leader or just another show horse.
Dozens of explanations are being offered for why the Dems were
humiliated in Massachusetts. Democrats incline to grab easy answers. The
president, if he is tough enough, will instead face the hard message of
this political fiasco.
The special election displayed monumental miscalculations by which
Obama has governed, both in priorities and political-legislative
strategies. It may seem perverse and unfair, but the president's various
actions for reform generated a vaguely poisonous identity. Amid the
general suffering, Obama is widely seen as collaborating with two
popular villains--the me-first bankers and over-educated policy
technocrats of the permanent governing elite. Obama made nice with the
bankers and loaded up his administration with Harvard policy wonks who
really don't know the country. These malignant associations gain
traction because people see there are grains of truth in observable
On Sunday, I listened on the radio to Obama's soaring speech at
Northeastern University and remembered again why his oratory first took
the nation to the mountaintop. His attack lines lashing bankers and
insurance companies were fluid and tough, shouted repetitively over the
rising cheers. His diction was loosely colloquial. He dropped the hard
g's to get down with the folks. Too little, too late, I figured. He is
still masterful, but this is performance, not substance. People grasp
the difference between the two. This gulf will imprison Obama as a
stereotype for weakness, a joke on late-night TV, if he doesn't change.
The humiliation, I decided, could become a good thing for this
presidency if it forces Obama to rethink his political strategy and
rearrange his governing order. For all his brains and talent, for all
the brainy people around him, the Obama White House seems tone-deaf and
blind on many aspects of the popular reality. Too full of itself to
listen closely. Too condescending to recognize the rage and fear are
about more than right-wing frothers.
On healthcare, Obama played coy while his White House aides cut
private deals with the drug industry and other sectors. The legislative
process was drawn out month after month in an addled bargaining marathon
with hostile Republicans (who stiffed him in return) and
industry-leaning Democrats (who got whatever they demanded). The liberal
base was conned, ignored and bullied, as its vital issues were one by one
discarded. Labor unions were stroked and intimidated by the White House,
then double-crossed as Obama's reform extracted greater costs from union
members than it demanded from the drug makers. People at large were
confused, then frightened. They could not understand what reform would
do for them, and some of their doubts were well-founded. The longer it
went on, the more people wondered why Democrats weren't talking about
their problem--jobs and incomes.
Obama's mild-mannered faith in bipartisan deal-making seemed
strangely out of touch. Didn't he realize Republicans were going to maul
him at every turn?
The bankers, meanwhile, did their own tap dance on the new
president, putting a paw on his shoulder while gobbling up public
resources. Obama kept holding meetings with them, urging them to do the
"right thing." They practically laughed in his face.
People were meanwhile agitated by the swelling budget deficits and
easy prey for right-wing propaganda. Instead of explaining the economic
necessity of deficit spending in a straightforward way, Obama adopted
these worries as his own. He has promised to reduce spending, but he
cannot deliver on this if he truly expects recovery.
Obama's style became an inadvertent formula for sapping the life out
of the political majority that elected him, deflating the reach of
reform and turning off the electoral base that came together in 2008.
Democrats are being told (and telling themselves) that they
over-reached, but what became clear as the months dragged on is the
Democratic party under-achieved, and so did its president.
Obama's most disturbing quality is that he evidently intended this
from the start. Soaring rhetoric notwithstanding, he managed the
presidency as a pragmatist in search of the possible. The real goals for
change were minimalist, not visionary. This has to change and soon, if
he is to revive his presidency.
Obama, in other words, has to change himself. That may sound too
wishful and maybe it is. But we know he is a brilliant politician,
astute in his political vision. The great politicians, when faced with
new circumstances, revise themselves. We will see if Obama can.
First, he has to clear out the cobwebs of his hopeful aspirations and
take on the fight. To do so, he also has to clear away a lot of the
people around him. If Rahm Emmauel was the chief strategist, the guy who
made the private deals and told the senators what they could accept, he
failed big-time and should be replaced. Find a new manager whose
thinking was not shaped by cynical triangulation in the Clinton era.
The president chose Larry Summer and Timothy Geithner to speak for
the administration on the economy. Can you imagine finding anyone less
convincing? Both are active advocates of the Wall Street status quo,
neither has any feel for what's happening in the country. The bean
counters led the president into the trap he now faces. Permissive
bailouts created flush financial giants that sit on their profits and
ignore the public need for lending. Dump the bean counters now.
Obama's turn-around speech would declare--honestly--that he
misjudged the situation. The damage is far worse than he originally
realized. Some deeper structural changes are required. The political
opposition is more than ever blindly resistant than he had hoped. But
now Obama can promise to govern nose-to-nose against the political
forces blocking everything he attempts. He may not prevail, he
concedes. But he is going to throw himself at them and he asks the
people to join him in the fight.
If comprehensive healthcare reform is out of the question, Obama
Democrats can break it down into smaller pieces and try to pass worthy
measures one by one. A bill to prohibit insurance companies from
banning people with pre-existing ailments? Pass it the House and try to
pass it in the Senate. If Republicans want to filibuster, make them
filibuster. A measure to allow cheaper drug imports from Canada? Let
Republicans vote against that. Repealing the antitrust exemption for
insurance companies--Democrats support it. Democrats need to start a
fight on taxes too. Do Republicans want to tax Wall Street banks or
not? Obama has proposed it, let's have a roll call. The attack strategy
will focus on all the reforms people want and need and create a new
At the same time, Obama has to change the subject by refocusing reform
actions on jobs and the structure of the faltering economy. Do something
concrete and visible. If it doesn't work, try something else. If it's
real, people will respond. If it doesn't succeed, people will
understand. A governing agenda that creates a sense of action and shared
commitment does not require cerebral policy wonks. Go anywhere in
America and you will hear fresh thinking about how to get the country out of
Obama needs to locate some seasoned politicians and bring them into
the White House--people with a less cynical view of the Democratic
party and deep experience in how to mobilize substantive political
support. That includes the active citizens who do not mess with
elections because they consider them a waste of energy. People who want
big change are all over this country, nurturing new ideas and waiting to
Barack Obama is a cool character, not given to impulsiveness. But he
needs to accept that the political assumptions with which he began his
presidency are malfunctioning. I can't be sure he will be brave enough
to change things. I do say he cannot wait for his second term.
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