When a Democrat seeks re-election

Reading Charles Babington’s AP report on how “Obama’s team seeks new ways to fire up his base,” I got the distinct impression that I was listening to some not-very-well-prepared beauty contestants trying not to offend anyone while answering a particularly controversial question like “Is education good for America?”

The President himself attempted to address the challenge in an address to donors in Boston last week. He first posed the question (as he often does; evidently to tease out nuggets that other questioners could never get at): “Somebody asked me, how do we reinvigorate the population, the voter, after two very tough years?” Now given that he asked the question (to himself), it ought not to have been an unexpected one, but he nonetheless gave a less than rousing response. He suggested that his supporters just swallow their “anger” at him. Probably sensing that “Just shut up about it” was not an inspiring re-election slogan to this crowd, the President added: “There’s no weakness in us trying to reach out and seeing if we can find common ground.” Of course, the President has not been criticized by his base for “trying to reach out” but rather for compromising the promises that got him elected with an opposition party that had no intention of compromising and voted against the “compromises” in any event. This is what a corporate motivational speaker might call a “lose-lose” strategy.

Just so the “reaching out” is put in the proper perspective, here are some facts that might have been forgotten in the rush to the President’s goal of achieving a Non-Partisan Nation. 1) The President made clear statements during his campaign about ending the war in Iraq, closing the extra-legal detention bases in Guantanamo, enacting a public option as part of health care reform, providing transparency in government, ending the use of torture, the harm of extending the Bush tax cuts, the need for immigration reform, and many other topics. Despite taking a progressive position on these issues, he won the election with nearly 10 million more votes than John McCain and with an electoral “edge” of 365-173. 2) The Change we can Believe In delivered a substantial Democratic majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. 3) There was talk that because of the demographic make-up of the Democratic majority, the Republican Party was destined to be a permanent and decreasing minority party. Mr. Obama had an immense store of enthusiasm and political capital when he was inaugurated.

In short, the public supported him, he had the ability to pass his agenda and there was no reason to compromise because no one was looking for it.

That was, as the saying goes, then.

An article in Politico shows just how long ago then was. Team Obama is now considering whether it can use the pro-union enthusiasm that came as a backlash to the overreaching of the Republican Party in Wisconsin as one of his re-election themes. Now bear in mind that the President was noticeably MIA during the dispute, and still is. This, of course is calculated. Although candidate Obama once said that he would “walk the picket line with you” if collective bargaining rights were ever in danger, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted that the President’s campaign statement was not to be taken literally. (Mr. Carney will undoubtedly have to use that statement frequently as we approach the election.) The last thing the President wants to do is to take a position, go out on a limb or try to lead. He wants an issue that has no risk for him. As long as the pro-union drift of the Wisconsin situation is going strong, the President wants to be associated with it. He wants to ride the coat-tails of the Democratic state senators in Wisconsin. But if it looks like the wind will blow in another direction, count this President out. It is just too dangerous. Someone currently uncommitted might decide against the President. And that would be a risk this White House just can’t take.

The defining political principle of the political team of this Administration is to not offend the great unwashed “Independents” whose minds are as variable as a kaleidoscope and are impervious to any known form of persuasion, particularly given the utter lack of tools the White House has for affecting public opinion.

The only arrow this team has in their quiver is Compromise. Compromise allows the President not to take any firm position and thereby avoid terrifying Independents and causing markets to crash and empires to fall. Compromise for its own sake is both Policy and Politics to this White House.

But the tool has one side effect: it sucks all enthusiasm out of those who formerly had supported the President and mistakenly came to the belief that he shared their beliefs just because he said he did. And so after two years of seeking compromise with a minority party that wouldn’t compromise–and nevertheless unilaterally conceding policy points to them gratis, we are now in the position that the President is debating in front of people whose money and support he wants not how to win over his former opponents (who despite his concessions are still his opponents) but rather how to win back his former friends.

Now granted the past two years were “tough times,” as the President points out. But tough times are when liberal policy solutions are most needed. A little story might help.

There was once upon a time a Democratic President who also took over during “tough times.” On his first day in office banks in 32 states had closed, and the New York Federal Reserve was unable to open. One quarter of the work force was unemployed. Two million Americans were homeless. And to add to the atmosphere, Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany the month before. This President did not feel it his primary duty to reach a consensus with the Republicans, however. In those old-fashioned days before groups of pundits would mindlessly prate about bipartisanship (except of course on one network where they prate about the President’s mau-mau-ing philosophy), the President felt it his job to solve the nation’s problems and not placate the political junkies who every three days write a column (the same one) for the Washington Post or Time magazine. And so in this ancient fairy tale land, after the President set out to lead rather than compromise, he was able to say this when seeking a second term (he called it a Second New Deal):

“In 1932 the issue was the restoration of American democracy; and the American people were in a mood to win. They did win. In 1936 the issue is the preservation of their victory. Again they are in a mood to win. Again they will win. . . .

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

“They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

“I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.” (Franklin Roosevelt, October 31, 1936.)

Now I’m not suggesting our current President try to re-fashion that speech. If he were to try, it would have to have some unmusical flourishes like: “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match willing partner in compromise. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master have eliminated all differences between the Republicans and Democrats.

No, to be able to re-model Roosevelt’s speech, you would actually have to be a Democrat seeking re-election.

  1. May 25th, 2011

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