Friday, October 15, 2010

Pretty Revealing

There's so much in the President's recent interview with Peter Baker, I don't know where to start.  But here's an excerpt which has several points that blow my mind...

While proud of his record, Obama has already begun thinking about what went wrong — and what he needs to do to change course for the next two years. He has spent what one aide called “a lot of time talking about Obama 2.0” with his new interim chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and his deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina. During our hour together, Obama told me he had no regrets about the broad direction of his presidency. But he did identify what he called “tactical lessons.” He let himself look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.” He realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” when it comes to public works. Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.

Most of all, he has learned that, for all his anti-Washington rhetoric, he has to play by Washington rules if he wants to win in Washington. It is not enough to be supremely sure that he is right if no one else agrees with him. “Given how much stuff was coming at us,” Obama told me, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

That presumes that what he did was the right thing, a matter of considerable debate. The left thinks he did too little; the right too much. But what is striking about Obama’s self-diagnosis is that by his own rendering, the figure of inspiration from 2008 neglected the inspiration after his election. He didn’t stay connected to the people who put him in office in the first place. Instead, he simultaneously disappointed those who considered him the embodiment of a new progressive movement and those who expected him to reach across the aisle to usher in a postpartisan age. On the campaign trail lately, Obama has been confronted by disillusionment — the woman who was “exhausted” defending him, the mother whose son campaigned for him but was now looking for work. Even Shepard Fairey, the artist who made the iconic multihued “Hope” poster, says he’s losing hope.

Perhaps that should have come as no surprise. When Obama secured the Democratic nomination in June 2008, he told an admiring crowd that someday “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”

I read that line to Obama and asked how his high-flying rhetoric sounded in these days of low-flying governance. “It sounds ambitious,” he agreed. “But you know what? We’ve made progress on each of those fronts.” He quoted Mario Cuomo’s line about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. “But the prose and the poetry match up,” he said. “It would be very hard for people to look back and say, You know what, Obama didn’t do what he’s promised. I think they could say, On a bunch of fronts he still has an incomplete. But I keep a checklist of what we committed to doing, and we’ve probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we talked about during the campaign. And I hope as long as I’m president, I’ve got a chance to work on the other 30 percent.”
I feel like I need to bullet point a rebuttal to just this small portion of the article.

1.  In the same paragraph, the guy talks about not wanting to be seen as just another tax and spend liberal, then says he should have tactically let the GOP push for tax cuts as part of the stimulus so he could compromise on it.  Huh?  If you don't want to be seen as a traditional tax and spend liberal, perhaps it would help if you, I don't know, cut spending and taxes.

2.  Again, the failure of the stimulus is seen as a failure in messaging.  Elsewhere in the article, Ed Rendell calls the stimulus successful but attacks the White House's messaging on it.  Gibbs says they haven't had a meeting where policy is considered a problem in 20 months.  But this is the point: they are either so insulated from reality that they don't get it, or they think that they can get away with a blatantly false argument.

The stimulus has not worked to accomplish the goals the President and his team originally set out.  When it was passed, the stimulus was supposed to keep unemployment from rising over 8 percent; instead, unemployment's been stuck between 9 and 10 percent for several months.  It's stunning to have the White House talk about a failure in messaging while the President admits that he didn't know that there's no such thing as a government shovel-ready project.  The failure here was the policy, not the messaging.  A restaurant can put a turd on a plate and call it gourmet food, but if a customer doesn't like the taste, you shouldn't blame the waiter for not presenting it correctly.

3.  Again, the reference to messaging annoys the crap out of me.  The President thinks he's been neglectful of PR, but we see him on every media outlet known to man.  Hell, it's probably easier to list news media where he hasn't popped up for an interview -- perhaps Cat Fancy hasn't done an Obama piece, but maybe that's coming for the holidays.  I get that this President believes in his powers of persuasion, but perhaps he needs to realize something -- if his power of persuasion is so great, then why can't he persuade people on the other side of the issue?  They're not all unreasonable -- hell, some of them voted for him.  The reason might be because they don't want to buy what he's selling, no matter what arguments he makes.

4.  The last two paragraphs make me worry for the long-term prospects for this administration.  Obama calls his high-flying rhetoric "ambitious", but than argues that he's making progress.  Dude, you talked about healing the Earth and stopping hte oceans from rising.  That's not ambitious, that's a friggin' fairy tale.  And if you truly believe you're making progress on such grandiose goals...

There was a great point made by someone the other day about how one of the major problems with government today is that it doesn't have concrete goals (wish I could find the post, but I'll paraphrase for now).  When you keep goals simple, people know what they're trying to accomplish: Build a highway system.  Win a war.  Put a man on the moon.

Bush was guilty of this as well.  But Obama's taken that problem and magnified it.  Look at the goals Obama's setting up there.  "Care for the sick"?  Does this mean that everyone who's ill gets every bit of treatment possible?  "Good jobs for the jobless"?  How do we know what a "good" job is?

Bottom line, I'm worried about an administration that doesn't get why it's losing ground.  I'm even more worried when they appear to think the only problem is that everyone else doesn't get their brilliance.

5.  There is a passage in the article where Obama meets with some historians who try to help him understand the Tea Party movement by analogy, and provide references to Know-Nothings in the 1850's, the Populists of the 1890's, and Charles Coughlin's backers in the 1930's.  Perhaps they called the wrong historians.

Take out Coughlin's anti-Semitism, and the latter two were essentially left-wing populist movements whose goals might have more in common with Obama than the Tea Party.  All three called for greater government involvement in American life, rather than less -- again, something shared with Obama.

More important -- look at each of those three examples, and realize that those three groups all more or less failed. There are such movements that experienced much greater success -- the most prominent being the original Republican Party in the 1850's, the Progressives during the first decade of the 20th century, and the civil rights movement of the 1960's.

The historians are offering Obama comfort food.  If Obama thinks the Tea Party is destined to fail like the first three examples, he probably won't take it seriously.  Maybe he will be right -- but it makes more sense to treat your opponents as serious critics than as likely failures.  And the failure to understand the Tea Party movement makes me think that the President's extraordinary 2008 connection with the electorate may never be recaptured.

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