January 21, 2010

Obama has victories but no messaging

To follow up on Zac’s post, I too am growing weary of what we can now safely call, I think, a total absence of political leadership from the White House. I really hope, beyond hope, that I am wrong, that there is some master plan behind all of the hand-wringing and hedged public statements, but more and more that seems not to be the case.

Obviously we are not privy to every conversation, but the feeling among Democrats here in DC that I have spoken with is quite poor. Obama was a great candidate, and even Democrats like myself who did not vote for him in the primary, came around his campaign, we understood the stakes. A brief word on the stakes here, for me it was always health care reform, I truly believe that a much more comprehensive plan than is proposed is needed, that it is the central tool by which we can battle spiraling deficits, and is a moral imperative of our nation to each citizen. More then anything else this was what I wanted accomplished most. Followed in second by an aggressive infrastructure campaign that we haven’t seen since the heyday of the Cold War.

And to his great credit, he provided the rhetoric and leadership during those months that made it a pleasure to say I supported him. Even as President Elect he took and announced bold steps that helped to build confidence in Wall Street and to a lesser extent Main Street, that help was going to come.

And, the real shame here, is that legislatively, Obama does have a good number of victories to point out. But the complete lack of message from the White House has left those victories as though they never even happened. Obama and others decided that they not only had the political capital and will to pass health care reform, but also a great enough concentration of the two to make it the center-piece of Obama’s first year in office. Early on he spelled out his plan for Reform. It has dominated the airwaves and media since he put his weight behind it, from the Joint Congressional address, to his televised press conferences, the President put all of his chips on red. Failure to enact health care reform, could very likely, in my mind certainly, mean an effective end to his Presidency, barring god forbid some great national crisis, or hopefully for us all, a spectacular economic recovery and growth period.

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, in my estimation, have failed to articulate any leadership. Obama has gone to the Hill a few times, meets with Congressional leaders, but has so far been unable to persuade them to move in his direction, or has not tried hard enough.

When Obama began to make his statements in the Presidential campaign and early in his administration about what he wanted from health care, I was puzzled. I understood that Obama was not going to persue a plan as radical as I’d like, but from the start he hedged what the bill would seek to do, stripped himself of measures he would seek. All the while, from a political standpoint, literally cutting fingers off of his hand. It’s not hard to see why before you negotiate you bring everything to the table, and then work out what can stay and what has to go, you don’t remove those potentially objectionable elements for your opposition before you even begin.

Maybe in some way, this is a validation, that Obama in sincere when he says we need to move past partisanship, and that he is serious about pragmatic solutions that both parties can get behind. But it’s a validation without victory, and validation without a chance of success.

I’ve been thinking to myself if I were working for the GOP what is the best lesson from this special election? To delay and block, and prevent health care reform from passing for just 5-6 more months. Because if we approach summer, with no bill signed by the President, the GOP can take advantage not just of growing sentiments that lean in the direction, but general disillusionment with the Democratic party, and probable low turnout for Democrats nationwide.

2008 was not a realignment, I thought that 2010 could be, and maybe it can be salvaged; but right now many people are voting in anger. We’d be foolish to not attribute Obama’s victory in large part to the great anger American’s had over the state of the economy, and John McCain’s inability to develop a credible voice on the matter. Going into early September, pre-Lehman, the polls were very tight. So it’s not surprise that until conditions improve, until people associate the Democratic party with fixing the economy and more importantly legislative success, we are headed for failure in November.

Now as we head into the week where the President will give his State of the Union, what will he do? Earlier it seemed like the natural course, would be to persuade House members to pass the Senate version of the bill, and work out the sticky details this spring and summer during budget reconciliation. But the President has already spoken on this topic: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/he-wasnt-the-one-weve-been-waiting-for/

“I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of, to this bill. Now I think there’s some things in there that people don’t like and legitimately don’t like.”

Now what does he even say, to me this would have been the ideal moment to celebrate the passage of health care reform, and turn without delay to a forceful populist-style speech on what the President is doing for the economy. In fact, that is likely to be the major point, but how feasible is it to propose a serious legislative agenda for financial reform–when the centerpiece of the President’s first legislative year remains in doubt.

Domestically, politically, Democrats are facing a huge leadership deficit, they want to talk about what Teddy would have thought, I think in this instance anger, betrayal, and bewilderment that the Democratic leadership has been unwilling to do what is necessary to advance legislation. For example, Reid should have threatened the nuclear option on filibusters, and force some kind of compromise agreement like what was done during the Bush judicial appointments. (For what it’s worth I think the filibuster as used, primarily since the rule change that President Wilson pushed for, is pretty abhorrent to democracy anyway.) If they loose their seats, at least they can do so for having passed something that people truly hate, instead of losing a seat over failure to act, only able to point a finger at 41 Republicans and ask them to stop calling them names.

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