Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama is Liked but Not Supported

Most Americans still like Barack Obama, just not what he's doing, which is to say that while many still think he has good intentions, quite a few think that they are misdirected. And that is why the President waited to the second half of his State of the Union speech to address the issue of health-care reform which has dominated the airwaves in the last couple of months, because he wants his audience to understand that he now his list of priorities properly ordered - health-care reform after jobs.

All Presidents begin their terms in office liked and supported on their agenda - they score high on personal and job performance ratings. They then transition from being liked but not supported, and for those destined for one term, they tend to spend their fourth year in office disliked and unsupported. If President Obama wants a comeback, he first needs luck and in particular the business cycle to work in his favor in the coming months, and after that, he needs skill in managing fellow partisans in Congress.

The economy is so unchallengeably Issue Number One that no sooner after it brought a tidal wave of dissatisfaction against the Republicans in 2008, it is preparing a tsumami for Democrats in 2010. Democrats need job growth to begin in Spring and continue in earnest until November, because voters are not patient when they are in pain and they will thrash about to blame just about anyone in power. For politicians waiting in the wing, their posture will be one of impatience and disaffection. For incumbents in power, this has got to be a year of results (or short-term solutions).

That also means that the President must do more than hope for luck, for he must be seen to be doing something about creating jobs, and, so that it does not appear that he wasted all his political capital for nothing, he must also finish the race on health-care reform and produce something at least minimally worthy of the title "reform."

But he must tread carefully. His biggest asset is also his biggest liability: Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. That means he cannot blame the first branch of government for his failures (and perhaps that is why he took the unusual step of criticizing the third branch in his State of the Union address). Congress has been a favorite presidential punching bag at least since Andrew Jackson, but the ties of parties has made this tactic difficult to pursue with Barack Obama. Obama's and the liberal media's modified strategy thus far, as a result, has been to criticize not Congress as a whole but the Republican membership in Congress for being a "Party of No." The problem, however, is that the President's calls for bipartisanship have sounded empty and self-defeating as he has continued to chide congressional Republicans either for the failed policies of the past or their disagreement with his present proposals.

If the President hopes to be liked and supported, and in particular if he wants to get things done and to get some credit for it, he needs to solve the peculiar conundrum and mixed blessing of having one-party rule in DC. He needs to be his own person and act like a leader without alienating his colleagues in Capitol Hill; he needs to maintain congressional support without being tethered to a quid pro quo. Or, he could secretly hope to be relieved of such a dilemma in November 2010.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The State of the Union and the State of the Obama Presidency

It is going to be difficult for the President to give us an uplifting State of the Union message next week, because it is in effect going to have to be a confession of the state of the Obama presidency.

Between the attempted bombing on Christmas Day which has become something like Obama's Katrina, Martha Coakley's humiliating defeat in MA (and the symbolic extinguishment of the Kennedy torch), and the inauguration of a new era of presidential-press relations in which even the liberal media has turned against their hero, Obama has a very difficult task to perform on Wednesday night. A successful speech requires an accurate diagnosis of what has gone wrong for this presidency. So let’s examine the attempted bombing, Coakley, and the media in turn for the lessons they offer to the President.

The Christmas bombing and Coakley’s defeat in MA are related. (Her poll numbers dropped precipitously after Christmas.) The attempted Christmas bombing reinforced the perception that not only was the administration not focusing on job creation, now there was evidence that it had taken its eye off the ball on homeland security. The President must give us reason again to believe that he has his priorities right, and he has his eye on the target - jobs. To some extent he’s already smartened up. Knowing that the President cannot turn around the jobless numbers any time soon, his advisors have told him to get out to show people that he feels our pain. And that's why Obama has tuned back in, and on recent days has been on the road to vindicate populist rage at Wall Street. He should be mindful though that he is the President, not a travelling salesman.

Why didn't Obama's last minute campaigning for Coakley make a positive difference? Well, his comment about Scott Brown and his truck didn't help, a mistake he should have learnt after his remarks last year in San Francisco about bitter people clinging on to their guns. There is nothing like liberal condescension that turns off Republicans and Independents, and the President needs to show humility and contrition in his speech on Wednesday.

There is an endemic sense in the media that Massachussetts changed everything. Yet to give to one state the power to speak for the nation is patently at odds with our constitution, though it would seem that our pundits prefer to give weight to statistical sampling over constitutional propriety. Even liberal journalists are turning against him now, because no one will stand forever for the losing team, liberal bias or not. Obama has to stay focused on the big picture, remembering that while Massachusetts spoke, the nation did not. His job on Wednesday is not to be lost in non-generalizable minutiae, but to inform us of the State of the Union.

So here's the good news. For all the spate of unfortunate events the Obama administration had to endure since Christmas, it is still a golden rule of politics that no president polls well when the economy is in the doldrums, so it may have been this bad even if he had done everything right. As for the embarrassment in Massachusetts, it is worth remembering that 60 was never really 60 anyway, because Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson were never really reliable. There is no need to over-react to the events in MA. A president must understand the Constitution, which asks him to speak to the Union and to the future, not just to the specific and the present.

The President has been chastened, but not defeated. Expectations for his second year in office are down from stratospheric heights for his first year, and therein lies the seeds for his political recovery. As no one ever overestimated George W. Bush, the president will soon learn that it is better to surprise than it is to disappoint.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker Hustle

To those disheartened by the compromises tagged unto the health-care bill before Congress, I say, c'est la vie.

When there is politics, there are bargains. To bargain is to attempt to purchase or acquire something at a steal or at a lower cost than usual. Because a bargain is by definition a transaction that would not normally have occurred without negotiation or haggling, all political bargains are corrupt to some extent. The Connecticut Compromise, the "corrupt bargain" of 1824, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1876, today's "Cadillac" Compromise - you name it - they all had something shady in them, though shadiness is in the eye of the beholder (usually the loser).

And so it is on the road to healthcare reform in 2010; among them are the new Louisiana purchase ($300 million for Mary Landrieu's vote) and the Cornhusker hustle or the Nebraska Compromise (Ben Nelson got Nebraska exempted from Medicaid increases). Ironically, the reason why these deals had to be brokered in the Senate is directly attributable to the Connecticut Compromise of 1787, which had proposed proportional representation in the House according to the population size of districts and equal representation of each state in the Senate in order to secure the support of the Constitution from delegates from states big and small. Out of the Connecticut Compromise was born the idea of a minority veto, and that's in part why the Senate has become the preeminent institution it is today even though the Founders had intended that the House be the first legislative branch.

One compromise always begets another. This is the story of politics. Consider the Bill of rights - the deal-making compromise or condition that allowed Anti-Federalists sitting on the fence to come on board with the new Constitution. The Bill, of course, wasn't so much a Magna Carta as it was an instrument to defend states' rights and peculiar practices such as slavery and segregation. One compromise begets another.

The Democrats will do whatever they need to to pass health-care reform. And the solution if one emerges will be imperfect and tainted by compromises, and even more so if Scott Brown wins in MA. It cannot be otherwise because we (democratic citizens) desire more to lead than to be led, and compromise allows each of us to find the tolerable medium between the two.

Whatever health-care legistion we pass will lock into place a peculiar settlement that is a reflection of the contingent set of circumstances that had to be addressed to deliver the current solution but in so doing it will also set up the conditions for a future political debate. And perhaps this is as it must be, for our founding document itself had paved the way in being little more than an elaborate list of compromises, article by article.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Republicans were Offended by Reid's Comments on Race

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has received a firestorm of crticism, mostly from Republicans, about his comments back in 2008 that Barack Obama's race was more likely to help than hurt his electoral chances because he was "light-skinned" and spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Many African Americans were rather baffled about the Republicans' uncharacteristic insistence on political correctness. As Ward Connerly writes, "For my part, I am having a difficult time determining what it was that Mr. Reid said that was so offensive." Or take it from Eugene Robinson, who wrote that Reid's comments were "crudely put, yet true." For many African Americans, as it was for Barack Obama, Reid's error was one of using "inartful" words, not of registering a falsehood or a racist belief.

So why are Michael Steele and John Cornyn so offended? My hunch is that for all the media coverage and hoopla, we are, as usual, avoiding the real topic. Republicans aren't really mad that there is (or is not) a double standard for when a Democrat or a Republican makes a racial statement. Their concern is that Reid's comments were really a back-handed criticism of white Americans, who he believed were more comfortable with electing a "light-skinned" African American than a "darker" one. Reid's comments were racist in the opposite sense (and hence resented by Republicans) - he charged some of his own race of an inability to vote for someone who looked and talked too differently from themselves.

"Light-skinned" African Americans tend to have it easier in public life. Yawn. But the logical entailment of this proposition is harder to swallow: it is only because some white Americans are still racist that "light-skinned" African Americans do better than their "darker" brethren. Put this way: firestorm. No one likes to be called a racist, and that's why this controversy has raged on even though President Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus, Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders have readily accepted Reid's apology. Perhaps it is not principally to them that an apology is expected or demanded.

And so what was Reid's mistake? It was that in a private moment he thought would remain off-the-record, he forgot that at all times the politician's job was to flatter the people, and never to accuse them.