Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obama's biggest mistake


Jonathan Bernstein doesn't think much of President Obama's election season answer to a query from CBS News. Funny, I think the Prez is beginning to show some gumption. Here's what he said:

When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well. The mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

Bernstein reminds us that even the great B movie actor Ronald Reagan discovered that a good story won't cover up real policy failures like sending weapons to Iran in return for hostages. And it's true, Presidents can't change reality with a good story (yet).

But Bernstein misses what Obama seems to be really saying here: he seemed to think that once elected he could stop doing the political work required to advance and solidify the political aims that had made him attractive to so many voters. He apparently really thought there is something like "good policy" that exists apart from the reality of assembling the force to to enact and then defend your policies. Not true.

The Obama campaign of 2008 was a sure footed beast that assembled a novel coalition of people of color, the post-racist young, and the college educated along with reflexive Democrats. That such a coalition was potentially going to emerge has been obvious to anyone looking at U.S. demographic realities for years. But Obama's personal appeal and the atrocious job G W Bush had done in office, especially leaving the nation with two failed wars, enabled Democrats to pull it together about a decade sooner than had seemed possible.

Such a fragile new beast needed nurture. Instead, Obama in office acted as if the work of politics -- of dancing with those who elected him -- was an irritating distraction from the work of governing. He seemed to treat responding to urgent constituent concerns -- say those of gay folks or the DREAMers -- as beneath him once he'd been elected. In part this was because his instincts were much more centrist than those of some of the loudest members of his base. But also, he didn't seem to understand that many of these clamoring voices were the people who were the reason he was in office. He might not be able to do all they wanted, but his job was not to just to propose technocratic policies approved by "experts." That was nice, but he had also to take actions that enhanced his power to get them enacted. And that meant talking with and listening to the insistent voices of ordinary citizens.

Sure, there were a lot of loud and well-amplified voices saying he was a bad guy and doing wrong. These were never going to be converted by the President giving speeches. But he needed to talk to -- and listen to -- his friends so they'd have his back. And for a long time, the Obama White House acted as if it didn't know that.

Now we're back in an election season and the Obama campaign is doing smart politics again. On the campaign trail, Obama is telling home truths -- most of us need a hand from government. People like him (he says he's in the top 2 percent), and certainly people like Mitt Romney with his Swiss bank account and Cayman Island funds, may not need government to make sure the rules are fair and a safety net survives. But everyone else does.

You can read the whole stump speech here. It's a solid offering. He's too Presidential to point out that Romney is a lying parasite on the hard working mass of citizens, but he has surrogates for that. And he remains far too accommodating about people who should know better than even to listen to Republicans -- but hey, he's a politician.

That's the good Obama -- the one who knows he is a politician and that's the game he has play if he really means any of what he promises. That's what he learned over a hard four years. Think what he could have done if he had known it from the get-go … but he knows it now, in this election season, finally.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

We began donating to him early on because not only did I like what he had done (even if it wasn't enough in some areas), I knew the alternative would be worse. I am glad he seems to be getting on track with the politics end of it. It's a scary time to imagine America going backward but it has happened before and we should not take a victory for granted.

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