The Party Line – August 12, 2011: Obama, Drew Westen, and Me

Watching Barack Obama deliver his jobs speech Thursday in Holland, MI, I couldn’t help but wonder if the president had read Drew Westen’s critique in last weekend’s New York Times.

Under the headline “What Happened to Obama?” Westen, an Emory University psychology professor and Democratic communications guru of a sort, tried to divine the source of the Obama administration’s trouble. The seeds were sown, Westen explains, in the opening minutes of the presidency, as Obama delivered his inaugural address.

As Westen recounts (in words remarkably similar to ones I’ve used in the past), Obama’s speech failed to tell the story of the disaster that had befallen America during the Bush years:

That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

In fact, Westen and I use the exact same phrase for the core message that Obama needed to communicate out of the box: “your government has your back again.”

That would be as opposed to Wall Street’s back, or the Banksters’ backs, corporations’ backs, or the wealthiest of the wealthy’s backs.

Westen reminds us that narrative—a structure for understanding the world around us as old as humanity itself—needs opposing forces. Narrative honors heroes, yes, but in order for there to be heroes, there also has to be a villain—and Obama’s seemingly obsessive refusal to name the villains not only undermined his administration’s narrative, it communicated that the architects of America’s misfortunes would not be held accountable.

This (again, as I have often said) created the space for the various TEA parties, and their sympathizers and sycophants. Yes, this so-called populist anger has been nourished, exploited, and in some cases manufactured by some of the very people and organizations—let’s go ahead and call them villains—that helped tank the economy, but it would have been a much harder task to gin up this “movement” if Obama had dared to call out these villains from the get-go.

But he didn’t then, and he continues to spare the rod and spoil the spoiled today. Even with popular opinion overwhelmingly favoring higher taxes on wealthy individuals and windfall corporate profits, President Obama bent over backwards to again avoid naming names.

As witnessed Monday by NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, this avoidance is comprehensive and conscious:

It was striking how far they went to try not to point fingers. As a matter of fact, just before the president began speaking today, I was able to see the printed text of his comments on the teleprompter, and I watched a last minute edit that may give some insight. One passage of the speech referred to asking for sacrifice from those who can most afford to pay their fair share. And as I was looking at the teleprompter, the phrase wealthy Americans and corporations was highlighted and deleted from the text.

Because of that failure to finger, and a striking lack of proactive ideas in general, Obama’s Monday White House matinee served up a nothing-burger deluxe—not at all rare these days, I’m afraid, and also not well done. He wasn’t selling the steak, he wasn’t selling the sizzle, and he wasn’t telling a very good story in structural terms, either.

But the president very much needs to tell a story—to construct a narrative—because he very much needs to sell something: himself.

And so, in what was very clearly a campaign-style appearance at the Johnson Controls factory in Holland, president/candidate Barack Obama tried his hand at crafting a Drew Westen-style traditional narrative:

We know there are things we can do right now that will help accelerate growth and job creation –- that will support the work going on here at Johnson Controls, here in Michigan, and all across America. We can do some things right now that will make a difference. We know there are things we have to do to erase a legacy of debt that hangs over the economy. But time and again, we’ve seen partisan brinksmanship get in the way -– as if winning the next election is more important than fulfilling our responsibilities to you and to our country. This downgrade you’ve been reading about could have been entirely avoided if there had been a willingness to compromise in Congress. See, it didn’t happen because we don’t have the capacity to pay our bills -– it happened because Washington doesn’t have the capacity to come together and get things done. It was a self-inflicted wound.

So, “brinksmanship” is the big, bad wolf? Washington is the villain? Well, as Obama tells it, yes, but more specifically, it has been decided by the White House political team that the Lex Luthor to Obama’s Superman (if not his kryptonite) is Congress:

They’re common-sense ideas that have been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans, things that are supported by Carl Levin. The only thing keeping us back is our politics. The only thing preventing these bills from being passed is the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party. There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win.

And that has to stop. It’s got to stop. We’re supposed to all be on the same team, especially when we’re going through tough times. We can’t afford to play games — not right now, not when the stakes are so high for our economy.

And if you agree with me –- it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or an independent — you’ve got to let Congress know. You’ve got to tell them you’ve had enough of the theatrics. You’ve had enough of the politics. Stop sending out press releases. Start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now. That’s what they need to do — they’ve got to hear from you.

I will give the president a tiny bit of credit in that, instead of the wholly empty pleading for a similar call to Congress that he stroked during the debt-ceiling circle-jerk, Obama did list a series of actions he’d like Congress to approve (as meaningless, dangerous or counterproductive as many of them may be). But Obama also bragged about what he was able to get done without having to go through Congress. And Obama made it clear throughout: America, you’ve got problems, and those problems have their provenance on Capitol Hill.

Running against the “Do-nothing Congress” may have worked well for Harry Truman, and running against Washington is a time-tested tactic for many aspirants to higher office, but where does this get us?

It might work out OK for Obama. He has pretty much made being “above it all” his raison d’être, and by avoiding direct engagement with the big issues of our day, he might be able to slough off some of the Beltway taint. But where does it leave the rest of the Democrats? We really don’t have to ask because we have an example, it’s called the midterms. Obama did plenty of Congress-bashing during the summer of 2010. He railed against establishment Washington, even though he and his party had been that establishment for the previous twenty months, and when the dust cleared, America had the “divided government” Obama likes to point out “America voted for.”

Except they didn’t. America doesn’t elect our government on a national proportional basis. America votes state by state and district by district, and if voters in those specific races voted at all, they voted against a disappointing two years, not for a political concept.

And if the antagonist in Obama’s campaign narrative is Congress, then, in practice, the villain he wants Americans to rally against is elected government itself.

And that’s not only dangerous to sitting members of Congress, that’s dangerous for the democracy. It affirms the agenda of the elites, it confirms the fears of the TEA parties, and it will make voters across the board more cynical and less inclined to get involved.

So, did the president or his political team read the Westen piece, and did they decide to refine this Congress-as-villain narrative as an answer? I have no way of knowing, of course, but if they did, I do know they’re doing it wrong.

But in crafting his critique of the president’s path, Drew Westen also might have made some mistakes. First, Westen doesn’t allow himself to take the next step—beyond story-craft to actual belief. In wondering “What happened to Obama,” Westen can’t bring himself to conclude the answer might be “nothing.” It is possible, sad though it may be, that while America thought it was electing a man from the party of FDR, it instead got a confirmed Hooverite. So much of Obama’s language of late seems to point that way, not to mention his policies, and let us not forget the time he spent raising elbows with the magical marketeers at the University of Chicago.

Second, Westen also bemoans the “dialing for dollars” culture that pervades and pollutes national politics. Huffington Post senior Washington correspondent Dan Froomkin also tried to explain it earlier this week:

Progressives say Washington’s governing class absorbed its bias toward austerity — and, implicitly an agenda favoring the wealthy — by osmosis.

“The people who do fundraisers are the people who don’t want to pay taxes,” [Roosevelt Institute fellow Rob] Johnson said.

Politicians “spend an awful lot of time calling people with assets,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal think tank. “You don’t spend a lot of time with people who aren’t affluent, and you certainly don’t have extended discussions with them about economic policy.” Over time, Borosage said, “you develop a set of self-justifying rationalizations,” he said.

Westen makes it seem like it is virtually impossible for the president—or any president, really—to both single out Wall Street and Corporate elites for blame and simultaneously ring them up for campaign cash. But Westen doesn’t call out the president for failing to capitalize (as it were) on his ability to change that culture.

Obama has hinted at wanting to be a transformational figure (and others have assigned that role to him, outright), and one of the things that once made that seem possible, at least to me, was the way he ran his 2008 campaign.

Prior to Obama, from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign onward, the prevailing logic in national campaigns was that they had to emulate the Republican successes of the 1980s—chase big-donor money, and you can effectively buy all the votes you need. However, with Hillary Clinton having locked up much of the early establishment money in ’08, the Obama campaign set up an unprecedented (dare we say “transformative?”) structure for collecting small-donor contributions. . . and then they set out to motivate those potential small donors. Yes, in time, big-donor bucks did fund half of Obama’s awesome campaign coffer, but initially the strategy was seemingly the opposite of the Terry McAuliffe-Bill-and-Hillary Clinton tack—instead of chasing the money to woo the voters, Team Obama chased the voters to woo the money.

But that is not what the Obama campaign is doing this time. Publicly hostile to his liberal political base, and privately nervous about his Obama for America, small-donor fund-raising base, the president is heading straight for the big money for 2012. The Chicago campaign staff is already bragging about its bankroll. Obama has been courting classic big-ticket bundlers at old-school four- and five-figure-a-plate fundraisers, and, in fact, on his way back from Michigan, the president stopped off in New York for just such a soirée.

It is in this case where Obama once proved that he could change the game—that he could be a transformational figure—and it is here where he has pointedly chosen not to. There comes a point where we have to stop looking for outside factors that prevent the president from accomplishing what we want, and admit that Barack Obama might be accomplishing exactly what he wants.

What happened to Obama? He was elected president. All other answers are based more on hope than change.

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The Party Line – July 29, 2011: Those Who Can’t Teach, “Compromise”

I seriously cannot believe I am again writing a post with one eye on the wire, still waiting for a conclusion to the debt-ceiling debacle, looking for real news to read, instead of just thrice re-boiled tea leaves. But here I am—here we are—sweating out a crisis that is as malicious as it is manufactured, knowing that when a “resolution” comes, no matter which version/option/compromise we get, it will be both terrible and impermanent.

That’s not easy to think about, but it is quite easy to say. There are no smart options on the table. There are not even smart planks left to use as bargaining chips. America, with its economy gasping for air, is left having to choose from a trio of plans that are all (as best as we are allowed to glimpse them) comprised of draconian cuts to so-called discretionary spending, no serious attempts at increases in revenue, and seismic blows to the bedrock programs of our social safety net—and none of which do a single, solitary thing to stimulate job creation. The only resemblance to a life preserver here is that all the plans look like a big, fat zero.

That the federal budget deficit is not even our real problem is a message completely absent from the national “debate.” That there is a difference between the debt ceiling and the deficit has been lazily obscured or purposefully ignored. And, again, the interests and desires of vast majorities of the American people—that jobs are more important than deficits, that a higher percentage of taxes should be paid by the very wealthy, and that the military should be cut before Social Security and Medicare—are marginalized as “extreme,” “not serious,” “unreasonable,” or (horror of horrors) “not adult.”

And who is out in front of this march to mindless mayhem? Believe it or not, as flawed and feckless as Congressional leaders seem, as uncompromising or unhinged as TEA Party sympathizers (T-simps?) appear, the guy that must bear the lion’s share of blame is the one with the bully pulpit.

When President Barack Obama took to the primetime air on Monday, many a Beltway pundit huzzah-ed the appearance of “the educator-in-chief.” We were told that the president went over the heads of the Washington elite to explain the complexities of the debt-ceiling debate to the people. We were told that Obama’s continued “eat your peas” tone was just the sort of talking-to that the unruly brood in the people’s house (you know, the House) needed to hear. And we were told that when the president asked folks to call Congress and say they expected compromise, he had scored a political victory (even as some poopooed his “politicizing” the moment).

And no doubt the president believed his own press, for as the week draws to an end and we are no closer to any kind of meaningful arrangement (good, bad, really bad or otherwise) to raise the debt ceiling, there is nothing new coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Well, this might come as a bit of a news flash to President Obama (not to mention the DC press corps), but being “reasonable,” or “unflappable,” or even behaving as the “adult” is not the same thing as being a leader.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich noticed this “abject failure” on Wednesday, calling Obama “seemingly without a compass. . . an inside-the-Beltway deal-maker who does not explain his compromises in light of larger goals.”

Perhaps this is because the president has no larger goals. It has often seemed that, to Obama, compromise—like “bipartisanship”—is goal enough, an end rather than just a means to an end. Perhaps, as Reich puts it, it is more important to the president that he be “seen as a reasonable adult rather than a fighter.” Or perhaps the larger goals are so singularly unpalatable that he dare not explain them. It is bad enough that the White House is stripping Democrats of a solid campaign issue by joining the GOP in its pursuit of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, if the president had to call such cuts a “goal,” as opposed to a “compromise,” his own re-election might be in peril (or even more in peril).

But the “why” is not as important as the “what”—and what is going on is deplorable, in both practical and political terms. As Reich notes:

[Obama] is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home value, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining wages—a decrease in consumption that is directly responsible for the anemic recovery. But he doesn’t explain this to the American people or attempt to mobilize them around a vision of what should be done.

Instead, even as unemployment rises to 9.2 percent and at least 14 million people look for work, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit over the next decade and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised. Never once does he tell the public why reducing the deficit has become his No. 1 economic priority. Americans can only conclude that the Republicans must be correct—that diminishing the deficit will somehow revive economic growth and restore jobs.

Instead of powerful explanations, we get the type of bromides that issue from any White House. America must “win the future,” Obama says, by which he means making public investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development. But then he submits a budget proposal that would cut nondefense discretionary spending (of which these investments constitute more than half) to its lowest level as a share of gross domestic product in over half a century.

Reich is kind in phrasing this as a situation into which Obama has “allowed himself to be trapped,” but I fear he is being too politic. Two-and-a-half years removed from inauguration day, the president has enough of a track record to deserve the label of “active participant” in the trapping.

When the will and wisdom of the electorate has threatened to interrupt what we used to think of as a Republican narrative of “austerity for the many and rewards for the few,” it is President Obama that has time and again jumped in to shore up and shape his theoretical opponents’ frame. It was the new president that negotiated with himself a too-small stimulus and then over-promised what it would do. It was the White House that hamstrung healthcare reform with secret deals, an artificial maximum price tag, and long delays for the start of most programs, and then forced Democrats in Congress to embrace it and defend it straight through disastrous midterm elections. It was Obama that created the Catfood Commission when Congress itself failed to appease the deficit peacocks—and it was Obama that stacked the commission with members predisposed to disemboweling the social safety net. It was the president that forced his caucus to embrace his December budget deal that extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and slashed the estate tax—two major factors in our current budget shortfall. And it is Obama that continues Bush’s wars of choice—justifying them with Bush’s climate of fear—another giant drain on federal coffers.

And it is Obama now, throughout the months that this debt-ceiling circus has continued to send in the clowns (along with high-wire acts and performing seals), who has served as ringmaster.

Obama, as I have described in the past, could have argued that we have more than enough borrowing capacity, and that, with interest rates so very low, now is the time to strengthen our economy by creating jobs, expanding our safety net, and stimulating demand. He could have used this crisis to build on the New Deal, to improve his flawed healthcare law, or to help power the next great engine of American economic expansion (by perhaps giving a Kennedy-esque “moon landing” speech declaring we will replace carbon and nuclear fuels with renewables by a date certain, and then funding R&D)—and he certainly could have used all of this to draw a sharp contrast between Democrats and Republicans. But instead, the president has embraced the austerity meme, argued only for “compromise,” and has turned the entire debate into a contest over whose plan has more cuts. Obama has failed to explain to anyone how compromise, in-and-of itself, will help create a job or put food on the table, but he has succeeded in enhancing a dangerous and growing cynicism among voters well on their way to dropping out of the political process to devote more time to just making ends meet.

It might not be hard to “mobilize” people around a tactic—Congressional phone lines were jammed the day after Obama’s call to call—but a week (or two?) later, when government services have been sacrificed in the name of saving the country’s bond rating, will any of this telephone army feel like they won the fight?

It’s hard to imagine they will—certainly not the next time unemployment numbers come out, or a bridge falls down, or their kids are forced into a more crowded classroom. It is those real-life “lessons” that will do the teaching absent any true leadership from the “educator-in-chief.”

(A version of this post also appears on Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 8, 2011: A Broadside? That’s Rich

By now, many of you have probably read Frank Rich’s inaugural piece for New York Magazine. Freed from the bean counters and word counters of the New York Times, Rich pours forth pages (and pages) on what he calls “Obama’s Original Sin.”

That sin, as the story explains, is that the Obama administration’s failure to properly investigate the causes of the financial crisis, its failure to hold anyone accountable, and its embrace of some of the very people that helped push the US economy into the, uh, ditch have left the president’s reelection prospects on shaky ground.

Matt Taibbi (who is quoted in the Rich piece) has called the NY Mag article “Rich’s broadside,” and cites it as one of a growing list of “not quite mainstream media” stories on the epic failure that is the president’s approach to Wall Street. Taibbi sees Rich and raises him, but both are playing roughly the same hand: Frank Rich is being tough on Barack Obama.

I am not going to say that Rich is not being tough, per se, just that he isn’t as tough as he thinks.

I am sure that Frank thinks he is being tough now because he was once much less so. As Matt notes in his post, Rich was once one of Obama’s biggest cheerleaders. In fact, if I may add a personal note, I had always enjoyed reading Rich during the Bush years, but as the November 2008 election drew near, even I started to blush from the Times columnist’s overt man-crush on the Democratic nominee.

In other words, Frank Rich’s opinion of Obama has fallen a long way because Rich’s opinion had a long way to fall.

To be fair, Rich does point out that Obama has a truly dreadful record on jobs creation. Rich also bemoans how many Robert Rubin acolytes the president appointed to his economic team. And, the article rightfully chastises Obama’s embrace of the deficit peacocks and their TEA-infused austerity framing.

But Rich spends a good chunk of his piece trashing GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Now, Romney deserves trashing—he is an even bigger jerk than he is a phony—but focusing on the big, bad Republican that waits in the wings plays into the Obama team’s own defense strategy—things might be bad, but they would be worse under President Jerkoff. And that not only lets the current president off the hook a bit, it hampers those that want to organize to push Obama leftward (as in, at least somewhere back near the center).

What Rich misses is that the birth of the Tea Party (or the TEA-colored parties that we lump under that one rubric) owes something to the very positions Obama has taken with regard to the economic crisis. The Tea Party that Obama and his defenders blame for his difficulties in governing, that O & Co. warn us about as the hellish alternative to “four more years”—though in many ways incubated and manipulated by rightwing corporate interests—found fertile ground in a scared and angry population that saw a president who promised change and delivered more of the same.

That Obama ran with the Bush bailout of the banks, demanding nothing in return, while shorting his own stimulus package and marginalizing the voices that clamored for pump-priming and accountability—failing to a) produce enough jobs, while b) trying to sell the “how much worse it would have been” argument, and c) holding no one accountable—sent a message that if Obama was on a sinking ship with too few life boats, it would be Wall Street first, not women and children. . . or any of the other inhabitants of Main Street. Obama may have started as a poor kid from Hawaii, but he has cemented himself in many Americans’ minds as just another eastern elite.

I know Rich thinks he is being rough on the president—partly because, a few months back, I overheard Frank telling a table of bold-faced dinner companions sitting near me at a midtown restaurant how tough one of his columns (one of the last he’d write for the New York Times) was going to be on Obama. . . only to read the column that Sunday and find it not so tough at all. I also know Rich thinks he is being tough because he ends with a warning that no one but Obama can save Obama (and so, save America from Mitt). But only four paragraphs before that, Rich writes that “There’s not much Obama can do about the economy by 2012 given the debt ceiling fight. . . and nihilistic Capitol Hill antagonists opposed to any government spending that might create jobs. . . .”

Granted, this was written before the Thursday bombshell about Social Security being put on the table by a president eager to make a deal—any deal—on the debt ceiling, but anyone paying attention saw that (along with hits to Medicare and Medicaid) coming weeks if not months or years ago. But even so, even if Rich, like so much of the liberal establishment, has been willfully ignorant to that, the declaration that the President of the United States is fated to just sit on his hands and watch Americans suffer for the next 17 months because the big banker elites and the tea-party rabble won’t let him help America and so help himself—well, so help me, how is that being tough on Obama?

Let me be a little tougher: I never expected a hero or a real progressive when I voted for Obama in 2008, but I expected some kind of leader. I hoped that, though not my idea of a liberal, Obama was smart, would see what the great crisis of our time demanded, and would rise—at least in part—to the occasion.

Obama might think he has done that. Obama might think he is a leader, or if not quite that, at least a transcendent, post-partisan facilitator, but, if I may borrow from Apocalypse Now, Obama is neither. He is an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks—in this case, Wall Street and the corporate elite—to collect a bill.

What’s on that bill? Yes, there is real money—in the trillions. Perhaps Obama’s own downfall, too. (How ironic.) Quite possibly, the bill also demands the destruction of the Democratic Party, and even more likely, the destruction of the social safety net that Democrats have built and defended for over two generations. That’s what Team Obama has put on the table.

That’s my humble take on being “tough on Obama.” But, be it Rich or me, no matter—what Obama has delivered will be tough on all of us.

(A version of this post has been crossposted to Firedoglake.)