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Aug 26 2012

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Where Obama Went Wrong

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High Hopes - Sad Realities

We know Team Obama’s case against Mitt Romney.

If Romney is elected president, those seniors that haven’t already been sent careening under buses or pushed over cliffs will have lives jarringly transformed into abject poverty and Hobbesian misery as the social safety net is eviscerated.

Women will have to form under-ground societies to find contraception and take up a life of crime to pay for it. Clean water, fresh meat and produce will be fouled with industrial waste and e.coli for lack of proper inspection. The middle class would wither and slip away under the crushing burden of Rommey program cuts, all of which will be in the service of ensuring that the richest Americans become even richer.

It’s prodigious baloney, but it is what the Chicago campaign gang is serving up.

Team Obama has focused less on the second part of the national equation – why it deserves a second term. Here, beyond its inherent defensiveness regarding a record bereft of citizen-connecting success, the Obama message has been distilled into an subliminal axiom: “It could have been worse.”

The economy they mean.

According the the narrative, it was Obama’s thoughtful, mature stewardship and policy initiatives in the midst of genuine economic crisis that kept the nation from going over the edge. As far as axioms go, this one has the benefit of being unprovable.  Just because POTUS took a road, does not mean it was the best or even the right road, or that the path had anything to do with preventing calamity.

But even if we accept the Obama claim on face value, it invites its own retort. If Obama policies prevented the worst, why haven’t they also made things materially better? Here the subjectives of “what might have been” are more easily stitched together based on the official record of economic performance, and presidential leadership and policy.

All newly-elected presidents defy gravity.

After heated political campaigns, elections represent national decisions that force once solid partisan divisions to temporarily melt into pliable molasses, providing the new incumbent with a wide berth to execute consequential action.

And not since Franklin Roosevelt has a president captured the popular imagination, or so completely embodied its hopes, as Barack Obama. Indeed, as the first African American president, Obama added a historical/moral dimension to the start of his presidency that was without modern equivalent. In addition, President-elect Obama came to Washington with the priceless political assets of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and an expanded Democratic majority in the House. Like Roosevelt, Obama came to office in the midst of a enormous economic upheaval, possessing a deep reservoir of public trust to take action that would restore economic stability and prosperity for the American people.

But even for a president with the advantages of Barack Obama, the rules of nature can be suspended only for so long before gravity – and politics – kick in. At that point, the window of opportunity begins to close, and the President and his team must rely on their priorities, their plan and their smarts to create a record of success.

In retrospect, President Obama squandered all his innate political advantages quickly, misreading his personal ambition for a public mandate As the politics of Obama’s course became difficult, The President found himself without the cohesive team, a  credible strategic plan or the political smarts to navigate through. The Obama failure has three parts:

Failure of Management: having run a brilliant political campaign, Team Obama collapsed when it came to governing. The vetting process for cabinet officers failed, creating unnecessary distraction in the lead up to, and the days immediately after the inauguration. More importantly, key decisions regarding the make up of the President’s core economic team – Geithner, Roemer, Ortzag – above all Larry Summers – put in place a divided, occasionally ego-driven team, that while experienced, did not have as its first loyalty, that of the President.  Obama was more ambivalent spectator to this, than activist president.

This hodge-podge policy team, coupled with the President’s political advisers, also failed spectacularly in putting together a comprehensive strategic plan to implement the President’s policies with coherence. Indeed as Geithner was congratulating the President for “avoiding another Great Depression” after passing the debacle that was the Stimulus, POTUS was already saying that he wanted to move onto health care, before the ink was dry on the Stimulus law, and with the economy still tentative and uncertain.

And then there were relations with Congress. Instead of focused discipline, the results of 2008 triggered a version of “Democrats Gone Wild” with mainstream center-left policy competing for a place on the agenda with discarded and unworkable progressive wish list items, produced by the plethora of well organized special interests on the left. There was no plan, no sense of priority or order, and little coming from the White House that would press for such focus.

So, after the Stimulus, while the economy was the #1 issue with voters, Democrats moved on the Cap N’ Trade, clean energy, Card Check legislation for Unions, and health-care, none of which actually dealt with the economy writ large.

Failure of Imagination: considering the historical nature of Obama’s election, and the near blank sheet voters had provided, Team Obama’s approach was worse than conventional.

On legislation – particularly the Stimulus – the White House needlessly deferred to congressional leaders. The resulting mammoth package, easily caricatured and difficult to defend, lacked the fingerprints of policy creativity or nimble political savvy.

 If the Stimulus was the answer, what was the question?

A far better course would have been to break the Stimulus into pieces that the public would readily understand, and vote on them separately. Let the GOP vote against aid to states and first responders. Tie grant funding for a plethora of leftist causes with the Obama tax cut and small business relief and dare the GOP to vote against it. Assemble an infrastructure bill that would create jobs and repair deteriorating roads and bridges and leave the Republicans calling for less.

It was Politics 101 and Team Obama failed miserably; a pattern repeated on other issues such as Card Check and Cap N’ Trade.

And despite all his authority, Obama shrank from confronting the banks, fresh off crashing the market with questionable deals, and their massive infusions of taxpayer dollars. The financial sector was weak, the public was furious and Obama could have done pretty much as he wished.  He could have broken up the banks. Or more constructively, Obama could have sought to leverage the financial sector into a deal that would provide national relief to mortgage holders, underwater because of the banks, and in the process, catalyze recovery in the construction sector – more than 10% of the economy.

He did nothing.

As a result, over the next three years, Wall Street healed and even grew. The banks got bigger while the middle class struggled.  The Democratic answer for the banks – Dodd-Frank – came well into Obama’s term when his good will had run out, and when multiple congressional voices had reduced a plan to fix banking into a special interest morass. Tellingly, the solution didn’t deal with the inter-relationship of financial products and mortgage backed real estate, and thus Fannie and Freddie continued to devour government resources as foreclosure rates skyrocketed.

A supposed “transformational” leader was, in practice, the most conventional of leaders, deferring to the politics of Party and special interest and short-changing the necessary reforms that could have made a difference.

Failure of Vision: in the end, the author of “Hope and Change” never came to grips with the mechanics of channeling rhetoric into reality. After all, the core appeal of Obamaism is emotional, not practical – it posited the possibility of a new world, without the necessity of the voyage. In this construct, the President was both unconstrained by the necessity of trade-offs to achieve goals and dangerously susceptible to confusing his personal views with his election mandate.

For instance, unsurprisingly, the Obama administration spent precious little time reaching out to Republicans after the election. The GOP had lost electorally, and with it had lost any manner to disrupt the majority’s legislation. Why bother?

But for Team Obama, it went deeper. The defeat wasn’t simply a loss for the GOP; it was an indictment of a set of policies that progressives were hysterically opposed to for better than a generation.  Finally a nail in the coffin for tax cuts for the rich, corporations running wild and government indifference the environment and the poor.

Yet, 60 million Americans voted for John McCain. And in a year where Obama touted curbs on fossil fuels and the need for additional government spending, CNN Exit polls showed that 68% of votes supported off-shore drilling while 56% were against the TARP bailout. Indeed, only 32% of the electorate identified itself as “liberal.” It was “moderate” voters who went for Obama decisively that provided his margin of victory.

Obama confused his political mandate with his personal beliefs, trusting that the two were one in the same. It was a fatal mistake the created a yawning chasm between Obama and middle America, catalyzed the Tea Party and led to the wholesale rejection of the President in the mid-terms in the worst loss for a political Party since 1938.

It was this same hubris that led Obama to prioritize health-care only days after the Stimulus passed, and while Americans continued to suffer after the 2008 meltdown. By the time POTUS was again talking about the economy – in 2011 – it was too late.  The window for action had long passed, and the electorate had already rendered a first verdict on Obama governance in the mid-terms.

It is undeniable that had Obama gone big on the economy – banking and mortgage finance reform – in his  first year, and made down payments on “investments” in health care and the environment (implementing the provisions of Obamacare that are in place today and widely popular, and using the EPA from the start as a tool to regulate pollution), and a package of small business tax incentives, that the Democrats would not have lost as big as they did in 2010.

The tangible results of those targeted policies would have set up a re-elect where Obama would have been a virtual lock. Instead, Democrats languish in a pick ’em race against an opponent that no Democrat took as a serious threat in the run up to 2012.

The real pain here is that Democrats had a once-in-a-century opportunity for fundamental change. Their conceit and presumption in their sordid attempt to capitalize on victory was the source of failure instead.

Could it have been worse?  Maybe.

Could it have been better?  Definately.

Democrats have only themselves to blame.

 

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