Sep 04 2009

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“I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America
— there is the United States of America.”

Well, we’ll see.

Those words were spoken by then-Senator Obama during his captivating speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The rhetorical device; recognizing our differences while appealing to a greater good and unity, was honed to perfection during the 2008 campaign and was instrumental in landing Obama in the White House.

But giving a great speech and implementing policy that gives life to its inspiration are two entirely different things, particularly in Obama’s case, where we never seemed to get past the intangibles.

So where are we?

For nearly eight months, the President and the Democrats have not so much reached out to unite America as they have looked at their formidable majorities in Congress as the embodiment of America, with license to do as their leadership saw fit.

This was a big mistake.

In office, President Obama struck a curious leadership posture, setting out broad priorities and letting the Leadership and Members fill in the blanks, akin to Zeus on Mt. Olympus.

The President of post-partisanship and gauzy and obscured moderation handed over the legislative pen to entrenched, hyper-partisan officials whose political leanings were well to the left of most citizens. That POTUS shared those leftist views is less important here than the fact that he took no stake in the overall positioning or sales of them; a striking fact given the campaign’s emphasis on perception and perhaps an opening into a flawed sense that somehow the legislation did not relate to his presidency.

This was a big mistake.

Like Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan, Obama became president at a time of crisis. But where Lincoln is best known for fighting and winning the Civil War, and Roosevelt and Reagan for tackling the economic maladies that they faced on their first day, the Obama administration has been substantively impatient and ambivalent about the recession in all its many components.

It has primarily relied on a wasteful, public sector, pump priming stimulus bill, and continuation of Bush initiated programs at Treasury and the Fed to get through the crisis, while the White House and Congress anxiously moved on to other things.

While an estimated 1.8 million Americans will have their homes foreclosed on this year, and nearly 3 million were thrown out of work, the House passed a Cap N’ Trade bill and the White House and Congress focused on a massive government overhaul of health care.

The Administration’s forcible take-over of the auto industry, reordering ownership to benefit core Democratic constituencies, seemed to be an alarming harbinger while staggering budget shortfalls for the Democrats’ planned government expansions shattered all records, with the ten-year outlook adding $9 trillion to the national debt.

It did not help that most of the congressional and Administration action occurred without any of the normal process of hearings and debate, let alone the augmented transparency promised by the President

All the while the economy got worse.  Unemployment is now at 9.7%1

This was a big mistake.

As the governing mistakes piled up geometrically, the public’s concern increased exponentially. The perfect storm of citizen anger and resentment at grandiose Washington policy prescriptions took shape in the town hall skirmishes this summer.

Thus, the very individualized and personal – if abstract – “hope” that was associated with Obama’s promised “change paradigm” has now boiled down to an equally personal but very real battle on the future of health care in the US. It is an issue in its own right, but perhaps more importantly, as a potential referendum on Obama’s stewardship to date and the ability of the Democrats to govern. All things considered, this cannot be the terrain that Team Obama wanted to fight on this fall.

First, as an issue, health care reform never ranks first in voter’s minds.  Survey after survey shows it as second or third in priority, consistently behind the economy, and more recently, the deficit.2

And as Obama goes to the mat for a secondary priority, All of Obama’s numbers have moved in the wrong direction in the last three months, making him a less formidable and consequential leader at just the time he needs that power and influence the most.

The stats are stark. Barely 50% of citizens approve of POTUS’s job performance; down from the awe-inspiring 70s of his inauguration.  On individual issues it gets worse.

51% disapprove of the President’s handling of the economy. By a 52-45% margin, Americans don’t approve of Obama’s handling of the tax issue. A whopping 63% do not approve of his handling of the deficit. The President goes before Congress and the nation next Wednesday to breathe life into his health care reform when, by 53-44% Americans disapprove of his handling of the issue.

Even more horrifying for Axelrod and Emanuel, Indies are dumping the President in droves.

And these numbers cloak a much starker emerging problem: trust.

Obama came to office with unparalleled public good will, even from his political opponents.  But that has been eroded in the health care debate. Consider this quote from an Op-Ed in the Washington Post:

“…You can’t say that the system is totally broken and in need of radical reconstruction, but nothing will change for you; that Medicare is bankrupting the country, but $500 billion in cuts will have no effect on care; that you will expand coverage while reducing deficits – and not inspire incredulity and mistrust.”

As he grapples with a weak hand at a consequential time, Obama finds that he has limited running room. Having floated above the fray for so long, coaxing without committing, the politically diminished President is now in less of a position to insist upon anything with his ostensible congressional allies.

And keep in mind – this is critical – that the fight here is not Democrat against Republican; it is Democrat against Democrat.

POTUS, Nancy and Harry can blame Rush, Hannity, Beck and O’Reilly to their heart’s content. They can label this summer’s town hall attendees opposed to Obamacare as hoodlums and mobs using brown shirt tactics (at their own additional peril).

But the fact of the matter is that from an operational political position, the Republicans are inert. Madame Speaker has a vast majority in the House. In the Senate, the People’s Republic of Massachusetts will obligingly change the law and appoint a Kennedy successor in time for any critical votes.  Robert Byrd can still be wheeled in when its clutch time. That gives Harry the 60 votes he needs to shut down debate no matter how much howling the Republicans do.

But that’s on paper.

The fact is that there are between 40-60 Democratic votes in the House and at least ten in the Senate that are skeptical of Obamacare as currently written. With public anger, plunging poll numbers and a diminished President, are these folks going to stay on script?  If you want to see the best reenactment of rats on the Titanic, look no further than the conduct of congressmen on a crucial vote when the President can’t provide top cover. This is a bipartisan instinct; when in doubt, self preservation first.

But if Obama makes the play to assuage the concerns of these “moderates,” he begins to lose his Base on the Left that is already frustrated with the Administration regarding gay rights, Afghanistan, and what they see – amazingly – as a bill that isnot liberal enough with its “sell out” to the insurance and drug industries.

That’s the fault line.

If Obama and the Democratic leadership make changes that can muster bare majorities in both chambers, they can force a bill through without 60 votes in the Senate using a process known as Reconciliation – already provided for and waiting, if necessary.

But the question remains whether Obama and his lieutenants on the Hill want to or should pass a bill with such ramifications to the economy and average Americans on a narrow, party-line vote.  It would be a measure without any Republican support, and where POTUS and his Party would lose substantial numbers of their own troops; a bill so partisan that it could be lacking in fundamental legitimacy.

In this context, it is worth pointing out that the “divisive” tax cuts that President Bush sponsored in 2001 passed with the support of 28 Democrats in the House.  In the Senate, the vote was 62-38, with ten Democrats voting with the Republicans. Contrary to revisionist historians on the Left, the Bush tax cuts were sufficiently bipartisan to exceed a filibuster proof majority that the GOP did not come close to having in 2001.

There is another way for the Democrats, if Obama is bold enough to grab it.

First, stop defending the indefensible and trash the existing bill.

Start from a clean sheet and list the items that have Democratic and Republican support. Here, there is more agreement than is commonly assumed on portability and pre-existing conditions and other provisions.

Put the emphasis on cost control instead of immediate, universal coverage. Stipulate that the government will first make reforms to Medicare and Medicaid that bring costs under control a prerequisite to any creation of a “public option” in health care, to demonstrate Obama’s seriousness about accountable government.

Challenge Republicans by putting meaningful tort reform on the table, along with expanded health care choice for consumers, if Republicans will agree to a “public option” if private sector reform does not result in lower costs and availability.

Make change incremental, tested and certified.

This is a gamble.

Obama would both abandon and infuriate his Base. Candidly however, now might be the best time for him to do that. There’s a year before the midterms to mend fences, and, where is the Left going to go.  They will never get someone more simpatico with their agenda than the current incumbent. By putting distance between himself and his cohorts now, Obama moves to recapture the center that remains abandoned right now by both Left and Right.

By putting emphasis on cost, Obama would address head on one of his weakest links with voters and begin to restore his credibility with the Indies. In agreeing to free market provisions, Obama would force Republicans into the uncomfortable position of having to say no to a bill that contains much, but not all, of what they want.

Those who want to kill the bill simply to reap electoral dividends in 2010 or deny the President a major victory will be smoked out.  The “Party of NO” will be firmly established.  And in doing so, if Obama, in the end, has to run a partisan bill, it will not have been for lack of genuinely trying to get GOP support.

In short, it would put Obama back in the driver’s seat.

Thing is, Obama has absolutely no history of taking this kind of risk.  As was pointed out during the campaign, he voted with his Party almost 100% of the time. He has never taken on his backers in a way that say, John McCain has. He has never genuinely embraced his opponents as Bush did with Kennedy over Education and again in his second term on Immigration. His rare instances of bipartisanship – with Senator Tom Coburn in sponsoring measures on government transparency – have themselves been rooted in deep liberal orthodoxy.

So here we are.

Presidential talk is increasingly cheap for the American people.

Where town halls and press conferences have failed to move the needle, Team Obama is now hoping that an address before Congress, in an august location full of tradition and symbolism and all that clapping (and without any pesky questions) will lead to the road of redemption.

But pomp is no substitute for substance, particularly if you’ve heard it all before. Does anyone remember anything memorable about candidate Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC except for the preposterous egomaniacal trappings?

Come Wednesday, Obama will have to do more than repeat tortured bromides and huff in faux indignation at what he believes are distortions of his vision for health care to get America back on his side and push the legislation forward. He needs to reconcile not just his own Party, but reconcile America with his priorities, this time as policy and not aspiration.

Is he just a glib and clever politician, doctrinaire and unserious, or a practical, results oriented statesman and genuine leader?

We’re finally going to see.

1. Wall Street Journal, 9-4-09

2. Pollingreport.com


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