Jul 26 2009

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Between Barack and a Hard Place

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Fate is a fickle temptress.

Thirteen months ago – on June 22, 2008 – candidate Obama gave one of the most rousing speeches of his campaign at St. Paul, Minnesota. For political archeologists, the St. Paul speech is, in retrospect, a microcosm of what America saw in Obama, and what helped propel him to the presidency.

Flawlessly delivered, with the occasional cadence of a preacher, Obama expertly tied his opponent to the unpopular incumbent president, and then effortlessly pivoted to outline an America truer to herself, certain of her sources of strength through historical example, capable of writing a new chapter of history through the firmness of ties, larger than ourselves, that bind us as citizens. It would be a new America, constructed over the wreckage of partisanship, greed and self-interest that Obama would create in Washington.

“It is our time,” was his signature anaphora.

Surging with the wildly enthusiastic crowd, Obama famously promised to slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet and restore the nation.

For those of us not bewitched by Obama, the rhetorical hyperbole was as baffling as the legions of true believers who had no doubt that Obama could make it so. Historically, Kennedy only wanted to go to the Moon. Obama’s ambitions seemed well beyond the powers of the Oval Office, well beyond politics itself.

Realists among us, back in “Sin City,” had the comfort of biblical history where staring down Pharaoh may have been a simpler task for Moses than codifying the word of God into commandments of human conduct with consequence and responsibility, as Obama would have to do in translating his soaring post-partisan platitudes into law.

And so it will be; as so it has become.

Six months into his term, the lofty rhetoric of the Obama campaign has landed with an unexpected thud.

54% of America made Barack Obama president in November. Today, 49% approve of his job in office; a fairly steep drop for a President who until recently maintained approval ratings in the 60s. It may be more excruciatingly humbling for Team Obama to realize that George W. Bush was more popular at this point in his presidency than the incumbent.1

The central premise of Obamaism – post-partisanship – has all but lost its luster. Only 32% of Americans believe Obama is governing in a bipartisan manner. 53% believe he is a partisan Democrat. 76% believe Obama is very liberal.2

As far as “restoring our nation,” only 47% of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. Only 25% think that the Administration’s most significant economic initiative – the Stimulus act – has helped the economy.

Moreover, as the Administration has placed government at the center of problem solving in all forms of endeavor, Americans by a margin of 52-29% believe that increased government spending hurts the economy.3

By a 2-1 margin, Americans trust their economic judgment more than Obama’s.4

In “healing the sick,” by a 53-44% majority, Americans reject Obama-care now being crafted on Capitol Hill.

Moreover, as Democrats have argued for increased taxation on the wealthy as a means to fund healthcare reform – and Obama and the Democrats plan to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire next year – Americans by a margin of 55-24% believe that tax increases hurt the economy.5

At St. Paul, Obama promised to slow the rise of the seas – a reference to global warming.  Here, the Administration’s devil is indeed in the gargantuan number of details.

The Obama supported-global warming bill in the House not only forces scarcity, dislocation, tax increases, soaring consumer prices, lower economic growth and job creation, it also lays out in exquisite detail the specifications for every sort of appliance – down to light bulbs – that Americans are allowed to have. It would make a Soviet Central Planner down-right nostalgic.  Yet, 72% of Americans believe that it is none of the government’s business to decide what light bulbs they buy, let alone forcing new bulbs that create formidable health risks on their own.6

In sum, for Obamaphiles, the issue results should be a timely wake-up call during the snoozy August recess; a time to question fundamental assumptions and get back on track.

The genius of the Obama campaign, and a continuing, formidable attribute of the President himself, has been a rhetoric that frames leftist choices as the common-sense middle. The fault for Democrats and the Administration is when they believe that the underlying policies are the middle.

Look at governing choices.  Instead of picking the most important issue – the economy – and getting it right first, Team Obama went for the long ball and launched all its major initiatives at once.  When the Democrats oversold the Stimulus to gain its passage, the legislation’s failure to generate immediate results cascaded on everything else. Now the public sees enormous government expansion and oceans of red ink, with little tangible accomplishment.

Look at governing methods. Crisis has dictated pace, undermining accountability and credibility. Obama promised transparency and participatory democracy.  But major legislation to date has been crafted behind closed doors, put forward without hearings and presented in written form – often thousands of pages – only hours before a vote.  It is the very form of government that Obama campaigned against.

And by deferring to the Democratic leadership in Congress in filling in the details of the Obama agenda, the President has been made captive of the activist Left of his Party which looks at engagement with Republicans as the only kind of appeasement it doesn’t approve of.  It makes Obama a conventional partisan Democrat, only much more liberal, threatening his most cherished political commodity, that of a change agent.

And as the Democrats churn the last six months, there is a lesson here for Republicans as well. The Minority leadership should go watch the Obama speech from St. Paul.

Yes, yes…it’s smugly satisfying to see him brought back to earth.  But the themes that Obama used to frame his speech are as relevant to Republicans as Democrats for they unlock the themes to responsible citizenship that voters innately respond to.

To that end, Republicans suddenly have an opening to present alternatives to Obama programs.  People will be listening. There is more to being an opposition Party than simply saying “no.”

On health care, everyone is talking about reducing costs and duplication but no one is talking about tort reform, which any practicing doctor can tell you is the principle reason for “leave no test behind” and unnecessary care; the fear of being sued.

The debate on health care isn’t about quality – we have the undisputed best health care on earth.  It is access, and providing access should be about choice and competition, not about government-run bureaucracies that make decisions for you.  Let’s talk about tax credits for health care. Let’s talk about competitive exchanges to compare and contrast programs. Let’s allow health plans to compete across state lines like almost all other products do.

On the environment, you don’t have to agree with global warming to be committed to energy security.  Indeed, let’s invest in next generation clean technology – but not by government mandate. Incentivize the private sector to develop new technologies through tax breaks. Make it a two-step process.  Energy security first – which means tapping all of our domestic resources including coal, off-shore oil and nuclear, to make America self-sufficient, while at the same time, moving toward cleaner technologies for a cleaner environment, but with additional power to fuel a growing economy and continued prosperity.

As we review the past and prepare for the autumn legislative battles, we need to remember that Obama didn’t get to office with the wrong message.  But through hubris and inexperience the mantle that vaulted Obama to power is suddenly insecure. No one should underestimate Team Obama, particularly on the politics, but just as clearly, a fumble has created an opportunity for the opposition. Whether they are any smarter in picking it up and running with it is yet to be seen.

1. Rasmussen Reports 7-26-09

2. ibid

3. ibid

4. ibid

5. ibid

6. ibid


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