Politics & Media
Jan 25, 2010, 04:45AM

Obama on the Ropes: Can He Still Be Brilliant?

The President isn’t facing mutiny from most of media, Congressional and academic acolytes after a rough two weeks, but he’s faced with an enormous political mess to clean up.

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Barack Obama often works, campaigns and governs at a frenetic pace, but his activity in the past 10 days is something to behold, as he’s all over the map, both literally and figuratively. He (and his advisers) failed to grasp the strength of Republican Scott Brown’s nationalized senate campaign in Massachusetts, and showing up in that state on behalf of Martha Coakley just two days before the election is undoubtedly a trip Obama now regrets. So, with his fellow Democrats in full-blown meltdown after Brown’s decisive victory on Jan. 19, Obama took to the road again, sending out mixed, if rhetorically potent, messages in Rust Belt locations devastated by the still-anemic economy.

At times, as in Elyria, Ohio, last Friday, he’d defend his sputtering health care bill, pledging its passage (“[S]o long as I have breath in me.”), even as polls show that Americans don’t rate that reform as a pressing issue and his Congressional allies have all but given up on the scurrilously pork-laden legislation. Then, in the following series of breaths, he railed against Wall Street and the bailed-out big banks, trying (and partially succeeding) to capitalize on the populist outrage against anyone in the financial sector who has the audacity to make a lot of money.

You’d have thought the President, just by looking at him on the tube, was the first cousin of a militant tea-bagger.

Yet while ultra-liberal senators Barbara Boxer and Russell Feingold made a splash by calling for the ouster of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (a sudden development that, in the unlikely event it happens, threatens to reignite the financial panic from the fall of ’08) Obama and the White House voiced its strong support for the startled Bernanke. That would seem to put Obama in a contradictory position; on the one hand he’s pillorying the big bad banks—too big to fail but not too big to bop—for a quick snort of public approval; on the other, he’s sticking by Bernanke and, for now, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, since if he threw them under the bus it would be an admission he backed the wrong horses last year to prop up the economy.

It was especially comical to see the wealthy Boxer claim, “It is time for Main Street to have a champion at the Fed,” not acknowledging, naturally, that she faces an unexpectedly difficult reelection campaign in California this November for a seat she’s assumed was her birthright. Warren Buffett, the revered billionaire iconoclast, who’s no friend to the GOP, said on CNBC last week that if Bernanke gets iced, “Well, just tell me a day ahead of time, so I can sell some stocks.” Other investors were quicker to pull the trigger last week, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its worst one-week lost in almost a year.

As written in this space not quite two months ago, Slate’s “Big Idea” thinker Jacob Weisberg jumped the gun on assessing Obama’s first year in office. Weisberg may have been the first to issue a report card on the President, but his conclusion that Obama’s initial 365 days at the White House would be remembered by historians as rivaling FDR’s certainly doesn’t look so smart today. One can be thankful for small favors: the Obama/FDR/JFK trilogy has all but disappeared from the mainstream media, as reporters, pundits and editorialists have moved on to the more current, and juicier, story of what even six months ago was inconceivable: the self-destruction of this political cycle’s Democratic Party. Granted, the landscape in Washington may reverse itself again in a short period of time, but for now all those Democrats who won elected office in ’06 and ’08 are scared stiff that after the midterms they’ll be in agreement with most Americans that the economy is by far the most pressing issue Obama must tackle.

It’s fascinating to read the reactions of the men and women in the media who just a year ago, besotted by Obama’s decisive victory, heralded a new dawn in the nation’s capital. There are three different camps right now and they bear little resemblance.
The nastiest is typified by Harper’s editor, Roger D. Hodge, whose February “Notebook” essay, “The mendacity of hope,” was a blistering attack on Obama. While Hodge allows that Obama is preferable to George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin and Joseph Stalin (Harper’s still has an online firewall, but the Stalin crack is indicative of his tone), he writes that, “[W]e have not been delivered … We can all taste the bitterness now.” Concentrating on Obama’s foreign policy, especially the escalation in Afghanistan and his embrace of Bush’s “unconstitutional war powers,” Hodge concludes that the President was a 2008 diversion, a mountain of cotton candy for a country disillusioned with the Republican party. His apostasy reaches such a pitch that he calls Obama a “common politician,” who’d never jeopardize an election. Near the essay’s conclusion, Hodge goes for glass jaw: “Having embraced and professionalized the powers of force and fraud previously associated with the likes of John Yoo and Dick Cheney, Obama has embarked on a course of war [Afghanistan] that will certainly invite further abuses of power.”

The second faction, represented by The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, is sticking by Obama no matter what; the I’m A Lover, Not a Fighter (of Democrats) sort of thinking. In a Jan. 20 blog entry, the day after Brown’s victory, Hertzberg blames the Senate’s filibuster rule for Obama’s troubles, saying that without the admittedly arcane rule in that body, the President by now would’ve passed health care, a global warming bill, strict financial regulation and a bigger stimulus package. Essentially, Hertzberg is of the Blame Bush wing of the liberal tent, a notion that’s getting mustier with each passing day.

In addition, ignoring the plain fact that droves of Independent voters were responsible for GOP wins in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, Hertzberg claims that Obama’s been damaged by “an essentially nihilistic opposition party dominated by a pro-torture, anti-intellectual, anti-public-spirited, xeonophobic ‘conservative’ movement; and a rightist propaganda apparatus owned by nominally respectable media corporations and financed by nominally respectable advertisers.”

Far out, man: a generation ago I’d be asking for a hit of whatever’s causing you these hallucinations. Brown received 52 percent of the vote in Massachusetts on Jan. 19: is Hertzberg saying these people are nihilists? In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC New poll showed that a full 72 percent of Americans identify themselves as either “moderate” or “conservative.” As for his obvious dig at Fox News, which is of course a conservative television station (just as The New York Times is a liberal newspaper), it’s quite a leap to call Fox’s advertisers “nominally respectable.” Last time I checked, Fox had the same rotating commercials as its competitors: spots for prescription drugs, cars, beer, junk food and financial institutions.

The last group is the most pragmatic, those who understand something is seriously amiss in Obama’s White House and if the President and his team fails to draw up a new game plan, all those “Yes, We Can” posters and bumper stickers will be seen as preposterous as Jerry Ford’s WIN buttons back in the mid-70s. Joe Klein’s cover story in this week’s Time best conveys the thinking of those who are rooting, even shilling, for Obama but are flabbergasted that he’s so politically tone-deaf. Klein’s a chameleon—his on-again, off-again relationship with Bill Clinton is a classic example of the bigfoot journalist/president dynamic—but he’s a Democratic chameleon. So while he too lists the number of rotten fish inheritances left by Bush for Obama to clean up, Klein is telling the President to knock off his alleged penchant for policy studies and start politicking in the old-fashioned way.

Klein’s conclusion, while attempting to be helpful, isn’t especially generous. He writes: “[Obama] will have to go to battle, shedding his preternatural calm at times, and fight to regain the public trust … He will have to understand that in the poisonous atmosphere of American politics, triumphs are no longer a realistic possibility; survival is as good as it gets.”

My own view is that if Obama can get it through his skull that the economy—not health care, not climate change, not “restoring” America’s image abroad (as if the Iranian tyrants, for example, can ever be mollified by a U.S. president)—needs to occupy 80 percent of his time, he’ll be fine politically. Unless Obama champions some really dumb ideas—wage and price controls, protectionism, massive tax hikes—he’ll eventually be the recipient of an upswing in the economy, and, as this historically cyclical improvement takes place, it’ll be on his watch and will reap the credit. In the meantime, he ought to offer real incentives for small business to hire more employees; encourage young men and women from countries like India, China, Taiwan and Japan to attend graduate school in the United States, perhaps with a financial carrot that requires them to stay at least 10 years here. And finally, Obama must resist the urge to continually alter his message while on “listening tours” across the country: No one will believe him if, on succeeding days and weeks, he dons the mask of Huey Long, LBJ, Paul Volcker, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan or, God help us, Jimmy Carter.

  • this is great, russ - see Harold Ford Jr.'s piece in the NYTimes today - a very similar message. Focus on the economy!

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  • Very clearly argued, and I admire your even tone, Russ, even as an "ultra-liberal" and a member of the Blame the War Criminals in the Bush Admin tent. But you say the economy should occupy 80% of Obama's time, as if climate change, fundamental health insurance reform, and restoring our image abroad are niche issues completely isolated from the economy. It's important for all of us to ignore the schills in pretty much all other American financial media, who forget that the economy isn't just the financial sector, to remember that all of this is tied into the economy. Really visionary, progressive reform of health insurance (an astounding portion of our GDP) and of how we will confront climate change -- which I still think Obama is capable of -- will improve the overall outlook of our economy. The immediate concerns of American workers need to be addressed, but given the inherent mood swings of our free markets, these long term issues are just as pressing. I would argue even more so.

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  • Matt: Thanks for the coherent reply. Boiled down, this is my view: While many of your points can be justified, Obama will have zero luck in fulfilling any of those goals as long as unemployment remains above 8 percent. Your argument is rational, but most Americans don't care a lot right now, for example, about the rest of the world's opinion of the U.S. And while almost no one, save the Glenn Becks of the world, would deny the importance of addressing climate change, it's just not a top priority today when millions of people are either out of work or nervous about being laid off. So, if Obama can address immediate and tangible economic success, he'll have gained the public trust to achieve the goals you've mentioned. That's what the MA senate race was about: it wasn't that Scott Brown (who?) was a dynamic candidate, but rather a vehicle for citizens of that state to vent their frustration.

  • Again, I turn to Mike Gravel... http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/blow-up-guantanamo-recognize-cuba-and-withdraw-from-iraq "Third, is the cleaning up the environment and the ability to redirect the economy of the nation to that end. If we buy into American imperialism we can't redirect the economy to solve our domestic needs, which are education, health care, building infrastructure, and cleaning up the environment. What we should be doing is turning around and building five million windmills and solar power plants in a five-year crash program. That will create an unbelievable amount of jobs. We don't have to worry about bailing out the banks. Screw the banks. Just set up a process where people can finance building windmills and solar power plants across this country and let the ordinary citizen hold these windmills, not the wealthy people. It could be done. It's a simple process of letting the profits of capital pay for the cost of capital and then the end product is letting the people be the owners of capital. The way it is right now with our system it's the wealthy owning the capital and the people have nothing but wages. When the crunch comes, they're left unemployed."

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  • Fair play, Russ. And Zach, Mike Gravel is pretty much always right about everything. And as for the MA Senate race, I think more fingers should be pointed at the MA Democratic Party for running Coakley, even more of a "who?" than even Brown. After Kennedy, MA has managed to turn out more milquetoast candidates for important offices (Kerry for President being an even lower moment). I blame Bill Belichick.

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  • Calling anti-climate change folk "the Glenn Becks of the world" is far too kind an assessment. Anti climate change rhetoric (as well as anti science and anti anything-to-do-with-a-master's-pgrogram-or-above) is deeply ingrained in the Right. The Glenn Becks of the world are symptoms, not causes, of climate change misinformation.

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  • One, the "right" isn't monolithic, just as the "left" isn't. Two, jeez, Andrew, I thought that associating anyone or anything with Glenn Beck was nod-in-agreement catnip. You'll have to clue me in on the new boogeyman (oops, boogeyperson).

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  • Another interesting line in HH's blog post - "the obsolescence of our eighteenth-century political and electoral hydraulics (such as the separation of powers and the lack of a single government accountable to a national electorate)." One thing that became clear with S. Brown's senate election is that all the boo-hooing over it laments the end of putative one-party rule and the restoration of an important mechanism of checks and balances. They don't really like the Constitution so much, is how I see it - they'd ideally have the enlightened one-party system like in China, like T. Friedman champions. But, but, but - one that's "responsible to a national electorate", of course. Of course

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  • Um, I'm not a Friedman fan especially, but I'm pretty sure that's not what he champions. Also I think James Fallows' recent article about our political system now being not so much one of "checks and balances" as of "brakes" is very valuable reading: http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2010/01/political_math_36_64.php

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  • ha, love the dig at carter in the end. I'm with the final camp on this one: I voted for Obama, but I'm really starting to question myself and him now. what is going on at the white house? he couldn't be more tone deaf as to what's exactly going on and what's gonna keep him in office. but, he's better than bush by a LONG shot...

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  • So some reporters have discovered that Obama's a politician and not King Arthur. Well, that's breaking news. Give the man a break: I voted for him and would vote for him again today. Thank God, he won, for who knows how bad McCain would screw up, and then there's Palin... Case closed. No buyer's remorse here, thanks.

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  • Sir, as you careen into deep middle age, you have become more circumspect. Thank you for that. I read james fallows's article too. Our country is good, our people are good, our government is dedicated to infighting - and thereby intercoursing us, the sheep.

  • you mean fucking us right?

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  • Grow up, Westphal. The comment was clear, as well as smart. Politicians have their own (mostly) legal racket going on and most don't really care about the people they're supposed to represent.

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  • Well done Russ. I don't know what's really going on in Washington, but I've had it with the "poisonous atmosphere of American politics".

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