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4 posts from January 2010

January 28, 2010

Oh, The Vision Thing

"Oh, the vision thing."

That was the reaction of George H. W. Bush when he was urged to speak to a bigger picture beyond the small pieces of his legislative agenda.  They may be strange succor for a Democratic President, but those words hold a crucial lesson and a grim warning for Barack Obama. 

The lesson?  Articulate a governing vision bold enough to dominate the bare-knuckle brawl of contemporary American politics, or start working on that resume. The warning?  George H. W.  Bush was the last U.S. President to serve only one-term.

No matter how strong President Obama's performance was in his first State of the Union address--and it was a very strong performance--at best he gave the American public  pieces of the puzzle, but did not give voice to his big picture. 

Invest in green industry, put people back to work, cut taxes for the middle class, revoke Don't Ask, Don't Tell, drawn down forces in Iraq, limit corporate political donations--yes to all, but why?  What is the fundamental story of America in the world that grounds all these individual pieces in an overarching moral logic?  After one year in the White House, the President still has not told us.

The consequences for such a glaring sin of omission on the part of the President will be dire.

Namely, because the President has not advanced his own big picture vision, the two competing visions already scrapping it out like angry dogs on the public stage will continue to polarize the electorate, chip away at the President's popularity, and stymie the legislature's ability to get anything done.

The first competing vision is the idea that "government is bad," which hails from the conservative politics of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Ron Paul.  Since Obama took office, however, this vision has evolved from "government is bad" to "government is tyrannical."  Day in and day out, the big story of American government as a tyrannical, even totalitarian force is dumped by the truckload on the public sphere. 

The second competing vision is the idea that "Government is good," which hails from the liberal politics of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich.  Since Obama took office, however, this vision has evolved from "government is bad" to "corporations are tyrannical."  Day in and day out, the big story of corporations as a tyrannical, even fascist force echoes louder and louder across the political landscape.

Because the Obama administration has neither sided with nor articulated an alternative to these pugilistic political philosophies, all of his legislative items have been and will get caught in the cross fire like innocent bystanders at a road rage shoot out.

When health insurance reform came up, the "government is tyrannical" block argued that Obama's approach represented a "government takeover" of our lives that would lead to a radical loss of freedom.  Obama's health care reform was the tip of the spear of an a totalitarian takeover of America, they argued. 

On the other side, the "corporations are tyrannical" block argued that Obama's approach to health insurance reform would lead to the end of democracy and the emergence of a corporatist dystopia. Obama's health care reform was the first step in the corporate remaking of America as a feudal state.

Rather than advancing his own vision, President Obama set his reform agenda amidst these two warring ideas--where it was ripped to pieces. 

And so it was, and so it will be, for every piece of reform he sends to Congress.

The State of the Union speech, with tens of millions of voters tuned in to listen, could have been the platform where the President once and for all unfurled his own distinct governing vision.  But it was not.

Instead of a "the vision thing," the President's State of the Union address was couched in a patriotic theme.

When the going gets tough, as it has in the past, "We don't quit."  America is no place for quitters.  We succeed because we solve problems.  The American spirit is--"resilient."

Part Tony Robbins, part General Patton, the President's narrative theme of "success through tenacity" was crafted to inspire the listener.  At that task, he succeeded big.  But the opportunity cost of choosing performance pzazz over clear governing vision (he could have done both) was that voters did not walk away with a strong sense of how our individual priorities fit within the future of the nation.

With so many problems to solve, voters will ask, why shouldn't we solve my problems first? Because government seeks to harm you, not help you, answers one side of the fight; because corporations are hurting our future, answers the other side.  The only answer from the president is: politics.

What should be his vision?  What should be the missing big picture from the President that gives logic and a sense of priorities to his agenda?

The answer, I believe, begins with two of the most basic four-letter words in the American vocabulary: work and land.

The fundamental basis of America is not the getting-and-spending of wealth, but what Franklin Roosevelt once called "the joy and moral stimulation of work."  Without work, the foundations of our country, our communities, our families, and ourselves will begin to decay and, ultimately, collapse.

A President's governing vision should be grounded in the ideal of work and that ideal should lead to a substantive agenda of full employment, strong wages and guaranteed health care.  And that same vision should fiercely protect in the fullest sense the lives of those now retired, as well as the lives of those who will enter the work force in the future. 

At the same time, if we allow our industriousness to destroy the land--if we do not become stewards of the American landscape--then our work is in vain and our lives are meaningless. For hundreds and hundreds of years, the American dream has been rooted in the land.  Our drive to cherish that land is not just a stop gap measure, it is the center of who we are as Americans.  

A President's governing vision should be rooted in the idea of the American landscape and that ideal should lead to a substantive agenda of new energy innovation, technological innovation, as well as sustainable practices in industry and our day-to-day lives.

Whether government is big or small is not the issue.  The issue is whether we have the courage and the drive to enlist every tool at our disposal to build a future guided by the American ideals of work and land.

Prior to his State of the Union Address, President Obama had flirted with the symbolism of work and land, but he had not articulated a bold vision.    He has planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, but he has not called for a 21st-Century land ethic to guide or lives.

Likewise, the President has given speeches in factories and proclaimed commitment to putting people back to work, but he has not reached for all the tools at his disposal to create a 21st--Century public works program to restore public confidence.

And so the power of the President's rhetorical performance will elevate us for a short while-a day, maybe a week--but after that, the dueling visions will again take over the public square, the political stalemate will return, and the rising tide of cynicism will wash away more and more American idealism.

To all this, the White House would respond that polling shows 21.58% of the public prefers "pragmatism" to political bickering or that 22.2% of "independent voters" respond positively when the President talks about "solving problems," without siding with one or other ideological battles. To those voices in the White House, I say that one year is a long time in politics--a very, very, very long time.  After one year of pushing "pragmatism" justified by polling on swing voters, the results are bad. 

An administration that plays to swing votes at the expense of articulating a clear governing vision ends up mired in the very morass it claims to be avoiding.  That is precisely where President Obama is now. 

So, remember the vision thing, Mr. President, or else--suffer the same fate as those in the past who forgot it.

January 27, 2010

To Succeed, Obama Must Make "Change" Feel Real

One year into this administration, a President elected on a slogan of "change" is now faced with  calls from every corner of the political landscape that he must change if he is to avoid total failure.

Irony can be so ironic.

Speaking about the public's expectations about Obama, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico described to the New York Times the difficult task the President must accomplish in his State of the Union address:

The American people want to see that you’re going to make a change, but for the president it’s important that he not shift radically because of one election...He needs to stay the course and not all of the sudden become something that he isn’t. The country was very inspired by Barack Obama— all kinds of voters. He needs to reconnect on that basis.

In other words, President Obama inspired the nation because he symbolized "change," but after one year those same voters are demanding that his version of change is not  change at all.  Therefore, Obama must find a way to change himself if he wants to reclaim the symbol of positive change.

Whew!  What a complicated mess.

The bottom line is that the voters who sought change by electing Obama do not yet feel any change in their lives after one year of his Presidency. 

Instead, these former supporters of Obama see a series of changes elsewhere in the country, the result of which is that their enthusiasm for Obama has change into anger at Obama.

In particular, the change Obama supporters see is a strengthening of the place and well-being of large corporations in American society.  While corporations have always played a larger role in the American system, many erstwhile Obama enthusiasts feel that corporations became even more powerful and more influential as a result of the President's actions in 2009. 

Specifically, most of the anti-corporate anger emerges from the perception that the executive class of larger private and publicly traded companies have dramatically increased their personal wealthy by exercising their influence over government since President Obama took office.  

Overall, the new intensity of anger at corporate executives has redefined the meaning of the most central word in Barack Obama's political arsenal.

One year ago, the word "change" in American politics mostly meant "a break from the political leadership of the past."  In the 2008 Presidential primaries, when Obama supporters talked of "change" they meant "not Bush" and "not Clinton."  Today, when these same voters talk about "change" they mean "not in favor of wealthy corporate executives." 

This shifting meaning has caused two large problems for the President  in recent weeks. 

The first problem is that the White House has has not found an effective way to tap into the anger generated by the new meaning of "change" as it is now being used by a large majority of his base, Obama's support amongst Democrats has plummeted.  To address this problem, the President will try to speak out in his State of the Union speech against the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporate spending in politics, but it is not clear that this rhetorical approach will reconnect with his base.

The second problem is that the Republican Party has found a way to tap into the anger generated by this new meaning of "change" and combine it with the different, but also intense anger of the Tea Party movement to win a midterm election. To address this problem, the President will try to argue in his State of the Union Speech that he is a true champion of working families.

Whatever happens in his speech, tonight, it seems unlikely the President will be able to solve the problems "change" is now causing for him in one pass.

To reclaim the high ground on "change," the President must persuade his once fervent supporters to stay with him, and he must deliver policies that lead quickly to a feeling of economic progress in their lives. The only way to accomplish the second part of that equation, is for the President to set down a policy goals of using government resources to put unemployed people back to work within the next 3 to 6 months--an emergency work legislation of the order that FDR created in the last great unemployment crisis of American history.

In this sense, the economic fate of the nation's working families and the political fate of the President are at the same crossroads.

January 26, 2010

Swing for the Fences, Mr. President!

With working families across America in an uproar over the endless nightmare of job losses--with key voting blocks in once Democratic strongholds clamoring after any scrap of decisiveness in recent elections--with the Twittering classes crying out for boldness from the man elected on the promise of once-in-a-lifetime "change"--in the midst of all this, President Obama plans to use his State of the Union address to unfold a series of small-bore middle class tax credits and federal spending cuts. 

It's the bottom of the first inning--nobody on, nobody out--and the White House is sending out its biggest hitter to bunt his way onto first base.
If I had one message for the President heading into his speech, tomorrow night, it would be this: Swing for the fences, Mr. President!

Despite what the President's advisers maybe telling him about this or that poll showing movement or persuadability in this or the other right or left leaning Congressional constituency--the problem Barack Obama must overcome in his State of the Union is the perception in the eyes of the public that he is a weak leader. 

How did it happen?  Who cares.  There is no crying in baseball.  The only road out of a hitting slump is to swing away.  And Obama is in the mother of all slumps.

Whatever speech the President has on his desk right now, he needs to look over every page and make sure there is no bunting anywhere in it on it or near it.

Swing hard, Mr. President.  Swing for the fences.  Now is the time to hit away. 

Early on in the President's first year, Rush Limbaugh hoped that the President would fail.  If tomorrow night's State of the Union speech is timid or filled with overly technical tax incentive tinkering, then Limbaugh will have won and the home team will have lost.

Right now, every working man and woman in America has one thing and one thing only on their mind:  jobs.  Will I keep my job? Will I lose my job? Will I get my job back? What will I do if I go another year without a job?

Bold presidential leadership in the State of the Union speech must make sense in the context of this anxiety-filled national conversation--this endless, fretful, but proud conversation.  To be seen and heard as a strong leader, the President's words must not only make sense to, but also resonate with Americans worried about work.

In a recession and a crisis of leadership far worse than the one we are currently witnessing, newly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented the country with a simple, bold message when he delivered his first State of the Union Address in January of 1934

A year earlier, Roosevelt had told the country that the banks were too greedy and too fearful to lend Americans the money they needed to put people back to work, and yet there were plenty of resources and workers ready to get started.  In his State of the Union, he followed up that same, bold theme:
Without regard to party, the overwhelming majority of our people seek a greater opportunity for humanity to prosper and find happiness. They recognize that human welfare has not increased and does not increase through mere materialism and luxury, but that it does progress through integrity, unselfishness, responsibility and justice.
Work was the key to a American progress, Roosevelt explained.  Progress through integrity. Progress through unselfishness. Progress through responsibility. Progress through justice.

Beyond the general refrain of progress, FDR specified exactly how his first year in office created and improved job prospects for millions of Americans:
We have made great strides toward the objectives of the National Industrial Recovery Act, for not only have several millions of our unemployed been restored to work, but industry is organizing itself with a greater understanding that reasonable profits can be earned while at the same time protection can be assured to guarantee to labor adequate pay and proper conditions of work. Child labor is abolished. Uniform standards of hours and wages apply today to 95 percent of industrial employment within the field of the National Industrial Recovery Act. We seek the definite end of preventing combinations in furtherance of monopoly and in restraint of trade, while at the same time we seek to prevent ruinous rivalries within industrial groups which in many cases resemble the gang wars of the underworld and in which the real victim in every case is the public itself.
Progress through abolishing child labor. Progress through guaranteed adequate pay.  Progress through preventing monopoly.  Progress through millions of people back to work.

After one year of trying everything that was pragmatically possible to get people back to work--succeeding at some, failing at others--FDR stood up and in front of Congress and swung for the fences. 

Fast forward to the next great economic crisis and the current President must find a similar bold theme again. 

To those say that it is too late for "pretty words"--that substantive policy is all that matters now--Obama should calmly, but decisively ignore them.  There is no question that a bold vision should be backed up by solid proposals to put people back to work--but that does not mean the President should cede the sphere of public opinion and burn the midnight oil at a policy desk.  It means he should speak even bolder, fight even harder.

Bold leadership for a President must transpire in the public arena.  Should he bunt at the dais, it matters little if a President swings for the fences back stage, on Air Force One, or in a room full of experts gathered in the Oval Office.  What the people see and hear is what makes for Presidential leadership.

And what we need to hear is what the President means by progress.  How are we going to lift ourselves out of the self-doubt and fear of unemployment and into a productive future of integrity, unselfishness, responsibility, and justice?

The answer is not by "tax credits" nor any other kind of accounting rhetoric, but by putting people back to work.  The future the President must describe, tomorrow night--a future that gives logic and reason to all his substantive proposals--must be one where every American who wants to can and will get back to work. 

Tax credits for middle class families and cutting back on special interest waste are both good things.  But in a State of the Union Speech at a time of national concern over jobs, they are minor league proposals.

The timeless story of an America standing tall because we are working again--that is the home run Obama should aim to hit.

Swing for the fences, Mr. President!  Hit away.

January 20, 2010

The Lesson of the Lunch-Bucket Democrats

Political observers surprised by the Democratic Party loss in the Massachusetts Senate election, last night, should take a second look at the trouble Barack Obama had attracting so-called "lunch-bucket" voters in the 2008 presidential primaries.   The problem that once plagued the campaign of candidate Obama has now metastasized to the whole party of President Obama.  It took one year for that to happen and the consequences could be dire for the Democrats.

2008?  Most American voters can barely remember what they tweeted 12 minutes ago, let alone what the dominant election narrative over a year ago.  But remember it they should, because the story of Obama's failures in Presidential primary states like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts was remarkably similar to the story coming out of last nights loss in the Senate race.

Reporting in March of 2008, NPR's Mara Liason observed, "Sen. Barack Obama, who has built his string of victories with the support of upscale affluent voters, is now trying hard to win support from the so-called "lunch-bucket" Democrats."  Liason then when on to quote one voter in particular who summed up this "lunch-bucket" perspective on Obama in 2008:
"She just seems more in touch with people than Barack Obama does," he says.
The "she," of course, was Hillary Clinton, who ended up won her way into the hearts and minds of white working-voters with a few shots of whiskey and a relentless focus on Main Street issues.  Try as he might, Obama never managed to become a symbol that lunch-bucket Democrats took as their own.  While the impact of that vote was diminished in the fray of the national election against McCain, the x-factor of the lunch-bucket Democrats remained in play.

If the right-wing should be credited with one accomplishment in 2009, it is turning the lunch-bucket albatross of one Presidential campaign into the symbol of the entire Democratic Party. That transformation was bound to happen eventually, but News Corp made it happen in under twelve months.

As a result, when lunch-bucket voters looked at Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race, they saw a symbol of elites who speak for vested interests rather than working families.  They saw, in other words, the same candidate they did not trust in the 2008 Presidential primaries.  And seeing that symbol, they either stayed home or flocked to the opposition's "anti-government" anger.  Either way, the lunch-bucket voters were the decisive factor in the Coakley loss.

How is it that Obama managed to allow his big weakness with lunch-bucket voters to become  the Achilles heel of the entire party?  "It's the economy, stupid."

There will be a great deal of finger pointing from every interest group in the Democratic Party, but the bottom line on the weakness that now plagues the party of Obama is: the economy.

The problem began with his staffing choices at the White House.  Starting with his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who made a fortune as a trader prior to entering politics--Obama has built a team with virtually zero credibility with working families.

His economic policy decisions grew out from there. 

Having bet all his chips on a bailout of Wall Street tycoons, President Obama's economic policy has failed to convince voters that Democrats care more about working people than hedge fund billionaires. 

And then there was healthcare.

Having proudly proclaimed that he would spearhead real health care reform on behalf of the millions of ordinary Americans in need, President Obama's "health insurance reform" agenda has been tarnished in the eyes of the public by a series of secret meetings held early on with  captains of insurance and pharmaceutical industries.  

In the eyes of lunch-bucket voters, the result of Barack Obama's policy agenda has been crystal clear and decisively damning.  Just as the lunch-bucket voters feared--Obama has become the very symbol of a politician who says one thing on the stump, but then does the opposite once he gets back to Washington.

Is the perception of the lunch-bucket voters fair?  Yes and no.    But in elections, to complain about what is and is not fair is the same as admitting you have already lost.  The key is just to get out there and change it.

Perhaps the greatest political gift of George W. Bush was his ability to convince the public that an oil-tycoon, trust-fund, Yale-flunkie was actually a man of the people.  It was a remarkable achievement. Obama's life truly is a testament to the American myth of pulling oneself up by our bootstraps--and, yet, he is perceived as a latte liberal elitist.  

The solution to this problem is not for Barack Obama to suddenly take a keen interest in clearing scrub brush or for him to suddenly discover that he enjoys dressing up in day-glow hunters camouflage and strolling along country roads with a shotgun slung over his arm.  More beer photo-op schmooze sessions will not help either.   Were President Obama to overreach for that kind of kitschy sudz-n-ammo symbolism in 2010, it would only make things worse for the himself and the Democrats.

What Obama needs to do, and fast, if he wants to stop his slowly sinking Democratic Party from going under--is advance a significant piece of symbolic legislation that benefits lunch-bucket voters. The key phrase is "symbolic legislation," by which I mean: toothsome legislation packed with real substance, but that resonates strongly at a symbolic level. 

Obama needs to promote one piece of legislation that re-establishes the party as the voice of lunch-bucket voters--as the party that truly advocates for Main Street instead of Wall Street.  And once he advances this symbolic legislation, he needs to defend it like a momma bear defends her cub until it passes.  And bears do not compromise--they growl.

In the face of all the critics who will rise up against his symbolic legislation--critics from the right and the left--President Obama needs to stand firm and fight them off.

What should this symbolic legislation be?  It should be jobs bill (c.f., "...economy...stupid.")

With the Coakley loss fresh on his mind, Obama should sit down and craft a truly symbolic jobs bill that throws the proverbial kitchen sink at the national unemployment rate like his life and the future of the free world depended on it. 

Moreover, Obama should advance this symbolic jobs legislation from a position outside of Washington--spending as much time as possible in 2010 in the burned-out wastelands of the shattered American dream. 

In 2010, Obama should spend nearly every day shaking hands and talking to people in Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and that's just for starters.

Here is the key:  there is no negotiating with a symbol.  Obama must hold firm on his symbolic jobs legislation and he must speak passionately about why we must all support it.  It must be real; it must be meaningful; and by standing up and defending it day after day across America, voters will come to see how vital and important it is to all of us.  

With his symbolic legislation in hand, Obama must stand up every day and take it on the chin for lunch-bucket voters.  That is the only way forward.

The lesson of the lunch-bucket Democrats coming out of 2008 and 2009 is not hard to see: either claim the symbol of Main Street for the Democratic Party, or someone else will.

The future of the Democratic Party depends on whether or not President Obama still has it in him to learn from that lesson and do something about it--fast.