Saturday, January 1, 2011

Beyond "Dump Obama"

Congress's final burst of legislation (including repeal of  "don't ask, don't tell," the new food safety law, and the new arms control treaty) seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of the "Dump Obama" movement among liberals who were unhappy with his centrism. It was a silly idea anyway, for a couple of reasons.

First, it's virtually impossible to deny the nomination to a sitting President. Even Eugene McCarthy's toppling of Johnson was not enough to get an antiwar candidate nominated. Reagan failed against Ford, Kennedy against Carter.

Second, while the President will win the nomination, history suggests that those who faced a primary challenge lose the general election (Ford, Carter, Johnson/Humphrey). I'm not quite as convinced by the evidence for this as Conventional Wisdom is, because candidates who attract challenges are those who are unpopular to begin with, but it might well be true.

In any case, the left's criticism of Obama for his policies misses the point. The question is not whether he bends too easily in fights with Republicans. The question is why he needs to have those particular fights at all. My own problem with Obama is not his policies, but his political ineffectiveness.

This may seem a surprising charge to make. Once again, Obama has shown himself a master of the legislative rope-a-dope, getting beat up and beat up until all of a sudden, he wins.  Without taking anything away from the legislators who worked hard for certain bills, he did come off looking a bit like a magician.

In short, Obama has been very good at the inside game: dealing with Congress. What he's not good at is the outside game: getting the voters on his side. He's been a manager, not a leader. That, as much as the economy, is why we will have a Republican House in 2011.

As I've been saying here for some time, Obama's biggest failure is simply his neglecting to put the facts before voters. This is most evident in the health care reform law. Even today, how many people know that America has the most expensive health care system in the world, by a large margin? How many people know that we do worse than Cuba on life expectancy and infant mortality? How many people understand that the ban on exclusion for preexisting conditions (yay, love it!) and the purchase mandate (boo, hate it!) are inseparable? Because Obama never explained those things, he will have to deal with a Republican House trying to nibble the law to death.

Liberals, of course, are upset that Obama didn't close Guantanamo. I'm upset that he has allowed the impression to persist that the prison at Guantanamo was created because these prisoners were too dangerous to move to the U.S. In reality, of course, it was created on the theory that it would be out of the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. That theory didn't convince the Supreme Court, and it's hard to see any point now to keeping prisoners in a place with a worldwide bad reputation.

And then there's the deficit. Even by Washington standards, the amount of a mindless sloganeering on this is extraordinary.  Obama has yet to explain to the public what is important about the deficit, and how that relates to the rest of his agenda. I think Obama probably understands that we should worry about education, infrastructure, and global warming for the same reason we should worry about the deficit-- what Republicans like to call "intergenerational theft." But the public doesn't understand that. The Republican media machine won't tell them, and Obama hasn't.

recent article argues that Obama sees the Constitution's ideal of democracy as not just a set of structures but a deliberative process. If that's true, it's all the more reason for Obama to shift his attention away from Congress-- where, let's face it, very little actual deliberation goes on-- and to the electorate. And to that end he needs to bring back the bully pulpit. That would be good for both Democrats and democrats.

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