Saturday, July 25, 2009

How Obama Stumbled

Anyone who presumes to understand what happened to our prez this week must tread carefully. His long-winded answers on health care reform at his press conference followed by his off-message remarks on the Gates arrest left the impression that the Obama persona is fracturing.

He was so tightly wound and obsessed with getting his health reform talking points across, is it any wonder that his improvised reflections on Gates spun in the other direction?

Am I the only one to speculate that his blurt about the Cambridge police behaving stupidly was a projection of his feelings about himself at the moment?

Anyway, it’s easy to point out what he did wrong and insist he behave differently. Here are my two cents:

Stop acting like a control freak at press conferences. Forget the scripted opening statement, answer the reporter’s question quickly and move on to the next one.

At the health reform town hall in Cleveland the following day, he was charming, comfortable and relatable, which says something about his capacity to recover. So let’s give the guy a chance to regain his balance. He’s under some pressure. You think?

And finally, to my friends who regularly advise me to pay more attention to substance than style, this post will probably confirm my enduring lack of depth and analysis. Frankly, I prefer leaving the most complicated policy questions to those serious thinkers on my left and right.

I’m with many Americans who have an enormous emotional stake in Obama. For them and me, this was a painful week.

Let’s hope we’ve all learned a thing or two.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Senate Majority - A New Problem for Progressives

Much more important than the so-called filibuster-proof majority for Senate Democrats is the fact that 24 states now have two Democratic Senators (or independents who caucus with Democrats).

Beside the usual suspects, these states include Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico and Virginia.

Democrats have at least one U.S. Senator in an additional 12 states, including Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, Nebraska and South Dakota.

This is spectacular news for those of us who want to build and maintain Democratic majorities and would have been fantasy just five years ago.

But this new configuration is a problem for progressives as key Democratic Senators in recently conservative states are reluctant to risk their political future by moving too far beyond their constituents.

Like it or not, health care, global warming, financial reform, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are going to be brokered by Senate Democrats such as Max Baucus of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

And President Obama will have his hands full with this crowd. (In the House, “Blue Dog” Democrats can be more easily appeased or in some cases ignored).

Since 2004, in just two national elections, we’ve picked up 15 Senate seats. We’ve expanded the base dramatically. Now the question is: How do we move the agenda?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Timing Not Timidity Drives Obama on Gay Rights

To understand how Barack Obama will overturn the ban on gays in the military, look at the administration’s strategy on achieving health care reform.

Obama’s style is to carefully assemble coalitions which include buy-in from groups traditionally opposed to reform.

Just as the President recruited business and medical industry elites into his health care strategy and proposals, he has begun that same process with military and defense department officials, who will be critically important in dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Progressive democrats are understandably impatient with this process. Daily Beast’s Matthew Yglesias accuses the president of being timid for allowing the military to continue to dismiss gay service men and women.

While progressives may disagree with Obama’s approach, it is not driven by timidity but timing.

We know what it will look like: the President at the White House podium (or, better yet, at a military base) flanked by the Defense Secretary, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and key members of Congress, the Pentagon and the services.

If done right, the end of legal discrimination against gays in the military will signify a spectacular leap for the gay rights movement. It will appeal to many social moderates who oppose or are ambivalent on gay marriage.

Imagine the enormous transformation for this nation when the patriotic and brave gay men and women of the military - who sacrifice and serve their country - receive the respect they deserve.

And that moment is coming.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Obama's War

Seven American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan Monday, marking a spike in U.S. and NATO fatalities. There was little uproar over this tragic news, which was accompanied by military official predictions that the death toll will rise as the conflict intensifies

Opposition to the troop buildup has been muted. Progressive democrats, generally disinclined toward American military action, are reluctant to attack Obama. Supporters of aggressive military intervention, usually conservative, tend to agree with this escalation.

This gives the president some latitude to carry out his risky Afghanistan strategy.

During the Bush Era, the American public’s disgust with the war in Iraq deepened as the number of American troops killed passed 2,000, than 3,000, than 4,000.

Barack Obama knows that there is limited patience for American casualties. But this is not simply a political calculation.

This is his Afghan policy. Soldiers will be suffering and dying based on his decisions and his orders. If the Obama plan in Afghanistan isn’t working, at what point does he withdraw? How will this president tolerate the enormous burden of war?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Evangelicals and Climate Change

An ad campaign on country music radio stations in the South is urging Evangelical Christians to support Congressional Global Warming legislation. Using Biblical references - "God's creation cries out for relief" - the spots are causing grief among economic conservatives who opposed the Waxman-Markey climate bill which passed the House last week.

As the battle moves to the Senate, this is exactly the kind of outreach to socially conservative religious groups that President Obama had in mind when he invited Rick Warren to give the benediction at the inauguration.

And it helps explain why this president moves cautiously on liberal social agenda issues which trouble some religious voters.

Look for more efforts to recruit evangelicals into an environmental and economic populist coalition.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Progressive and Patriotic

Among progressive democrats there’s a lot of angst these days that Obama will give away too much as he moves his agenda through Congress.

We’ll be talking a great deal about those thin lines between bending and folding, compromising and capitulating, succeeding and surrendering. And no matter which way things go, the contingencies of the political process will certainly dim the light on our new prez.

Here’s some of what we’ll hear:

He should’ve fought harder for this. Held the line on that. Whacked the republicans over the head. Called the bluff on the blue dog democrats. Taken on the elites. Gone straight to the people.

In the months ahead, each of us will have to come to terms with our disappointments and frustrations. My advice: be a fierce advocate for your position, but take a step back.

I was in D.C. last week. My first trip there since we won. The kids came. How different it is to visit the memorials - Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, World War II, Vietnam - at a time when we’re feeling upbeat and optimistic about America. The kids, their mom and I talked founding ideas, national identity, good wars and bad, injustice and struggle. Our Obama-era teenagers know that their country can do right and can do wrong - and they also know how cool it is that the nation elected Obama president.

We’re just beginning to pull ourselves out of a very dark period. And I’m still celebrating.

So don’t fixate on Obama mistakes and missed opportunities. We’re shifting the public conversation. We’re building consensus and support for progressive political values.

It takes a while.