Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obey Obama to Observe Obama

Obey Obama was conceived, in part, to prepare Progressive Democrats for the inevitable. Of course the new president would disappoint his base with compromises, missed opportunities, stumbles and setbacks.

I was just as certain that the activist wing of the party would quickly begin to complain and criticize the proposals, policies, strategies and even symbolic actions by Obama, starting with the big fuss over the invitation to evangelical Rick Warren to make the inauguration invocation.

I’m usually impressed by thoughtful arguments from the left and obviously consider it fair game for that constituency to advocate, vocalize and organize on behalf of its positions.

And I’m sensitive to the charge that Obama gave away too much, too soon on health care and is doing that again on financial reform.

But I’ve cautioned against the impulse among many on our side to become depressed, disillusioned and defeatist. I’m worried that the American left will revert to familiar self-destructive tendencies and swarm all over this guy.

President Obama faces extraordinary pressures, a skillful and devious political opposition and an electorate – including many who voted for him – with very conservative values.

I try to make the case that in winning the nomination and the election, Obama showed enormous personal skills, political flexibility, strong values, courage and discipline; and that these qualities will prove to be tremendous assets as this presidency evolves

Obey Obama was my argument to let the new president lead and to give him cover as he unpacks this very complicated government, nation and world.

Observe Obama is not a repudiation but an extension of this notion.

Observe means more than just watch.

When you observe a holiday, for example, you’re also paying respect. And being observant implies loyalty.

So don’t expect a big change in attitude.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Attack of the Misguided Missiles

Was John McCain being unusually clever this week when he attacked Barack Obama’s plan to scrap the Bush-era, European land-based missile interceptor system?

The Arizona Republican called the president’s decision “misguided,” as in misguided missiles. Or was it just an inadvertent word play, a hasty reaction based on the need to instantly attack anything this president says, proposes, announces, implies or insinuates.

There’s nothing particularly “dovish” about Obama’s decision to support a weapons program which launches U.S. missiles from naval vessels rather than land-based silos in Poland or the Czech Republic. Western European allies tend to think it’s a good idea and so do the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Missile attacks from Iran will still be thwarted. And it’s a money saver.

Also this week, the House voted to streamline the Federal Student Loan Program by ending subsidies to private lenders, a plan which delivers more aid to college students, removes an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and again saves money.

Six out of 173 Republicans supported the measure (which now moves to the Senate). Republican opponents muttered something about “new entitlement spending,” and the elimination of the “innovation of the private sector.” Continuing his onslaught, Representative Joe Kline of Minnesota called the legislation “job killing.” The bill was triggered by last year’s disclosures of suspicious links between private lenders and some college financial aid officers and a tendency by these private lenders to offer – surprise, surprise – less favorable rates than the federal government.

These are not the inflammatory and toxic issues that dominate the current political atmosphere. That’s why they’re particularly useful examples of how Republican legislators think, react and operate.

There is plenty of time for progressive activists, bloggers, thought-leaders, Congressional Democrats and the Administration to pound home to voters the everyday behavior of our opponents.

While Republicans have certainly done damage with their clever and devious manipulation of hot button issues, they continue to be extremely vulnerable for their blind loyalty to business interests, opposition to consumer and environmental protection, knee-jerk support for excessive military spending and, of course, rabid hostility for just about every item on the Obama agenda.

On big picture issues, next up is financial reform.

Here we see obvious opportunities to showcase expected Republican resistance to Wall Street accountability and their anticipated refusal to protect the public from abusive practices.

Whether Democrats lead that charge depends, in part, on their own willingness to take on the financial elite. And, hopefully, the majority in Congress and the White House will do a better job positioning that debate than they did with health care.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Conservative Protests are Tricky for Democrats

Maybe the only good thing about republican control of the White House and Congress from 2002 to 2006 was that their right wing base was somewhat pacified.

Now conservative extremists are liberated from the restraint of governing.

Look out, America.

However health care reform shakes out, we now know that organized and well-funded ultra-conservatives are inserting themselves into broad national policy questions. Saturday’s “Taxpayers” march in D.C. drew headlines. Like it or not, they are part of the American spectacle.

Liberals are often caught off guard by right-wing populist revolts. Examples from the 1970s include the anti-school busing protests in Boston and other northeastern cities, the clamor to reinstate the death penalty across the country and Prop 13.

The current uprising from the right poses a very complicated dilemma for activist democrats, members of the congressional majority and the president.

Although it’s very tempting to dismiss right wing protesters as nuts, I think we have to be careful not to disparage or ridicule conservative values and attitudes. This is difficult because our opponent’s attacks on us and our president are irrational, cruel, hateful and noticed.

Nevertheless, I think the president is smart to talk, for example, about including all points of view in the health reform debate. This is especially opportune now, when Obama is explaining the difference between constructive contributions and tactics designed to obstruct progress.

By keeping even a slight distance from the congressional ideological battleground, the president continues to nourish the prospect of creating progressive policy coalitions of religious and business-oriented voters, mountain-state populists and suburban moderates. I believe one reason Obama got such a nice bump in the polls after his joint-session speech last week was the determined effort from the start of his presidency to graciously reach out to republicans, a gesture clearly intended for independents.

Many progressives disagree with the “reaching across the isle” approach, believing that Obama and congressional democrats are being snookered and bullied by republican activists and leaders; and that we should stand up for ourselves and our principles.

But politics is a subtle game. It’s possible that Obama’s stated commitment to bipartisanism - seemingly futile on health care - will be very useful in future legislative campaigns. Likewise, his calm and deliberate temperament may be blunting the sharpest attacks from right-wing extremists, namely that he is “un-American.”

Representative Joe Wilson’s “you lie’ shout out to the President showed how nimble mainstream republicans can be, denouncing this breach of protocol while stoking much scarier right wing antics like this summers town hall mob scenes.

Joe Wilson was a heroic figure at yesterday’s conservative rally with some protestors wearing “Joe Wilson for President” stickers. If that element of the conservative movement steals the show, it might play right into our hands.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Swing Voters Dropping Obama?

It’s painful to watch Obama’s popularity decline.

His presidency is being overwhelmed by brutal attacks from the right and ongoing criticism from his base. Meanwhile, swing voters - whose political sentiments are generally shaped viscerally, not intellectually - are turning off.

Republicans are behaving as expected. After all, they have a history of winning elections and governing by mocking their opponents and arousing fear and hate among the voters. We know this, though we’re always surprised at how effective right wing elected officials, thought leaders and noise makers are in adapting to changing conditions.

Progressive Democrats are also behaving as expected. Wanting bold reform and “real change”, important parts of Obama’s base have already concluded that the president has made colossal strategic and policy errors. They argue persuasively that he allowed himself to be the helpless captive of health care obstructionists.

Then there is that broad swath of swing, independent and moderate voters who seem to be drifting away from Obama. The Los Angeles Times Labor Day edition headline: “Obama is fast losing white voters’ support” was beyond depressing.

I had similar feelings fifteen years ago when “Whitewater” and “Troopergate” stories first appeared about Bill Clinton. I’m afraid that it’s getting away from us, again.

So instead of twisting our minds over what Obama could have or should have done, we should prepare for the possibility of a shift to the political center.

The conclusion in the White House may very well be that to regain electoral and policy support, reforms have to be toned down. Does this mean that:

1) The conservative loud mouths have carried the day?
2) Americans are not inclined to accept progressive change?
3) Obama didn’t have the guts and / or the smarts to pull it off?
4) We’re seeing a Clinton Administration redo?
5) We should shut up and be happy that the Republicans are not running the White House and Congress?
6) Or are they?
7) All, some or none of the above?

Figure it out and let me know.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Up the Learning Curve for Dems and Obama

Here’s an optimistic scenario:

Months from now we’ll look back on August 09 and recognize it as a turning point. Yes, the republicans whooped us. They stirred their base around health care, captured the media and cleverly spread innuendo, fear and misinformation.

But instead of getting flustered and indignant, we wised up.

We learned that in every campaign for reform - financial regulation, global warming, labor law, gay rights - our esteemed opponents will do all they can to trick, scare and confuse the public.

Good thing we figured this out early on, before a mid-term or – God forbid – a presidential election.

We also determined that we don’t have to disparage or demonize anybody, and that it’s a damn good idea to continue to look for support among religious voters, gun owners, suburban moderates, you name it.

And we settled into the comforting notion that we have a smart, capable, disciplined president who makes mistakes and then learns from them.

Finally, we’ll remember August 09 for the death of Ted Kennedy and its dignified aftermath. The three Kennedys were central to my generation’s political identity and our relationship to American history. The lesson from Ted, among many others, is that political maturity means understanding both possibilities and limitations. But you keep your head up and you stay in the game.