Sunday, June 13, 2010

Party Leader, Indeed

In "Democrat-in-Chief?" in the June 7 New York Times Sunday magazine section, the newspaper's national political columnist and regular contributor Matt Bai writes

Obama represents nothing if not a cultural departure point. As is often the case with Obama, then, the old formulas may not apply. After all, while it’s certainly not unusual for presidents to register much higher approval ratings than Congress, that divide has been particularly pronounced during Obama’s presidency; in April, while approval for the Democratic Congress was registering in the Pew poll at 25 percent, its lowest point in the 24-year history of the survey, Obama’s own approval rating remained close to 50 percent. What this disconnect means, perhaps, is that, while higher approval ratings for the president might still mean more votes for Democrats in the midterm elections, every point up or down could have less of an impact than it has in the past.

Obama seems to exist on a separate plane from his party’s other elected leaders, somehow deflecting much of the anti-Washington fervor that threatens to dispatch the rest of them. This is probably not only because voters see him as a more inspiring leader than Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, but also because they don’t see him as a party leader at all, at least in the traditional sense. It’s not simply how Obama came to govern that creates this impression. It’s also a simple matter of who he is.

To Bai, Obama "seems to exist on a separate plane" from others, veritably floating above us mere mortals, or at least the mortals of his own, hyper-partisan party. This is a common theme of the traditional media- Obama as popular even though congressional Democrats are so unpopular. And it is a personal popularity; certainly not, we are assured, because of any progressive policies.

Bai no doubt would be hard-pressed to explain the current Talking Point Memo poll averages, in which the congressional generic ballot stands at 42.4% for Democrats and 43.4% for Republicans while 46.2% of respondents approve of the President's job performance and 49.4% disapprove. While this portends a loss of Democratic seats- there are more incumbent Democrats than Republicans- it suggests that Mr. Obama himself is none too popular.

Inadvertently revealing how President Obama could drag the party down to defeat in November, Bai notes congressional Democrats in January witnessing

the president — their president — who for 17 months had cajoled them into taking tough votes on stimulus spending, on the trading of carbon emissions, on health care. Barack Obama, the postpartisan president. He continued to go out and shake his head disbelievingly at “the culture of Washington,” which to the Democrats in the House sounded as if he were saying that his own party was the problem, as if somehow the Democratic majorities in Congress hadn’t managed to navigate the bulk of his ambitious agenda past a blockade of Republican vessels, their ship shredded by cannon fire. And all this while the president’s own approval ratings fell below 50 percent — an ominous sign, historically speaking, for a majority party.

Lamenting, criticizing, even scolding "the culture of Washington" helps the guy bringing that safe, popular message. But it only hurts hiw own party, which is currently the incumbent party in the capital and traditionally viewed as the party of government. Lest everyone assume Obama noticed (noticed admittedly, but not fully understanding)that the nasty, negative, partisan tone comes primarily from one side, we are reminded

Perhaps the most significant moment in Obama’s State of the Union address came when, after chastising Congress for its extreme partisanship, he cut off applause from the Democratic side of the aisle. “I’m speaking to both parties now,” Obama scolded.

It was as if Obama had never accomodated the GOP on a stimulus bill and was rewarded with unanimous opposition from House Republicans; or that every Democrat eagerly accepted the President's health care plan and Republicans split in opposition. Or that a Democrat shouted "you lie" at President Bush during his State of the Union address; or that Vice-President Biden had said "F--- you" to a prominent GOP Senator.

The Republicans (joined by a few Independents) who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya are wrong. He was born in this country, but sometimes appears to exist on a planet where Republicans are yearning to get along and compromise but those mean Democrats just won't let them.

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