Sunday, July 18, 2010

Another Obstacle In November

A year and a half after Senator Obama is inaugurated president, the economy is still in the doldrums, the President’s passivity in the face of the worst environmental disaster in history appears to have been a failure, and the GOP reaping rewards from its Policy Of No, Democrats fear the worst for November. In “Sock It to ‘Em, Obama” on The Daily Best website, Eric Alterman observes

Obama needs to get his base excited again and the legislative record, as impressive as it is in historical context, ain’t going to do it…. It’s time he stopped playing nice and made the case to the American people (even though) the dude just doesn’t do “mad” very well.

No he doesn’t, and that may be by design. Salon’s Joan Walsh notes that in his New York Times magazine profile “Democrat in Chief” in The New York Times Magazine, Matt

Bai argues that Obama's team sees "inclusivity, transcendence, a generational break from stale dogmas" as the so-called brand – and there's nothing in that notion that has anything to do with actual political programs, policies or problem solving. That's a little terrifying. Republicans succeeded for most of the last 40 years because they delivered on many of their promises to their base, especially big business, with tax cuts, deregulation and demagoguery against government.

That emphasis worked for Obama in the presidential election and may do so again in his re-election bid, as he and his team have been

more focused on protecting the "brand" that they believe galvanized millions of new voters, young voters and independents in 2008, to potentially realign American politics, than with helping Democrats hold the House and Senate.

This may explain why Obama appears, at best, to be unable (or unwilling) to transfer whatever personal popularity he has left to other Democrats. It's unsurprising, then, that

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats are livid that Obama so frequently excoriates Washington generally, and the "folks up there," rather than calling out Republicans specifically for their obstruction. But bipartisanship is a pillar of the Obama brand, and so is the notion that Washington is "broken," and Obama shows no signs of wanting to ditch either – even as he flails about in an oily ocean, waiting for someone to offer the hand of bipartisanship, which looks increasingly unlikely.

Like those congressional Democrats, Walsh recognizes that Obama puts “his own political fortunes ahead of the party's.” She

wonder(s) if what seemed like an unexpected gift to the Democratic Party – this charismatic, unifying, "transcendent" president – could wind up setting the party back, because the pragmatic, content-free, bipartisan Obama appeal has nothing to do with getting done what Democrats need to do.

There really is no need to wonder. More colorfully, Alterman observes

So Obama won a national election back when we all could believe he was our own private Superman—whatever that happened to be. (I’m not kidding. I bought my kid an Obama-as-Superman T-shirt at the inauguration.) Young people in particular are likely to be disillusioned, (and therefore disaffected). Now that we know he’s smart, savvy, go-along-to-get-along kind of guy who looks a lot like George W. Bush on national security issues and (a slightly reformed) Alan Greenspan on economic ones, it’s rather hard to get excited about the coming congressional elections. After all, we already have a black president, and as B.B. King sang, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Few Democrats are excited about the upcoming elections, as reflected in the “enthusiasm gap” we keep hearing about. A black president elected, history made, and now "the thrill is gone." This probably was inevitable given that "many Obama-brand voters are all about Obama, and require a gauzy appeal to bipartisanship and transcendence, denuded of practical problem solving -- health care reform, climate change, creating jobs, a fair tax structure ….” It’s tough to get people out to vote for down-ballot candidates when the party leader "is not strongly identified with the politics or programs of the Democratic Party. And the more he polishes the brand by keeping his distance from the party, the less his popularity might help Democrats in the fall."

Walsh is justifiably worried about "the White House's relatively substance-free approach to keeping the Obama brand bright and shiny." Use of bipartisanship as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself, is designed to alienate as few voters as possible as the White House eyes 2012.

But it is a dangerous approach to mid-term elections, as suggested by a story Representative Marion Berry (D.-AR) tells:

They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.

Hopefully, it will make very little difference. It's not only that Obama has few coattails- he may have negative coattails. (I can't prove it, but remember you heard it- the "downballot anti-obama boomerang effect" here first. Or second.) More generously, and far more eloquently, Walsh concludes

I've been thinking a lot about the whole idea of transcendence that comes up throughout Bai's piece. I have no idea what it means. Contrast the word with the language, and power, behind the civil rights hymn "We Shall Overcome." It's different from "We Shall Transcend." To "overcome" implied patience and perseverance, but also hard work. Transcendence is more passive, it's got religious connotations, I don't know how you "do" it, you might simply have to "be" it. Obama, apparently, is "transcendent." But I don't know if he will help us overcome.

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