Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Team Obama: No Longer the Smartest Guys in the Room

With the election of Republican Scott Brown as Ted Kennedy's replacement from Massachusetts, it's clear that Team Obama needs to rethink things. Forget the close analysis of who's responsible for what remark or who made the wrong call with which policy position. This election was as much a referendum on the administration as it was about the merits of the candidates.

Brown won by adopting Obama's strategy of tapping into voter discontent. Martha Coakley, the Democrat, was a legacy candidate, trying to ride into office on Ted Kennedy's legacy. But legacy candidates don't do well these days. Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain invoked the past during their 2008 campaigns and it didn't serve them well. Creigh Deeds, a Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia last year, had a similarly bad experience running as a legacy candidate. Scott Brown is a heretofore minor politician, a Massachusetts state senator with nothing to lose. In a campaign involving such a candidate, the size of the fight in the dog is what counts the most. With the agility of a judo master, he characterized himself as the outraged underdog, and won over outraged voters.

It's unclear that there is much logic to his or their outrage. The Obama administration's health care reform effort seems to have drawn the most populist ire. That defies logic, as this is the one program in Obama's agenda that might offer the broadest benefit to the electorate. But as much as people were tired of George W. Bush's failures, they're also scared of changes in their insurance coverage (if they have any), and they're scared of higher premiums and higher taxes.

Voters are also angry with economic policies. The Bush II administration, in providing hundreds of billions of bailout dollars to banks and having the government assume myriad liabilities that would otherwise have pushed the banking system into bankruptcy, practically socialized the financial system and left taxpayers at risk for untold losses. The Obama administration bought into the Bush administration's bank-loving policies lock, stock and barrel, and added its own economic stimulus package. Bankers rejoiced as their earnings and bonuses rebounded, but taxpayers bemoaned the bonuses and shivered at the thought of their burdens. Even though President Obama has promised to recover the costs of the bailouts, Scott Brown caught him at a moment when he hadn't yet acted on the promise.

Team Obama needs to stop politicking and take a hard look in the mirror. In 2008, they were the smartest guys in the room, propelling a former state senator from Illinois into the White House in 6 years. Then, the Republicans, with footprints all over their butts, did the thing Americans do so well. They thought about what had just happened, how painful it had been, the ways in which they needed to change, and adapted. Some of their changes are weird--it remains possible that the party could melt down in an Inquisitional drive for ideological purity. But other Republicans realized that Barack Obama had won by working from the ground level up, and that they could do the same thing.

Team Obama, by contrast, seems to have become remote, elite. They've appointed a lot of very well-credentialed Washington insiders into high level positions, who've given them a lot of conventional advice that won't ruffle the feathers of too many powerful people. Their policies of bailout and stimulus have mostly helped those that are well-off and influential, but scare the hell out of the middle class. They try to influence bellwether Democratic campaigns, like the recent Virginia governor's election and Martha Coakley's campaign in Massachusetts, but are quick to dodge any hint of responsibility for failure, pre-emptively pointing fingers at the losing candidates. In short, they've taken on a distinct inside-the-Beltway aura, and within less than a year. That's exactly what pisses voters off.

They have to take stock of themselves. Whether or not they can see it, they aren't so smart any more. They didn't anticipate how quickly and completely the Republicans would learn from the 2008 Obama campaign. They don't seem to understand how fickle uncertainty and frustration have made the electorate. They seem more indwelling and hesitant. Why hasn't the President publicly taken the lead on health insurance reform? News stories report that he has been quietly negotiating potential compromises between the House and the Senate. But getting something as big and as controversial as health insurance reform done requires leadership from him more than it requires negotiation. The Democrats haven't wrapped up health insurance reform after a year, and now their lack of alacrity traps them in a situation they failed to anticipate from a special senatorial election.

The Obama team are consummate politicians. But running a campaign and running a Presidency are two different things. In the first, you have to make sure you say the right thing at the right time. The second requires executive ability--the skills needed to get things done. Bill Clinton, whose cup runneth over with charisma, was and still is a superb politician. But his lack of executive ability resulted in an eight-year Presidency that was one of the least productive in the 20th Century. His legacy as a President will be modest.

Barack Obama still has time for achievement. Health care reform can yet be passed by Congress. The result won't be as pretty as many would like, and the Senate's leadership would have to commit to work to change the objectionable features. But President Obama now needs to step out front and center and take the lead. He is no doubt stinging from the fact that he campaigned for the losing candidate in Massachusetts this past weekend, after first saying he wouldn't. That hesitant participation in the Coakley campaign is precisely the sort of stutter step that makes the President look weak. But Obama is now in for a dime; he might as well go in for a dollar. If he flinches, the Republicans will know they've got him, not just for health insurance reform, but for the rest of his Presidency. Lyndon Johnson kicked every reluctant Congressional butt necessary to get the great civil rights laws of the mid-1960s adopted, putting his standing at risk. His success made him a great domestic President, second in the 20th Century only to FDR.

By all indications, Barack Obama has an introspective side to his personality, and he's probably thinking things over furiously. No doubt he realizes that his honeymoon with voters is now over. But some of the people around him need to consider carefully that Barack Obama's election in 2008 wasn't as much about him as it was about voter discontent. That discontent is hydralike--it goes in many directions, is difficult to channel, and if seemingly suppressed can sprout back up with greater force than before. Team Obama doesn't have everything figured out, and they have less figured out now than they did three or six months ago. Once they understand this, and embrace it, they'll do better.

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