Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Confrontational Politics

Frank Rich in the New York Review  and John Judis in The New Republic, both generally sympathetic to the Obama presidency, have written pieces that feed into what I would consider the mistaken conventional wisdom that the president is failing to get his message across.  Their prescriptions are similar: Judis thinks Obama needs to be more confrontational and more populistic.  Rich thinks he should place less faith in the "best and brightest" team he has assembled, particularly in military and economic matters, and that he should reexamine his faith in bi-partisan pragmatism.

A lot of critics on the left seem tired of non-confrontational politics, and are just itching for a good old-fashioned fight.  This attitude may be healthy considering that midterm elections are coming up, and some good old-fashioned fighting is probably called for.  It is also an understandable attitude considering that liberal supporters of the administration have had to swallow a number of compromises in their goals, and considering that we have had to contend with a highly obstructionist attitude on the part of Republican members of Congress, as well as other vicious, unfair and negative attacks from the right.

Still, apart from the need to run a rousing fall election campaign, which the public will understand and expect, I think it would be a mistake for Obama to abandon the non-confrontational, post-partisan style that has gotten him this far.  First of all, why would he tamper with success?   He did not do so during the campaign, despite repeated calls to get tougher against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.  He did not do so in the battles with Congress to pass major pieces of legislation.  And guess what?  He won the election without getting into the mud with Clinton or McCain.  And Congress passed the stimulus bill, the health care reform bill, and the financial reform bill without the president ever having to abandon his efforts to work with any serious proposals from  the opposition party.  No one can say that a different style would have been more successful.  And the fact is that the Obama presidency has already been enormously successful, to the consternation of critics from both left and right, who just can't seem to understand how the Obama team seems to pass bill after bill despite its supposedly weak-sounding themes of pragmatism and consensus.

Second, adopting a populist or confrontational tone now would amount to a betrayal of the message that appealed to so many Americans from the time of Obama's inspirational 2004 speech to the Democratic convention, when he asked us to get beyond Red State America and Blue State America and consider that we all might be part of the same United States of America.  A lot of cynics and seasoned political observers might think those sentiments are hopelessly naive, and are ready to give up trying to reconcile opposing points of view, but abandoning that message could cost Obama substantial support among many millions of people idealistic (naive?) enough to find some hope in it.  My guess is that opponents on the right would love nothing more than to see President Obama turn into a fiery populist who would rather fight the opposition (and sometimes lose) than attempt to work with his political opponents (and generally win).  The first thing the Rush Limbaughs and John Boehners and Mitch McConnells would say if a new more partisan Obama emerged would be: "See?  We told you he was a dangerous, anti-American, fire-breathing socialist."   These people would love nothing more than a fighting non-compromising Obama.  Their biggest frustration is that Obama keeps reaching his hand out to them.  They would much rather have the public see his fist.

I'm sure there are ways the Obama team could improve its communications and perhaps modify some of its policy directions.  I'm sure they are already doing that.  But critics like Rich and Judis should not expect a fundamental change in approach from a team that came into office promising a new kind of politics.  And it is way too premature to make any judgments that a more non-confrontational, pragmatic kind of politics has failed.

(Politics in Mexico, from Sodahead)

4 comments:

  1. Obama has been very confrontational and partisan and that's a big reason why his poll numbers are in the dumps.

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  2. I would argue the President is getting his point across. His point is that of his assembled team. From the day the insider team was announced (Axelrod and Rahm) I was concerned for him.

    << A lot of critics on the left seem tired of non-confrontational politics, and are just itching for a good old-fashioned fight …… It is also an understandable attitude considering that liberal supporters of the administration have had to swallow a number of compromises >>

    It’s been a wild slugfest for 18 months! Some of the toughest fighting I have ever seen. By now, I would think Progressives begin to understand that some of their agenda does not sit well with the majority of the public that resides in the middle and decides elections. Let alone the 20-25% that call themselves Conservative or are called right wing. This is clear to us in the middle.

    << I think it would be a mistake for Obama to abandon the non-confrontational, post-partisan style that has gotten him this far. >>

    Obama seems confrontational to some. Not that it is a bad thing. But if you are going to be called confrontational by some why keep placing yourself at odds with the majority of the population? I wonder if he really believes that he and his staff know best and that the rest of us suffer from low IQ. I have two young adult daughters in university and was once in the same position myself. None of us appreciate being treated in a way that feel like we are not consulted. Parents and leaders make the mistake of saying one thing and doing another. Or failing to lead with respect and fairness because we wanted things 'our way'. Fairness is _everything_. He needs to find another way. He got elected by bringing the majority along with him. He campaigned in an emotional way that won hearts. He does not seem to be able to lead in a similar way. Just the opposite; he appears naive. I go back to Axelrod and Rahm, who I think have seriously handicapped him. As well, he is crippled by Congress. Both parties. Ugggg!!

    << critics like Rich and Judis should not expect a fundamental change in approach from a team that came into office promising a new kind of politics. >>

    He was elected promising a new kind of politics. The fact that many in America now believe that was a false promise is why his popularity is falling. Here is how I think he could kick some long term ass and get a second term: he should clean house (Axelrod, Rahm, Geitner), then work with a new Republican House in 2011. Having the same party in the Presidency and both houses of Congress spells doom for the party. If he is means to unite, stand and deliver, he will need to muster a whole lot of new belief in Hope and Change that has vanished.

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  3. I don't agree that divided government is a good thing. We had that for six out of eight years of Clinton's presidency, and as a result, not much got done. Especially when the House is controlled by the opposition, it's very hard to get anything done. In the Senate, of course, it's hard to get anything done no matter who is in charge.

    But I agree with you that where we have fallen short is in bringing in a new kind of politics. I don't blame Obama or anyone in particular on his team for that entirely. What the new kind of politics was supposed to mean was that we try not to waste time on blame and recrimination, and instead work together to solve common problems. And it means that we try to be inclusive instead of divisive. It seems to me that is the responsibility of all of us, and that when we blame the administration for not bringing us the kind of politics we want, we are just perpetuating the kind of politics we don't want.

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  4. Some would say what Clinton got done was enough. I'm convinced both the right and the left would disagree but neither represent America's wishes. Perhaps we should focus away from partisan politics and find somebody with a spine (obviously not Bush or Obama) to deal with real issues killing this economy.

    First, confront China. Their currency is undervalued by 40% and this is prohibted on international markets. Devaluation means China's exports are artificially cheap in the U.S. and American exports to China are falsely expensive. This is _killing_ jobs at home. Forget stimulus. Grow some and stand up to China.

    As Leo Gerard writes: "Allowing China to devalue its currency devalues American workers and businesses. Chinese currency manipulation is driving American manufacturers out of business and America workers into unemployment. For 110 years, American factories and workers have proved they can compete and win against all comers in the world. They can continue to do that if Congress places tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. or taxes them to compensate for the 40 percent price break the Chinese government arranges for its manufacturers.
    Inaction means the U.S. government disrespects American workers and manufacturing in a way that the Chinese government does not. China deliberately manipulated its currency value to protect and preserve Chinese manufacturing jobs as the worldwide recession deepened in 2008".

    Second, end big bank gambling that deters investment in our economy and TBTF. Bush, Obama and a Democratic Congress for the last nearly four years have had a chance to do both.

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