Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Meaning of Change

Arguing with a couple of different people about the dismal election aftermath for the Democrats and their strategy going forward, I am starting to understand the source of many people's disillusionment with the pace of progress under the Obama administration.  It seems they had a different definition of the kind of change they were expecting than I did.  Some people viewed "change" as a set of policy proposals: universal health care, financial and regulatory reform, gay rights, withdrawal from foreign wars, more favorable labor laws, etc.  I never had such a laundry list.  Sure, I was in favor of moving the country in a different direction, toward a more sensible foreign policy, a more egalitarian domestic policy, and away from a belief that government is the enemy, but I never had specific policy requirements that I expected the new administration to meet.  Actually I do have a list of policy proposals I would put into effect if I were tsar, but they probably wouldn't be very popular, so I never had any expectation that any administration would ever advance my peculiar agenda.

Instead, the main reason I was attracted to the Obama campaign was its promise of a different kind of change: a new kind of politics based on trying to find common ground with people of different views, instead of dividing people into red and blue, black and white, liberal and conservative.  I was attracted by the idea of people sitting around a table trying to solve problems together, instead of fighting one another.  If anything, I should be more disappointed by what has happened since the 2008 election than those who are disgusted that health care reform still gives insurance companies so much power, or that we sent more troops to Afghanistan, or that "don't ask, don't tell" is still the military's policy.  At least they got some partial results, while I see only a worsening in the tone of our political debate.   So I am disappointed that politics is as partisan a battle as ever, and fear, distrust, and divisiveness are still its common tools.  But I don't blame the administration for that, just as I try not to second guess their legislative strategies that have disappointed many Obama supporters.  I'm just disappointed that more people did not have the same goals as I did. 

I should have known better.  Nearly half the country never signed on to the Obama campaign at all.  They voted for McCain.  And nearly half of Obama's voters were originally Hillary Clinton supporters, who were attracted to a more traditional kind of adversarial politics.  Of those who started and stayed with Obama during the campaign, it now appears that a good chunk of those people were more attracted to the promise of a liberal policy agenda than they were to the promise of a new kind of politics.  That leaves a pretty small minority who actually believed in Obama's vision that we would try to move toward a more inclusive, less divisive kind of politics.

So it is no surprise that we are now seeing people offer the president such advice as that he has to learn to play more hardball, as William Greider suggested in the Nation, or that he should be more confrontational with Congress, as Joe Conason suggested in Salon.  And yet . . . Even though I'm not sure that a majority ever fully bought into the hopey-changey-"Kumbaya" vision that is easy to make fun of today, I'm also not sure that a majority wants to see a return to bare-knuckle, knock-down, drag-out, old school politics of the kind that Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon or even Bill Clinton sometimes practiced.  As summarized in an article by William Galston in the New Republic
A just-released Pew survey finds that 55 percent of respondents want Republican leaders in Washington to “try as best they can to work with Barack Obama to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some groups of Republican supporters.” Only 38 percent disagreed. Conversely, 62 percent want Obama to work hard to cooperate with Republicans, even if it means disappointing some of his supporters.
A recent bipartisan survey—a collaboration between Democracy Corps and Resurgent Republic—mirrors this finding and offers additional insights. By a margin of 67 to 26, the people want president Obama to work harder to find common ground with Republicans rather than simply holding fast to his own agenda. By a margin of 60 to 36, they endorsed the proposition that “Congressional Republicans should be more willing to work with President Obama to find solutions” over the contrary proposition that “Congressional Republicans should do even more to stop President Obama’s agenda because his proposals would irrevocably harm America.”
I take a lot of comfort from these numbers. They suggest that there is a solid majority of Americans who would still applaud Obama's seminal 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention where he asked us to get beyond red states and blue states and consider ourselves part of the United States.  They also suggest that the midterm elections should in no way be viewed as an endorsement of the idea that the progressive agenda should be stopped in its tracks or reversed.  These numbers further suggest that it would be a big mistake for the Obama administration to abandon the message that got it elected.  And as far as a strategy of dealing with a more Republican Congress, I am not in any way suggesting that the Democrats should roll over for the Republicans.  But they should still be willing to try to find consensus if possible.  At the very least, that strategy will make clear which side is being intransigent.   There is still a lot of power in the vision of getting people of different views to work together to solve common problems.  That vision still seems to be preferred by the majority of Americans, perhaps especially by the moderates and independents who generally decide presidential elections.

(still of townspeople singing Kumbaya, from South Park Archives)


  1. Heard a very interesting interview on NPR this morning, in which the observer, who was a big fan of Obama, described his "failure to communicate". How many Americans realize that 40% of the "bailout" was a tax cut for all citizens, and how many realize that the twists and turns of the health care proposal are an effort to accomplish reform within the confines of a private sector plan? The observer said that the Republicans benefitted from the simplicity of the "No" message, while Obama never really explained, when he said "Yes, We Can", exactly what it was he was referring to.

    The defining moment in the campaign was the weekend that Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was then that people looked at McCain's choice of Palin and said to themselves, "How can this guy be serious about our problems and still appoint this attractive but unqualified person to be his next in line?". I remember my Republican friends stopped joking about the election on that Monday "morning after", and I knew for the first time that the campaign was over. That being said, the economy has not turned around in the ensuing two years, quite understandably, and the premise upon which a lot of folks voted for the guy, "instant economic gratification", has evaporated. So no surprise that the Dems got whacked two weeks ago. But two years is a very long time in economics and politics, and a recovery with employment gains will get the fellow re-elected for sure.

  2. As soon as Obama made his guns and religion speech - in private when he never thought people would hear it - I knew he was full of it.

  3. Get over it, Harrison. I'm sure John Boehner makes the same kinds of comments about his gun-toting, Bible-thumping supporters when he is speaking privately to his lobbyist friends at the country club.

  4. Thank you so much for your post.

    A couple of weeks ago, Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow gave an inspiring keynote speech at the Oregon Mediation Association annual conference. Afterward, I asked her where she felt we went wrong. Two years ago we elected this visionary who speaks the language of mediation and fully understands and appreciates the value of collaboration. We all heard Barack Obama's words, his hopes for us. What we didn't hear was how those who did not want him to be our president would react once he was in office. It's ended up like an attempted mediation where only one party is at the table in good faith. Perhaps I was naïve to believe those against him would ever trust him to be all-partial. Most unfortunate is that, at times (such as the Health Care Summit), the President has been in the impossible dual position of advocate/third-party facilitator.

    Since then I've been reading more of Professor Menkel-Meadow's work on deliberative democracy...a topic I've long been interested in: How do we apply collaborative models on a larger scale?

    In my mind, the first step is creating an environment of trust. What do you think it will take us to get there?

    Take care.
    Debra Healy, MS,CLA
    Healy Conflict Management Services

  5. You and I have similar views on what we expected from Obama relative to Hope and Change. It would have taken more leadership than he had to offer to alter his own party's overzealous agenda, let alone Republicans. That's where you and I and so many others who were excited feel let down. We thought he could do it.

    Much of the opportunity is now passed. That's why I am saddened. I don't think it's fair to point fingers at one party. The Dems (particularly the two house leaders) were as ruthless in their pursuit of ideology as Republicans were to make that difficult.

    I fear equally disappointing is what we will see during the lame duck Congress. If I am correct it bodes badly for Dems in 2012. We may see as much goodwill toward Dems evaporate in the next two months as we did the last two years.

  6. Debra, you raise some points I have also been thinking about, such as whether the president can act as a quasi-mediator given that he is also clearly aligned with one "side" in the debate; and the whole issue of how you negotiate with people who are not really interested in negotiating, or who negotiate in bad faith. I'd like to think that the president still can play a facilitative, unifying role even though he also has a role to play as a leader of his party. I'd also like to think that a good mediator can help break down the barriers put up by people who do not negotiate in good faith.

    But my main point, and this is also in response to Kevin, is that we are putting too much responsibility and blame on the mediator (president) for allowing an adversarial atmosphere to continue. I think that's more the fault of all of us, and maybe the media as well, than his fault. I also wouldn't put all the blame on the Democrats' leaders in Congress either. It's true that Nancy Pelosi is quite partisan, but she has done a good job of rallying her troops of varying views. And I really don't think it's fair at all to describe Harry Reid as a ruthless ideologue. He did all he could to tailor bills to make them acceptable to 60 Senators, and round up the necessary votes, but was double-crossed a number of times by Republicans as well as a couple of Senators in his own party.

  7. Hi, Joe -

    Thanks very much for your additional comments.

    The adversarial need to blame has little utility, especially when issues are systemic and expansive. Before anything productive can happen, we need to get past the blame game.

    I think the difficulties President Obama has faced in his collaborative efforts have nothing to so with his abilities as a mediator/facilitator - or, more broadly, of any "good" mediator/facilitator. It seems to me effectiveness in this sense often has more to do with timing, the fear and skepticisms of the parties, and the ultimate perceptions these create.

    As I said in my original post, I see the key to this as rebuilding trust - an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one.

    Take care.

  8. Nice comments Debra. I agree. Trust is the foundation. Without trust, relationships are like a table with only three legs; it is not stable and has little chance of reaching it's desired potential.

  9. Thanks very much, Kevin.

    Building some level of trust between parties involved in seemingly intractible conflict can be daunting. I believe it begins with challenging our inferences and assumptions through self-reflection and fearless, effective communication. The only way fearless,effective communication can take place is by establishing a safe environment in which it can happen.

    We do not ultimately need to agree with those we may be in conflict with. It takes tremendous courage to stay with enduring conflict. Yet, doing so is really the only way we can begin to focus on the greater good as opposed to our individual positions.

    I believe we will eventually get there. At some point, the lightbulb will go on and we will tire of repeating the same destructive cycles.

    I apologize if I sound overly optimistic. However, I believe if we can't be both realistic and optimistic, we are sabotaging our chances of ever "getting there."

    Take care.

  10. Did the truth of my comment get under your skin?


  11. Debra, we see things similarly relative to the big picture. With that in mind, right now, how can Pelosi, in good conscience, insert herself again as leader? I have no real knowledge of your political views (as a whole // social, finacial, spiritual, structural). It doesn't matter. But I do know the middle and right do not trust Pelosi. She has a very small base (relative to real voters). She will set back the Dems in 2012. This was a prime time to make a shift toward trust. If she cared for this country she would have stepped down. True, we could say the same for some Republican leadership who are ideologues. It is a prime time for them to change tactics as well. It's like the cold war standoff of the 60s-80s. We are re-arming now like the 60s and 70s. When will both sides make concessions? Will we have to break America like we broke the Soviet Empire before each side take baby steps to achieve trust? She is a step backward.

  12. You're not getting under my skin, Harrison, but you and I should both be embarrassed for taking cheap shots at each other while other people are trying to have an intelligent conversation about how we can all get along.

    In regard to Nancy Pelosi, KP, I agree that she is partisan and identified strongly with the liberal wing of the party, but that doesn't mean she is untrustworthy. She might even be the most trustworthy candidate for the majority of the Democratic caucus, and she will be needed to help the Democrats stick together. She won't set the Democrats back because she will no longer have any power to set the agenda or to get bills passed. Remember that in the House, the Republicans can pass whatever bills they want as long as they stick together. They do not need to compromise at all. So it won't be a standoff. The majority in the House just rolls over the minority. It's in the Senate where there will be a standoff.

  13. Joe, I am sure she is trustworthy to the Democratic caucus, but that does little to alleviate the concern of the other 80% of the population who see she is not trustworthy for them. I do not believe her when she speeks. If that 80% looks at the health care bill they will see things where she misled or was was untruthful. AARP and older folks got burned. What happened to doctor's fixes? Why were Cadillac taxes postponed until 2018? Why did labor unions support health care reform from which they sought and got relief?! I want to opt out.

    Here are some of Big Labor that got exemptions and and were allowed to opt out: SEIU in New York, Local 25 SEIU in Chicago, United Food and Commercial Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Asbestos Workers Local 53, Employee Security Fund, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 123, United Food and commercial Workers Local 123, 445 and 1262, Musicians Health Fund, Hospitality Benefit Fund, Transport Workers Union, United Federation of Teachers, International Union of Painters, plus McDonalds, Red Lobster, Jack in the Box and Olive Garden.

    Where if fair? Same place trust is -- gone.

  14. It wasn't a cheap shot, just a response to what you wrote:

    "That leaves a pretty small minority who actually believed in Obama's vision that we would try to move toward a more inclusive, less divisive kind of politics."

    I didn't find his statement to be more inclusive or less divisive.

  15. Here's what Obama and Pelosi said about Obamacare: If you like your plan, you can keep it. Your costs will go down. If you like your docs, you can keeps them; "and if anyone tells you anything else they are lieing."

    Turns out they were lieing. In a huge way. The bill is meant to have people dumped by employers and to move us to a single payor system. If you like this, fine. Most of us do not. It doesn't matter what most of us think. Obama, Pelosi and Reid know better. Nothing bothers me more than politicians lieing to my face because they know better. As if the majority of us are too stupid to form reasonable opinions. It is the ultimate elitist attitude. Even if it was true, that I were too dense or opinionated to understand, sit me down and explain it -- like a parent does to a child he/she loves and respects. THAT is why voters are angry. No trust comes from no respect and this type behavior.

  16. My healthcare went up by $100 per month from last year. The rep said now we have all these "free" services we can use! I pointed out how when I'm being charged $100 more per month it's not really "free."

  17. You could be right, KP, that a lot of the supporters of health care reform have the hidden agenda of destroying the private insurance system. Only their agenda wasn't so hidden. A lot of people said that was their goal, and clearly the idea of the public option was the opening wedge for an expanded public system, such as Medicare for all. Even Obama has publicly said that if we were starting from scratch, we should be thinking about a single payer system. But were they lying when they said you could keep your health insurance? I don't think so. But they might have been thinking that if a private system can't provide just as good care at the same cost, who needs it?

    As for health care premiums going up, look at how much they were going up during the Bush administration. And look at how many employers in those years were cutting back on coverage, or dumping it altogether. These were trends that started a long time ago. I'm not sure the health care reform bill is doing much to change those trends in either direction. But what it is going to do is provide an alternative for more people, and also hopefully reduce some of the costs of fighting about not providing coverage.

  18. Millions of people will testify that the big three were untruthful when they said you can keep your health insurance, costs will go down and you can keep your doctors. That was a bold face lie. All of us in the business knew this was impossible. Trust is everything, whether it is fidelity in a relationship or government fundamentally changing the course of America. If someone looks me in the eye and lies, forgetaboutit. That goes for both parties. By extension, I don't trust Obama, Pelosi or Ried. I trust Evan Bayh.