His efforts at compromise having largely failed; maybe it’s time to fight
It’s one of the great ironies of the Barack Obama presidency: the more he tries to govern from the middle, the more conservatives deride him as a “leftist” and a “socialist.” As was noted in this space last summer:
“It’s not that the President isn’t flawed; he clearly is. But the drumbeat of over-the-top far right paranoia about a thoroughly moderate, Wall Street-loving, beer-drinking ESPN junkie who’s more than willing to use American military power in much the same way as his predecessor never ceases to amaze.
For years, these people have blasted the President as a “leftist” and a “socialist” even as one of the key domestic policy achievements of his administration – health care reform – bestows boatloads of cash on insurance and drug companies and corporate profits soar to new heights. This is “socialism”?”
Some have argued persuasively that a huge share of the Obama hatred is really about race and culture and, indeed, it’s hard to imagine that the President would face the kind of vicious attacks he is forced to endure every day if he was pursuing the exact same policies in the person of, say, an Anglo, cowboy-boot-wearing rancher from South Dakota.
That said, the ultimate bottom line in politics (as it is in the President’s favorite realm of entertainment – i.e., big time sports) is performance. Get stuff done and “win” and people will sing your praises. Play “five-hundred ball” and fail to deliver the results people want and even honorable, ethical, intelligent leaders will be subjected to attacks and name-calling that will make your hair curl.
And so it is today, five years into the Obama presidency. Like a coach who’s won half of his games but no big championships, Obama is liked (but not loved) by his supporters and loathed by his critics.
When the President comes to Raleigh tomorrow to speak on the nation’s evolving economy at N.C. State, he’ll be the target of venomous protests organized by a coalition of the local Republican Party and supposedly nonpartisan groups funded by State Budget Director Art Pope and receive a polite but not effusive welcome from his natural supporters (Sen. Kay Hagan, for instance, is not expected to attend).
Back to basics
So what should the President do? How does he break the gridlock in Washington and get some big wins? How does he assure that he will be more than just a lame duck caretaker for the final three years of his presidency?
One option he would do well to consider is to go back to one of the basic tactics that catapulted him to political stardom in the first place (and that helped him win North Carolina in the 2008 election): thinking big. There’s no doubt that his skin color and ethnic heritage were a big part of what made Obama’s elevation to the presidency such a momentous development back in ’08, but what really set his election apart was the sense that big, historic change was afoot in the country.
On that memorable night in Chicago’s Grant Park in November of 2008, hundreds of thousands of Americans turned out and millions more watched on TV not because Obama was African-American, but because they sensed that there was genuine hope for a real and significant political and policy transformation in this country – one that would cast aside the unfettered corporate greed and warmongering of the Bush years and usher in a new New Deal for the new century.
That’s one of the reasons so many drew parallels between Obama’s election and the elections of FDR and Lincoln. Here was a surprising and out-of-the-mold new president put into power during a moment of profound national crisis by an electorate yearning for bold, passionate leadership. If ever a President had a mandate to champion real change, try new things and directly confront the plutocrats in charge of the government and the economy, this was the one.
Unfortunately, Obama chose a different path that was – though honorable and plausible – ultimately, frequently uninspired and ineffective. Rather than trying to forge a new American political consensus by mobilizing passionate supporters and actually shifting the political pendulum, the new President opted to try and broker a compromise between the existing and badly divided political powers that be.
Whether it was naiveté, lousy advice or just a bad call on his part, this path has limited his presidency. This is not to diminish the many extremely important accomplishments of his administration; pulling the nation out of an economic collapse, ending its overseas wars and passing once-in-a-generation health care reform were all huge accomplishments. There have been many others.
Nor is it to diminish the unprecedented amounts of corporate money and right-wing media distortions arrayed against him. No president has ever been the target of such an incessant, hysterical and lavishly-funded assault since before he even officially took office.
Five years in, however, it’s clear that the Obama presidency has not yet achieved the kind of transformative change so many had hoped was possible. Today, the political right remains just as loud and intransigent as it would have been had he confronted it and its underwriters directly. Meanwhile, the President’s progressive base is divided between those who remain loyal and thankful for the improvements won and disasters avoided and those who are dispirited and disillusioned by what they see as a huge lost opportunity.
Reviving the momentum
Recently, veteran Raleigh political commentator Barlow Herget authored a commentary in which he urged Senator Hagan to examine the “give ‘em hell” 1948 presidential campaign Harry Truman as a model for reviving her own rather stagnant political fortunes.
“He didn’t waffle on the New Deal. He fought for it. And he reminded the public why the country hadn’t moved forward. It was the do-nothing Republican Congress and he gave ‘em Hell.
Senator Hagan might want to follow Mr. Truman’s course. Instead of running away from the Affordable Health Care Act, she should defend her vote for the plan. The enrollment phase was a disaster and that’s on Mr. Obama. But the ACA’s getting to its feet and more people are signing up.
And Senator Hagan has no better target than the current do-nothing Republican Congress of John Boehner-Tea Party obstructionists in the House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate minority filibusters. They are the worst ever.
North Carolinians like a fighter. Harry Truman carried the state in 1948 with 58 percent of the vote.”
While it’s not at all clear that Hagan has that kind of “give ‘em hell” spirit to draw on, President Obama certainly does. If there’s a best possible thing that could come out of tomorrow’s talk (and all of the President’s public pronouncements over the next two weeks leading up to the State of the Union speech) it would be some indication that the President intends to spend the next three years fighting loudly, passionately and persistently for real, progressive change. Such a revived fighting spirit would be good for him, good for progressives, good for North Carolina and good for the nation.