Sunday, January 24, 2010

Further reflections on the "fighting" Obama

So President Obama looked around after a year in office and here's what he saw. There was no enacted health care bill and the one that finally comes to a vote will be such a mess that, if truth be told, he could not be pleased with it. While the economy has rebounded from near collapse at the time his hand was on the Bible, the financial state of maybe half of American households has shown no improvement or has continued to decline. Unemployment shows no sign of any significant improvement. The housing price declines are perhaps stabilizing at levels that foreshadow no way out for more homeowners on the edge. At the same time a sliver of those in the top tier of wealth are saddled up and riding high again and the press has daily headlines about big paydays for bankers and other executives.

Then comes Scott Brown whose victory puts a double exclamation point on the losses of governors in Virginia and New Jersey. There can be no doubt that there is an electorate that is not just restive but nearing full revolt.

The President has decided to do two things. First, coopt the gripes of the tea parties and the left in a well tuned message that makes an effort to combine as many of the issues as possible and second, remind the political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats, just who he is, that is the formidable political strategist, campaigner, and charismatic force that beat the entrenched Democratic establishment and charmed the broader electorate on a road to the Presidency that was completely unforeseen just 18 months before.

From a political point of view his "fight" may be his best choice. From a policy point of view the benefit is unclear.

His bashing of the banks and his related policy prescriptions may play well to his audience, the intent may be high-minded, but if the result sets the economy back further(as discussed in the the 1/21 post here) more pain will be felt at the kitchen table. Obama could be seen as having nothing to lose. Having already identified the culprits as predatory banks, big oil, greedy corporations shipping jobs overseas, and a wealth class that has no concern for the broader citizenry, he only would need to point the finger back again. Why could that ring true with the voters? Because after participating in an American system that marketed a participation in some part of the spectrum of the great middle class and even held out the possibility of upward mobility, what follows is disllusionment, envy, and bitterness that are particularly strong when things go wrong, and they certainly have for many Americans. Blame needs to be assessed. Obama's challenge is to shape and focus that blame.

That sounds fairly Machiavellian, more than it should maybe. President Obama's intentions have been laudable. He tried to play the bipartisan chip in his first year and was undercut on all sides. His gambit now is a risky one and if it fails his presidency may fail as well. If he reestablishes his power and then uses his more draconian policy proposals as billy sticks to beat out a rational compromise he wins, and maybe the country benefits, maybe the country acquires a better sense of balance.

Some of his statements now, however, will do more to divide than unite. He's willing to take that risk and try to cut the financial and big business powers down to size, and show leadership in forcing a better sense of fairness in our society. How he accomplishes this while espousing expanded federal government oversight(and related bureaucracies) of significant areas of our economy, such as financial services, energy, and healthcare, is a significant question. Finding the money and the talent to accomplish his goals will be an even bigger challenge than reestablishing his political power.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Obama's superb campaign skills are great from a distance, but in the real world of handshakes, look in the eye contact, and the camraderie of compromise he is not a leader. His "fighting" stance doesn't have a fighting chance unless he has some troops with him, troops other than his '08 campaign gurus this time.

4:07 PM  

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