“It takes two to make peace, but only one to make war. Obama is trying to negotiate with non-existent bipartisans. He’s always been negotiating with non-existent bipartisans. Worse, he negotiates with them starting with his final position, as if with the expectation that a reasonable first offer will be accepted as-is.” – Michael R. Honig,” Barack Obama: Change you can be disappointed in,” December 4th, 2010
I’ve had enormous respect for Barack Obama ever since he did the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I immediately believed that he had a great future, and a run by him for president at some point was something I definitely anticipated and believed he could win.
When he ran in 2008, I was surprised only because it seemed so soon after he’d sprung onto the national scene.
As the 2008 primary race came down to Hillary or Obama, the questions began from Hillary’s side about whether Obama had the experience to handle those “3AM phone calls”. I think a lot of folks thought that was a low blow, including yours truly.
When Obama won the Democratic nomination, Hillary supporters were incredibly disappointed and upset. There was a real chance that they wouldn’t turn out to vote, effectively giving the election to Republican John McCain. Hillary publicly, passionately and selflessly went to her public and explained that they should vote for Barack because he was the better choice for the country than McCain.
When Obama didn’t choose Hillary for his running mate (or perhaps she declined to be chosen), there was a second huge wave of disappointment within the Democratic electorate at the evaporation of their “dream ticket”. This, too, was successfully finessed by Bill and Hillary Clinton’s unswerving public and emotional support for Obama’s candidacy.
The McCain campaign hammered away at Obama’s lack of “executive experience”. Like many others, I dismissed this as not critical to the choice, though it had some merit in relevance to the job. Nonetheless, I knew that Obama’s a very bright guy, and even John F. Kennedy had to learn on the job. I had confidence in him insofar as that was concerned. In any case, executive administrators can be appointed by a president to run the nuts-and-bolts of the government. The most important role of a president is, I believe, the tone he sets, the policies he directs to be put in place, and the personal and moral force he brings to his political initiatives and agendas.
When Obama won the 2008 election, it was electrifying. Everyone knew that this was one of the most important moments in American history, whether they were happy about the election outcome or not.
Obama’s post-election, pre-inauguration performance was impressive and encouraging. I felt that it was an effective response to those who felt that he lacked the executive experience to govern.
And I still feel that way. But there’s one problem that has dogged Obama for the last 22 months, and I think it’s one that no one anticipated given his political instincts and performance up to January 20, 2009: He appears never to have fully appreciated the extent, unity and obstinacy of the “loyal opposition ” (and I use the term loosely) from the Republicans.
It’s not because it’s been a secret. The Republicans had quickly been quoted as saying that their main strategic goal was for Obama to fail. They blocked every policy initiative. They “spun” (i.e., lied) every one of the President’s actions and every bit of news out of the White House or the press to put Obama in the worst possible light; to make the public see him early as a failed president, ineffective and out of touch with the Republicans’ self-proclaimed understanding of “The American People”. Given the trouncing that the Republicans had taken in the 2008 elections, it initially was an effort so naked that it seemed laughable.
Once in office, Obama persisted in trying to be a “transformative” president; one who could defuse the poisonous blood sport that politics in Washington and America had become. This effort on his part was defensible as an ambition; laudable, even.
But now, almost 2 years later, it’s taking on the appearance of someone who bangs their head against a brick wall because it feels so good when they stop. Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Sadly, both of these sayings seem to describe the Obama administration.
Obama comes out of a legal background from Harvard Law. Collegiality is a wonderful instinct. Consensus-building, constructive compromise, a willingness to listen to opposing views … All incredibly worthy pursuits. But about 20 years ago, I learned something which drove me to a conclusion:
It takes two to make peace, but only one to make war.
Obama is trying to negotiate with non-existent bipartisans. He’s always been negotiating with non-existent bipartisans. Worse, he negotiates with them starting with his final position, as if with the expectation that a reasonable first offer will be accepted as-is.
Considering that he was a great and inspiring speaker with grand ideas articulated during his 2008 campaign, he has been enormously disappointing as president. In the PR war between the parties, the Obama administration has never seized the initiative from the Republicans, constantly allowing them to frame his policy objectives.
President Obama p—ed away his electoral leverage during his first year by not publicly advocating his own blueprints for policy initiatives like healthcare reform, leaving it to Congress to shape a plan before he weighed in. This was perhaps his first major strategic error. The Republicans said they wanted healthcare reform to be Obama’s Waterloo. When it later passed, the media pronounced that Republican leaders had been wrong, but I disagree. I believe that healthcare reform may not have been Obama’s Waterloo, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for him.
Without strong advocacy by Obama for passage before the 2009 summer break, he allowed Congressional healthcare reform efforts to slip into 2010, giving Republicans a chance to organize what appeared to be broad opposition to the packages being discussed. Noisy opposition was often professionally organized. It was a mile wide and an inch deep, and lies were liberally sprinkled into loudly voiced criticisms, but that proved irrelevant in the media-verse.
The damage was done. Republicans learned that Obama could be defeated in the media and the court of public opinion. He no longer looked invincible. They had found a way to organize broad opposition to Obama’s policies without fear of a public political backlash.
Now, it seems that the Obama administration can never wait long before snatching surrender from the jaws of victory.
On December 2, 2010, the House of Representatives led by Nancy Pelosi gave Obama a victory on tax policy, and the cheering in the House of Representatives had barely died before Obama’s White House announced that he would be willing to deal with Republicans on a compromise.
A fact that is not widely known or often mentioned is that a sitting president becomes the titular head of his party. As president, Obama should be leading his party in policy, advocacy and persuading the public and their elected officials to bend toward his objectives.
Obama has rarely done this.
Instead, Nancy Pelosi has become the functional head of the Democratic Party. Pelosi has been publically and vocally standing up for the Democratic principles that Obama espoused (or was perceived as espousing) during his campaign. Pelosi has shaped legislative policy. Pelosi has delivered Obama his legislative victories. Pelosi has taken on the role of fighting for policies and bills for which the President himself should be vocally and unequivocally fighting.
Nancy Pelosi, technically 3rd in line for the presidency (a role soon to fall to Republican John Boehner), has effectively become the leader of the Democratic Party in most of the ways that matter. Obama has been reduced to Orator-In-Chief, Bipartisan-In-Chief and Compromiser-In-Chief.
This has led me to a sad and drastic conclusion: If Obama cannot find his spine within the next 12 months and fight convincingly for his policies, he should consider stepping aside as a candidate in 2012. I am coming to believe that Obama is too weak to effectively lead his party and, consequently, this country. His policy passivity makes him increasingly vulnerable to a primary challenger from the left in the 2012 Democratic primaries.
I don’t believe that any sitting president has ever survived a challenge from within his own party and gone on to win the general election. Lyndon Johnson understood this. He had several challengers from within his own party in 1968, and took the courageous decision not to run. He did this, I believe, because he saw how destructive his candidacy would be to the Democrats, and wanted his party to have a chance to win in the general, but intra-Party divisions were too great. Hubert Humphrey was ultimately defeated by Richard Nixon.
If Obama cannot stiffen his resolve in his dealings with the Republicans, he may be forced against the same political wall that Johnson was: Win the nomination against internal opposition and lose the election, or step aside and let a potentially stronger candidate emerge.
I hope it doesn’t come to that, but it’s looking increasingly possible.
(PS: And don’t be shocked if Pelosi eventually makes noises about a run in 2012 or 2016. You heard it here first.)