The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dog Days

The President Is Getting What He Deserves, Americans Are Getting What We Needed

Back in January, I posted that President Obama’s best chance to reverse his falling polling number and shore up Democratic losses in this year’s midterm elections was to sound populist themes whenever possible. I reasoned the President needed to repackage his considerable legislative victories during his first year not as the move toward socialism declared by his political opponents but rather an attempt to use government as a champion for middle class families.

His poll numbers have declined even further and the possibility of a Republican tsunami in November seems even more probable. In spite of this, Obama used a union Labor Day picnic in Milwaukee to continue pushing a populist agenda. He proposed a $50 billion investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. While the nation’s roads and bridges will benefit from the improvements it will bring, the main point of the plan was to create jobs at a time of record unemployment.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good when so many hard-working Americans have been idle for months, even years, at a time when there is so much of America that needs rebuilding,” Obama told the crowd.

Columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times loved the speech, calling it “rousing, inspirational and, at times, quite funny . . . If [Obama’s] goal was to demonstrate that he genuinely cared about the struggles of the people in the audience and those watching on television . . . he largely succeeded.” Yet, particularly in comparison to his Oval Office address on the end of combat operations in Iraq, the speech left Herbert scratching his head and wondering, “Where has this guy been for the past year and a half?”

Herbert’s colleague, Frank Rich, agrees, calling the Iraq speech “bloodless.” So does Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. Cohen writes, “[Obama] should have had something momentous to say. In fact, he had almost nothing to say.”

Congressional Republicans predictably lambasted the infrastructure investment proposal as simultaneously too expensive and insufficient at stimulating permanent job creation by private enterprise. Pundits disliked this speech too but could not seem to agree as to why.

Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post portrayed Obama as “doing cartwheels to get attention.” She particularly disliked his attacks against Republican negativity, accusing him of “banging pots at a bogeyman that doesn't exist.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, her cohort Dana Milbank viewed Obama as engaging in “the political equivalent of hiding under the bed.”

The public indisputably perceives Obama as failing to address their needs and concerns. Yet somebody – possibly everybody – is mistaken as to exactly what he is doing wrong.

During his speech, Obama departed from his prepared remarks to complain about those attacking his policies, his religious faith, and his birthplace. “They talk about me like a dog,” he declared.

In response, Milbank smiles that Obama is not a dog but a cat – “solitary, finicky and independent.” On a serious note, Cohen frets, “Obama has allowed others to define him . . . [in some cases] people on the edge of insanity.” The result, Cohen sadly concludes, is the “downsizing” of Obama’s approval/mandate over the past two years; what he calls “The Incredible Shrinking Presidency.”

Cohen appears to agree with House Minority Leader John Boehner that Obama needs to fire his subordinates and handlers. “His staff ill-serves him so that he presents a persona at odds with his performance.”

For Parker, however, Obama’s faults lie not in his Administration’s would-be policy stars but squarely in himself. The President is “out of touch with the American people” she states bluntly. Rich concurs and marvels how “a candidate so attuned to the nation’s pulse . . . has grown tone deaf in office.”

For my part, I reject most of the conventional wisdom regarding the source of Obama’s popularity problems. Unquestionably, the tepid economic recovery, particularly the slowdown this summer, plays a major role but it is hardly the sum total of the dissatisfaction. The fact remains that Obama, much like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and even Ronald Reagan, generates consistent, intense partisan dislike among certain voters. We know from the 2008 elections this runs as high as thirty-five to forty percent. These folks will criticize him no matter what he does.

The critical twelve percent or so that mark Obama at the height of his popularity versus his current nadir represent mostly Independents and some conservative Democrats who fear Obama has pushed too radical an agenda and, to a lesser extent, liberal Democrats who fear he has not been sufficiently aggressive. So what caused this shift?

I disagree with the argument made by some that Obama does not know how to be President and/or has never shifted out of campaign mode. He has consistently moved toward what he promised with general success. In some cases, such as closing Guantanamo Bay, he remains committed to his principles but found his original timetable was too optimistic. In other cases, such a winding down combat operations in Iraq, he proved spot on. In still other cases, such as troop levels in Afghanistan, his initial assumptions proved wrong and he evolved new ones.

Many contend he misread both voters and harsh realities by focusing some much time and effort on healthcare reform versus the economy and job creation during his first year in office. Again, I disagree. Just as our national economy survived the Bush tax cuts and paying for two overseas wars, so it will survive Stimulus II, bank/auto bailouts, and ten percent unemployment. Meaningful healthcare reform, on the other hand, while far from a desirable finished product, had to begin now or it may have never happened.

Voter dissatisfaction with Obama comes from a President who has spent the last two years making difficult choices in trying to do exactly what they elected him to do. Some disillusion was inevitable when the excitement of “hope and change” met limited resources and Beltway gridlock. Granted, this does not make the dissatisfaction any less real.

Moreover, it is fair to say that Obama owns some of these problems due to his governance style, which has been considerably lower key than his campaign. Whatever else Obama has done well as President, he has been truly abysmal in the role of de facto partisan head of his Party. Democratic candidates of all stripes are likely to feel this November what Obama is feeling now because of this failing.

Obama is right; we are talking about him a lot like a dog these days. Americans love dogs, valuing their loyalty, enthusiasm, and tireless devotion. These things are just what we want when we are ready to play. However, nothing is easier to ignore than the family dog when things become tenser, partly because of the dog’s very nature. In this sense, Obama was bound to dim in our perceptions despite some legitimate accomplishments. Slow and steady may win the race but it seldom wows the grandstand.

In the matter of healthcare reform, Obama steadfastly held to his guns and sold us what he thought we needed – namely, reliable but boring insurance. Being Americans, we knew we needed this but what we really wanted was a cheap, quick-acting pill. Now, as Obama finally starts to get serious about the economy and job creation, his proposals once again under whelm us. Even his big infrastructure fan, Bob Herbert, admits, “The plan won’t help Democrats in November. It’s already too late for that.”

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer and the dog days. However, labor – or, more specifically, the lack of gainful employment – will make the dog days drag out for Obama through the fall. He is garnering the negative consequences from accomplishing much of what he wanted to accomplish. So are we. It is probably a good thing, the right thing for us in the end but we do not like it now. So we do what any American does in such frustrating times – we kick the dog.

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