In 2004, when Obama made his debut at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, many liberals were stunned by what seemed like something new under the sun: a politician who could actually communicate their values in a powerful way. After suffering through the message-massaged, tone-deaf monologues of John Kerry and Al Gore, as well as the cynical triangulations of Bill Clinton, Obama seemed like a dream.
In 2008 he seemed like a dream come true. How nice it was to hear someone speak of social welfare, protecting the environment, and defending the rights of working people in the soaring tones of liberal optimism. And people were actually listening! 53% of voters got the idea – the biggest vote-share taken by a Democrat since LBJ.
With big margins in Congress, and a clever and agile – yes, articulate – leader, Democrats seemed sure to get something accomplished.
There have been many successes, to be honest. The Lily Ledbetter fair pay act, the stimulus bill that saved thousands of teachers and cops from losing their jobs, preventing the economy from skidding straight off the cliff.
Throughout, though, Obama stayed back at a distance. He did not campaign for his party’s legislation. He did not try to frame the debate. He left Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who were too busy herding the cats of their caucuses, to make the case for the Democratic agenda. Reid is known to be a legendary communicator, as his recent comments about “Negro dialect” reconfirmed.
The president’s reticence was most glaring on healthcare, the party’s signature issue. Apart from a few speeches, and a perfunctory endorsement of the public option to soothe his base, Obama was silent. He had broad guidelines for what he wanted Congress to achieve – expanding coverage, lowering cost – but he was not going to get involved, publicly at least, in the skirmishes of legislative politics.
Broad guidelines do not move public opinion, as Obama of all people should know. Where was the moral case? Where was the framing? The president has taken his cues from the Clintons’ failure at health reform in 1994, when Bill and Hillary were accused of micromanaging the process and insisting that Congress pass the White House’s plan.
Obama decided to let the legislative sausage factory produce a bill, and then take ownership of it when it passes, rather than risk tying his own fortunes to any particular plan.
We have now seen the farce that resulted from this strategy; the Right got to freakishly mischaracterize the bill as all about death panels, and every prima donna in the Democratic caucus got to dictate the contours of reform.
In the capstone to this fiasco, a pathetic campaign in Massachusetts might deliver Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to a right-wing Republican, meaning that even a healthcare bill that has been compromised nearly to death cannot pass.
Obama decided not to get involved in the Massachusetts campaign until the last minute. Why? The only answer seems to be a curious idea of political capital. The White House did not want to put its credibility on the line for any particular health bill. It did not want to get involved in Massachusetts unless absolutely necessary. The idea seems to be to keep your powder dry, and only “spend” capital when you have to.
In other words, the man who espoused the “audacity of hope,” and who undertook the unlikeliest presidential campaign since Victoria Woodhull ran on a platform of free love in 1872 – this man has been crippled by an epidemic of overcautiousness.
Where has he been? What has Obama been doing for the last year? Playing with the celebrated Portuguese water hound?
Political capital is not something that can be squirreled away for the winter. It is more like momentum. You have to use it to sustain it. As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”
Does that sound like Obama?
There are plenty of models for successful presidential leadership, and not all fit the manic model of TR. (After all, one of Teddy’s adviser once warned a colleague, “You must remember that the president is six years old.”) If anything, Obama’s seems closest to Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was perhaps most successful for what he did not do, not what he did; he did not try to dismantle the welfare state set up by FDR and Truman, and he resisted the temptation to get the US enmeshed in conflicts in East Asia. He tried to steer the nation toward a middle course and attempted to work with the other side, as Obama has so fruitlessly done.
The 1950s were a different time, though. Ike was not trying to get the economy out of a deep ditch, and the opposing party was actually open to compromise in those days. Obama seems to have consciously chosen to be somber, even-handed, and above-the-fray – “presidential,” in some sense – rather than rally and exhort and campaign for his agenda. Perhaps he believed that this dignified posture would reassure a troubled nation.
A year ago, when the economy was still in free fall, his steadiness was reassuring. But what the Democrats, and the country, need right now is someone who is willing to fight for something. George W. Bush never hesitated to brawl, to run the so-called permanent campaign. If Dubya's political cunning had been married to less disastrous policies, the GOP would still have a lock on every power center in Washington.
Obama needs to realize that he does not have much political capital left to protect. If the Democratic agenda, and his presidency, are to have any hope of survival, we need to see the audacious, inspiring communicator of 2008 come out of the mothballs and rejoin the arena.