Disappointment on the Left concerning President Obama’s performance in office is palpable. In column after column, the president of change is criticized by those who most likely voted for him. The transformational post-racial president who could inspire on the campaign trail, can not lead from the Oval Office with common sense…jobs, jobs, jobs…for the common good. Comparison to the ineffectual Jimmy Carter is a yawn. Comparison to the disgraced Richard Nixon is stunning.
Our divisive president, redux
By Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 12:00 AM
President Obama’s post-partisan America has disappeared, replaced by the politics of polarization, resentment and division.
In a Univision interview on Monday, the president, who campaigned in 2008 by referring not to a “Red America” or a “Blue America” but a United States of America, urged Hispanic listeners to vote in this spirit: “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.”
Recently, Obama suggested that if Republicans gain control of the House and/or Senate as forecast, he expects not reconciliation and unity but “hand-to-hand combat” on Capitol Hill.
What a change two years can bring.
We can think of only one other recent president who would display such indifference to the majesty of his office: Richard Nixon.
We write in sadness as traditional liberal Democrats who believe in inclusion. Like many Americans, we had hoped that Obama would maintain the spirit in which he campaigned. Instead, since taking office, he has pitted group against group for short-term political gain that is exacerbating the divisions in our country and weakening our national identity. The culture of attack politics and demonization risks compromising our ability to address our most important issues – and the stature of our nation’s highest office.
Indeed, Obama is conducting himself in a way alarmingly reminiscent of Nixon’s role in the disastrous 1970 midterm campaign. No president has been so persistently personal in his attacks as Obama throughout the fall. He has regularly attacked his predecessor, the House minority leader and – directly from the stump – candidates running for offices below his own. He has criticized the American people suggesting that they are “reacting just to fear” and faulted his own base for “sitting on their hands complaining.”
Obama is walking a knife’s edge. He has said that the 3.5 million “shovel-ready jobs” he had referred to as justification for the passage of the stimulus bill didn’t exist – throwing all the Democratic incumbents who had defended the stimulus in their campaigns under the proverbial bus.
Although he said, as part of his effort to enact health-care reform, that the health-care mandates were not taxes, now his administration acknowledges in court papers that they are, in fact, taxes.
As Election Day approaches, the president and others in the Democratic leadership have focused on campaign finance by moneyed interests – an ancillary issue serving neither party nor country. They have intensified attacks on business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and individual political operatives such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie – insisting that organizations are fronting for foreign campaign money and large secret donations and campaign expenditures. Even the New York Times has noted that “a closer examination shows that there is little evidence” that these organizations have engaged in activities that are “improper or even unusual.”
It astounds us to hear such charges from the president given that his presidential campaign in 2008 refused to disclose the names of all of its donors, and in past election cycles many liberal groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Center for American Progress, refused to disclose their contributors.
To be clear, we favor disclosure of every dollar spent and closing the disclosure loophole that exists as a result of the Citizens United ruling. But it is disingenuous for a president – particularly one whose campaign effectively dynamited the lone beachhead of public financing in American politics – to scream about money pouring in against his political interests.
We are also disturbed that the office of the president is mounting attacks on private individuals, such as the founders of the group Americans for Prosperity. Having been forged politically during Watergate – one of us was the youngest member of Nixon’s enemies list – we are chilled by the prospect of any U.S. president willing to marshal the power of his office against a private citizen.
The president is the leader of our society. That office is supposed to be a unifying force. When a president opts for polarization, it is not only bad politics, but it also diminishes the prestige of his office and damages our social consensus.
Moreover, the divisive rhetoric that Obama has pursued can embolden his supporters and critics to take more extreme actions, worsening the spiral.
Whatever the caliber of Obama’s tactics, they might achieve some short-term success. The Republican Party has offered no narrative or broad solution, and it has campaigned exclusively to take advantage of the negative environment. It contributes merely a promise of a more hostile environment after Tuesday.
With the country beset by economic and other problems, it is incendiary that the president is not offering a higher vision for the nation but has instead chosen a strategy of rank division. This is an attempt to distract from the perceived failures of his administration. On issue after issue this administration has acted in ways that are weakening the office of the president.
I think this column is a good example of the reality that Obama simply cannot win no matter what he does. For months, critics on both sides have commented on his passiveness, his unwillingness to fight back, his seeming inability to connect his vision and accomplishments to the citizenry. So now he goes out and fights back – and make no mistake fight is the correct word – and the critics say he is debasing his office in a Nixonian fashion. I am happy he’s fighting back. The organized campaign to discredit him personally (Nixon was never accused of being a Muslim or a non-authentic citizen) and to paint his relatively centrist governing position as “socialism” or “communism” deserves a robust response. I know some tea bag posters to this board scoff at the idea that he is centrist – but its true. Article after article in these pages and others from across the political spectrum have repeatedly made that point. If he stands above the fray he is an elitist. If he jumps in and pushes back he is debasing his office. I really wonder, short of resignation, what the authors of this piece would have him do? And by recognizing that fear and uncertainty DO affect how people perceive their world and their politics – he’s insulting the American people? (suggested here and in recent columns by Krauthammer and others). Please!!! This is a fact we all know to be true. When FDR acknowledged this by making his famous point about the greatest fear being fear itself – was he criticizing all of America? For reasons unknown to me some people just want to hate Obama and his policies in a way that is far more visceral and hurtful…and that’s what is really saddening…..
10/30/2010 7:17:28 AM
How Obama might recover
By David Broder
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 12:00 AM
When the midterm election cycle began, the prevailing opinion was that Barack Obama was cleverer and more inspirational than anyone else on the scene. As it ends, nothing appears to have changed.
OH, YES, I know that Democrats have fallen into a peck of trouble and may lose control of Congress. But even if they do, Obama can still storm back to win a second term in 2012. He is that much better than the competition.
In what respects is he enduringly superior? Let’s start with the basics. He is much smarter than his challengers in either party, better able to read the evidence and come to the right conclusions.
Over time, his conclusions are likely to stand scrutiny better than those of other politicians. The crucial case in point is his analysis of economic forces. No one would pretend that this is anything but a daunting situation. The nation is suffering simultaneously from high and persistent unemployment, lagging investment, massive public and private debt, and a highly inefficient tax system.
The steps that have been ordered so far in Washington have done nothing more than put the brakes on the runaway decline. They have not spurred new growth.
But if Obama cannot spur that growth by 2012, he is unlikely to be reelected. The lingering effects of the recession that accompanied him to the White House will probably doom him.
Can Obama harness the forces that might spur new growth? This is the key question for the next two years.
What are those forces? Essentially, there are two. One is the power of the business cycle, the tidal force that throughout history has dictated when the economy expands and when it contracts. Economists struggle to analyze this, but they almost inevitably conclude that it cannot be rushed and almost resists political command. As the saying goes, the market will go where it is going to go.
In this regard, Obama has no advantage over any other pol. Even in analyzing the tidal force correctly, he cannot control it.
What else might affect the economy? The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy.
Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.
Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
Obama’s missing sense of humor
By Kathleen Parker
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 12:00 AM
It’s always risky to appear onstage with a comedian. Not only are funny guys funny, but they’re also aggressive.
Indeed, humor is nothing but aggression harnessed and saddled – and nobody today rides that horse as well as Jon Stewart.
So what was President Obama thinking when he submitted to a nearly 30-minute interview with the Comedy Central star? He was thinking, of course, that he could rekindle some of the love with his base. Seventy-four percent of Stewart’s audience falls into the 18-49 demographic otherwise known as – money.
As others have noted, Stewart is a superb interviewer. No surprise there. The funniest people are also often the smartest people in the room.
Stewart asked all the right questions and managed to get the president to answer most of them. Should he have called the president “dude”? As a matter of decorum, the short answer is no. But in the context of the moment, who could resist?
Stewart had just asked Obama how he could square his campaign mantra of “change” with hiring economic advisers such as Larry Summers, who looks the same as those who had served in previous administrations. In response, Obama said that Summers had done a “heck of a job.”
Whereupon, Stewart said, “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”
Everyone got the joke. George W. Bush used the same words to commend Michael “Brownie” Brown after his disastrous performance as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency following Hurricane Katrina. Translation: You’re fired.
Everyone got the joke, that is, except for Obama. He got it eventually, after seeing the “oops” expression on Stewart’s face, but he couldn’t take the joke. There’s a world of difference.
Instead of laughing at himself, he turned to the audience – a beat too late – and said, “Pun intended.”
No, it wasn’t. Anyone watching could see that. He slipped. Obama is a nice guy; he was trying to say something nice about Summers, and “heck of a job” just tumbled out. No big deal. We get it. Stuff happens. But Obama couldn’t roll with the gut punch.
In that, among other moments, Obama revealed his fatal flaw. He has no sense of humor. He might be able to laugh at a joke. He can even tell one, as he demonstrated at the last White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Whoever wrote that script should send his resume to Comedy Central. Oh, wait, some of the writers do work at Comedy Central.
No, what Obama revealed was that he has no sense of humor about himself. This is utterly huge.
It is entirely appropriate that the president take his job seriously. And no one would urge Obama (or anyone else) to try to be funny with Jon Stewart. He’s the funny guy, and producers doubtless remind guests of that fact. A good guest on “The Daily Show” is expected to be the straight man so that the comedian has some place to go with the material. I’m sure there’s a Rolodex of “bad guests” who tried to out-funny the comedian.
But it is imperative that leaders not take themselves too seriously. What should Obama have done instead? How about saying: “I can’t believe I just said that”? Or, “Oy!”? Whatever. Anything to signal to the audience that, “Oh, well, I’m human.”
But Obama isn’t very good at human. His smile is a beam of light, but too often it seems to turn on and off with a switch. Missing is the spontaneous response that says, dare I say it, “I’m you.” (Pun intended.) More often, Obama comes across as a body snatcher. Good choice of pods, but we might need to add a little juice to the “emotion” grid.
Like a majority of Americans, I like Obama. He seems to be a thoroughly decent guy, but he’s more suited to chess than schmooze. You can almost see him calculating his answers, even hinting at admiration when Stewart made a good comeback. He all but says, “Nice move.”
Cutting the president some slack, we might acknowledge that these are tough times. Agree or not with his policies, Obama has had a very tough two years. The media are relentless. So are the Republicans.
But in the human game we call life, victory and failure are respectively sweeter and less bitter if one is able to laugh at one’s very own self.
Heck of a job, Mr. President.
Can the Dude Abide?
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: October 30, 2010
Barack Obama became president by brilliantly telling his own story. To stay president, he will need to show he can understand our story.
At first it was exciting that Obama was the sort of brainy, cultivated Democrat who would be at home in a “West Wing” episode.
But now he acts like he really thinks he’s on “West Wing,” gliding through an imaginary, amber-lit set where his righteous self-regard is bound to be rewarded by the end of the hour.
Hey, dude, you’re a politician. Act like one.
As the head of the Democratic Party, the president should have supported the Democratic candidate for governor in Rhode Island, the one the Democratic Governors Association had already lavished more than $1 million in TV ads on. If Obama was going to refuse to endorse Frank Caprio out of respect for Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican who endorsed him for president and is now running as an independent, the president should have at least stayed out of Providence.
Reductio ad absurdum: After two years of taking his base for granted, the former Pied Piper of America’s youth had to spar with Jon Stewart to try to get the attention of young people who once idolized him.
Obama still has the killer smile, but he’s more often sniffy than funny. When Stewart called White House legislation “timid,” Obama got defensive and offered a less-than-thrilling new mantra: “Yes, we can but …”
“We have done things that people don’t even know about,” said Obama, who left his Great Communicator mantle back in Grant Park on election night.
In 2008, the message was him. The promise was him. And that’s why 2010 is a referendum on him.
With his coalition and governing majority shattering around him, President Obama will have to summon political skills — starting Wednesday — that he has not yet shown he has.
His arrogance led him to assume: If I build it, they will understand. He can’t get the gratitude he feels he deserves for his achievements if no one knows what he achieved and why those achievements are so vital.
Once it seemed impressive that he was so comfortable in his own skin. Now that comfort comes across as an unwillingness to be wrong.
We want the best people to govern us, but many voters are so turned off by Obama’s superior air that they’re rushing into the arms of disturbingly inferior pols.
Obama admitted to The Times’s Peter Baker: “There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short term it was unpopular.”
But who defines what’s “right”?
With the exception of Obama, most Americans seemed to agree that the “right” thing to do until the economy recovered was to focus on jobs instead of getting the Congress mired for months in making over health insurance and energy policy. And the “right” thing to do was to come down harder on the big banks for spending on bonuses instead of lending to small businesses that don’t get bailouts.
Many of us thought the “right” thing to do was to ratify the civil rights of gay Americans in marriage and the military. (A new Pentagon study shows that most U.S. troops and their families don’t care if gays are allowed to serve openly.)
In an interview with progressive bloggers, the president was asked why he was lagging behind Republicans like Ted Olson on gay marriage.
Noting that he has a lot of friends and staffers in committed gay relationships, Obama conceded only that his attitude was evolving. “I think it’s pretty clear where the trend lines are going,” the president said.
Trend lines? Really inspiring, dude.
One top aide told me that the president — who perversely tried to marginalize a once-captivated press corps — was beginning to realize that he had not used his charm as effectively as he could have.
His inner circle believed too much in the power of the Aura and in protecting the Brand. They didn’t think they needed to sell anything or fight back when the crazies started sliming them. They didn’t care that the average citizen needed an M.B.A. to understand the financial plan and a Ph.D. to fathom what the health care plan would mean.
Because Obama stayed above it all on health care and delegated to Max Baucus, he missed the moment in August of 2009 when Sarah Palin and the Tea Party got oxygen with their loopy rants on death panels. It never occurred to the Icon that such wildness and gullibility would trump lofty rationality.
As the president tries to ride the Tea Party tiger, let’s hope for this change: that he puts some audacity in his audacity.
Obama: no sense of humor