Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Lost Opportunity

Scott Lemieux comments on this Jonathan Bernstein piece about Obama's inability to control the Senate. Bernstein notes:

Neustadt's classic is all about how the presidency is a very weak office, and how influence (what he calls "power") is, for presidents, only won through hard work and clever maneuvering.  It's weak because, as he says, that the other men (sic) in government are out to serve themselves, not him.  And their interests diverge from his.  In particular Democratic Senators from marginal states have very different constituencies than does a Democratic president, and they're not likely to support all the liberal initiatives he supports. 

True to an extent, though Bernstein misses the possibilities Obama had to use more of a hammer against recalcitrant Democrats and even some Republicans.

Scott expands on Bernstein's points:

In particular, people arguing that a robust public option could have been had if Obama had really wanted it need to be concrete: what specific and usable leverage, exactly, did Obama have over Ben Nelson and the dozen+ Democratic Senators who were clearly opposed to a public option with any teeth?   In most cases, just not very much. 

Again, true to a point. But both Bernstein and Lemieux ignore what was possible in the spring of 2009. Yes, Obama could not call Ben Nelson or Blanche Lincoln into the Oval Office and yell at them until they agreed to vote for the public option. And today, Obama certainly doesn't hold much leverage over moderates.

But let's go back to the spring of 2009. Obama was elected by a good margin. Millions of people came out to his rallies. He energized a whole generation of voters. He had an enormous cache of electronic tools to motivate people. The Republicans were running scared. The world was his oyster.

And he blew it. He blew it because Obama has proven to be a poor politician, in the sense of sheer political skill. People noted in 2008 that Obama had never faced a tough election campaign. That's still the truth. He never had much of a reason to show whether or not he was a skilled legislator and mover of policy. And his acumen in these skills has been disappointing.

Moreover, Obama has failed to understand the nature of leadership. As I wrote in a recent Global Comment piece:

Obama has learned just enough history to massively overcorrect for the errors of past administrations. He knew Bill Clinton made a mistake when he dictated health care reform to Congress in 1993. So instead he allowed Congress to form health care policy. Without active presidential leadership, critics of the plan took the initiative and shaped the debate.

Obama has also learned from George W. Bush. Rightfully disdainful of Bush’s cowboy approach to the presidency, Obama has refrained from making emotion-driven broad statements that might later prove damaging. Certainly this strategy has worked well in Obama’s foreign policy. While Iran has proven more intractable than Obama might have realized, overall, Obama has improved the nation’s standing the world.

However, many Americans liked Bush’s grandiosity. Bush’s Manichean view of the world appealed to America’s evangelical leanings that have shaped the country since its founding. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech was profoundly stupid because it was wrong. But his rhetoric was good politics at the time.

Obama has had ample opportunities to speak to these tendencies in the American psyche but has consistently refused. Americans have historically responded to strong leadership, often regardless of actual policy—whether from Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama during his presidential campaign.

While we have to explain political shifts in more complex terms than leadership, Americans have consistently supported politicians who inspired them. Barack Obama convinced millions of Americans to vote for him not because of his health care plan but because he made them believe he would make their lives better. But when he took office, Obama forgot about this. His lack of vocal and inspirational leadership opened the door for the Teabaggers, oil companies, and special interests to fill the leadership vacuum, possibly threatening his presidency.

Obama could not call Ben Nelson into his office and convince him to vote for the plan. But he could have asked his legions of supporters to take to the streets to support his policies. He could have tapped into the desires that his base had for him. Legions were willing to do what he asked of them. And he chose not to take advantage of it. Instead, he chose to become a consensus-seeking centrist who ignored his base. The opportunity to mobilize people slipped through his fingers.

The great "what if" of the Obama president is this: "What if Obama had mobilized his supporters to rally for his programs?" Would active leadership and public rallies convinced moderate Democrats and even some Republicans that voting for the public option and most of Obama's other agenda items was necessary for their political survival? We'll never know. Instead, his unwillingness to use the bully pulpit opened up a leadership vacuum filled by Teabaggers which convinced moderate politicians that their interest was in watering down or voting against health care.