Monday, September 14, 2009

Out of Control 2 (Frank Rich version)

I'm still trying to get my mind around Frank Rich's point yesterday. Rich dumped on Barack Obama for...well, that's where I'm a bit confused.

Rich liked Obama's speech to the Joint Session of Congress. He supposes, however, that Obama would have been equally effective "if the same speech had been delivered weeks earlier." But for Rich there was considerable damage done by waiting:
In the meantime, a certain damage has been done — to Obama and to the country. The inmates took over the asylum, trivializing and poisoning the national discourse while the president bided his time. The lies that Obama called out so strongly in his speech — from “death panels” to “government takeover” — ran amok. So did all the other incendiary faux controversies, culminating with the ludicrous outcry over the prospect that the president might speak to the nation’s schoolchildren on a higher plane than, say, “The Pet Goat...” [S]upport for his signature program declined, not least because he gave others carte blanche to define it for him.

Obama did not, W.-like, take a six week vacation. I'm not sure how Rich missed it, but the White House, with the President of the United States front-and-center, have actively tried to shoot down the crazy.

Perhaps Rich has forgotten that Obama can't actually control what Sarah Palin says in her blog, what Rush says on the radio, or what Glenn Beck says on TV. Nor do they need invitations from him to speak up.

Or perhaps Rich believes in a showdown theory of politics. If only Obama had used just the right combination of words at the right time, the black hats would have either come to their senses and joined him or, recognizing defeat, slunk back into their caves. Hey, it worked in Mr. Smith!

Unfortunately, Mr. Smith narratives are junk, as is the showdown theory of politics. Had Obama given his health care speech back in the spring, he would have been unable to attack death panels in it...because death panels hadn't yet been created (they were created by the Sage of Wasilla in her August 7 Facebook post). Indeed, because showdown politics doesn't work, Obama's stinging rebuke of the health care fabulists didn't shut them up.

Obama isn't playing Rich's showdown politics. He's playing real-world politics, which for better or worse has actual rules -- such as the rules that the 535 Members Congress are the ones who actually pass laws. Rich is upset that Obama showed "deference" to Congress, but deference or no, there's not much any president can do to bypass Congress if that president wants something enacted into law. Presidents can apply pressure, and presidents can get involved in the negotiations. Obama is doing both. But Congress takes time to do things, especially (as in this case) when there's no emergency reason to finish quickly.

Meanwhile, Rich also seems confused about the differences between the government and CNN. He's rightly upset that, according to all available information, the Bush administration did little to combat terrorism in the summer of 2001. He's also upset that the cable news industry ignored terrorism that summer. Fair enough, on both points. But just because cable news is once again, as it always does, focusing on ephemera and distractions, does not mean that this new administration is taking the summer off, or ignoring major problems that are lurking out there. No, Obama has not demanded the "national debate" that Rich wants over Afghanistan, but neither has he prevented one (because he has no power to do so), nor is it clear that a national debate, whatever that's supposed to be, is what's needed to figure out where to go from here. Indeed, there has been plenty of debate this summer about Afghanistan (some of which, I'd bet, even showed up on cable news). More to the point, by all accounts the administration is hard at work on what appears to be a pretty tough problem. They may or may not get it right, but I think it's hard to claim that they're ignoring it.

The larger point is that governing isn't about big speeches to Congress, and so it doesn't matter very much how well Obama's timing works out for his speeches. That Obama hasn't given given high-profile speeches on financial issues (until today, at any rate) or on Afghanistan doesn't have anything at all to do with whether he's leaving those issues "to smolder," in Rich's words. To the contrary: nine months in, Barack Obama appears to be a real president, one who can work on multiple issues at a time. Even if Rich can't recognize it when he sees it.

1 comment:

  1. Frank Rich in the title grabbed my attention for this post. I love his writing. I'm going from memory here, but I'll give a shot at defending him.

    Rich is focusing on the public discourse, which certainly did run amok, not any policy or legislative action issues. Whatever Obama was doing in August, it wasn't offering any public condemnation of the sillyness that ensued.

    Obviously, Rich doesn't think Obama can control what anyone says, and the Showdown Politics bit is a strawman. "Back in the spring"? As you quote, Rich said "weeks."

    Okay, I had to look at the article for the "deference" context. (Dang, paste doesn't work at work - yes, I'm on the clock, shhhh!) "Obama's leadership poll numbers have also suffered from his repeated deference to Congress." Sounds like a statement, not anger, to me. Again, Rich is not talking about legislative action at all. He knows how a bill is passed. And he certainly didn't claim that Obama is ignoring health care. Only that he said nothing forcefully enough to break through the right wing noise machine.

    Agreed, speeches are not about governing, but they are the best weapon the President has to shape the public discourse, and he waited far too long to use it in this case.

    I think you might have taken the title too seriously: "Obama's Squandered Summer."


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