Monday, March 8, 2010

Obama: Not Bush

Yeah, it's shooting fish in a barrel, but I can't help it: Mark Halperin's "Obama=W." piece is about as bad as it gets, and what's the point of blogging if you can't have a little fun on a Monday morning.  Ready?  I'll go through Halperin's four points, and then make general comments.  The bottom line, however, is that Halperin is far more focused on the ephemeral portions of the presidency, the battle over each news cycle, than he is on things that are far more important to the success or failure of a president.

1.  "No chief economic spokesman"

Halperin seems to believe that George W. Bush's economic policies were unpopular, and Bill Clinton's were popular, because Robert Rubin was good on TV and John Snow wasn't.  This is, as anyone could figure out with a moment's thought, nonsense.  Bush's economic policies were unpopular because there were two recessions, one of them the deepest since the great depression, during Bush's eight years.  Clinton's policies were not very popular*, Rubin's telegenic charm notwithstanding, until unemployment started falling to unusually low levels.  Anyone who considers the public relations side of economic policy even marginally important, let alone a key error shared by Bush and Obama, is making a serious mistake.

2.  "Failure to integrate policy, politics, and communication"

I'm afraid I have no idea what Halperin is saying here.  He says that Bush put politics above policy...okay, perhaps.  And then Obama, per Halperin, "has failed to put in place the necessary procedures and personnel to move strong, serious ideas along the conveyor belt from the minds of wonky experts cloistered in the Old Executive Office Building chambers to the President's lips as he introduces new initiatives at dramatic public events."  Really, I don't know what that means.  It's certainly not the same thing as the accusation that Bush put politics above policy...I think he's accusing Obama of lousy spin control, in which case see point #1.

3.  "Tying the Adminstration's fate too closely to his own party's congressional leadership"

Here, Halperin makes the astonishing claim that everything unpopular or unsuccessful in the Bush years was Tom DeLay's fault (Medicare expansion was a Congressional idea?  Really?).  But for either Bush or Obama, there's simply no way that a president can avoid working with his party's leadership in Congress, especially when that party holds the majority.  Halperin faults Obama for "allowing the agenda and vision of Speaker Pelosi, Leader Reid, and a covey of mostly liberal committee chairs to define the public image of the Democratic Party and determine what his administration can accomplish."  On the substantive side, Obama has little choice here -- of course Congress (helps) determine what the administration can accomplish.  The administration wants to pass bills, and it can't exactly do that without getting the cooperation of Congress.  Meanwhile, Halperin implies that Congress has pushed Obama to the left, but that's surely not true.  On virtually every issue -- stimulus, health care, climate/energy, education -- Obama's agenda has been delayed or halted not by a liberal House or liberal Senate leaders, but by the fact that the Senate is operationally only as liberal as the 60th Senator.  I can't think of a single issue in which Congress pushed a liberal priority in which Obama had no interest, and Halperin doesn't suggest one.  But I suspect Halperin isn't interested in the substance; he's talking again of public image, in which case see item #1.  Again.

4.  "Failing to empower Cabinet members on domestic policy"


  1. I also think Obama's approval ratings far exceed what they should be given the dire state of the economy and uncertain future of the nation.

    In the end, regardless, the Obama presidency (and the Democratic party as a whole) will live or die by health reform.

    Let's hope congress knows what's good for itself and pulls it off. Ideally, without Stupak et al..

  2. Thank you for this. I am exhausted by the seemingly endless supply of articles that assume the problems with Obama presidency can be solved with better messaging. I have a new rule that any piece of the Obama administration that uses phrases like "stubbornly high unemployment" is simply not worth reading. You can't message your way around the worst unemployment in 30 years or the biggest economic contraction in 50. The inside Washington belief that you can communicate reality away strikes me as near insane at this point.

  3. Isn't the obvious comparison between Obama and Reagan? Both were handed bad economic situations that proceeded to get worse under their watch; both were personally popular symbols of change, although that popularity eroded under weak economic conditions.

    Reagan '82 seems pretty much exactly where Obama '10 is. The big question is will the economy rebound for Obama as it did for Reagan.

  4. Clinton's policies were very popular, Rubin's telegenic charm notwithstanding, until unemployment started falling to unusually low levels.

    Missing "not"?

  5. Anon 7:17:

    Thanks! Typo fixed (can you call a missing "not" a typo? That's what it feels like to me...).

  6. @7:17pm - yes, they were popular - until employment began to fall. Retrospectively of course, the Clinton years were amazing compared to the Bush years economically.

    As for this obsession with spin: to me it's just a continuation of the Fox effect. They've placed sin above reality for some years now, and it's gotten them ratings. In turn, their most loyal followers believe this makes them more legitimate as to whether they're telling the truth. Halperin likely falls into this category: if it's popular, then it must be the right answer. Regardless of historical precedent, or factors pointing so obviously to the fact it's not.

    I believe Obama and most of his admin would agree, too - certainly there was some spin during the campaign, and is during his presidency. But I've been really impressed with how little there is compared to Bush, Clinton, right back to Nixon even. He uses himself, not gimmicks(doctors in white coats not withstanding!) to communicate. I love that about Obama.
    I think introducing more spin now would simply mimic the mainstream media's caving in to Fox-style strategies. Which in turn will just flub his message & style - and of course give his opponents more talking points about how his mimicking them makes them right about everything else.

    No, Obama and his team should stick to the substance and get on with the job, and present their argument for reelection when the time is right.
    Example: foreign policy and terrorism. With little fanfare, we're kicking Al Q and the Taliban's butts - imagine if Bush's successor were in charge: those guys would be THE argument for reelection, and the final argument that only republicans can keep America safe. I just love how Obama and his team are avoiding such nonsense.

    Leave the superficiality for Halperin and the Fox/RNC folk.

  7. Well I thought the Clinton years were popular economy-wise. But I was young-ish, therefore much of my perception of those years is retrospective...

  8. a friend of mine made an observation that I thought described Obama's biggest challenge in public relations very well: Obama's most fervent supporters and detractors are too anxious to either worship or vilify everything the man does. he has very little room to be a centrist, because when he tries to govern from the center, the progressive base feels disenfranchised, but his most fervent supporters believe he can do no wrong; and his most fervent detractors on the right continue to demonize him out of resentment.

    i won't lie: when i found out that obama had won in 2008, i was very emotional about the election. after watching the country i love hacked apart by conservative policies at home, and watching our credibility abroad destroyed by neocon foreign policy, i felt as if i was finally able to exhale after 8 years of some of the most misguided governance i've ever seen. combine this with the fact that the man is a very gifted orator, and you end up with a desire by many on the left, conscious or not, to paint the man as a political savior. this led to an equally powerful, resentment-fueled desire to demonize him as a socialist dictator on the right.

    and that's just the problem: obama is constantly having to live this dichotomy down. when it became obvious that the man was not going to usher in a european welfare state; that he could care less about gun control; that he was more likely to look for a compromise than to ride a super liberal agenda of legislation through the strong democratic majorities in both houses; progressives started to lose heart. and now everyone who viewed him as our political savior after 8 years of bush is disappointed and disillusioned; they've come to realize that he's a center-left pragmatist that doesn't share the goals of the american progressive caucus. but despite this obvious fact, the right continues to resent the "savior" image that was heaped on him by his most devoted supporters in the aftermath of his election. and hence, he must continue to live down the accusations of being an effete ivy-league Left-wing intellectual that wants to bring Marxism down on our heads, even though the man has been nothing but a compromising, center-left pragmatist since entering office.

    i think this is less a problem of obama's messaging apparatus and more a problem of progressives not having his back because they got left out of the HCR discussion when single-payer (and then the public option) were tossed out. if he could get a stronger chorus of support from the left-wing blogosphere and liberal columnists, i think he'd be doing at least a little better than he is now.

  9. I think you're uncharacteristic progressives.
    I'm super-progressive, super-liberal, but have always understood that Obama is centrist and would never achieve what I would love to see achieved in America.
    I, and ALL of my liberal friends, saw him as 1) a great change foreign policy-wise, and 2) a perfect stepping stone toward a more progressive America. Not that he would be a brilliant stepping stone to helping America move left as a society, toward a real centrist majority.
    Yes, health care reform was a big thing and still is, but what's being proposed and what Obama has always discussed, is centrist to the core. Single payer is what we want, yet we've always known that in this era, achieving it would be impossible.
    Every liberal I know(of course I don't know them all, but I believe a reasonable cross-section) aren't frustrated by his centrist stance - but their perception of his lack of leadership and strength when needed. Ca and trade is a classic example: originally a conservative agenda, that shouldn't be hard to lead with. Same with the public option - it's FAR from a liberal ideal.
    So no, I don't think it's what he 'ended up standing for' so to speak - but his lack of leadership and ability to get things done that has bothered so many on the left.
    Personally, I think eve that is unreasonable. I think he's done an amazing job given the cards he's been dealt. An obstructionist opposition and huge tent Democratic Party, along with a determination to not be a left wing version of Bush(i.e. no constant signing statements and bully boy techniques, for which the Bush administration is notorious) and push things through dictator-style, may take longer, but in the long term I believe his style is a very very good thing.
    I can understand the impatience of those on the left though, I just think they're blaming the wrong guy.
    But their patience is for the most part not about policy, but leadership and political strategy.
    I just keep telling them they DO NOT want a left wing version of Bush - even if it got what they wanted policy-wise. It would only result in immediate repeal when a right wing president comes in. I think I'm getting through to them!

  10. Sorry my first line was supposed to read: I think your characterizing of progressives is wrong.

  11. He has certainly used Cabinet heads. Gates and Arnie Duncan have both made several appearances as well as authored numerous op-eds. Also, Sebelius and the Labor Secy's have both made numerous TV & townhall appearances by themselves & with others. Then there is Geithner. Basically disagree with everything Halperin says. Maybe better msging,but hcr is complicated & hard to reduce to sound bites....I do know the stimulus defense by heart that he gave at townhalls for a solid yr.

  12. People seem to forget that Clinton's 1993 economic package was passed over the no vote of every single GOP member in both houses, with Gore breaking a 50/50 tie in Senate, and with dire warnings of deficits as far as the eye could see, thanks to the media's peddling of "reverse supply side economics" (e.g., Clinton tax increases would kill growth, lowering tax revenues needed to pay for expanded government, causing huge deficits). [This from the biggest deficit spenders ever, i.e., Reagan and GHW Bush, at least up to that point). In the end, they were wrong, the economy soared, unemployment plummeted, and Clinton won reelection handily. And he then dlivered budget surpluses, and managed not to swat any hornets nests, or allow major attacks on US soil during his presidency. And he still had tremedous popular support even after the Lewinsky blowjob scandal/Impeachment extravaganza. Who'd a thunk it, especially in Halperin-world, where the relentless 24-hour news cycle, and the need to declare winners and losers on a daily basis, transcend reality completely.

    It's amazing how quickly we forget impeachment, forget Bush stealing the 2001 election (and with it, the Supreme Court for another generation) with complicity from teh corporate media, how Bush jammed Iraq down Congress' throat just before the first midterm election after 9/11 without a peep from the Press; and countless other executive abuses during the Bush years that hte fourth estate was "for the state". And this is Halperin's take on why hte Media is reporting that Obama is struggling (instead of reporting that Republicans are lying about reconciliation)? Haleperin is, and will always be, a one dimensional tool of the corporate media.


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