Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Catch of the Day

To Andrew Sprung, who actually paid attention to the rest of the press conference yesterday and came away impressed:
I've just watched the whole conference, though, and I thought the whole was the best performance of his presidency...Suffice to say that I came away confident that he will battle the Republicans at least as effectively as Clinton did, and that his communication skills are out of storage.  This encounter was antidote to his post-election remission. Within the context of the whole - what the Republicans stand for, what he and the Democrats stand for, what they've accomplished in the last two years -- the attack on "purity" was appropriate. What's missing in the news reports is that it was part and parcel of his defense of the really (on long view) extraordinary accomplishments of the 111th Congress  -- a defense that was sorely missing in his post-election performances.
One of the things that I find frustrating as an analyst is how often people say that the president (or Congress, or a candidate) should say this or that -- when in fact, the president has been saying it for months, and no one notices.  Now, it's not always clear whose fault that is --  certainly, Barack Obama should have known that once he started attacking liberal purists that liberals wouldn't notice anything else he said.  But if there's something that you think your party should be saying, odds are they already are.  Anyway, read the whole thing -- Sprung is as good a careful reader of Obama's rhetoric as you're going to find.

Meanwhile, on the last (purist-bashing) answer, I think Adam Serwer is probably correct about the mindset of the president.  I'll extend what I said yesterday: no matter how justified the president's annoyance with liberal critics might be, he has no business voicing his frustration with them unless there's some particular goal in mind, and I can't think of one.  He should have known going in that liberals were going to be disappointed by whatever he produced (just as liberals were disappointed with FDR, JFK, LBJ, and WJC when they were enacting some, but not all, liberal goals).

I'd also say that this White House has done an unusually poor job of finding low-cost and/or symbolic ways of making liberals happy.  And that's true even if the people in question tend to be purists who are oversensitive to minor slights.  Liberals spent a lot of time and effort complaining about George W. Bush's dog whistles to Christian conservatives, but it helped to keep people happy that Bush usually didn't have the votes to pay off in substantive ways.  Sure, those things only matter on the margins, but that doesn't mean the White House shouldn't do it.


  1. The only explanation I can think of for Obama's lashing out at liberal purists is that he desperately wants to be seen as separate from (and not beholden to) the liberal wing of the Democratic party. In other words, it's an attempt at a "Sister Souljah" moment.

    The problem is, there's already been lots of those moments in Obama's first two years. If the media and independents haven't gotten that message by now, it is doubtful that they ever will!

  2. Jonathan, I agree that Obama shouldn't be publicly attacking the liberal purist part of his base unless there's a targeted reason to do so.

    However, for those of us with liberal purist tendencies, I think it's helpful to know (and keep in mind) three things about Obama:

    1) As an elected official, he has consistently positioned himself in the center of the Democratic party. This was true of his voting record in the US Senate and in the Illinois Senate. (Charles Peters, founder of the Washington Monthly wrote a terrific article about then-candidate Obama using Obama's legislative record as the key to understanding Obama's politics. It's still worth reading.) If we can build a larger, more powerful voting bloc to his left, he'll respond to that.

    2) Obama was trained by and worked as an organizer for descendants (professionally speaking) of Saul Alinsky. It is part of the genetic makeup of that branch of the organizing profession to have (and to express!) disdain for uncompromising purists.

    3) As he has done throughout his adult life and his political career, Obama situated himself within the context of the African-American freedom struggle. When Obama says "my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there", that is, among other things, a "dog whistle" to those who know the significance of the North Star to the 19th century anti-slavery movement.

  3. Massappeal: excellent post! I did not know about the North Star reference.

  4. Massappeal's point also explains why this "Obama's losing his base" thing was overstated (At least until this. This feels different somehow). It's the same kind of loaded language that Bush would use to reach evangelicals ("culture of life" and all that), only it's pitched to African Americans (who are as much the base of the Democratic Party as anyone, and probably way more of Obama's base).

    Again, this deal might change things, substantive action trumps coded language. But this is why I still see people wearing Obama T-Shirts on the south side of Chicago.

  5. Agreed with Jonathan about this WH not being very good at finding low-cost ways to make liberals feel like he's one of them. Why not hire somebody new that speaks liberals' language? They are due for a bit of a West Wing shakeup anyway.

  6. Can anyone think of a specific low-cost thing that Obama could do? And if there is something, what about timing?

    As to what he might do, it has to be something that doesn't require passing a bill or confirmation by the Senate. Off the top of my head, the first thing I can think of is something he did do, lifting the HIV travel ban. I'm sure the base is grateful for that - and the people directed affected even more grateful - but it's not a substitute for repealing DADT, and just talking about it highlights that DADT is still in the undone pile, and also that Obama isn't particularly strong on same-sex marriage.

    Timing matters too. Even a very tasty goody would be derided as a transparent sop if it came on the heels of a big liberal disappointment - "What kind of idiots do you think we are?" And if the goody was something high-profile it would attract ridiculous attacks from the noise machine; when polls showed that 30-40% of the electorate believed the ridiculous attacks, Obama would be criticized for failing to craft a message that could cut through the noise and allow reason and truth to triumph.

    Finally, the current tax donnybrook demonstrates that the base will consider any glass that's not overflowing to be half-empty at best. Obama preserves upper-income tax rates for two years, knowing he doesn't have the votes in the Senate to allow the tax cuts to expire. Boo! But, he keeps middle-class tax rates and gets $450 billion in stimulus - in a lame duck session after the Dems decisively lost the House. Boo! - he blew the chance to kill the tax cut before the mid-terms, and the initial stimulus was too damn small and this "stimulus" is far from ideal and insufficient anyway.

    If it sounds like I'm bashing the base, I'm not. There's a fine line between accentuating the positive and Pollyanna-ism, and we're too smart to be Pollyannas. Putting pressure on Obama is part of what it will take to get as much decent legislation and public policy as possible while he's President. But we also have to remember that the real enemy is the Republicans, and that Obama's much talked about "spine" is only as strong as the weakest Dem spine(s) in the Senate.

  7. Geoff, that's probably a good point. Even if DADT is repealed (and I'm optimistic) it's probably going to get lost in the tax cuts fooferaw. And while Obama's signalled that his position on gay marriage is due to shift, he's certainly in no position to change the law on that one right now.

    I guess the one thing I'd argue is that the segment of the "base" that seems really angry* really isn't looking for a specific result so much as a fight, so much as calling out Republican bullshit and not standing for it. If that's the case, then even a losing stand might be good enough for them; then just want a stand off, a "line in the sand" moment. There's potential for a lot of those moments with a Republican House coming in; but then, there's also potential for most of the House's crazy to die a pathetic whimpering death in the Senate without Obama really getting engaged. So in some ways, we're still in the same place.

    *- Remember, up until now, Obama still gets extremely high marks from Democrats and liberals. This tax deal may be a sea change in that, but the portion of the base that was, until now, so deeply disappointed was rather small.

  8. Colby - from the November 29, 1933 issue of The New Republic, it sounds like FDR disappointed people who were looking for him to show some fighting spirit: "The head of a coalition government, accordingly, can exercise his freedom of action only within limits; the moment he irrevocably alienates his support on either the Right or Left, he is through. In the case of Mr. Roosevelt, you find that while he has acted with amazing boldness and imagination on a multitude of questions, he has shown great reluctance in facing up to a fight on any single clear-cut issue."

    Fighting and winning is the best thing, but sometimes you can't win. Then the choice is between going down swinging or taking what you can get. So far, Obama has taken what he can get, showing "a great reluctance in facing up to a fight on any single clear-cut issue." Going forward, facing a solidly Repub House, he won't be able to get much, so he may well be fighting more. If so, I'll enjoy it as much as the next guy or gal, but it will probably mean that we won't be enjoying very many legislative victories.


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