Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Politics of the Presidency: Obama vs. The GOP

In a story published online via Yahoo! News by Kenneth T. Walsh, under the auspices of US News and World Report, we are told that the Republican Party appears to be gaining traction and is crystallizing in united opposition to the president. Specifically, we are told that it is GOP attacks that are pulling the president down in public esteem.

"This contrasts with the GOP's often ineffective and flailing performance during the first phase of Obama's administration. The lack of a unified message created a sense of conservative drift and confusion. And it didn't help that the party appeared too closely tethered to voices from the past, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and to the abrasive, hard-line ideologues of today, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh."

I'm not certain that there was any 'lack of a unifying message' at the time. There was a strong divide between absolute GOP ideologues and a handful of more pragmatic conservatives (such as Florida Governor Charlie Crist, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and former Utah Governor John Huntsman)... but that gap has not gone away. While Pawlenty is a fairly typical conservative in other areas, he has not changed his position on the economic stimulus to my knowledge. Charlie Crist is more at odds with the rest of the GOP than ever and one could conceivably see him endorsing Obama against a far right challenger in 2012 or asking Obama to campaign for him over the GOP choices available. It's not impossible if you live in a world where Sen. Arlen Specter (PA) flips to the Democratic Party. Which is another fairly good example of Republican troubles. The figures formerly seen as the best and brightest GOP standard bearers in 2012, former McCain running mate Sarah Palin and Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, have lost their lustre almost entirely after a series of poor political performances (Jindal) and constant displays of angry, yet self-aggrandizing, self-pity (Palin), so it's not easy to see the GOP's next presidential challenger unless his name is reminiscent of a piece of sporting goods and he ran against Teddy Kennedy from the left advocating gay marriage once.

So, clearly, the GOP hasn't completely gotten its act together. Nor have many of their antics impressed anyone as sterling examples of GOP policy or leadership. They are essentially running the same strategy they ran in Bill Clinton's first term: attack, distract, mislead, obfuscate, and obstruct. This not an entirely worthless strategy. It can successfully make a president and congress look unable to govern together and can, as it did during the Clinton years, win congress back for a party. The problem is that it does nothing to show either leadership or policy. Moreover, when the GOP took Congress during Bill Clinton's first mid-term election, it was from a Democratic Party that had controlled Congress since Jimmy Carter. There had been no recent record of GOP failure to offer in opposition to their claims that liberalism was 'discredited.'

Indeed, the most important statement that Walsh makes about the GOP attack machine touches on something over which the GOP has very little control...

"But now it looks as if the GOP has gotten its act together, at least in terms of public relations, playing upon public doubts about Obama's policies. Its new strategy seems to be based not on a compelling alternative to Obama's agenda but on the fact that many Americans are increasingly nervous about Obama's big-spending, activist-government policies. And it has also been spurred by the fact that Obama's ballyhooed $787 billion stimulus package has failed to end the recession or stop unemployment's upward spiral. The national jobless rate is expected to rise to 10 or 11 percent later this year and is already there in politically pivotal states such as Michigan and Ohio."

In case you missed it, this is what they said at the beginning of the term and precisely what liberal analysts accused them of doing: banging their fists on the table and making a very loud noise to make it clear that the failure of the economy to recover immediately had nothing to do with them. This strategy may be proving to have some merit, but it is precisely the same as the message at the beginning of the term. There's nothing new to see there. To claim there's something new there is sloppy analysis on Mr. Walsh's part.

"All this has cooled the public's enthusiasm for both Obama and his policies."

Mr. Walsh goes on to cite polling data supporting this claim. The trouble is that his polling data, which does suggest that the public is cooling on President Obama, does not (and is not capable of) proving that the GOP attack machine is responsible for this cooling down. Indeed, there is no particular reason to believe they have any more to do with it than the opposition ever has when the 'honeymoon' of a new presidency wears off. The economy is only the Republicans' doing in that they ran it into the ground in the first place with their assurances that 'the fundamentals' were 'strong' and their eagerness to missapply Kenyesian tax-cut/spending-boost policies in a time of economic prosperity because they were the ones controlling the credit card. The fact that the economy (though the markets are recovering) is taking some time to ramp up again is a predictable fact of recessions as anyone who lived through the Great Depression can tell you. Leslie Parsley, in her own blog, gives an excellent example of how some stimulus programs are working extremely well. So it's a little too early to give the GOP credit for their foresight.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, quoted by Mr. Walsh, touches on another very telling point.

"White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says part of the problem is that Obama is trying to achieve big, challenging goals, such as overhauling healthcare, making him a convenient target for naysayers. "There is an industry in this town that by definition has to be bleak," Gibbs argues."

I have to give some credence to the 'big projects' argument, especially relating to health care reform. Ron Chusid, at Liberal Values, has a given a great deal of time and attention to the medical care debate. While he and I are not in full agreement on policy and politics in this area, we are agreed that the system is broken and needs fixing. He certainly offers more than just a little wisdom about just how 'reliable' polls really are, in some his discussion of the health care issue. Health care is one area where the GOP might be having some success with their 'oppose blindly and absolve one's self of guilt' attack policy might be having some degree of success, but...

The complaints about health care reform, from the left (including myself, at times), are as loud and as articulate as those from the right. They also have the added sting of being largely accurate, since the claims that liberals are making about the lack of willingness by ither Congress or White House to commit to robust reform are easily proved correct while conservative scare tactics are easily proved incorrect if anyone takes the time to do so... or just reads the work of someone who has taken the time. Considering the huge support that candidate Obama enjoyed from liberals (largely without justification during the primary and then because of the lack of real options in the general election), President Obama's commitment to a bipartisan strategy (and his willingness to ally himself with a Democratic Senate clearly intent on showing that they are 'better people' than the GOP Senate during the first six years of Bush instead of proving they are better at governing) is obviously costing him poll numbers.

Which brings me to my favorite criticism of Democrats: the desire to prove their bi-partisanship despite being faced with a political opposition that has repeatedly sworn that the Democratic Party is its blood enemy. Some of this is the fault of Blue Dogs in the House and of Senate Democrats convinced that the fraternal good humor of the Senate somehow trumps diametrically opposed political goals that completely rebuke the very idea of bipartisanship in any form but 'Democrats voting with us to help us get our way.' I think, purely in a political sense, the Democrats do have something to learn from Republicans. On the now legendary 'West Wing', a retiring Supreme Court Justice tells the president, 'The American people like guts, Mr. President. And Republicans have them.' While the bald-faced lack-of-shame and ridiculous God-complex of many conservative hardliners are hardly admirable qualities, in themselves, they present an aura of confidence and toughness that too few Democrats are willing to pretend to possess.

In his defense and to his credit, President Obama has shown that he has guts in fighting the Republicans, but he has not shown the same courage in facing down the center-right of his own party. Indeed, he appears to be most comfortable as a center-right conservative himself. The difference between himself the GOP appears to be less a matter of ideology and more a matter of pragmatic understanding that a certain amount of government activism is necessary for a nation to properly function... but he is hardly a liberal and it seems awkward to blame his 'liberalism' for his decline in popularity (as Mr. Walsh does) when it is among liberals that his popularity is declining fastest. If his 'liberalism' were really to blame, you'd see a lot more strongly worded pro-White House blogs from the left.

When one considers an example of how the GOP strategy to beat the president has improved, then one has to wonder what Mr. Walsh really thinks is different about it.

"Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina recently told a conservative group that if the GOP can stop Obama's healthcare overhaul, "it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." And Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele blasted the healthcare plan in a National Press Club speech last week as "too much, too fast, too soon." Steele's RNC also launched a new Web commercial that criticizes Obama for pushing "the biggest spending spree in our nation's history." And 90 minutes after the president's prime-time news conference, Steele sent an E-mail solicitation to Republicans that declared, "Barack Obama's risky experiments must be stopped.""

In other words, more of the same old. None of this is fundamentally different from the first few months in office and all the crazy Talk Radio And Fox News drivel is still circulating unaltered and being given much the same degree of publicity without alteration. Publicity, it should be noted, given by the media on the left and the right.

What it really comes down to is this:

The Republican Party is in a fight to the death to win at all costs, to oppose any agenda but its own, and to push its own agenda through with renewed ferocity when it manages to get back into power.

With all that in mind, Senate Democrats need to realize they are in a fight to the death too and start acting like it. The biggest reason that President Obama's poll numbers are slipping is very likely his failure to get them to do just that.

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