Obama: Triangulation 2.0?
Obama said he wanted to be like Reagan, not Clinton, but he has yet to make a sustained case for his corresponding ideology or vision for the country, as Reagan successfully did. Reagan attacked liberalism throughout his presidency—big government was the problem, and lower taxes and fewer regulations were the solution. No matter the deals he eventually struck, whether it be with Tip O'Neill or Soviet Russia, capitalism was the hero and government the villain. Reaganism became an ideology, and the GOP is still following that script today. One can scarcely say the same about Obamaism—whatever that may be. "Just where Mr. Obama actually lives on the ideological continuum," wrote Matt Bai of the New York Times, "is the most vexing question of his presidency." Obama has been quite clear about his allergy to ideological thinking. "I don't think in ideological terms," he told The Nation in 2005. "I never have." But the president's relentless attachment to "pragmatism," which has become an ideology unto itself, has allowed the GOP's dominant narrative about the economic crisis—that big government, once again, is to blame—to go unchallenged, especially when Obama sides with Republicans thematically on issues like deficit reduction and freezes on discretionary spending and federal pay. "In the absence of an alternative narrative the Republican story is the only one the public hears," Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary and a onetime Obama economic adviser, noted on his blog. Hence the rise of the Tea Party and the potency of antigovernment right-wing populism nowadays.
Over the past two years Obama has won a number of legislative battles, but he has lost the broader philosophical war—as Democrats passed bill after bill, the electorate drifted further away. "Reagan often gave ground on policy substance—most notably, he ended up enacting multiple tax increases," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently noted. "But he never wavered on ideas, never backed down from the position that his ideology was right and his opponents were wrong." Reagan had what Obama needs most—a master narrative and rationale for his presidency. "Reagan took his case to the people and sold his program," says Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, whose book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime Obama read on his latest vacation. During his first two years in office, "Reagan really stuck to his guns during the recession," Cannon says, defending his massive tax cuts and increase in military spending while backing Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker's controversial management of monetary policy. By the time the 1984 election rolled around, the economy was growing rapidly and unemployment had eased from 10.8 percent in 1982 to 7.2 percent. Reagan could legitimately claim it was "morning again in America." Obama, according to Cannon, needs to look less like a legislator and more like a president; to focus on communicating with the American people and not become preoccupied by negotiations with Congress. "Obama is inspirational, but he's not a salesman," Cannon says.
Obama's speech in Arizona reminded Americans that his rhetorical skills are unparalleled; now he must display that same eloquence and urgency when it comes to solving the economic crisis, especially since many Americans remain perplexed by the length and depth of the recession. "What's missing is a story line," says Reich. "What caused the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, and why are we having such a hard time getting out of it? Why are working- and middle-class people hurting so much, and what are we going to do about it? That story line has to be reiterated over and over."
The opportunity is ripe for Obama to pull a reverse Reagan—articulating a progressive populism that is more relevant now than at any time since the 1930s, indicting the excesses of corporate conservatism and runaway capitalism. "We often talk about how upset Americans are at government," says pollster Cornell Belcher, who has worked for Obama and Howard Dean. "You know who they're also upset with? They're upset with the big corporations and the banking industry, who they think have been gouging them and not playing by the rules." The best estimates for 2012 forecast unemployment above 8 percent, a statistic no president since FDR has recovered from in his first term, which underscores the need for Obama to side with struggling Americans.
"The narrative is obvious," says Stan Greenberg. "We have an economic philosophy centered on making the middle class richer, and they have an economic philosophy which says trickle-down." Making that story stick would require both a rhetorical and policy shift from the Obama administration—sharpening the populist language and outlining ambitious proposals to turn the economy around. Yet there's little evidence that Obama's team is prepared to adopt such an approach, especially given that his core advisers are former Wall Street insiders or policy-makers sympathetic to them. Obama's aversion to populism has turned him into what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne calls a "Wall Street Liberal"—a big-spending friend of the banks.
Progressive Democrats have pushed Obama to shed that label. Last summer Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Robert Kuttner of Demos/The American Prospect met with Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod and urged the White House to unveil an ambitious job-creation plan that Democrats could run on in 2010 and 2012. They wanted the White House to embrace a more expansive economic vision, not just to think tactically about legislation before Congress. Axelrod rejected the advice, arguing that the Senate didn't have the votes to pass a jobs plan and, anyway, polling showed that the public didn't want the government to spend more money. "They think they've done a great job and it's just a matter of time before the economy recovers," Hickey says. The public evidently disagrees. Roughly 50 percent of Americans say Obama has spent too little time "trying to create jobs and fix the economy," according to a December New York Times/CBS News poll. In another postelection poll, 56 percent of Americans ranked the economy and jobs as their top priority for the new Congress, while only 4 percent named the deficit.
Despite those numbers, these days the Obama team seems far more preoccupied with deficit reduction than job creation. "What I want to hear is jobs," Begala says of the upcoming State of the Union address. "What I predict is the deficit." Indeed, the administration just hired Bruce Reed, former head of the DLC and executive director of the president's deficit commission, as Vice President Joe Biden's new chief of staff. The president has been boxed in by the GOP: unable to raise taxes or spend money. Under the GOP's formula, budget cuts are his only option. Austerity politics rules the day. As a result, Hickey and other progressive organizers are looking outside the White House for leadership on the economy. "We need the highest-level group in Congress to say to the White House, We need a jobs plan," Hickey says. The Local Jobs for America Act, introduced last year by Representative George Miller and Senator Sherrod Brown, could be the basis for those discussions.
Ultimately, though, the president has the nation's bully pulpit. It's up to Obama to use it.