Barack Obama went to Boston to rally voters and got a pie in the face. He lost his innocence as the valiant young president and also lost his sixty-vote majority in the Senate. Now we will find out what the man is made of--either a true political leader or just another show horse. Dozens of explanations are being offered for why the Dems were humiliated in Massachusetts. Democrats incline to grab easy answers. The president, if he is tough enough, will instead face the hard message of this political fiasco.
The special election displayed monumental miscalculations by which Obama has governed, both in priorities and political-legislative strategies. It may seem perverse and unfair, but the president's various actions for reform generated a vaguely poisonous identity. Amid the general suffering, Obama is widely seen as collaborating with two popular villains--the me-first bankers and over-educated policy technocrats of the permanent governing elite. Obama made nice with the bankers and loaded up his administration with Harvard policy wonks who really don't know the country. These malignant associations gain traction because people see there are grains of truth in observable reality.
On Sunday, I listened on the radio to Obama's soaring speech at Northeastern University and remembered again why his oratory first took the nation to the mountaintop. His attack lines lashing bankers and insurance companies were fluid and tough, shouted repetitively over the rising cheers. His diction was loosely colloquial. He dropped the hard g's to get down with the folks. Too little, too late, I figured. He is still masterful, but this is performance, not substance. People grasp the difference between the two. This gulf will imprison Obama as a stereotype for weakness, a joke on late-night TV, if he doesn't change.
The humiliation, I decided, could become a good thing for this presidency if it forces Obama to rethink his political strategy and rearrange his governing order. For all his brains and talent, for all the brainy people around him, the Obama White House seems tone-deaf and blind on many aspects of the popular reality. Too full of itself to listen closely. Too condescending to recognize the rage and fear are about more than right-wing frothers.
On healthcare, Obama played coy while his White House aides cut private deals with the drug industry and other sectors. The legislative process was drawn out month after month in an addled bargaining marathon with hostile Republicans (who stiffed him in return) and industry-leaning Democrats (who got whatever they demanded). The liberal base was conned, ignored and bullied, as its vital issues were one by one discarded. Labor unions were stroked and intimidated by the White House, then double-crossed as Obama's reform extracted greater costs from union members than it demanded from the drug makers. People at large were confused, then frightened. They could not understand what reform would do for them, and some of their doubts were well-founded. The longer it went on, the more people wondered why Democrats weren't talking about their problem--jobs and incomes.
Obama's mild-mannered faith in bipartisan deal-making seemed strangely out of touch. Didn't he realize Republicans were going to maul him at every turn?
The bankers, meanwhile, did their own tap dance on the new president, putting a paw on his shoulder while gobbling up public resources. Obama kept holding meetings with them, urging them to do the "right thing." They practically laughed in his face.
People were meanwhile agitated by the swelling budget deficits and easy prey for right-wing propaganda. Instead of explaining the economic necessity of deficit spending in a straightforward way, Obama adopted these worries as his own. He has promised to reduce spending, but he cannot deliver on this if he truly expects recovery.
Obama's style became an inadvertent formula for sapping the life out of the political majority that elected him, deflating the reach of reform and turning off the electoral base that came together in 2008. Democrats are being told (and telling themselves) that they over-reached, but what became clear as the months dragged on is the Democratic party under-achieved, and so did its president.
Obama's most disturbing quality is that he evidently intended this from the start. Soaring rhetoric notwithstanding, he managed the presidency as a pragmatist in search of the possible. The real goals for change were minimalist, not visionary. This has to change and soon, if he is to revive his presidency.
Obama, in other words, has to change himself. That may sound too wishful and maybe it is. But we know he is a brilliant politician, astute in his political vision. The great politicians, when faced with new circumstances, revise themselves. We will see if Obama can.
First, he has to clear out the cobwebs of his hopeful aspirations and take on the fight. To do so, he also has to clear away a lot of the people around him. If Rahm Emmauel was the chief strategist, the guy who made the private deals and told the senators what they could accept, he failed big-time and should be replaced. Find a new manager whose thinking was not shaped by cynical triangulation in the Clinton era.
The president chose Larry Summer and Timothy Geithner to speak for the administration on the economy. Can you imagine finding anyone less convincing? Both are active advocates of the Wall Street status quo, neither has any feel for what's happening in the country. The bean counters led the president into the trap he now faces. Permissive bailouts created flush financial giants that sit on their profits and ignore the public need for lending. Dump the bean counters now.
Obama's turn-around speech would declare--honestly--that he misjudged the situation. The damage is far worse than he originally realized. Some deeper structural changes are required. The political opposition is more than ever blindly resistant than he had hoped. But now Obama can promise to govern nose-to-nose against the political forces blocking everything he attempts. He may not prevail, he concedes. But he is going to throw himself at them and he asks the people to join him in the fight.
If comprehensive healthcare reform is out of the question, Obama Democrats can break it down into smaller pieces and try to pass worthy measures one by one. A bill to prohibit insurance companies from banning people with pre-existing ailments? Pass it the House and try to pass it in the Senate. If Republicans want to filibuster, make them filibuster. A measure to allow cheaper drug imports from Canada? Let Republicans vote against that. Repealing the antitrust exemption for insurance companies--Democrats support it. Democrats need to start a fight on taxes too. Do Republicans want to tax Wall Street banks or not? Obama has proposed it, let's have a roll call. The attack strategy will focus on all the reforms people want and need and create a new political dynamic.
At the same time, Obama has to change the subject by refocusing reform actions on jobs and the structure of the faltering economy. Do something concrete and visible. If it doesn't work, try something else. If it's real, people will respond. If it doesn't succeed, people will understand. A governing agenda that creates a sense of action and shared commitment does not require cerebral policy wonks. Go anywhere in America and you will hear fresh thinking about how to get the country out of the ditch.
Obama needs to locate some seasoned politicians and bring them into the White House--people with a less cynical view of the Democratic party and deep experience in how to mobilize substantive political support. That includes the active citizens who do not mess with elections because they consider them a waste of energy. People who want big change are all over this country, nurturing new ideas and waiting to be asked.
Barack Obama is a cool character, not given to impulsiveness. But he needs to accept that the political assumptions with which he began his presidency are malfunctioning. I can't be sure he will be brave enough to change things. I do say he cannot wait for his second term.