Thursday, January 12, 2012

Has Obama Found His Voice?

There’s a general feeling of relief in Democratic circles now that Obama has started making populist noises and bearing his teeth at Republicans. That’s understandable: it’s a lot easier to rally behind a president throwing punches rather than taking them on the chin. Moreover, there's no denying that Obama has scored his share of modest tactical victories over the last couple of months, like facing down House Republicans over a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday.

I guess you can’t blame Democrats for clinging to the hope that, if Obama can win enough tactical skirmishes, we’ll reach a tipping point where disenchanted independent voters will start looking forward rather than backwards at the disappointments of the last three years. But when you think about it, that strategy's more than a little far-fetched. Consider how it looks to Yuval Levin from the right:
"Based on what the president and his advisers have said and done in recent weeks, that strategy appears to consist of creating populist confrontations with Congress and then complaining that Washington is broken because Republicans won’t let the president have his way. That’s a strategy that tells the public that the current situation in Washington is untenable and change is needed. Is that not an odd way for a Democratic incumbent president (whose party also controls the Senate) to run against a Republican outsider? . . .

"The Obama team’s approach might make sense if the substance of their policy proposals were enormously popular, so that telling the public that these could be enacted if only Obama is given a few more years to push them might help his case. But what are those proposals? A payroll-tax holiday? Higher taxes on the wealthy? Is there anything else?"
To put Levin’s questions a little differently: what is the Republican “do-nothing congress” supposed to be keeping Obama from doing?  In 2008, he came to the presidency assuring us that we could cure imperfections of the status quo without depriving ourselves of any of its substantial advantages.  We could, for example, secure health insurance for 40 million-odd uninsured Americans without anyone having to give up the health insurance they already had; and we could pump less climate-changing CO2 into the air without suffering serious economic consequences because green jobs would quickly replace the jobs lost in the production of dirty energy. And as long as we were willing to revert to Clinton-era tax rates for families making more than $250K/year, we could do all this and much more without punching a hole in the federal balance sheet. 

What sounded pretty good to a lot of us then now sounds like the sort of thing you’d find on a document preserved in a time capsule.  That’s why Democrats are trying to say as little about about the agenda that got Obama elected as possible.  That's understandable, I guess, inasmuch as the world looks a lot different now than it looked in 2008 from any ideological vantage point.  Republicans, including presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were saying things about health care reform and climate change that sound just as dated in exactly the same way.

Yet I think I know, at least in broad outline, what the 2012 Republican pitch will be.  It will almost certainly go something like this:  unless we as a nation enact some paler version of the Paul Ryan budget we’re going to end up like those tottering European social democracies. And if we do, we'll recover the liberty and prosperity we enjoyed under Ronald Reagan.  Those words obviously warm a lot of Republican hearts, but to a lot of us they convey, at best, the attractions of a trip to the dentist.

So what’s Obama’s counter-pitch? So far it goes something like this: America’s future needn’t be nearly as different from its recent past as Republicans would lead you to believe but don't ask me in exactly what respect that's true . . . Oh, and did I mention that Republicans are a bunch of crazy extremists while I'm reasonableness incarnate and a fire-breathing warrior for the middle class?

Sorry, that’s not going to cut it. Obama won't find his voice until he comes up with something substantial to say.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How about "I got Bin Laden." You'll be hearing plenty of that closer to the election. The big budget Hollywood movie will come out just in time and it will be hard to tell from the movie who actually killed Bin Laden, Team-6 or Barack himself.