Monday, August 15, 2011

Should Obama go Truman? Is Obama going Truman?

Norm Ornstein lays out the history of Truman and the fight against the 80th "Do Nothing" Congress:

[T]he sweeping GOP victories in 1946 convinced many Republicans that they had achieved a lasting ideological victory—that the American public had finished with the liberalism under FDR and Truman, and embraced their brand of conservatism. They were wrong. Voters had reacted to short-term economic conditions, and to a post-war mood for change, but not for a new right-wing ideology.

But it was Truman’s triumph to realize that the hyper-partisan Congress was as much a political boon as it was a political liability. Truman seized upon the conservative over-reaching and openly fought against what he dubbed the “Do-Nothing Eightieth Congress.” That rhetorical strategy paid dividends, as voters rebelled against the ideologues and the Democratic base was energized to elect a president they had long disparaged and opposed. Not only was Truman reelected—pulling off the upset of the century in a four-way race with a popular Republican nominee, Tom Dewey, and Democrats running to his left (former Vice President Henry Wallace) and right (states’ rights advocate Strom Thurmond)—but Democrats picked up nine seats in the Senate and a full 75 in the House to recapture both bodies. “The luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” Truman remarked years later, “was the Eightieth Congress.”

Barack Obama ought to be able to leverage his own recalcitrant Congress for political gain. The sitting 112th Congress, like Truman’s 80th, is dominated by a Republican House that believes that its sweeping victory reflected a huge public mandate to dismantle government as we know it. The overreaching in this case does not involve passing laws that get enacted over a presidential veto, but in precipitating artificial crises—over appropriations that are set to expire in a new fiscal year, over a debt limit that has always been raised without preconditions—to create hostages and force extreme actions. Far more than the 80th, the 112th is a true “Do-Nothing” Congress, producing little progress, and showing little interest, on key national policy areas from education to energy.

E.J. Dionne reminds us about how things looked about this time back in 2007:
For Obama’s lieutenants, his comeback from the ’07 summer doldrums provided an overlearned lesson that encouraged them to ignore external criticism and cruise along with complete confidence in their man’s almost magical powers of restoration.

The president’s loyalists still have faith in him and still love to criticize media narratives they think underestimate him. But this time, both he and they are expressing a level of frustration that may be the healthiest thing happening to Obama in what is an otherwise dismal moment in his presidency. A White House crowd often too sure of itself is fully aware of the ferocious fight Obama faces and the seriousness of the problems he confronts. Their mood and past experience suggests that a new Obama — or, in many ways, the old Obama of 2008 — is about to reappear.

...but, as Greg Sargent reminds us, maybe he's not about to re-appear, as the New York Times suggests:
Over the weekend the Times published a much-discussed piece reporting that Obama and his advisers are persuaded that the way to win back independents and moderates is to opt for something approximating the latter approach. The Times claimed that advisers think emphasizing plans that have no chance of passage won’t appeal to moderates, who want “tangible results rather than speeches.”

I don’t know how much stock to put in the Times story, but if there’s something to it, I feel compelled to point out that this is a false choice. It’s not merely giving “speeches” for Obama to propose ambitious job creation measures, even if they don’t have a chance of passage. It’s laying out a stark contrast of visions and challenging the opposing party to defend its position.

Either way, this is the key dynamic to watch: What Obama’s post-debt ceiling rhetorical feistiness will translate into in terms of actual job-creation policy, and how aggressive Obama will be in using concrete policy proposals to challenge Republicans and to reveal them as unwilling partners in fixing the economy.

But E.J. Dionne believes the time for bipartianship is over, if only because the President has no other choice:

{On the Presiden't character] he is both conflict-averse and highly competitive. On the one hand, he believes his old speech declaring there is neither a red America nor a blue America, and he trusted his capacity to bring left and right together — an imprudent presumption, given the nature of the current GOP.

Allowing this side of himself a much longer run than seems reasonable is what unleashed all the recent commentary describing him as weak and indecisive. But no sane human being (and sanity is still an Obama hallmark) can pretend anymore that today’s Republicans remain the party of Bob Dole or Howard Baker. The proof came in last week’s Republican presidential debate, when every candidate on stage raised a hand to declare unacceptable even a deficit deal involving 10 times as many spending cuts as revenue increases. This provides a handy new definition of extremism: When 90.9091 percent purity is not good enough.

Obama knows he’s reaching the end of the line on negotiating. Now he has to win. This brings out his competitive side. The rules of an election are similar to those of the sporting contests Obama so enjoys. Candidates are expected to be tough, to go after their opponents, to push and shove and throw them off balance. If you doubt Obama can do this, ask Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

The president’s speech last Thursday in Holland, Mich., was the first sign that the competitive Obama is reemerging. His target, like Harry Truman’s in 1948, was an obstructionist Republican Congress. He condemned “the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party” and urged that it “start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now.”

With Obama, there is always the danger of a relapse into the passive, we’re-all-reasonable-people style. The fighting Obama has briefly appeared before, only to go back into hibernation. This time, the evidence suggests he’ll stick with it — and, in truth, he has no other choice.

Steve Benen says "Great, but what about the policy?" What happens when the rubber meets the road...and the road isn't there?
[What Steve read from E.J.'s piece] sounds pretty heartening to me, at least insofar as we’re likely to see a feisty president ready to take his case to the public and the fight to his rivals. This strikes me as a very good idea.

What I’m less sure about is what, precisely, this will mean in policy terms. The economy still stinks, the public is still feeling a lot of anxiety, Congress is still dysfunctional, and Republicans are still being ridiculous. It’d be nice if millions of engaged citizens started demanding the GOP start taking governing seriously, but Republicans are well aware of their deteriorating public support and don’t seem to care.

My point is, I’d welcome a fired-up president ready to throw a few punches. But then what? What happens after he smacks Republicans around for a while and they still won’t extend the payroll tax cut, won’t extend unemployment benefits, won’t invest in infrastructure, and generally won’t lift a finger to improve the economy at all?

So ultimately, what's going to happen? Is the President going to be fired up and ready to go? Is he going to go milquetoast as the New York Times suggests? Steve Benen went for clarification and came away both happy...and confused:

For what it’s worth, I’ve asked for some clarification from the White House, and a senior administration official shed a bit more light on what Plouffe and Daley actually believe.

According to the official, who wanted anonymity because officials don’t want to be quoted on record discussing internal messaging deliberations, Plouffe and Daley both favor a confrontational rhetorical approach that will blame Republicans for opposing any and all job creation efforts for purely political reasons; both are leading internal boosters of a message that accuses Republicans of putting party before country.

“Plouffe and Daley have been big proponents of the sort of messaging that you saw from the President’s Country before Party speech in Michigan,” the official says.

In that speech, Obama implicitly accused Republicans of opposing an array of job-creation proposals because of their refusal “to put the country ahead of party,” adding that they would “rather see their opponents lose than see America win.” Some liberals worry that by directing his fire at Congress in general, Obama isn’t calling out Republicans directly enough, but it seems clear the White House is banking on media coverage making the target of Obama’s ire clear.

If this speech’s message is what Plouffe and Daley favor, this is a bit at odds with the public picture that’s emerged. The Times story suggested that the Plouffe/Daley camp worries that any ambitious proposals that seem designed only reveal the GOP as obstructionist will be seen as mere “speeches” by independents. The story also suggests Plouffe and Daley think continuing to reach deficit-reduction compromises with Republicans will prove more politically effective than drawing a sharp contrast with the GOP on the economy. But if Plouffe and Daley favor a continued effort to cast the GOP as blocking economic improvements for political reasons, that complicates the picture somewhat and suggests that the latter, too, will be central to the reelection campaign.

To be sure, this still doesn’t tell us how ambitious Obama is willing to be in terms of proposing genuinely ambitious and bold job creation policies in order to draw that contrast with the GOP. And liberals are right to worry that the current range of options being entertained is far too limited. But if the Obama team is serious about drawing a sharp contrast — as the senior official insists is the case — we can at least hope that the policies will follow the rhetoric.

Okay, this last bit was weird, if only because Greg said in an earlier piece that he didn't put much stock in the New York Times article...only to turn around and start putting stock in the New York Times article.

If you want to look it from a narrative standpoint, the choice between of cutting deficit reduction deals with the GOP and blasting them for their intransigence is a false choice itself. If Obama is truly going to get more in their face, why not do it Obama style? Why not sit down with the GOP in good faith, and make sure everyone knows who's to blame when they walk out?