Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Real Beginning Of The Obama Era?

There has been something very different about President Obama since the turn of the year. His first year in office has been grueling, and he has confronted many insurmountable obstacles, but finally he seems to have gathered his stride and recognized the importance of leadership and action.

He is decisive, determined, and sure of the importance of the healthcare bill to the nation's future. He is leading the charge to enact dramatic changes into law. You only have to look at the forces aligned against this bill to know the impact this will have on people's lives. It's as simple as this fact... never again will a health insurance company be able to deny you coverage based on a pre-existing condition.

Healthcare has compromised all of Obama's political capital that he had earned in 2008. It was the right bill at the wrong time, in my opinion. But, his approach since January has been much more effective and it is paving the way for a tremendous accomplishment in his first term in office from a legislative perspective that, for better or for worse, will define his Presidency.

He sincerely reached out to Republicans at the Healthcare summit in pursuit of compromise. In doing so he emboldened his political opponents and provided them with an excellent opportunity to offer their alternative ideas. He lost a political battle by doing so, but he laid the groundwork for winning the war. What Obama established is that no matter what he tried, compromise was not possible. In doing so he created the context within which he could feasibly disregard Republican opposition and focus on getting the bill passed with Democrats with all of the requisite determination.

Governance, like life, is about getting things done. It's about making a difference and improving people's lives. Governance IS dirty, getting votes is a nasty business. It always is, in any democratic system across the globe, rife with persuasion, intimidation, and back room deals. The great legislators are the greatest leaders. Obama seems to have finally figured this out.

After everything that has been committed to healthcare, and the political disaster it has been for the Administration, it basically comes down to this: Does the Administration believe healthcare reform will improve people's lives? Does the Administration believe something must be done, and the status quo is untenable? If so, then politically they only have one option... get her done. Get her done and twist every arm, make the deals, fly Dennis Kucinich on air force one, and sign that bill into law. It will be a remarkable foundation from which Obama can go into 2010 along with the Democratic party and try to repair the damage that was done in 2009. In addition, its the basis upon which, emboldened by action and accomplishment, the Democratic congress has many months before November to do so much more.

Politically, healthcare will be a side issue in 2012 for Obama, no matter how much right wing commentators might like to believe otherwise. The only thing that really matters to Obama's political well being is the progress of the economy and reducing the deficit and national debt. Right now, in terms of electioneering there is no one of the Republican side who is even close to competing with the President in 2012.

Like many excellent President's before him, Clinton, Reagan, etc, after a shakey start, Obama, finally, is growing into being a leader. The short term knocks and dips in public approval are of less concern to him than making a positive difference in people's lives. When people look back on the Obama Presidency, I believe that many will consider that this legislative success is when the actual "Obama era" began.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Great Communicator?

President Obama's state of the union address was undoubtedly a political triumph, if a very short term one. It shouldn't be underestimated the extent of the challenge he confronted. The entire nation is now harboring fundamental doubts about his ability to lead the country into prosperity, and, yet he managed to emerge with positive momentum. As always, the President addressed us with eloquence, emotion, hope, and vibrancy. There were many effective moments, and in the final minutes the Democrats and Republicans were absorbed in complete silence, riding the wave of Obama's sentimental verbage.

But, ultimately I believe he failed, broadly for the same reasons he has failed in his first year in office. He is not a leader, yet. He is not making any practical considerations, or reality based judgments, in regards to his agenda and what the American people need. He is calling for Bi-partisanship while at the same time dogmatically refusing to compromise on the bulk of his legislation. He has virtually nothing to show for 12 months in power with the largest Democratic majority in Congress for a generation. And worse, he has made promise after promise, broken those commitments, and proceeded without acknowledging why those promises shouldn't have been made in the first place.

Obama is not a great communicator. Unfortunately, the healthcare debate has proven that. In June of this year I wrote: "Contrary to popular opinion, I don't believe Obama has learned the lessons of 93/94 and failure of the Clinton Healthcare plan to pass congress. Hillary's plan did not fail because of what it contained, or because of who was or wasn't at the table, it failed because, in the midst of a recession and general economic anxiety, Bill Clinton did not have the political capital to get it passed."

In spite of this political miscalculation I have been stunned at the imprecise, lofty, and ambiguous arguments made by Obama for healthcare. What kind of political advice does he receive? A argument for healthcare reform should have been more like this:
The 5 Point Plan - What Will Healthcare Reform Mean To You
1: Lower premiums
2: Cheaper prescription drugs
3: Lower deductibles
4: No pre-existing conditions
5: Cheaper Doctor visits

... or something like that. Those bullet points should have been repeated and repeated and repeated ad naseam. Every rebuttal from the right would have to address those points, and repeat them, and as a result Obama would be controlling the national conversation on healthcare. In reality, if you ask 10 people in the street today what Obamacare would specifically mean for them, they would be clueless. It has been a complete clusterf*%$ and a tragic political failure on the part of the Administration.

Obama isn't focused on the people he's talking to. He's not aware of the limited attention they can devote to political matters because they work hard, raise families, and barely have a brain cell left to invest in the TV nightly news, or internet news headlines, etc, etc. Obama is focused on the integrity of what he is saying, and he is expressing himself determined to lift people up with an historic eloquence. But, the reality is we all need a simple, direct message that is relevant and resonates. Obama didn't go to Massachusetts to campaign for Coakley with a simple and direct message. To most potential voters in Massachusetts Obama showed his face and said nothing that mattered. He had no positive influence because nothing he said was sufficiently direct or resonant.

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The beauty of the phrase is in its simplicity. The beauty of the phrase is in the way it resonates inside you as a result.

Having lived through the early years of George W. Bush, enduring his calls for Bi-partisanship while conducting the most partisan administration in memory, I was so hopeful that Obama would be the person to finally counteract the terrible political and cultural divisions that paralyze progress in this country. I did not expect that Obama would make the exact same mistake as his predecessor.

Bi-partisanship isn't about calling for Bi-partisanship. It's not about being affable, funny, and making warm gestures as Obama did last night. Bi-partisanship is about one word: COMPROMISE. It's about asking your opponent to compromise with you to get things done for the benefit of everybody. George Bush came from Texas, where he worked with Democrats well in a state that shared a general right of center consensus on policy issues. In Washington he set out a right wing agenda, refused to make any significant compromises, and then was astonished at the way the Democratic party reacted to him, even when he reached out his hand sincerely in partnership.

Eight years later Obama has done the exact same thing, pursuing his own agenda while refusing to significantly compromise. "I do not quit" he said last night. On the climate bill he said "And if the bill that ends up on my desk does not meet the test of real reform, I will send it back until we get it right." How can Obama ask the Republicans to make compromises when he is so unwilling to himself? It's been a year, and its time to get things done. That's how Congress works. You never entirely get everything you want. Sometimes you don't even get close. But, you have to compromise. If you don't, nothing gets done at all. That's the story of 2009.

Many people, including Obama it seems, believe that politics and electioneering is nothing more than a popularity contest. Triangulation, the abandonment of principles, and getting elected at whatever cost are the worst qualities ascribed to politicians these days. It brings to mind the magnificent movie "The Candidate." Yes, this is always the risk. But, political considerations, in my opinion, needn't be that cynical.

Politics is about leadership. We are a weakened country, doubting ourselves, each other, our future prosperity, and our exceptionalism in the world. Even though Obama likes to say things like "there are no red states, blue states, but only the United States of America," like Bush he is determined to govern as the President of his own party, rather than the President of the entire nation.

Many Americans are very worried about the growth of government, the national debt, and the weak dollar. They will mostly never vote for Obama under any circumstances, but they still deserve the respect of their President. Many Americans are concerned about terrorist trials and Miranda warnings to those that attack us. They will mostly never vote for Obama, but they deserve the respect of their President. Many Americans perceive healthcare reform as a government monstrosity that will make their lives worse and not better. They will mostly never vote for Obama, but they deserve the respect of their President.

Obama needs to extend greater understanding to those that disagree with him. By doing so, Bill Clinton reached out to independents and was able to have a less contentious national debate on issues like affirmative action, aid to Mexico, and healthcare for children. He was able to do so because the ability of his political opponents to caricature him as a one dimensional ideologue was undermined by the reality of his governance.

Politics is about communication. It's about being heard through the noise. It's about talking to a variety of constituencies and resonating in spite of biases against you. It's about being something more than a label, or a party. It's about being relevant. It's about listening and showing that you've heard. It's about explicit acknowledgement and respect, even when you have irreconcilable differences. That was Kennedy, that was Reagan, and that was Clinton.

I have by no means given up on Obama. I still believe, more so than any other candidate he has the potential to be a great President. He was always going to have to learn on the job. Sadly, as a supporter of his, I'm disappointed by just how much he has to learn not just as an executive, but also as a communicator and leader. He needs to do it fast. Ahead of him are two great challenges: The Governance and politics of his administration. He is doing neither very well right now.

Obama has one great advantage. The narrative for the November 2010 elections, of a massive Democratic defeat, is being so ingrained in people's minds right now that expectations are too high. A Republican landslide. Republican's take back the House. Republicans take back the Senate. If Obama can succeed in 2010, and the economy begins to improve, Republicans will dramatically underperform and 2010 will not be 1994.

These remain the most favorable circumstances for a Democratic President and the Democratic Party for many decades. Obama just needs to grow into the leader our entire nation needs. It's a lot to ask, but he has already demonstrated his ability to learn on the campaign in the primaries when he initially struggled. I truly hope his Presidency charts a similar course.

Only time will tell and Hillary is watching closely.