Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's not about him

George Packer's blog posts are relatively rare, and I always look forward to them.  He usually brings new information and a deeply informed perspective both to international affairs and to domestic politics. But I think he's simply off his rocker about Obama in his latest:
His campaign was based on the man more than any set of ideas or clear vision of the future. Everyone knew what Reaganism stood for. No one knows what Obamaism means, which has allowed his enemies to fill in the blank.
That is complete malarky.  No one ever campaigned on a set of policy proposals more coherently situated in a conceptual framework than Obama did. He laid that framework out in speech after speech after speech, not to say in The Audacity of Hope. When I get my hands on the book this evening, I will fill in an early manifesto here.

"Obamaism" is liberalism on a diet, with programs subject to outcomes assessment, undertaken with awareness that overtaxation kills the golden goose, and biased toward creating the right incentives, as in the Race to the Top education program. It's mainstream  liberalism chastised by Reaganism: government as part of the solution but aware of its limitations and the law of unintended consequences. It is a liberalism that, thus chastened, bids to move a commitment to shared prosperity back to center of American politics:
But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America - that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it's not - when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States (Janesville, WI, Feb. 13, 2008). 
Obamaism focuses on long-range foundations of economic growth: improved education, renewable energy sources, a repaired safety net, control of healthcare costs, a rollback of the growing income inequality of the past 30 years. (Perhaps it's that long view that hurting him now. People know what he stands for; not enough yet trust that what he and the Democrats deliver will help them.) Here, for example, is Obama laying out his economic program in February 2009 (after outlining what went wrong in the runup to financial crisis):
We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.
It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation; new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and industries; new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That is the new foundation we must build. That must be our future – and my Administration's policies are designed to achieve that future.

While "New Foundation" has been largely written off as anodyne politispeak, the chosen metaphor is in sync with Obama's propensity toward thinking long-term and thinking big: changing the trajectory, moving the battleship by degrees. In the campaign, Obama stressed the results he would pursue.  As President, starting from the deep hole of a hellacious recession and pleading for patience, he has often stressed process:

This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.

That emphasis on changing direction, making a new beginning -- and on pragmatism, moderation, incrementalism --  was also in Obama's terse celebration of the passage of the health care reform bill:

So this isn’t radical reform. But it is major reform. This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like.
Even at his most grandiose, as on the night of the last Democratic primary, he has always emphasized making a new beginning, setting the right forces in motion, beginning to do x y and z to lay his new foundation:
If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals. 
Obama's approach is not resonating right now because people don't see results yet. Packer is falling into the classic political watcher's trap of blaming messaging instead of economic fundamentals for a downturn in political fortunes.

It may be true, as Obama himself has suggested, that he and his team haven't communicated as well as they did during the campaign  since taking office.  But that is more a matter of failing to drive home facts -- such as the stimululs' saving 2-3 million jobs and adding 2-3 percentage points to GDP -- than of failing to articulate what he stands for.

1 comment:

  1. This blog post is a great illustration of why Obama's messaging has failed to connect with the majority. The only way to make a message consistent, to be clear about "what you stand for" as a politician, is to repeat the same stupid slogans day after day. And though soundbites are terrible policy, good policy makes for terrible soundbites. "Government is evil" works great. "Pragmatic, fact-driven governance", not so much.

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