Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Big Picture: Obama In A Strong Position In A Favorable Political Landscape

As Obama prepares for what is essentially his State of the Union Address tonight, the political dynamics - which seemed to be drifting in a troubling direction for Obama, liberals, and the country's future a few weeks ago - are showing significant improvement on all fronts. Before Obama re-took the offensive in a speech to Democrats in Williambsurg (one that historians may see as a crucial early watershed moment for Obama's Presidency), the images of the major political players were unfavorable. Obama seemed to be shrinking from the task at hand by deferring to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. He was tripped up by his own staff and cabinet appointees - in a time of economic crisis when people were demanding strong, bold leadership, he seemed too weak. He was drifting into the element of his personality that had concerned working-class union Democrats and their advocates: the intellectual professor, so concerned with elevating the discourse in his classroom that he would prove ineffectual at delivering help for people who urgently needed it, too aloof to connect with average folks struggling to get by. Liberal thinkers, activists, and interest groups seemed also shrink from the urgency of the situation, retreating into internal debates rather than coming up with bold solutions in a populist package that would tap into the outrage people feel at big business and the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats were falling back into the time-worn stereotype of greasy machine politicians who love to spend for spending's sake On the other side, cable media, conservative radio hosts, and Congressional Republicans were presenting a strong image: a unified opposition tapping into populist outrage about the direction of the country. The old political dynamics of the Reagan Era seemed to be re-asserting themselves in spite of the Three Big Truths: liberals are weak-willed, captive to special interests, can't connect with the concerns of the middle-class, and don't know how to effectively advocate their principles, while conservatives are strong, unified, and know how to exploit cynicism about the effectiveness of government. This drift was especially disconcerting because it seemed to be happening in the most favorable of circumstances: the Republican President and the Republican Party in general were very unpopular, Democrats had won resoundingly in two straight elections, and the debate was over a stimulus bill which contained a lot of compromising tax cuts during a time of economic crisis when most economists believed a big stimulus bill was necessary. The great fear was: if the dynamics are becoming so unfavorable now, when could they ever turn around?

But the dynamics have dramatically improved, reflecting the Three Big Truths and born out in unmistakable fashion in recent polling by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The average approval/disapproval ratings are 66-24, which puts Obama in a dominant position. 61% trust Obama to handle the economy, and only 26% trust the Republicans. By a margin of 56-30, people trust the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party to deal with the nation's major problems. All the media chatter about Obama failing to live up to his bipartisan promise has been clearly rejected by the public. 73% think Obama has compromised with Republicans, but only 34% think Republicans are compromising, and 3/4 say Republicans opposed the stimulus bill for political reasons, and not out of genuine policy disagreement. This leads to numbers that should embolden Obama and chasten Republicans: 56% say Obama should stick to the policies he campaigned on rather than being bipartisan with Republicans, while a whopping 79% tell Republicans to work with Obama and the Democrats rather than sticking to Republican policies. Only 17% think Republicans should stick to Republican policies! The media might, just might, want to reconsider its obsession with Obama being bipartisan. It also might want to re-think their understanding of people's priorities. Every time I turn on the TV, some talking head is obsessing about spending and bailouts as if that was people's biggest concern. Now it may be the concern of a few elites and of ideologues, but most people are much more concerned about the nation's economic situation. 55% of the country is struggling to get by, 64% are concerned that someone in their household will lose their job in the coming year. This is why about a consistent 63-64% of the country supports the stimulus bill, support the housing plan, and think more economic stimulus will be needed. A full 3/4 support stricter regulation of the financial industry.

These numbers make sense given the compelling images of the past few weeks, images that both reflect this favorable landscape, and which serve to make that landscape even more favorable. It is a landscape with a clear divide: a big proportion of the country believes that the overriding priority must be economic recovery and supports bold programs to create that recover. This big proportion trusts Democrats and especially Obama far more than it trusts Republicans. It supports politicians who are empathetic to people's concerns and who will try hard to help people with a focus on action and what works. A small proportion of the country, in contrast, believes the biggest problem facing the country the specter of "socialism" in America. In terms of policy, their major concern is that capitalism will be crippled by too much spending, too many bailouts of the "irresponsible", and too much regulation, and they want politicians to stand firmly on these ideological principles. Such a divide is a dream come true for Obama and the Democrats, because it solidifies their majority and pulls people in the middle toward their side, as the conservative minority retreats ever deeper into an alternative reality - what we call Bizarro World - that is ever more out of touch with people in the middle. It also leaves room for the left to be even bolder, because ideas and activists in the majority get the benefit of the doubt due to a) their connection with Obama, and b) their favorable contrast to the minority in Bizarro World.

This is positive polarization  — the dynamic that has enabled the major political changes in American history. Normally, the direction and alignment of American politics muddles along without major shifts to either the left or the right, because the center remains unaligned, distrustful of a big change in either direction. At certain pivot points, however, the dynamic of positive polarization develops, and one side is able to pull in the center and isolate the other side, creating a majority committed to major change. The Civil War was an example - the increasing extremism of the hardcore pro-slavery forces pulled them toward secession, repelling the center so that it no longer tolerated the system of slavery and finally supported the major political shift of abolition. The Great Depression was another example: the center embraced liberalism because it was repelled by Herbert Hoover's free-market conservatism response to the Great Depression - its incompetence, mean-spiritedness, and ideological extremism - and attracted by FDR's New Deal - its competence, empathy, and non-ideological can-do spirit. The conservative reaction that began in the Sixties was a third example. Conservatives finally attracted the center by appearing sober, responsible, stabilizing, and in touch with middle Americans' values and concerns. In contrast, the center was repelled by a liberalism it saw as irresponsible, destabilizing, out of touch with middle America and in thrall to an extreme Left. A common theme running through these periods of positive polarization is that one side displayed a keen awareness of the major concerns of the center and strove to persuade the center that it "got it". At the same time, the other side responded to a crisis not with pragmatic solutions but ideological one-upmanship, seemingly more concerned with retaining the support of an extremist base than with obtaining majority support. It becomes a self-reinforcing dynamic, because as the losing side gets smaller and smaller, it alienates and drives away the very moderating forces that could have pulled the side back towards the center. Meanwhile, the majority side becomes powerful enough to enact major changes and reinforce its reputation for competence with the center. We can see the same dynamic at play currently.

Last week, we saw the Bizarro world ecstatic about the outburst by CNBC's Rick Santelli, who "reported" from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade that real Americans like the stock traders around him hated Obama's housing plan because they didn't want to help out "losers" who were being foreclosed, that this was like Cuba "where they used to have mansions and now they drive around in '54 Chevys" and that real Americans would join him in a Chicago Tea Party to save capitalism. The traders and the other analysts on CNBC cheered, and Santelli's manifesto became a rallying cry for elites and conservatives who believed this was an authentic voice of the popular reaction to too much government. Given the state of the country, and the poll numbers shown above, Santelli's outburst is more accurately seen as a classic example of ideological one-upmanship, repelling the center towards Obama, not away from him. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was very smart to go after Santelli and heighten the profile of his elitist mean-spirited screed. The more Santelli plays on TV, the more people in the center harden their opposition to conservatives and strengthen their support for Obama and his agenda because they think, as prodded by Gibbs, "Wow, this is the opposition to Obama? We can't let those people have any power driving the agenda. I may not consider myself liberal, but Obama's side is the only one that's reasonable." It reminds me of Nixon's Administration, when his top adviser Pat Buchanan would be jubilant every time the Weathermen or Abbie Hoffman or the Black Panthers spoke out, because they made liberalism seem way too extreme, and Nixon appear moderate and reasonable. It also reminds me of FDR, who declared in campaign speeches, "The economic royalists hate me. And I welcome their hate," because he knew that when greedy aristocrats opposed him, it discredited the entire opposition to the New Deal.

The smug self-righteousness of Santelli and his Republican compatriots like Mark Sanford and Bobby Jindal in the face of economic crisis is not the only dynamic discrediting the conservative opposition to Obama. It's also the current division among Republican governors, well-chronicled by the Strike. A few weeks ago, it seemed as if all Republicans were unified in opposition to Obama's economic agenda, and even conservative Democrats were expressing grave doubts, which to the unaligned voter strengthens the legitimacy of opposition. That legitimacy is severely undermined when not liberals but fellow Republican governors accuse each other of putting ideology ahead of people's needs, and the unaligned voter sees centrists for the stimulus, not against it. This intra-Republican divide plays right into Obama's hands, clearly demonstrating that opposition to the stimulus was rooted in ideology and politics, not helping people. The hard pull of the Bizarro World base - demanding ideological orthodoxy in return for media support, fundraiser dollars, and primary votes - makes it very difficult for Republicans to effectively influence national politics. How do you appeal to the base and the center when they move ever further from one another?

Liberals, meanwhile, regained their courage and stood up for the stimulus package, supporting Obama's agenda in two ways. One, they are now doing a good job of making spending real - not dollar bills stacked to the moon, but real jobs, real health care, a real difference in people's lives. These powerful images help Obama make his case that his program is urgently necessary, not some liberal wish-list. Second, liberals are starting to do a better job of pushing from the left, making proposals that Obama couldn't initiate without appearing too extreme, pulling the political discussion further leftwards. Intellectuals like Paul Krugman made the case that the stimulus bill was too small, not too big, and this critique picked up steam among liberals. Meanwhile, on the same day as Santelli's rant, the mayor of Lansing went on the Fox Business Channel and pushed back against the smug talk about solving our fiscal crisis by "cutting the fat" i.e. slashing wages and the safety net. His populist outrage tapped into the mood of the country, and created a compelling contrast that furthered the "which side are you on?" dynamic of positive polarization: are you on the side of the stock traders who call middle-class folks struggling to get by and looking for a helping hand "losers", or are you on the side of the mayor looking out for his family, friends, and neighbors who are losing their jobs and health care?

Most importantly, President Obama has been stepping into FDR's shoes, demonstrating an understanding that the key to leadership in a time of economic crisis is establishing a strong reputation for a) empathy, b) persuasion, and c) action. Obama shed the tag of aloof professor, hopefully for good, when his passionate performances in Williamsburg and his press conference demonstrated that he really cared about delivering for people, and that he was the strong leader who wouldn't be bogged down but would actually deliver. And in his town hall appearances, Obama showcased his powers of empathy and of persuasion. He explained the crisis and the solutions in ways people could understand, but at the same time spoke to them as adults, as fellow partners in this effort, inspiring them to move beyond the games and slogans of the media and the Republicans to join him in the task of recovery.

Even more importantly, Obama showed that he "got it": he was the opposite of aloof as he spoke to people's most pressing concerns, hitting them not in the murky worlds of ideology but right where they lived. In the past couple weeks, the poll numbers back up my impression that Obama is rooted in the real world to a shockingly greater degree than the Republicans or the media. To me, the most powerful moment of the Obama Presidency came during his town hall in Fort Myers, as I lay on my couch sick with the flu. A woman broke down in tears as she described how she had lost her home and was living in a car. The woman was black, and in the Reagan Era one can easily imagine her dismissed as irresponsible, her homelessness her own fault, across an ocean from the political center and the middle class. But in a room full of middle class people in the foreclosure capital, there was a clear sense in the room of the spirit that enables liberal social reform: there but for the grace of God go I. She could be me. We're all in this together. Obama, whose politics can be boiled down to that very spirit, approached the woman, his arms outstretched to give her a hug. A white woman, who we could until recently imagine as the type to scold the homeless black woman and fear the black politician coming to her aid, instead looked at Obama as if he was the Messiah and said, "I love you Barack".

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