First, some context: I’ve been insistent that the fundamental problem for President Obama and Democratic leaders is a lack of moral authority, a pervasive sense among the electorate that they don’t have the courage of their convictions:
Over the course of two years, President Obama and the Democratic Party achieved a remarkable feat: they passed significant, in some cases historic, legislation, yet managed not to tell the America public what they stood for and why they stood for it.
What’s worse, elected to be the anti-Bush, Barack Obama took page after page from the Bush playbook, on war, civil liberties, gay rights, executive power and women’s reproductive rights, among several other things. A perfect example is the shameful spiking of the BP spill, a craven political ploy that backfired terribly: as Democrats were getting trounced at the polls, BP was reporting a return to profitability.
No one can deny that the Obama White House and Democratic leadership racked up important accomplishments during the past two years, but voters don’t care what you do if they think you don’t stand for anything.
I keep hearing the retort that it’s all about jobs, that if the unemployment rate were 6%, Obama would be riding high and none of this would be an issue. I don’t buy it. All things being equal, when you cede your moral authority, when you telegraph to the public that you won’t stand your ground in defense of your principles, when you allow your opponent to step into the vacuum and frame your actions for you, you lose the connection to the people, you squander the ability to explain your actions, to buy time when things are going poorly, to earn trust during hard times.
In this case, Democrats collapsed in the face of an obstructionist Republican Party and the Tea Party, an overhyped, media-magnified phenomenon fueled by misinformation from think-tank generated soundbites disseminated by millionaire radio hosts and media moguls and stoked by wealthy conservative interests.
Had the White House laid out a set of core beliefs and values that they vowed to adhere to and that they framed their policies with, Democrats could have kept the American public on board with them through a tough economy. Instead, they flailed from inane attack to inane attack, never telling America what they stood for and why they stood for it, never demonstrating the strength of character and resoluteness essential to viable leadership.
The aftermath of the GOP’s midterm triumph perfectly illustrates this problem: Obama is falling over himself seeking compromise with Republicans, ceding to their frames, while Republican leaders say they will stick to their principles and try to destroy his presidency and legacy. Here’s how I put it a couple of days ago: If one side offers “compromise” and the other claims to stand firmly on principle, which one appears more principled to voters?
Read the rest of these excerpts and tell me how you feel about the White House’s post-midterm strategy. From my perspective, this interview is a near-complete capitulation to rightwing framing and basically an apology for being a Democrat:
“What [people have] seen over the last two years is a lot of partisan bickering. A lot of the same chronic problems that we’ve seen in Washington over the last several decades now. And that frustrated them. And I think they rightly said, “Okay, President Obama, you said you were gonna do something about this. We haven’t seen enough change in Washington.”
“I think that what happened over the course of two years was that we had to take a series of big, emergency steps quickly. And most of them in the first six months of my administration. Each of them had a big price tag. You got intervention in the banks. You’ve got the auto bailout. You’ve got a stimulus package. Each one with a lot of zeroes behind it. And people looked at that and they said, “Boy, this feels as if there’s a huge expansion of government.”
“But necessity created circumstances in which I think the Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big government liberal. And that’s not something that the American people want. I mean, you know, particularly independents in this country.”
“Now, I campaigned saying we should stop doing earmarks. You know, even though it’s small as a part of our overall federal budget, you know, what people consider to be pork projects, no matter how worthy, make people feel that government’s not accountable. And there should be a better way of doing it. But I had to make a decision, “Do I sign this omnibus bill to finish last year’s business? And, you know, make sure that I can keep on working with Congress to get all these things done? Or do I veto that bill and have a big fight right away in the middle of an economic crisis?” Well, I decided to sign the bill. Now, that’s an example of where I was so concerned about getting things done that, you know, I lost track of part of the reason I got elected.”
“It’s not just a matter of how many bills I’m passing, no matter how worthy they are. Part of it’s also setting a tone in Washington and for the rest of the country that says, “We’re responsible. We’re transparent. We’re open. We’re talking to each other. We’re civil.” You know?”
“I think it’s fair to say that, you know, we made the right decisions in making sure that we stabilize the economy. But in terms of setting the tone and how this town operates, we just didn’t pay enough attention to some of the things that we had talked about.”
“And my hope is that we may be in a position now where the two sides meet and agree on some things that need to be changed. I noticed that [Virginia Congressman] Eric Cantor, one of the leaders in the House, said, you know, we really need to put an end to earmarks.”
“We thought that if we shaped a [health care] bill that wasn’t that different from bills that had previously been introduced by Republicans — including a Republican governor in Massachusetts who’s now running for President — that, you know, we would be able to find some common ground there. And we just couldn’t.”
“So, for us to figure out in a bipartisan way how to start rebuilding our roads. How to make sure we got the best airports in the world. How do we make sure that we’ve got a rail system that works in this country?”
“Well, you know, again, historically, rebuilding our infrastructure is something that has garnered Democratic and Republican support. I want to have a conversation with them and see if that’s still the case. What I just mentioned in terms of providing tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States. That’s not a traditional liberal position. That’s a traditional Republican position. That’s a Chamber of Commerce position.”
“What I’m gonna do is I’m gonna reach out to Republicans and I’m gonna say, “What can we work on together?” There are gonna be some things that we can’t agree on. You know? Philosophically. And so, we will have those battles. And we’ll save those decisions till after the next election. But in the meantime, there must be some things we can agree on.” KROFT: Haven’t you tried that? PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well I have, but I’m gonna keep on trying. And I’ll give you an example that I mentioned yesterday at the press conference in energy. I think that you know the Republicans don’t want to see some big comprehensive climate change bill.”
“Well, it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves. We have a long tradition in this country of a desire for limited government, the suspicion of the federal government, of a concern that government spends too much money. You know? I mean, that’s as American as apple pie. And although, you know, there’s a new label to this, I mean those sentiments are ones that a lot of people support and give voice to. Including a lot of Democrats.”
“Sometimes I think this debate gets framed as if I think rich people, folks who are doing well, should be punished. Part of what America’s all about is going out there and getting rich. And, you know, if you make a good product, you provide a good service, God bless you. I want you to do well. Then you can plow that money back into creating jobs. And building your businesses. That’s terrific.”
“I understand the Republicans have a different view. And so, we are going to have to have a negotiation. And I am open to you know, finding a way in which, you know, they can meet their, you know, principles and I can meet mine. But in order to do that, I think we do have to answer the question of how we pay for it. If in fact we’re gonna extend these tax cuts, then we’ve got to figure out what does that mean for our debt and our deficit.”
“And hopefully, we can agree on a set of facts that leads to a compromise.”
“You know, I think that both John [Boehner] and Mitch [McConnell] are very smart. They’re capable. They have been able to, I think, organize the Republican caucus very effectively in opposition to a lot of the things that we tried to do over the last two years. And that takes real political skill. And I believe that they want the best for the country just like I do. Just like Democrats do. So you know, my assumption is that we’re gonna be able to work together. And whenever we’ve had conversations here at the White House or over on Capital Hill, they’ve always been cordial.”
“Okay, during election season, I think the rhetoric flies. And by the way, I’ve been guilty of that. It’s not just them. And you know again, this is an example, you asked me earlier, of what I reflect on. I reflect on the fact that part of my promise to the American people when I was elected was to maintain the kind of tone that says we can disagree without being disagreeable. And I think over the course of two years, there have been times where I’ve slipped on that commitment. And that’s something that I’ve got to make sure that I’m checking on an ongoing basis, making sure that my rhetoric matches up with my expectations for myself and the expectations of my supporters.”
“You know, now I will say that when it comes to some of my supporters, some of my Democratic supporters who express some frustration, part of it, I think, is the belief that if I just communicated things better, that I’d be able to persuade that half of the country that voted for John McCain that we were right and they were wrong. And, you know, one of the things that I think is important for people to remember is that, you know, this country doesn’t just agree with The New York Times editorial page. And, you know, I can make some really good arguments defending the Democratic position, and there are gonna be some people who just don’t agree with me. And that’s okay. And then we’ve got to figure out a way to compromise.”
“And so I think that we’ve got some repair work to do [with the business community]. And as I said in my press conference — you know, the key to the American economy has always been the dynamic private sector that creates jobs. I would love a situation in which the private sector is off and roaring and movin’ and, you know, the government is playing a much more limited role in the economy.”
“No you know, I do get discouraged, I mean, there are times where you think, “Dog-gone-it you know, the job numbers aren’t movin’ as fast as I want.” And you know, I thought that the economy would have gotten better by now. You know, one of the things I think you understand — as president you’re held responsible for everything. But you don’t always have control of everything. Right?”
“And you know, I think that it is entirely legitimate that in the banking sector, it’s very important for us to write these rules in collaboration with interested parties so that they can start knowin’ how things are gonna work. When it comes to healthcare, we need to be consulting with the insurance industry to make sure they know how things are gonna work.”