24 August 2011

The Democratic Dilemma

As much as I try to defend President Obama, I would be lying if I said I didn't expect more from him. Not so much in terms of results, but in terms of his approach to the presidency. The DC status quo seems to have lumbered on and Obama either can't or won't seriously confront it. The worse things get, the safer he plays it. This is a common and destructive (both for the country and the party) theme among Democrats when they are in control of things.

The Democratic party is heterogeneous and diverse. This is great, but it also causes problems. Democrats in office today represent a scattered cacophony of voices and as such require a strong (and popular) executive presence in their corner, filtering all the different voices into a singular message. This is necessary, politically speaking, when Democrats are in power. It also helps keep the country stable, if not strong. President Obama is not filling this role as well as he could.

Obama came into office swinging. First, he pushed for and got the stimulus package (which, while huge, history will record should have been much larger, at least large enough to be effective for more than one year and produce sustainable, job-creating results). Then came health care. While he did try to garner bipartisan support at first, once it became clear that wasn't happening he rammed it through, for better or worse.

But then came the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans cleaned house because they had a consistent, resonating message (as they usually do) and Democrats, backs to the wall, fled in different directions (as they usually do.) Since then, Obama has found it necessary to either compromise or capitulate on numerous domestic and economic issues, depending on how you look at it. Instead of standing up to the Tea Party bullies formed by his election and first two years in office, he is appearing to cave to their demands. (He may not think he's caved, and who knows what really happens behind closed doors, but I think it's safe to say this is the public perception.)

I can't solely blame Obama, though. He probably had scores of advisers telling him after the midterms that the only path to reelection was to appease the other side, or "a shift to the center." They were wrong.

In times of crisis Americans want their president to be firm and decisive, not unsure and quick to compromise. Moderate voters (the ones that matter) are more likely to overlook your questionable political views if you come off as a decisive leader than they are to overlook your indecisiveness (perceived as weakness) even if you agree with them ideologically. In short, what America seems to want right now is a commander-in-chief, not a negotiator-in-chief. 

When Obama needed to be strong, clear and decisive (Bush tax cuts, debt ceiling, financial reform, etc.) he ceded ground to the other side and got nothing in return. This severely hurt his image, especially with moderates and those of us who agree with his agenda. The public perception of the president's leadership and handling of the economy will be the only thing that matters in 2012. Obama's attempt to pacify the Right has only emboldened it and now he risks losing the credibility of authority heading into an election year. This, coupled with a still-struggling economy, could prove fatal for his reelection chances.

Democrats should take a page from the Republican playbook. Obama needs to speak from the heart, defend his policies, explain himself and his decisions more clearly and reconnect with everyday Americans. The GOP is quite adept at churning out candidates who meet this description (See: Rick Perry.) Americans need to know that the president is in control and he is looking out for us. Obama has it in him to deliver this message before November 2012, but he needs to avoid the classic Democratic pitfalls of the past and stop doing what his handlers tell him is safe.