Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Obama said & Broder heard.


Watching President Obama's speech just outside Cleveland yesterday, something seemed a little different.

The president has a habit of going out of his way -- perhaps even too far -- to give his detractors and opponents the benefit of the doubt. He'll characterize Republicans -- whom he'll often just call "some in Congress" or "the minority" -- as sincere but mistaken. He'll try to emphasize areas of agreement with his critics, and point to issues where he'd like to see bipartisan support.

Yesterday, however, the president's speech suggested that, at least for now, he's tired of unrequited outreach. This was a speech in which Obama talked about Republicans the way Republicans talk about him -- only his case had the advantage of being true.

Much has been made of the fact that the president mentioned House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) by name, eight times. That was clearly a departure from the norm, and may have had something to do with Obama speaking in Ohio.

But the larger significance of the speech was the president carefully and thoroughly taking apart Boehner's party's discredited economic vision. In the process, Obama presented the electorate with a very clear choice for the short-term and long-term future. The New York Times editorial board argued it took the president "too long to engage this debate." Perhaps. But there can be little doubt that he's fighting hard now.

E.J. Dionne Jr. did a nice job describing the context of the White House push.

Until Obama's Labor Day speech in Milwaukee and his statement of principles Wednesday near Cleveland, it was not clear how much heart he had in the fight or whether he would ever offer a comprehensive argument for the advantage of his party's approach.

In the absence of a coherent case, Republicans were winning by default on a wave of protest votes. Without this new effort at self-definition, Obama was a blur: a socialist to conservatives, a sellout to some progressives, and a disappointment to younger Americans who wondered what happened to the ebullient, hopeful guy they voted for.

That's why the Milwaukee-Cleveland one-two punch mattered. The first speech showed Obama could fight and enjoy himself in the process. The second speech spelled out why he has chosen to do battle.... Suddenly, there's a point to this election. Obama is late to this game, but at least he's finally playing it.

If you missed it, I think the speech is well worth watching. I have no idea if it's too late, or if the necessary number of voters are even willing to listen. But if you've been waiting for the president to take the fight to the GOP with the passion evident in 2008, wait no more.

Over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said President Obama could only "survive" politically if he chooses to "come back to the middle." It's already obvious that this will be the accepted conventional wisdom, if it isn't already, within the political establishment: Dems shouldn't have been so darn liberal.

Cue David Broder.

Nov. 2 is likely to be marked as the official start of Phase Two of the Obama presidency, but in some respects, the turn to the right that will mark his tenure became visible in this first week in September.

In an odd twist, Broder considers the president's speeches in Wisconsin and Ohio as evidence of a new, more conservative approach. That, in and of itself, is a rather odd take -- nearly everyone who heard those speeches came away with the impression that Obama was more partisan than usual, more populist than usual, and more combative about fighting with the GOP over economic policy than usual.

Broder, however, saw a move to the right because the president proposed tax incentives that Republicans might like. It's an odd analysis -- Obama called for new infrastructure investment (liberal), demanded that tax breaks for the rich expire on schedule (liberal), and categorically rejected the entire Republican vision of economic policy (liberal). Broder sees the same speeches and thinks "liberals in his party" will disapprove, and that Obama's new ideas represent "the kind of tax reform Republicans can love." Given the responses to the two speeches -- Dems are largely impressed, the GOP isn't -- that seems backwards.

What's more, Broder also believes the public has soured on the administration's economic policies because of "mushrooming deficits." That seems mistaken, too -- the public's frustrations, according to all available evidence, have far less to do with deficits than an unemployment rate near 10%. Broder may be principally concerned about the deficit, but the jobs crisis is almost certainly more on the minds of Americans in general.

But the larger point is the key here -- Broder expects the president to "turn to the right." It's the kind of analysis that will dominate the political establishment after the midterms, and it's going to be entirely wrong.

Obama already is and has been in "the middle." It's what led to a smaller and less effective stimulus; it's what led to a more moderate health care reform bill; it's what produced a less ambitious Wall Street reform package. The president has sought to compromise, over and over again, with a comically right-wing GOP that's not only refused to meet him half-way on literally anything, but at times seems intent on undermining national progress purely for partisan gain.

The wait for columns on Republicans moving to the middle, meanwhile, continues.

No comments:

Post a Comment