"I cannot hit curveball. Straightball I hit it very much." - Pedro Cerrano, Major League (1989)
If there's one thing you can say with absolute certainty about Barack Obama as a politician, it is that he learns - and then improvises, adapts and overcomes, as Clint Eastwood rasps in Heartbreak Ridge. There is no better example of his agility than his first budget.
In pushing the stimulus legislation, Obama initially opted to prioritize his campaign promises of "bipartisanship" over some of his promises of progressive policy. The end result was Republican stonewalling and a bill whose substance and public approval was (while still solid) unnecessarily weakened.
The budget is exactly the opposite. Having learned that Republicans aren't interested in bipartisanship, and - more importantly - having grasped that he must start any legislative negotiation from a position of strength, he sent Congress a budget that is unabashedly progressive - and packaged in overtly populist, "I work for Americans not lobbyists" rhetoric.
The substance is far bolder than most imagined - among other things, it includes more than half a trillion dollars for universal health care and it frontally assaults Reaganomics with proposals to increase taxes on the super-rich, hedge fund managers and polluters.
These are radical proposals, not in the sense that they are outside the mainstream of American public opinion (they aren't), but in how different they are from the last 30 years of conservative and conservative leaning government. And such welcome radicalism most likely emerged not because Obama had a secret pony plan to be this bold all along, but because economic turbulence mandates more far-reaching steps; progressive pressure is more vigorous than it has been in years; and Republican obstructionism taught the president the necessity of laying down clear markers from the beginning of any legislative debate (ie. you don't start a negotiation by asking for what you ultimately expect to get, you start a negotiation by asking for far more than you expect to get, knowing that you may be forced to bargain down).
Yes, the budget has some bad "business as usual" ideas in it, including more increases in defense spending, and what amounts to a second $700 billion bank bailout. But on the whole, Republican Sen. John Thune (SD) is (gasp!) actually right: the administration is "really swinging for the fences" on progressive policy.
The corollary benefit to this is - potentially - the beginning of a tectonic shift in our national political debate. As the New York Times says, the implicit "rallying cry" of Obama's budget "is an end to the Reagan Revolution" with the new president appearing "to have shed President Clinton's fear of being labeled an old-fashioned liberal." Put another way, Obama's budget - far more than the tax cut-draped stimulus bill - could be the first step in forcing our structurally conservative political Establishment to represent a structurally progressive majority in the country at large.
Let's not have any illusions about how difficult it will be to bring about both the immediate policy and long-term political shifts this budget represents. Elite Washington - from the media to lobbyists to Blue Dog Democrats - aren't going to just take change sitting down. Neither are exiled Republicans. As I wrote in my newspaper column this week, the Republicans are developing a sharp-edged populism that, while unfathomably hypocritical, could allow them to rejuvenate faster than everyone thinks. And as evidenced by the aforementioned new bank bailout money in the budget, Democrats are still providing fodder for the GOP's faux populism.
However, Obama's re-embrace of the thematic populism he used on the campaign suggests he's already working to prevent Republicans from rhetorically outflanking him. He also seems intent on trying to mitigate criticism of his support for more bank bailouts with support for progressive measures to crack down on Wall Street (ie. a hedge fund tax, mortgage "cramdown" legislation, financial regulation, etc.).
In short, the president isn't succumbing to the Washington conventional wisdom that says populism - ie. doing what people want - is a bad thing, nor is he succumbing to the conventional wisdom that says he must pretend (and therefore govern as if) America is a "center-right" nation. Even in the less-than-perfect acts, we are starting to see his recognition of a truly new politics: The coupling of status quo giveaways like an extended bank bailout with strongly progressive initiatives shows he believes even in appeasing the Establishment, he has to also appease We the People. That's a paradigm shift from a past era that pretended We the People didn't even exist.
As all the battles over spending, taxes, health care and regulation that we've been preparing for now unfold, "swinging for the fences" by pushing Obama to be even bolder will be our movement's charge - indeed, building the "Make Him Do It" Dynamic will help create the political force that lessens the potential for policy losses during upcoming congressional negotiations, and ultimately helps the president do what his budget shows he has learned he needs to do.
Remember, the benefits of "swinging for the fences" far outweigh the risks right now. To use the baseball metaphor - with Democrats controlling the government and with the economic crisis creating the political climate for radical action, we're Major League's Pedro Cerrano up at the plate "swinging for the fences" at a straightball, not a curveball. And as anyone who saw that movie knows, Cerrano may strike out when thrown a curveball, but he hits straightballs "very much."
If (and when) we are successful - if and when we hit this straightball out of the park in this, a Major League moment of American politics - we will not only pass immediate-term policy or aid a single president. We will finally close the rootsgap and realign the very terms of the political debate with the center of American public opinion, thus setting the stage for an entire generation of "real change."
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