Watching the Sunday morning talk shows and the president's various appearances since his "shellacking" on Tuesday, what was clear is that the Republicans and the president seem to have learned the same thing from both this election and from their respective years in power, which country singer Brad Paisley has summed up in song: "Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once."
The Republicans, for their part, took home the message from both the election and their years doubling the national debt and the disparity between the upper 1 percent and the rest of us that Americans want a second helping of economic insecurity and inequality. While claiming a victory for the ideology of low taxes (for the rich) and minimal government (for big corporations), none of them could answer why we would expand tax cuts to the same people whose income has skyrocketed while working and middle class Americans have seen their after-tax income drop since the Bush tax cuts (except with platitudes about "job creators"). Nor could any Republican on television this week say precisely how they would cut spending, particularly if it involved programs that would have to be cut to make the slightest dent in the national debt (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, and defense). What we will undoubtedly see instead are symbolic bills passed by House Republicans aimed at activating latent prejudices by calling for cuts in entitlement programs not associated with politically untouchable groups such as older white people (e.g., Medicaid and food stamps), which would have no appreciable impact on the deficit but a very appreciable impact in dividing the two-thirds of Americans who are living paycheck to paycheck against each other.
For his part, from his post-election press conference through his appearance on 60 Minutes through his inexplicable decision to jet off to Asia in a way that seemed to underscore to the American people his disinterest in both their domestic concerns and the feelings they had just expressed at the ballot box, the president once again illustrated three interrelated hallmarks of his presidency: his ability to endorse nearly every side of an issue, his inability or unwillingness to articulate (whether to the American people or perhaps, more importantly, to himself) any governing philosophy or core set of principles that inform his decisions (e.g., a progressive alternative to the Reagan mantra of "government is the problem, not the solution"), and his allergy to leadership, particularly if it means dealing with conflict or aggression from his political opponents. Over the course of the couple of days he stuck around America long enough to take both sides of the issue, President Obama made clear that he will oppose tax cuts for anyone but the middle class but on the other hand might be willing to extend the Bush tax cuts to the rich, perhaps for a couple years. Like his decision a year and a half ago to cut the stimulus and lard it up with tax cuts the prior eight years had proven to be inert in creating jobs -- a decision that just cost Democrats the House, by "proving" to the American people the uselessness of an economic stimulus and of government more generally -- extending the Bush tax cuts to millionaires would be both bad public policy and bad politics, as all available data suggest that any extension of tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires would be deeply unpopular with voters, who expressed more than anything else their angry populism last Tuesday. The president's differing opinions on whether he believes this is a good area for compromise with congressional Republicans was reminiscent of his various speeches on the importance of deficit spending while cutting the deficit, or his major energy speech on why we have to tackle climate change while expanding oil shale (perhaps the dirtiest, most energy-inefficient fuel ever explored), "clean coal" (which sounds great in West Virginia and would be even better if it existed), and offshore oil drilling (not exactly the most prescient moment in a speech made just two weeks before the BP disaster).
Then there was his 60 Minutes interview last night (prerecorded so he could visit Indonesia today), in which he expressed his regret that he and his team were so busy spending money to plug the economic dike that they gave the misimpression that they believed in government spending, when at heart he doesn't really like government all that much, either. In the same interview, when asked about the perception that he's anti-business, he made clear that some regulations are necessary, but they should be made in "collaboration" with the industries that need to be regulated -- a position strongly articulated by his predecessor, who most of us believed we had voted against -- and then proceeded to offer the two most egregious examples he could find, particularly with the swing voters who swung strongly against him and his party this year, namely bankers and health insurance executives. (You can't make this stuff up.) It's a little hard to imagine Franklin Roosevelt speaking of the robber barons of his era in quite such collegial terms. (To be fair, President Obama has said many other things since Tuesday and in his 60 Minutes interview that hit a more responsive chord.)
After watching the returns Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, happy to be in a hotel with a sorely needed mini-bar, I had intended to dissect the president's role in this election upon returning home to write this piece at the end of the week. Then on Friday I received an email from a blogger at the DailyKos, telling me that a piece I had written had just drawn nearly a thousand responses. Wondering if I'd made one too many trips to the mini-bar while away (because I couldn't recall having written anything since a CNN.com op-ed on election night), I checked out the DailyKos to see what he was referring to and found an excerpt and a link to a piece I had published here nearly a year ago. As I read it, I realized it was probably a better postmortem than anything I could write today, for two reasons. First, at the time, it expressed a view many people -- whether toward the center or the left -- were starting to feel but not yet articulating or feeling comfortable articulating in print. Today, as I read it, it almost seems mainstream. Second, it is easy to dismiss a postmortem of an election as post-hoc, written with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. But it's a lot harder to dismiss a postmortem written a year before the election returns, which in American politics is an eternity.
So below is the unvarnished article from December 2009.
Leadership, Obama Style, and the Looming Losses in 2010: Pretty Speeches, Compromised Values, and the Quest for the Lowest Common Denominator
As the president's job performance numbers and ratings on his handling of virtually every domestic issue have fallen below 50 percent, the Democratic base has become demoralized, and Independents have gone from his source of strength to his Achilles Heel, it's time to reflect on why. The conventional wisdom from the White House is those "pesky leftists" -- those bloggers and Vermont Governors and Senators who keep wanting real health reform, real financial reform, immigration reform not preceded by a year or two of raids that leave children without parents, and all the other changes we were supposed to believe in.
Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.
What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.
What's costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.
The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It's that all three have more than a grain of truth. And I say this not as one of those pesky "leftists." I say this as someone who has spent much of the last three years studying what moves voters in the middle, the Undecideds who will hear whichever side speaks to them with moral clarity.
Leadership, Obama Style
Consider the president's leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there's a conflict, because if there's a conflict, he doesn't want to be anywhere near it.
Health care is a paradigm case. When the president went to speak to the Democrats last week on Capitol Hill, he exhorted them to pass the bill. According to reports, though, he didn't mention the two issues in the way of doing that, the efforts of Senators like Ben Nelson to use this as an opportunity to turn back the clock on abortion by 25 years, and the efforts of conservative and industry-owned Democrats to eliminate any competition for the insurance companies that pay their campaign bills. He simply ignored both controversies and exhorted.
Leadership means heading into the eye of the storm and bringing the vessel of state home safely, not going as far inland as you can because it's uncomfortable on the high seas. This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can't tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead.
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