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Changing politics

Rick Perlstein and Mark Schmitt take a bit of time to really get going in their debate over whether Obama's 'theory of change' has been a success, but eventually they do get into it, and they both agree: It's failed. What isn't as clear is what Obama can do about it. Here's Mark:

The solution, I think, is not just for Obama to turn mean but to really focus aggressively on changing politics. This means challenging not just Republicans but his own party for their limited imagination, their entanglement with lobbyists and contributors, their fraidy-cat approach to electoral politics.

I've read this a couple of times, and I'm not sure I know what it means. How should Obama "challenge Republicans?" What will it get him? How long will the public remain interested in it? And how will the strategy change our politics?

I've long argued that Obama's “theory of change” was that voters hated gridlock, and the proposed antidote was to show that government could work. Working, in this case, meant passing legislation addressing hard problems. But it turned out that there's nothing the public likes less than watching government work to pass legislation. It's grubby and polarizing and controversial and riven by special interests. So now what?

Obama can begin to run against government, but then he's not likely to get much through the very Congress he's lambasting. He can begin to put muscle behind good government initiatives like Dick Durbin's effort to make corporate money less important in politics, though there'll be no immediate payoff there in terms of making Washington friendlier to Obama's agenda. But I'm pretty underwhelmed by these options, and I'm the one thinking them up. Anyone got something better?

By Ezra Klein  |  January 25, 2010; 3:35 PM ET
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I got one: pass the damn health care bill.

Posted by: Isa8686 | January 25, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I agree that President Obama's initial position was that people distrust government because government didn't seem to address the big problems of the or the specific needs of middle and lower-class people. Unfortunately, his presidency has proved the opposite: Congress, particularly the Senate, are so broken by procedural rules and special interest money that even historic majorities can't tackle a single major issue of the day, and it's not even climate change, which I think is the most important big issue currently facing us.

Also he's shown (or really, it's become clear on his watch) that our system is set up such that the problems of working people take a primary role. In the greatest downturn in over a generation, the needs of big corporations, whether the auto industry or the financial industry, get addressed first and in lieu of the problems regular folks were having. And rightly so, because the problems the corporations were facing were so bad that if left unaddressed it would have drug us all down, but that still left millions out of work and under water on their mortgages. Again, it's not his fault, it's just become starkly apparant on his watch.

And now we have a Supreme Court ruling that almost ensures that no major changes will happen as long as the necessary changes run counter to monied interests.

So honestly, I don't know what he could change. Hope for a booming economy, I guess, which would make people feel better even if it doesn't fix our underlying problems. There's supporting efforts to curtail money in politics or eliminating the fillibuster, but those seem more like second term "I don't care about reelection" issues.

Posted by: MosBen | January 25, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I think people will like many of Obama's policies, it's the process that is turning them off. I am pretty sure that once health care reform, for instance, is in place the focus will change. My advice to Obama is to push this stuff through and show that government works and we can live through the process. We haven't really gotten to watch it up close like this before and it can be a bit grubby and polarizing, etc., but my money says people will like the results, and then will have an easier time with the process next go around.

Here's the spin, which the White House should be pushing daily: Democracy is messy and that's perfectly normal -- it's just that it's been so long since ours tackled anything worth tackling that we've forgotten that. I think the White House needs a much better message machine. Time to sell the results so people will hold their nose and bear with the process. They really haven't given this a fair shot.

Posted by: Barbour | January 25, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

believe it or not, there are many people who still deeply admire and support barack obama.
the media is now doing everything they can to typecast him as a failed president, and he has not even delivered his state of the union address.
i think he is trying against almost insurmountable odds and angry mobs in a declining country, that began its decline long before he took office.
so now, it is the new game to pin the tail on the president.
i think if there was more support and understanding and patience, we could change the climate. but against all of these odds, people have grown impatient, and now, even if he were to solve our problems, he would still be under a barrage of criticism.
that is easy and convenient.
i think it is perception.
i see a lot of this as impatience, cut and run cowardice and taking the easy way out.
everyone is running for the hills.
too bad.
many people i know are standing by him, and believe that things will still work out.
i think we have a lot of quitters out there.

Posted by: jkaren | January 25, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

If you are dissappointed over Obama's failure to initiate change, then this must be your first rodeo. I'm sixty two and almost every presidential candidate has promised a new start for DC.

I'm still a sucker, though. Obama could really get behind Conrad-Gregg and that would do more than anything to change Washington.

Posted by: bobsteph1234 | January 25, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Obama still has the wiggle room to rescue his presidency but one thing's for sure: the *theory* of Obama has failed. Anyone with any critical faculty could have seen that after the stimulus debate, when all of his pandering to the center with tax cuts yielded exactly zero votes in the House. At that point he should have radically re-calibrated -- say whatever sweet nothings about "bipartisanship" in public but in private worked via reconciliation and silent intimidation to get some things done.

Had healthcare reform passed in the fall, Obama would have kept the pragmatic independents in his column. Pundits forget that what Independents really held against Bush wasn't his policies, it was his bungling execution of them in Iraq and New Orleans. His incompetence alienated voters in the center, not his right-wing over-reach.

The GOP destroyed the theory of Obama back in August, when all their crazy gun-toting tea parties went unanswered. They've made him look weak and ineffectual -- and unlike Reagan, who faced similar political challenges at this point in his first time, Obama is the black Other, which could cripple him permanently if he slips below a certain threshold of white support. He -- and we -- do ourselves no good by refusing to acknowledge this fact. He can still salvage his presidency, but it will be so much more difficult now than had he shifted into a more activist and partisan mode six months ago. A signed healthcare reform law would be a major first step but I truly believe that reform has collapsed. (But then again, I saw this coming and tried to warn Ezra and others, only to be told by EK that he "wasn't paying any attention to the Massachusetts race.")

As a white Southern Protestant, I know better than most how conservatives strategize. They're deeply engaged in a holy war with Democrats, and they're playing to win even if it means destroying the country. It's really that simple. And while EK and Krugman and Josh Marshall were blogging about conference bills and excise taxes and exchanges, they made their stealthy move.

Posted by: scarlota | January 25, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Obama's theory of change can still work. The problem is that it takes two critical components:

1) People must feel that the process by which difficult decisions are being made is fair.

2) People must be engaged enough with policy to recognize that least-bad options deserve their support.

Both of these work quite well in a well-publicized presidential race but are quite difficult in the political "offseason". The key is that Obama has to find a way to make the regular process more conducive to earning the faith of regular people.

As I mentioned on another article, I think Obama would be able to accomplish a great deal politically by having C-SPAN come in and televise his meeting with Democratic and Republican leadership and hashing out what they want to see in health care legislation. Republicans cannot show up to such a meeting and stand for nothing, nor can Republicans back out of the chance to start from scratch; it's easy to spin them as principled objectors under normal circumstances, but they'd really get nailed for not participating.

Once you force Republicans to take ownership and stand for something, it becomes a lot harder for them to back out of the process later. And, if you can get Republicans to be visible participants in the process, you've essentially solved the entire political problem.

Posted by: jeffwacker | January 25, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I lost them both when they agreed that John Edwards would have been the proper "standard bearer" for the progressive movement. I mean, they just lose their credibility on this issue right there. Edwards, who had been, among all the Bush-years senators, the most implicated in support of the Iraq invasion, the Patriot Act, and who was a founding member of the Senate New Democrat Coalition (DLC)? Because he decided to find an electoral niche by taking up some populist rhetoric and a "fight fight fight" spirit?

So where does that leave me in regards to this debate? If progressives remain focused on words and political posturing as the measure of their support, I'm afraid we're talking at loggerheads here. I agree with Ezra that effective governance, actual progress in getting things done, should be worth a whole lot more than a few pounds of angry rhetoric. Getting a health care bill passed that would impose regulatory measures on the insurance industry and provide subsidies to poor and middle class Americans, for example, would be more indicative of a progressive posture than standing (uselessly) on the sidelines screaming about the evils of the insurers. But that's just me. I suppose optics are everything, so if it takes a little angry populist rhetoric, I guess so be it. But I don't think it will help anything particularly.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | January 25, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

But it turned out that there's nothing the public likes less than watching government work fail to pass legislation. It's grubby and polarizing and controversial and riven by special interests.

Posted by: Nick28 | January 25, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

no HTML tags? thanks, WaPo!

Posted by: Nick28 | January 25, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Follow what sounds counter-intuitive ...

The majority sets the agenda
The President sets the standard
The minority figures out the solution

For example, Last SOTU Obama declared that he had three legs for enduring prosperity.
a ) Health care reform
b ) Green Jobs/Cap-trade
c ) Eductaion system overhaul

A is on life-support, b is dead. Both written under the OLD system.

SO ... set the standards for education system overhaul and challange the republicans to come up with solutions that meet his standards.
Tell the Democrats to shut up and let the Republicans hang themselves or prove they CAN get along.
If the solutions are tolerable ( he thinks they will meet the standards he set ) ... fight to get the support from his own party to pass it.
Then take credit for passing it in the first place as well as for showing HOW the post-partisan world can look.

This would have the long-term effect of
* Voters vote for the party that has the AGENDA they like.
* Minority party has the ability to show they deserve a chance to govern by providing viable solutions.
* majority party shows they are not out of touch and just a bunch of political zealots by accepting and modifying the minority solutions.

THAT won't happen. No way no how are the current ideologues in the Democratic Party going to allow shared credit.

But it would be the way out of this mess.
Pretty simple to explain too.

* Majority sets the agenda
* President sets the standards
* Minority works out the solution to be modified by the majority
majority shoving THEIR solutions to THEIR Agenda down everyone's throat.

Posted by: chromenhawk | January 25, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Obama needs to learn to accept "no" as an answer and stop trying to deal with Republicans. They don't want to deal! Enough already! The lessons of '93-94 have also been overlearned. Congress isn't competent enough to pass big reforms by itself. It needs active Presidential leadership and public mobilization. Then he needs to remember why he won the Democratic nomination in the first place: because he opposed the Iraq war and Clinton and Edwards supported it. So get us the hell out of there right now and from Afghanistan too.

Posted by: redwards95 | January 25, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

"People must feel that the process by which difficult decisions are being made is fair."

I think I see the problem...

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | January 25, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama has shown little understanding of the concept of leverage. By not aggressivley favoring the public option, Obama telgraphed his willingness to eschew it, thus ceding the HCR debate to play out on a more conservative playing field.

Bush, in contrast, had shown remarkable understanding of leverage. The Bush administration's willingness to use the so called nuclear option created the conditions (i.e. leverage) that resulted in the Gang of 14 reaching an agreement to allow confirmation of conservative appellate court candidates.

In an ideal world, the House would pass a resolution condemning the undemocratic filibuster in the Senate (this is in the process of happening). Once the resolution passed, pretext (unlike the Bush Administration's excutive branch only attack on the Senate, popular will would be demonstrated) would be given to the Obama administration to threaten to deploy the nuclear option in the Senate. This would give Obama leverage to encourage the passing of the Harkin-Lieberman filibuster reform act. Of course, to maximize the effect of the leverage both Obama and Biden need to have publicly maximalist positions: they need to publicly state their firm convictions in using the nuclear option ("not blink", in Sarah Palin parlance, in their public assertions). Of course, Biden and Obama, being veterans of the Senate, would never consider antogonizing so many of their colleagues or the Institution of the Senate.

Posted by: len2v | January 25, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

It appears he has chosen to look to the Republican Party for his inspiration.

Of course it is hard to implement policy. Especially if you spend all your time and political capital kissing Republican butt. And what does he do when unemployment is 12%? Unfortunately, that may mean the bona fide crazies get elected and we get to see what some neo-Hooverite can do to us. Obama will get blamed for that, too.

And next opportunity the Republicans will not hesitate to do away with the filibuster. If the Democrats had any guts or brains they would do it now.

Posted by: Nat_51 | January 25, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

Pick a few strategic fights, per the collective wisdom of your peers on finance reform. Have Plouffe organize a few key primary challenges.

Posted by: SamPenrose | January 25, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

Instead of the small stuff to help middle-class families dealing with insecurity he's set to unveil in the state of the union (child care tax credit, student loan cap, etc.) why not something bigger, like Paid-Family Leave? It's easy for the public to understand, would help millions of people if passed, and would put the Republicans in the position of having to argue against moms taking care of their newborns and ailing relatives.

Throw an elbow already, dammit.

Posted by: MattMilholland | January 26, 2010 2:03 AM | Report abuse

The most frequent thoughts I have these days are:

1. Oh, if only we had someone who could exercise leadership, they same way that people were brought together to vote for the stimulus.

2. and Oh if only we had a great communicator who would beat the bushes for a year to build a constituency and explain the need for and workings of health care reform. You know, someone who automatically has the TV cameras pointed at him 24 hours a day.

You know, like a president or someone.

Instead, we get one speech -- ONE SPEECH -- in an entire year on health care, in the face of a withering Republican and corporate wave of attacks. We get someone who, after begging the Senate to ruin the process, cannot now rouse himself to ask the Senate to scare up 51 votes on reconciliation to make the House happy. After offering no support at all, he's now ready to abandon the whole effort on his signature domestic priority.

So ideas? Hmmmm. How about making government work? That hasn't been tried yet.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 26, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Ezra: "the proposed antidote was to show that government could work. Working, in this case, meant passing legislation addressing hard problems. But it turned out that there's nothing the public likes less than watching government work to pass legislation."

There is something the public likes less: accepting that hard problems means making hard choices--not just on the part of our elected officials, but on ourselves.

It's unrealistic to expect our elected officials to have the backbone to make hard choices when so much of the public is not willing to back them on it. So we get majorities who support deficit reduction and tax cuts, even though they're incompatible. We have a health care bill where subsidies are popular but the cost of the bill is not, even though they go together. We're all in favor of green energy, but we throw a fit at the slightest mention of a gas tax that would accomplish so many policy goals that I'm not going to reiterate them here.

Republicans during the Bush years rode the free lunch platform as long as they could (tax cuts are free, two wars are free, prescription drug benefits are free). Democrats are trying to be more responsible (health care has to be paid for), but any requirement for contributions by the public to make change happen is met by substantial resistance because too many people think "the government" should just solve problems independent of any input or action by the citizenry.

I think the only way out is to ask the public if they're serious. Seriousness means being willing to act on the issues we say we care about. It means a willingness to do things differently so that together we can create the change we say we want to happen. That willingness can form the political support our politicians need to take the tough votes.

But they can't do it unless we're willing to do it. And who has asked us? When was the last time an elected official has said you'd actually have to do something on an issue to make change happen?

Government is the way we act together. If we're unwilling to act, it's unrealistic to expect "government" to act for us. But if we are all willing to do a little bit, we can, through our government, accomplish some amazing things.

But it won't happen until we're ask to take responsibility for what we say we want out of our government.

Posted by: dasimon | January 26, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

It will always be the messenger and never the message.

The sad truth is, it's the message.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | January 26, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

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