Mike and Collin Tackle the Presidency

Posted on 10. Nov, 2009 by in Uncategorized

Fellow “Obama Presidency” blogger Mike Preston and I were discussing the Ft. Hood shootings over lunch today. At first, we tried to figure out what to make of the tragedy. But then Mike presented an interesting idea. He wondered if the shootings were reflective of something bigger, a darker mood emanating from the American people. Based on the nearly constant flow of bad news over the past few days, we agreed that there is something to that idea.

The question then became: What can Obama do to lift the spirits of the America? Is it even possible? Or is the country too beaten down by the negatives of the last year and too split along party lines for any change to help more than a faction of the public?

Mike and I chewed on these questions by way of a Google Doc, resulting in what you’re about read. We welcome you to join the dialogue and add your opinions in the comments section below.

Michael: It’s been a rather inauspucious start to the extended holiday season for the Obama administration.

Collin: Obama just can’t seem to catch a break. Granted, it’s easy to let current history cloud our judgement of this presidency compared to previous ones. But I keep thinking that perhaps this is one of the most important presidential terms in our country’s history. Maybe it makes sense that it should be a struggle. It’s rare that progress comes easily.

Still I wonder, is Obama the unlucky president of circumstance and bad timing, or has his election stirred something up in the American public?

Michael: I think it’s both. I mean, we’re in what, the worst world economic downturn since the Great Depression? That situation was already in motion well before Obama took office. He obviously had little control over our military adventures in the Middle East before he was elected.

That said, there’s obviously also been some very, how shall I say…interesting?…reactions to our first black president by some of our fellow citizens. Apparently our president is a communist/socialist/stealth Muslim sleeper agent who hates white people and wants to use songs to indoctrinate school children into his youth corps. Or something.

I think some of the more unhinged criticism stems from the fact that Obama really does represent something new to a lot of Americans and they don’t know how to deal with it. For the entirety of our history, the president of the United States has been a white man. Now, we have a mixed race president who didn’t even spend his all of his youth in America as commander in chief. He’s got a weird name. He gives off the vibe of being the smartest guy in the room. It scares people because if Obama is the harbinger of something new, then something old is being supplanted.

Collin: I agree with that. Obama is like a flying car, but before anyone ever conceived the notion. I think the unique combination you describe above that makes up Obama is too much for some people to wrap their heads around.

And what that seems to have done is decisively polarize the public over every act the Obama administration carries out. The public seems to feel that he’s either for or against them with each decision. But the decisions don’t engender loyalty. I’m a little guilty of this myself. If Obama does something I’m in agreement with, hooray. But if his next decision is something I’m unhappy with, unfairly I start to question whether he’s the right man for the job. Maybe it’s because there isn’t a long political track record to comfort me. Or maybe it’s because I’m still struggling with this new mold that is Obama myself. Despite waivering from time to time, I keep giving second chances because I appreciate Obama’s frankness and, from what I can tell, transparency. Not all feel the same way, though, and not all are giving second chances.

The thing is, if everyone divides and polarizes over each Obama decision, simple math tell us that eventually he will have a very small faction of supporters left. And with the current economy, people can’t sate themselves with a financial surplus the way they could during the Clinton years if they were anti-Bill. It seems to me this is part of the reason the public is in a funk.

Michael: I suppose the question becomes, what can Obama due to win over his critics (or at least assuage their fears somewhat) while also trying to satisfy his supporters? It’s a tough balancing act. One thing to note is that Obama is still generally more popular than his policies at the moment and that he’s decidedly more popular than Congress, so he still has a bit of a free hand to pursue his agenda. The problem of course is that many of the president’s allies don’t think he’s being bold enough, while his opponents think he’s moving too quickly.

In the short term, I think Obama’s got to get his health care plan passed, with the realization that it probably won’t do more than give him a temporary boost in his approval ratings. The bulk of the health care reforms won’t event take effect until Obama’s first term is over, so people aren’t going to see any immediate change in their day to day lives.

The key right now has to be job creation. For all of the talk about the federal stimulus plan, the bulk of the funds were not doled out this year; they’ll start hitting next year. Obama and Congress just extended unemployment benefits, so that will help ease the pain a bit going into the holiday season, but he’s really got to focus on getting unemployment back under 10 percent by the end of the first quarter of 2010. As it’s an election year, the sooner a recovery featuring actual job creation starts, the better it will be for Democratic fortunes in the fall.

Also, Obama should continue to push some of the social issues that he ran on. For example, ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Given the public support for ending the policy, I think he’d do himself some good and would maybe relieve a little pressure on his administration.

Collin: I also wonder if the Obama administration should try something a bit more individual/personalized. We saw how effective his grass roots campaign was with the use micro-funding and social networking sites like Facebook. Why couldn’t that same thought process be used now?

I understand he’s got a tailgate party sized grill full of big fish to fry with the Afghanistan decision, getting health care reform passed, etc., but I’m sure there’s someone knowledgeable enough on staff to become the point man on a social networking “lift the sad clouds” campaign (I’m free if not, Mr. President–just let me know and I’ll put my resume in the mail). He’s got a website, there’s a Facebook page, a Twitter feed. Make them active instead of receptacles. Reach out, both to the haters and supporters. Mike, at lunch you mentioned somewhat jokingly the idea of bringing back the Fire Side talks. Perhaps these should be Lap Top Side Tweets?

Humor aside, my biggest issue with government has always been that I feel outside of the loop. I feel like a little guy. I don’t feel the changes. If I was at least part of the dialogue–even had an inkling that my voice was heard, my spirits would be lifted at least a little. I can’t be the only one.

Michael: I think we’re running into the natural limits of the so-called “permanent campaign”. Organizing for America, the grassroots group that helped propel Obama last year and that brought so many new people and voices into the political process last year, kind of petered out this summer in the midst of all the health care hoopla. They were ineffective in helping Democratic candidates whom the president endorsed get elected earlier this month. It’s hard to maintain that level of outreach/involvement during an off, off year election. Obama winning was the payoff for that group, but I think that trying to figure out a way to sustain that momentum is something that will continue to stymie politicians of all stripes.

I think another aspect of this is just that legislative change is a slow process and that reality is destroying the fiction that Obama, even with Congressional majorities, could come in and magically right all of the wrongs of the last eight years. It just doesn’t work that way and a lot of people are turned off now that they have to watch Obama and Pelosi and Reid make deals and seemingly compromise on their principals to get less than ideal outcomes.

Collin: That makes me wonder if Obama’s campaign keywords of “change” and “hope” are doing him more of a disservice than helping. It’s obvious that compromise has to be made in our current political system for anything to get passed–maybe Obama placed himself too high and with too far to fall with all the hope of groundbreaking, world shaking politics.

Or maybe this is how change actually happens, with small steps taken by great men who slowly affect public perception and only years down the line can their true value be measured. It always seems to come back to “wait and see” with presidential politics. Or, as may be the case this time, with us Hoping for Change. To be continued…

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