Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hope from the SOTU for Obama and the Democrats?

Joe Conason takes the most thoughtful approach I've seen to arguing that President Obama's State of the Union speech was a significantly constructive moment for the President and the Democratic Party. He argues that Obama offered an appealing and popular vision of the American future "that contrasts powerfully with the partisan negativity and apocalyptic pessimism voiced by the Republicans."

In Solid State: Forget the Haters—Obama Delivered New York Observer 01/26/2011, he argues, "The president cannot expect the Republicans to move his agenda forward during the next two years, but he can start to demonstrate why their own agenda is empty and stagnant." And, "Gently but persuasively, the president suggested that the electoral turn toward the Republicans last November was a mistake, and began to explain why."

This is important. Obama has articulated a vision that is, in contrast to that of the opposition Party, hopeful and even inspiring. Conason also points out that it was a dramatic contrast to the gloomy vision articulated in the Republican responses by Congressman Paul Ryan and the loopy babbling of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The latter, he said, "repeated the same stale talking points that always issue from her mouth when she isn't inventing fables about our history."

Joe's hopeful take on the SOTU is reasonable on its face. Presumably he's also drawing on his intensive research into the thinking, personalities and tactics of the Republican Party over the last 20 years, including "Gingrich Revolution", when the Republicans also had taken a House majority against a Democratic President in the 1994 elections.

But, as he also notes at the end of his hopeful piece, "the true state of the Union is more perilous than Mr. Obama dared to admit." The factual flexibility the US has on its deficits and debt as a result of the dollar's role as the world's reserve currency in a system of (mostly) free-floating currency values gives the federal government a lot of leeway. But the realities of climate change are not going away.

And, in an issue that is more urgently pressing, the US has a high unemployment rate that the Administration is simply not addressing in an effective way. That, more than anything else, gave this speech a weird disconnect with the real state of the American public. It polled exceptionally well in the flash polling just afterward. But that's almost certainly because Obama kept things on a very high rhetorical plane, mostly avoiding saying anything that would quickly anger anyone.

Robert Reich makes the point this way in The President Ignored the Elephant in the Room 01/26/2011:

. . . the President’s failure to address the decoupling of American corporate profits from American jobs, and explain specifically what he’ll do to get jobs back, not only risks making his grand plans for reviving the nation’s “competitiveness” seem somewhat beside the point but also cedes to Republicans the dominant narrative.

The address he gave last night could have been given (indeed, was given) by Democrats in the 1980s when Japan seemed to threaten America’s preeminence. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manifesto, "Putting People First," laid out the case. Only now the competitive threat comes from China. [my emphasis]
Both political and economic conditions were different in 1995 for Bill Clinton. The economy was recovering and would become turbo-charged from the bubble. And as bad as the Republicans were, FOX News hadn't started up yet and the national media were only a few years into the steep slide in quality they've been on ever since. Obama and the Democrats today face a very different situation.

Reich's complaint about Obama ceding the dominant narrative to the Republicans isn't necessarily inconsistent with Joe Conason's more hopeful view. Let's put it this way: Joe's hoped-for scenario may play out well for Obama and the Dems - but only if they do a better job at challenging the Republican narrative about government and the economy. Cute anecdotes about the gubment not being able to regulate salmon right won't get them there.

Reich also expresses understandable reservations about the Sputnik metaphor:

It's one thing to challenge the nation to re-embark on the equivalent of a race to the moon when most people feel confident about their own family finances, but quite another when economic security is as endemic as now.
I really hate to say it, but Sarah Palin's hick response to the SOTU - a "Spudnut" moment (?!?) - actually illustrates how little the "Sputnik" imagery registers with a lot of people. Even though what Palin says is so goofy it gives dumb a bad name. See Dave Neiwert's account with video, Speaking of 'WTF moments': Palin launches into weird babble about Spudnuts C&L 01/27/2011. Dave also has a memorable description of Palin's image as "her whole naughty-librarian schtick."

Also, it's one thing to lay out a potentially useful framework for putting the Republicans in a less favorable light. Actually engaging in political conflict with them in ways that create a sharp and clear contrast between the parties is another. We'll see if Obama is willing to do that. At this point, Harry Reid looks far more willing to join that battle that the President is. Digby has already caught Obama's political honcho David Axelrod waffling on defending Social Security. (Veto-proof Bipartisanship Hullabaloo 01/27/2011)

That's a good two-word way to define the problem with getting to where Joe Conason is hoping the vision of the SOTU will eventually take the Democratic Party: "Social Security". As long as core Democratic constituencies have to worry about the Obama Administration accepting Social Security Phaseout, neither Obama nor the Democratic Party will be able to do what they need to do to change the dominant Republican narrative.

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"It is the logic of our times
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  • Anticipating the State of the Union address
  • Ron Reagan, Jr., on Dick Cheney and the Cheney-Bus...



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