Sunday, September 25, 2011

Obama presents himself as "a warrior for the working class" before the Congressional Black Caucus

President Obama addressed an annual convention of the Congressional Black Caucus on Saturday the 24th. Here are videos of his speech in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Obama is in full campaign mode here. He even casts himself as "a warrior for the working class." (Pt 2. 4.15 ) It's such a contrast to his usual cautious word-parsing that even the most jaded and pessimistic liberal is likely to get a brief shot of adrenalin from that. At the least, it's nice to hear a sitting President use the phrase "the working class," not considered a polite term by the Beltway Village.

I wouldn't want to underestimate the show business aspects of campaigns, especially Presidential campaigns, in this time in which distrust in government and political leaders have helped our media corporations turn politics into a celebrity game show. Many voters could well decide that it makes a better show for Obama to campaign as "a warrior for the working class" than Gov. Goodhair Perry to campaign as the countries lead executioner.

But past experience and current polling strongly suggest that, despite how strong as the celebrity culture around politics has become, an economy with 9% unemployment and no prospects obvious to the average person that it's likely to improve substantially in the immediate future is going to make a very tough election year for the political party holding the Presidency.

And even the best political showmanship has to have some consistency and, from an incumbent President, some substance to back it up. It's very incongruous for Obama to pose as "a warrior for the working class" while proposing to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits and as a President presiding over a genuinely bad economic situation with high unemployment.

And its a little hard to picture Obama as a "warrior" for anything in domestic politics when he's spent so much of his Presidency, especially the past year, preaching the virtues of bipartisanship and caving repeatedly to a Republican Party that clearly has no intention of cooperating with him on any constructive measures. Just after using that phrase for himself, he goes on to say he played golf with Bill Clinton that same day and refers to the wealthy as "folks like me." That doesn't go very well with posing as "a warrior for the working class." John L. Lewis he's definitely not.

Aside from several sound-bite moments, though, the speech underlines Obama's challenges in facing the 2012 election.

In the beginning of the speech, he cites a presentation by the Rev. Joseph Lowery in which Lowery compares Obama to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Biblical Book of Daniel, which Lowery also used to distinguish between "good crazy" and "bad crazy."

But it's one thing for someone else to compare you to Biblical characters. But doing it yourself can easily come off as I'm afraid Obama does here, as seeming to cast his Presidency as a divine mission.

He uses the story to introduce the lines: "You and me, we're all a bit crazy but hopefully a good kind of crazy. We're a good kind of crazy because no matter how hard things get, we keep the faith. We keep fighting. We keep moving forward." (Pt. 1, 3.15)

Shadrach, Meshach and ... Obama?
He describes the onset of the current depression without mentioning which party and what policies brought things to that point.

In describing his own policies, he frames them broadly in progressive terms but without clearly articulating an affirmative role for government.

He lists some reforms that he did get past. But there's the reality that the bank regulations are inadequate, protections against foreclosure are very poor, and consumer protection was hurt by Elizabeth Warren's rejection as head of the consumer agency. As election issues, the Republicans won't contest Obama over these issues directly; after all, they support weak bank regulations and foreclosures and oppose consumer protection. But the weakness of the economy and the high unemployment, as well as the factual inadequacy of foreclosure protection, will deprive his words of the confidence they should invoke among the general public.

Aound 9.30 in Pt. 1, Obama cites the improvements the Affordable Care Act has made to date, which is primarily the ability of parents to cover their children on their insurance up to age 26. But it's a reminder of how the 2014 implementation for the body of the ACA's provisions makes the whole plan hostage to the 2012 election in a way it didn't have to be. If the full act were taking effect now, that would have been a far more substantial improvement that would make it less likely that President Goodhair Perry will be able to repeal it in 2013. It would also have made a strong, favorable point in the campaign. As it stands, the ACA suffers from a negative image because the Republicans trash it in apocalyptic terms while the main benefits are still two and a half years away.

He goes into a peroration at around 13.40 in Pt. 1 against the Republicans. It's eloquent stuff. He gets in some effective mockery in the first minute or so of the 2nd part.

But his presentation defending his jobs program mainly discusses the value of tax cuts, the preferred framing of the Republicans on all economic issues. And he emphasizes the allegedly bipartisan nature of his jobs proposal.

Then he segways directly into defending his latest round of austerity proposals. However eloquent his presentation, pairing his modest jobs bill with his destructive austerity proposals inevitably weakens the favorable contrast between himself and the Republicans. He's basically conservative in his economic outlook, embracing the austerity economics that is having devastating consequences in the US and Europe right now.

It doesn't sound very tough for him to say we're going to "ask" millionaires and billionaires to pay a more fair share of taxes. (Pt. 2, 1.25) The pitch for more tax equity is good for an election issue. It would be much more effective if in the lame duck session of the last Congress in late 2010 Obama hadn't agreed so cheerfully to extent the Bush tax cut for the upper brackets.

It's always been one of Obama's greatest political assets that he can be eloquent and inspiring and is very telegenic. Neither Mitt Romney nor Gov. Goodhair is going to match him on those theatrical advantages.

But in first post-Citizen's United Presidential race, that is not going to be enough. And in terms of being able to draw a sharp contrast to the Republicans and get his base and sympathetic independents out to the polls, Obama may have already jumped the shark. Michael Tomasky writes in Republican Days of Wrath New York Review of Books 09/01/2100; link behind subscription):

One keeps thinking that surely this [Republican obstructionism in Congress] all has to end sometime, but for now there is no end in sight, which is a crucially important point to understand. To movement conservatives such as [Eric] Cantor and Paul Ryan, the victory they secured against Obama in the debt deal — in my view, the political and even moral low point of his presidency, and one from which he may never recover — is not a culmination of anything. It is a beginning. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso told Fox News right after the deal was agreed to: "This [debate about the debt ceiling] is just round one in a fifteen-round fight ... of cutting of spending. We need to realistically take a look at all the spending in this country ... ." [my emphasis]
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