a curious Yankee in Europe's court

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A Contrarian Musing: Will Democrats lose big in tomorrow’s elections?

Posted on the November 1st, 2010

For an informed perspective on tomorrow’s USA midterm elections, I asked my political scientist friend back home, who occasionally writes posts for me under the nom de plume of A Contrarian Musing, to offer some of his thoughts about what may happen with the voters and why. For round-ups of pollsters’ predictions of tomorrow’s outcome, see here and here.

Tomorrow is the day of the 2010 midterm election in the U.S., and there is widespread opinion among pollsters and pundits that the Democratic Party will suffer substantial losses to the Republicans. If this proves to be true, much of the failure of the Democrats can be attributed to the poor performance of the economy and the general public’s impression that President Obama has delayed acting on policy changes that his supporters in the 2008 election expected from him.  When this is combined with the tendency of mid-term elections to go against the political party holding the Presidency, the result is an anti-Democrat popularity problem that demands extraordinary political competency to overcome.

It is understandable, and necessary, that the Democrats have fought back in their own defense with a long list of compelling reasons why they are not the cause of the economic problems, and why the President has delayed action on expected policy changes. Excuses, however, have only a limited power in countering public disapproval of a Party’s failure to overcome obstacles to its success.

The one thing the President and the Democrat leaders in the House and Senate could have done to counter the public’s disappointment in them (thereby giving their excuses more justification) would have been to persuade the American public that bringing down unemployment was, by far, their number one interest. Instead, the Democrats allowed health care reform and the rescue of the financial system to dominate the public’s perception of their agenda and policy priorities.

The Democrats have convincing excuses why this situation prevailed. One thing they can’t explain, however, is the President’s failure (unlike President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s) to emotionally connect in a more dramatic, visible, and vigorous way with the emotional angst the public reportedly is feeling. The causes for the anxiety are high unemployment and the hardships that attend it, the lack of financing available to small businesses, and the drag on all things in the economy that this creates.

In the end, the Democrats’ popularity problems could have been greatly reversed by the President. He could have done this, firstly, by demonizing the big financial interests who oppose him or who have contributed to the recession, and, secondly, he could have seemed fully engaged, with all of his emotional and policy advocacy energies focused on reduction of unemployment through jobs’ creation.

Instead, the President has presented himself as the patient, policy plodder, and as the defender of the wealthy as the great hope for the country’s economic recovery. He may well be correct in the reasonableness of his actions. The middle class and poor, however, feel that he has somewhat emotionally deserted them. This perception has opened the door for the rise of the weird, the radical, and the scapegoating opposition candidates.

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Today’s opinion pick: A Contrarian Musing on Obama’s State of the Union, 2010

Posted on the January 28th, 2010

In my  mailbox this morning from A Contrarian Musing:

Whatever one liked or disliked about President Obama at the end of his campaign for election to the Presidency, you will like or dislike about his State of the Union speech last night.  The message was, for the most part, just onward we go.

As to whether or not he won any wobblers back, any new support, or shoved others away, well, I doubt it.  All he did was just re-affirm, just reaffirmed his determination to move on down the road he advocated in his election campaign, for those who listened carefully back then.

The President made it clear that he is pressing on with his agenda, that he is sticking to his guns, so to speak, that he is not changing directions from what he campaigned on for election in the first place, within the boundaries of “politics as the art of the possible.”  He is not deterred, just all the more focused.

It is important, in all of this, to take note that Obama is not a lefty — but not quite the standard moderate either — and neither of these things can be said across-the-board of his staff and closest political confidants. What Obama is, to put it in common terms, is a do-gooder who is willing to use whatever tools, right or left, within the confines of Constitutional principles and American middle class humanitarian values, that will get the job done of doing good.  I would call this a levelheaded, good-hearted man of historical insight, humanitarian energy, and moral and practical determination to make the world a better place, in a workmanship-like way.

The interesting thing — aside from the specific policies he spoke in support of — is the tonality and staging of the speech. In the beginning, Obama assumed a regular guy manner, purposefully speaking in the vernacular, just a good guy from the neighborhood, putting on no superior airs, who has come to give a little, plain enough talk.

Then, here and there, he entered the professorial mode, the intellectual mode, the CEO mode — something the middle class and the SES elites think of as their true, lifestyle demeanor (the “in charge” class). Then he moved on toward the conventional, political speech style.

But it was in the end that he came to himself, to his true self, I believe.  The tonality in the last segment of Obama’s State of the Union speech is singularly fascinating, for it had none of the performance intent in it.  It was somberly intense. It was quiet, and it was from the heart of hearts of the man, so to speak. It was almost a private conversation moment. One could have heard a pin drop in the House chamber as he did this part of his speech, this was a ministerial moment of the true believer.

It was Obama at his most passionate, for (and this is so ironic), his most genuine passion is a deep and quiet passion. This was his personal passion, and it is so much different than his performance passion. If you want to better understand the passionate Obama, listen to the tonality of this part of his speech.  Here is a man being true to himself.

Watch State of the Union 2010 speech here.

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Today’s opinion pick: A Contrarian Musing on health care reform

Posted on the January 22nd, 2010

In a recent e-mail exchange with a friend in the U.S., who is a political science scholar, we discussed the stunning Democratic Party loss in Massachusetts on Tuesday, and the crisis it has created for the proposed health reform process. I asked for some guesstimating, looking backward, on these questions:

Why is it that Obama approached health care from the perspective of a grand overhaul? Why didn’t the White House look at the problems, and choose one or two immediately effective things to change — openly speaking of it as the beginning of a complex process? For example, had they just gone for a limited public option — limited in that it would be a prototype program in one state or another, or with a certain selected group — they could have passed it with a little horse trading, and it would have been a great warning shot across the bow of the private insurers. Once this program was shown to be working well, it could have been used as evidence in proposing further legislation. Why not?

I suspect that Harry and Nancy initially told the President that if he would sit tight they would bring him a comprehensive health reform bill, take all the heat, and let him take the bows, and he consented to that.  In addition, I suspect they told him that it would be quick, and done in the background in a low profile process until ready for a vote and signing, and he liked that idea, as well.  He liked that, since he could then focus on the rest of the big agenda and make those actions high profile until the health bill was ready.

Instead what happened is that the health reform bill writing process became the fight that drew the crowds, drew the media, and made the most thunder, and took over the Administration’s image, leaving all hands on deck explaining, explaining, explaining instead of doing, doing, doing.  The jobs issue looked like it was and is being sacrificed, even willingly put last in line, in the whole agenda.

And keep in mind that the bill did three hugely hazardous things. It proposed financing much of the costs on the backs of those who, as with many labor contracts, have the best employer insurance coverage, and it touched the third rail by implicating Medicare and Social Security issues in the mix. In addition to all of this, the bill quickly became such a catch all of complexity that it confused and puzzled and permitted imaginations negative and positive to go wild.

As to why not a piecemeal bill instead of an omnibus, comprehensive bill?  Well, this was Harry and Nancy’s one big thing in life, and they wanted it big while the getting looked gettable.  I wonder if the two of them are not in a frame of mind that this administration, probably this Presidency, is not their career cap, and they are willing to go down and out with that legacy?

As for why the decision to do health bill during the President’s first year, one has to see that the economic crash, especially the financial system crisis, was not anticipated. So the Administration and congregation found themselves on too short notice with too many imponderables to come up with a new plan, so they just tinkered with the old plan, and still are doing so.

In addition, there is that idea of not taking the eye-off-of-the-prize thing about their plans, which means not changing priorities even though jobs are the priority for the public, and the immediate priority on top of that.  So, what they have done is rationalize their old plans, and actually in an underlying way, as jobs programs — you know, health care reform as a jobs program, as an economic recovery program, as an economic growth program, as a re-industrial program.  There is an ideologue-like attitude about the old plan, I suspect.

I think the Obama Administration, partly by their righteous good nature about rationality and non-partisanship, and partly because they assumed their majorities made it less relevant, forgot that the Presidency, when successful, is no less a political campaign than was the election campaign. Governance is a campaign thing at the governors’ and at the Presidential level.

I learned a hard lesson myself (when I worked for a while in a state job)  — it was that the other political party is always the opposition, always, always; so to be the big spirited guy and assume there is a spirit of common team goodwill and attitude in any project is to let one’s guard down and to get skewered for sure. That’s what the founders wanted, and that is what we got: competing interests, balances of power (read that as opposing forces), and loyal opposition all around.

The best we can hope for in this system is common civility and some measure of public courtesy in the eternal punching match of the process, in the eternal one-upmanship of it all.

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