Thursday, September 30, 2010
Obama's Next Two Years
The midterm elections are coming up, and they spell defeat for the Democrats. All that's left to be decided is just how bad that defeat will be. Poll after poll shows an American public that stolidly rejects their agenda and no matter how many stories the media churns out about Republican extremism, they view Obama and his agenda as radical and extreme. Obama's magic is gone and the axis of change has turned away from the Democrats. Meanwhile an insurgent Republican wave is sweeping across Capitol Hill. But what does all that means for Obama's next two years? Obama and his backers counted on having a decisive majority on their side in order to ram through their agenda. Now they will have to rely on bipartisanship, on building coalitions with Republicans to get the legislation he wants through. And while the Republican party lacks a Newt Gingrich to negotiate terms as it did in 1994, it does have the Tea Party movement looking over the shoulders of Republican representatives and senators who might be tempted to jump on the bandwagon. When the Dems can't even get a Maine Republican Senator to help them with repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, even the most optimistic of them has to get a sinking feeling about what the next two years are going to be like.
The national mood in general, combined with insurgent populism has rattled politicians on both sides of the aisle. Republicans are afraid, but so are many Democrats who have to run in actual elections, rather than farcical gerrymandered districts where elections are decided by community leaders, democratic clubs or union bosses. So while Charlie Rangel isn't going anywhere no matter what he does or who runs against him, parts of the West and Midwest, areas that helped give the Democrats control of congress have turned into hostile territory.
After making a last stand on ObamaCare, a defiant middle finger to Middle America, their courage has failed because it is clear to them that trying to fight this, the way the Japanese fought WW2 will just end in disaster. The DREAM Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell show how the same politicians who had been determined to ram through ObamaCare at any cost, don't have the stomach for it anymore. Instead they threw them up as political gestures to elements of their base, before running for cover. And no one is fooled by it at all. But once the lame duck sessions are gone, it will be time to talk turkey.
The Democrats faced this same dilemma in 1994. And the show remains the same. So do the talking points. Declaring the recession over, over and over again. Blaming the Republicans for legislative gridlock. Calling the voters spoiled children. We're seeing it all come back again. But this time it's a slipperier problem. Because the most recognizable Republican in the opposition is Sarah Palin, who doesn't hold any elected office. Clinton was able to successfully turn Gingrich into the face of Republican stonewalling. But it's hard to assign blame to Palin for anything that happens in congress. And trying to turn John Boehner into the next Gingrich is a losing proposition. Palin has become associated with the insurgent populism of the Tea Party, and while she may well have plans to run for President, that just gives her a lock on the "Change" brand, without any of the responsibility.
Obama's people know that without an actual economic recovery that they can experience as fact, rather than take on faith, he is almost certainly doomed. And his own visibility, combined with the viability of a populist opposition, will make it hard to shift the blame. Democrats are still stuck on labeling their opponents as extremists, but that's just another way of giving up the "Change" brand. The new Democratic slogan, "The Change that Matters" tries to fix their brand as that of moderate and reasonable change. Which is exactly the wrong slogan when the public is angry and frustrated with the arrogance blowing out of Capitol Hill.
Soros and his ilk could buy Obama the election, but all the liberal billionaires in the world can't buy him every election. Just like we couldn't refight WW2 every decade. Especially when Obama and his supermajority didn't have much to show for it. That means Obama has to switch gears or resign himself to one long vacation while he prepares for 2012. The latter is not an impossibility. Obama's egoism and childishness are difficult to underestimate. He has very little patience for people who don't agree with him. And unlike LBJ or Clinton, he lacks the wheeling and dealing skills of a good horse trader. With Reid out, and Pelosi cracking up, and no one all that eager to take their place as the public face of failure, it's possible that we will have real gridlock.
On the other hand if Obama does listen to his advisers, what we may have is Faust and the Devil instead, with Republicans auditioning for the Faust spot. For all that the Tea Party may be a power, once congressional Republicans have a sense of power again, all bets are off. It was easy enough to be the Party of No, back when they were out of power. But it's much harder to be the Party of No, when getting power means having to say, Yes. The Tea Party may have terrorized some liberal Republicans, it may have even lost some seats, but the gain is preventing another bipartisan sellout, which without a Contract with America and firm positions by a committed Republican leadership would be almost a certainty.
In the next session there will be Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives of a type that the Democrats never seriously thought they would have to deal with, whose positions predate Bush and Reagan, and go back all the way to Goldwater. It's a brand of politics that hasn't been seen in D.C. much, because it's hostile to D.C. and what it stands for. And their presence alone will shift the balance of the Republican party, making former conservatives seem positively liberal by comparison. And this time the definition of the center will change in a new direction, sliding right for the first time since the early days of the Bush Administration.
Obama's old economic advisers are being thrown out, as everyone predicted. This may mean a ramping up of the anti-corporate rhetoric that is the closes the Dems can come to populism. But corporations are already tried of being Obama's fire hydrant, and he needs their money for 2012. Or it may mean an attempt to actually pull back, akin to Lenin's "two steps forward, one step back", and go business friendly. Pushing domestic protectionism, taking on NAFTA and cutting some of the crap out of ObamaCare that they put in there, could win Obama and the Democrats some points in the swing states. But that would require junking carbon emissions regulation, and pull back on the coal bashing, and a lot of their legislative agenda.
With few good choices, Obama may just decide to stay out of it. His ability to craft legislation is non-existent, he's a bad diplomat and gets frustrated easily. And when it's on the outs with the public, the White House usually turns to foreign policy to shore up its occupant's credentials.
But Obama doesn't have much of a menu when it comes to foreign policy either. The public has already seen him do a world tour, what more is there to offer. He could try tackling one of the world's crisis regions, but that would just make him look like one of the ex's, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, who have tried to stay relevant with conferences and charity work, in the hopes that people will forget their actual terms in office. Bush already did Africa, but Obama's brand was supposed to be the Muslim world. With just one problem. The Muslim world doesn't much care about Obama.
Obama's weakness means that his only leverage is over American allies. Which is why countries like Israel, Columbia or the UK are afraid of Obama-- while America's enemies laugh in his face. Something Russia has been done openly of late. That means aside from photo ops, all Obama can do is badger and weaken our allies. But to what end?
Obama can pick another economic fight with the UK, over tariffs or oil spills, but it's the international equivalent of a cafeteria food fight. A tariffs fight might play okay in the rust belt, but it's not going to be much of a home run. Obama has been aggressively pushing Turkey's entry into the EU, but that only sets European teeth on edge. When Obama and Cameron champion Turkey's entry into the EU, France and Germany stiffen up. And whatever does happen there, the odds of Obama being able to take the credit are negligible. And even if he did get to pose as the man who got Turkey into the EU, this wouldn't exactly score points with many Americans.
There is the War on Terror, but that's not something Obama wants to be too associated with. It's something he tolerates, because he doesn't want to face the political consequences of shutting it down completely. So he lets the former Clinton people play out the old "Smart War" game, using drone attacks and intel, while letting the Afghan war run down, because it was Biden's idea for winning points on national security, by focusing on the key war in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq. And beyond his own insecurity with the military, Obama believes that appearing to be the man behind the war machine, would trash his appeal for the Muslim world.
That doesn't leave much, except the old standby, Israel. That country has been the longtime whipping boy of leaders who want to look like Gandhi, while looting like Attila. Pressuring Israel into appeasing terrorists is supposed to score valuable points with the Muslim world, and peace conferences make for good photo ops. A White House occupant is less likely to get called out for a peace with conference with a few rounds of golf thrown in, than for just the golf alone. Of course when the economy is bad, tinkering with another peace agreement won't win much applause, but it will keep Obama above the fray and looking like an international leader, instead of a lazy lame duck.
Even many liberal Jews got their backs up over Obama's unprovoked assault on Israel earlier this year, but even conservative Jews have generally been conditioned to accept some amount of pressure in the context of a peace agreement. Which means that what earned Obama a backlash when done outside the context of negotiations, when it just looked like bullying, will instead be made to look like statesmanship now.
But even there Obama is letting his chips ride, letting Hillary Clinton have her moment in the middle eastern sun, but always ready to snatch the credit from her, if there is any to be had. The Peace Process is a longer shot than ever, because despite having the most Anti-Israel Administration in the White House, since Sadat was organizing Egyptian Muslims to pray for Jimmy Carter's hemorrhoids after Camp David, there isn't a whole lot to work with here. No one is under the illusion that Abbas can offer a final status agreement that means anything, which means the negotiations become just another chance to bully Israel, with no serious hope of gain. The PLO state that Clinton backed no longer exists, in its place is Hamas run Gaza, and rabbit run militias in Ramallah. Israel can be forced to cede more territory, even parts of Jerusalem, but it can't cede governance, where there isn't any.
So what's left for Obama, but more of the same. More speeches, golfing, vacations, globe-trotting tours, pressure on Israel, blame the Republicans, rinse and repeat all over again. Yet despite the rumors, Obama isn't prepared to walk out in 2012. There's too much at stake for the left, and for himself personally. Charity work and penning your memoirs is fine for Carter and Clinton, but Obama is too detached for the former, and he's already written more memoirs than most rock stars. His next two years will be a compromise between fighting for popularity and fighting for his radical agenda. Which way the compromise will swing, will help determine if Obama gets shown the door in 2012 or not.