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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Hidden Strength in Obama’s Political Capital

Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com post “Obama: More Political Capital Than Reagan?” compares President Obama’s approval and disapprovall ratings with those of other recent Presidents shortly after their respective inaugurations. Obama tops all but JFK, as Silver explains:

Obama’s initial approval rating, indeed, is the highest of any president since Kennedy. His initial disapproval rating, meanwhile, is about half that of his two most recent predecessors, although higher than that of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and G.H.W. Bush, all of whom began with disapproval in the single digits.

Silver goes on to favorably compare Obama’s numbers with those of President Reagan, including a 68 percent initial approval rating for Obama, compared to 51 percent for Reagan. He notes also that Obama’s political capital is strengthened by his 65 seat advantage in US House seats “controlled” over Reagan, and a six seat advantage in the Senate, even though Reagan had a slightly larger margin of victory (Reagan’s 9.7 percent, and 7.3 percent for Obama). Silver adds:

Reagan won considerably more electoral votes in 1980 than Obama did in 2008. As measured in percentage terms, his margin of victory over Jimmy Carter was larger than that of Obama over John McCain. On the other hand, Obama won a lot more popular votes than Reagan did. He also won a higher percentage of the popular vote, and his margin of victory was larger than Reagan’s in absolute (rather than percentage) terms.

It’s an interesting comparison, especially for Dems who can remember how Reagan steamrolled Congress and cut the legs off the trade union movement. Silver wonders whether Obama’s “post-partisan rhetoric” is a factor in his high approval numbers, and if the debate over the stimulus will undercut Obama’s leverage in the polls. No doubt many progressives are wondering if the comparison suggests that Obama’s tax cut proposals are conceding more than necessary, and if he could invest substantially more in job-creating infrastructure upgrades.
At the same time, Obama’s advisors, many of them Clinton Administration veterans, remember the political debacle that ocurred when the First Lady led the campaign for a big package of health care reforms. Overreaching can be as damaging as timidity.
But I would contend that Obama also has a potent secret weapon that argues for a more aggressive reform agenda: the “movement” that elected him. More than any President, perhaps ever, Obama has awakened a genuine grassroots movement, with record numbers of citizens involved in his campaign at the street level. But can he convert these campaign workers into lobbyists for a strong reform agenda? It’s never really been tried on the massive scale I’m envisioning here.
Certainly the Obama campaign has mastered the new tools of political organizing to an unprecedented extent, and he can reconnect with his activist base within minutes of launching a lobbying campaign. Think of FDR’s fireside chats, in streaming video on millions of monitors across the nation, 24-7. Think of TR’s bully pulpit on electronic steroids. Think of MLK’s call to his troops to “make politics a crusade” answered en masse by a new generation of citizen lobbyists. Sure, it would take a lot of commitment and energy to make it work. But given all that is at stake, the real shame would be in not trying.

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