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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Critical Choice About Focus

The current (3/18) issue of The New Republic sports a nifty ’30s-style prole art cover and the articles are organized around the theme “Obama’s New Deal.” Inside, TNR features an interesting discussion of one of the more important grand strategy choices Obama must make half way through the first hundred days — focusing his agenda, with TDS co-editor William Galston offering a critique of “Barack’s Too Long Wish List,” and a response by TNR’s Jonathan Cohn, “The Case for Presidential Multi-Tasking.” A couple of nut graphs from Galston:

Roosevelt organized his first term around two principles that the Obama administration would do well to ponder. First, he kept his (and the country’s) attention firmly fixed on a single task: ending the crisis of confidence and restarting economic activity. While he was more sensitive than previous presidents to the links among seemingly disparate issues, these interconnections in his view did not warrant trying to move on all fronts at once. The people and the Congress had to be brought along with an agenda and a narrative that they could understand.
Second, although FDR moved quickly starting on inauguration day, he never believed that his capacity to legislate would wane after his first year in office. On the contrary, he used early momentum to build popular support, yielding further congressional gains in 1934 and a massive landslide in 1936. The creative period of the New Deal continued until Roosevelt overreached in 1937 with his ill-considered proposal to reorganize (or as his detractors put it, “pack”) the Supreme Court.

And a teaser from Cohn:

…Obama’s multi-faceted strategy has certain clear advantages. For one thing, it keeps the right wing unsettled. With so many initiatives going forward, there’s no chance for conservatives to coalesce in opposition to any one issue. Instead of the entire conservative movement hammering away in unison, you have some of them going after health care, some of them going after earmarks, some of them going after cap-and-trade, and so on. In that sort of environment, few attacks resonate because they don’tt get the sustained attention they need.
The converse is true, of course; Obama isn’t giving the affirmative case sustained attention, either. But if neither side can rally its forces, then the most likely result would seem to be status quo politics. And status quo politics right now, I would argue, favors the party that just won a landslide presidential election while building up huge congressional majorities.

An interesting dialogue, and the choices about focus to be made in the weeks ahead may well determine the success of the President — and his party.

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