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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama has made strategic mistakes, but waiting until the Republicans revealed their extremist agenda before presenting his own more rational alternative was not one of them.

Writing in the April 15th issue of the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew expressed a widely shared progressive criticism regarding Obama’s approach to the deficit and budget battles:

On Wednesday he (Obama) gave a good speech far too late. What if he hadn’t been so dilatory on a subject he inevitably would have to confront?
…if Obama had addressed the fiscal crisis at the outset of this year, rather than deliver a wan and cautious State of the Union address, he would have set the predicate for the current budget battle rather than leaving an opening for Paul Ryan’s radical (and somewhat nonsensical) proposal to fill the vacuum…Ordinarily, such a proposal would have been laughed out of town, but now it’s been transformed into respectability.

Many progressives have expressed similar “why did he wait so long” criticisms of Obama’s actions.
Underlying this attitude is a fundamental disagreement about political strategy – progressives generally want Obama to forcefully champion a clear, solidly liberal program and agenda at all times and in all circumstances. They support this approach on both moral and political grounds and as result do not approve of either compromise as an objective or flexibility as a negotiating tactic except in the most unusual circumstances.
The debate over this basic issue is a perennial staple of intra-Democratic discord and will not be settled any time in the foreseeable future. But it is important to note that the specific application of this view to the “why did he wait so long” discussion ignores a series of basic realities.
First, even on the surface it is hard to see how Obama could have laid out the broad vision he presented last week back in early 2010. At that time it would have directly conflicted with the desperate, all-out push that was going on to pass the health care bill and it would also have appeared to contradict the near-universal Democratic position at that time that any discussion of reducing deficits was premature while the economy was not yet showing even the most minimal signs of recovery – signs that have only begun to appear in the last few months.
More important, the notion that Obama could have “set the predicate” or “filled the vacuum” for the budget/deficit debate back in early 2010 with the proposal he outlined last week is based on a rather dated notion –that the president has a commanding “bully pulpit” at his disposal, a platform from which he can reliably drive the national agenda.
In the modern, fragmented media environment that has developed since the 1990’s this is simply no longer the case. The modern political media environment has three unique and critical communication channels, each of which shapes — and profoundly diminishes– the ability of a president to directly control a national debate. How a Presidential initiative is handled by each of these communication channels has to be evaluated on its own terms.

First, there is the conservative echo chamber – Fox News, talk radio, the conservative blogosphere and so on. This entire conservative media machine is directly connected to the message system of the Republican Party and is primarily designed for bitter, slashing and dishonest attack – the creation of straw men and simplistic caricatures. It is not equally well suited for the defense of conservative proposals or the adjudication of debates between conflicting views
Second, there is the “serious” mainstream political commentariat. In the 1950’s and 1960’s this group of newspaper and TV commentators had substantial influence on the national debate over issues and reflected a mildly liberal “establishment” sensibility. Since the Reagan era, however, liberal or progressive views have come to be viewed with vastly more suspicion than comparable conservative views by mainstream commentators. As a result, proposals that feature liberal or progressive ideas are invariably treated as “partisan politics” rather than “serious proposals.” On subjects that the mainstream media consider inherently conservative – taxes, deficits and budgeting being prime examples — conservative opinions are automatically treated as being more serious, responsible and “adult” than liberal ones. Underlying this notion is a definition of the word “adult” that essentially identifies it with “acceptable to the major business groups”. To most mainstream commentators today any proposal that provokes serious business opposition is, by that fact alone, proven inherently flawed.
Third, there is the superficial “headline” news of local stations and 24 hour cable channels that is designed as quick entertainment for casual viewers. This information source attempts to deliver a quick and breezy overview of major events mixed with a large number of human interest stories. It presents political debates in a rigidly balanced “He said, she said” format that essentially reduces the coverage to battling sound bites. On issues like taxes, budgets and deficits, the newscasters themselves almost invariably take refuge behind vacuous clichés delivered with cheerful smiles – “Well you know, Joe, nobody likes to pay taxes” – “Gee, George, government sure spends lots of money” or “Sooner or later, Ed, ya gotta pay your bills“.

Given this three-channel media environment, how would Obama’s recent speech have been received if he had delivered it in early 2010 instead?

First, if Obama had presented his vision last winter, long before Paul Ryan had officially presented the conservative approach, he would have played directly into the greatest area of strength of the conservative message machine – the pure attack mode. Obama’s proposals would have been characterized as a “wild radical egalitarian program that will raise taxes, destroy jobs and bankrupt the country” while Republicans would not have been compelled to compare and contrast his ideas with any specific proposals of their own. After months of attacks using these standard sound-bites, the results of the 2010 elections would then have been described by the echo chamber as definitive proof that the American people had rejected Obama’s approach.
Second, the mainstream commentators, having no alternative Republican plan to with which to compare Obama’s proposals, would have compared it instead with the criticisms offered by the major business groups and the alternatives offered by professional deficit hawks like Peter Peterson. As these critiques would not have to present a comprehensive alternative, they would simply “cherry-pick” the easiest elements of Obama’s plan to attack. Using this unbalanced comparison as their basis for analysis, the commentators would then rub their chins sagely and declare Obama’s plan too “partisan” and “unrealistic” to be workable.
Third, the local and other headline news would have presented the Obama proposals in the typical dueling sound-bite format, contrasting Obama spokesmen trying to defend the plan with Republicans reciting the “radical egalitarian program that will raise taxes, destroy jobs and bankrupt the country” litany.

The truth is that both Obama and the Republicans have always been well aware of the tremendous strategic advantage that Obama would gain if he was able wait until the Republicans were forced to present a plan of their own before releasing his own proposals. It is this that explains the absolutely preposterous and absurd statements issued by leading Republicans – including Paul Ryan – in recent months that piteously begged Obama to provide “leadership” on deficit reduction even as they simultaneously described him as a would-be Stalin seeking to destroy America. They desperately wanted Obama to present a proposal they could freely attack before having to unveil their own detailed alternative. Obama, wisely, did not oblige them.
Let’s be clear: there is plenty to criticize and plenty to second guess about Obama’s negotiating strategy in recent months. But criticisms have to be based on the reality of how the current media environment actually operates. The simple fact is that the “bully pulpit” – the media environment that would allow a Democratic president to control and dominate the national agenda — no longer exists except as a cliché. Obama has made significant strategic and tactical mistakes, but waiting until the Republicans revealed their own extremist agenda before presenting his own more rational alternative was not one of them.

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