Thursday, January 21, 2010


John Harris, Mark Halperin's former book-writing partner, slings some conventional wisdom in a Politico column written with Carol Lee. Here, Harris and Lee offer a list of what they see as mistaken beliefs on the part of the Obama White House in the first year:

• Obama and his team believed that the 2008 election represented something seismic -- in other words, something fundamental and long-lasting -- in the country's governing landscape. They believed that the historical cycle had turned, that voters had not only rejected George W. Bush's brash conservatism but also moved beyond Bill Clinton's tepid and defensive-minded progressivism.

The nation's problems and mood put momentum behind Obama's vision of robust, large-scale government action. But there had been no seismic shift. The country's ideology is fluid -- and depends on perceptions of the economy and the daily flow of news out of Washington. The assumption that Obama would be swimming mostly with the current rather than often against it on issues such as health care, financial regulation and global warming was naive in retrospect.

Did Team Obama believe the zeitgeist had simply changed? Yeah, I suspect so. (That belief was in the air -- remember James Carville writing a book called 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation?) But it wasn't crazy to imagine that something had changed. Voters had rejected Bushite bellicosity. Voters had rejected racism. Voters had declined to elect a Daddy. The guy they voted for had never supported the Iraq War and wanted to raise taxes the rich and wanted to engage Castro and Ahmedinejad. That didn't seem new?

The key factor here isn't that "the country's ideology is fluid" -- it's that it's malleable. Democrats stopped trying to mold public opinion after the election. Republicans, on the other hand, redoubled their efforts. What changed things wasn't "the daily flow of news out of Washington" -- it was the daily flow of propaganda out of Washington (as well as out of Rush Limbaugh's studio and Fox News headquarters in Manhattan). Harris and Lee want you to think this was the nation's ideological center resetting itself naturally. It wasn't.

• Obama believed that early success would be self-reinforcing, building a powerful momentum for bold government action. This belief was the essence of the White House’s theory of the "big bang" -- that success in passing a big stimulus package would lead to success in passing health care, which in turn would clear the way for major cap-and-trade environmental legislation and "re-regulation" of the financial services sector -- all in the first year.

This proved to be a radical misreading of the dynamics of power. The massive cost of the stimulus package and industry bailouts -- combined with the inconvenient fact that unemployment went up after their passage -- meant that Obama spent the year bleeding momentum rather than steadily increasing public confidence in his larger governing vision. That vision was further obscured for many Americans by the smoke from the bitter and seemingly endless legislative battle on Capitol Hill over health care.

Early success might have been self-reinforcing ... if early success had actually been success. But Obama came into office amid talk of getting 70 or 80 votes in the Senate for a stimulus package. What could possibly look like a success after that kind of prediction? The nature of Obama's early acts, along with their cost, certainly hurt his standing somewhat. But practically the first thing he did as president was get down on one knee and propose marriage to the Republicans, in public -- and they turned him down and attacked him as Hitler reincarnate. No, that didn't work out.

• Most devoutly of all, the Obama team believed that there was something singular about the president's appeal and ability to inspire.

This faith seemed well-placed in the context of 2008, when Obama won states such as Virginia that Democrats had not carried in decades. But it was misplaced in the context of 2009. Virtually everything Obama did to fill in the blanks on the timing and specifics of the agenda he had run on managed simultaneously to unite Republicans in opposition and divide Democrats into camps that thought he was going too far or that thought he was not going far enough.

So it was what he did that "unite[d] Republicans in opposition"? I don't think so. That's what Republicans want you to believe -- but it's clear when you look back that the decision was made early on to establish a posture of total resistance. There was never a damn thing Obama could do to appease the GOP, short of resigning and taking the entire preside ntial line of succession with him, or asking Pelosi and Reid to enact the 2008 GOP platform.

I'm looking for a pattern in this analysis, and it seems to be that GOP intransigence is invisible -- Obama fails because he goes against natural law, not against a resistance army disguised as a political party. Yeah, he made a lot of mistakes. But he had nothing to work with.

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