Sunday, June 06, 2010

You Can't Take the Politics Out of Politics

This is something Atrios has been saying for years. You can't take the politics out of politics. You shouldn't even try. This applies especially to the overheated discussion of Obama as America's daddy and Oilmaggedon as the day that Industry Pee'd on America's Carpet. Frank Rich had a column today that I didn't bother to read that canvassed this whole issue once again, for the hoi polloi. I believe his take on it was that Obama is captured by his techno wonks. Maybe so, but so what? I've said this before and it seems to bear repeating. Once we elected him no one gives a fuck who Obama really is, or what he's really comfortable with, or anything else. As President he has to do a bunch of things, often very complicated things, that Voters don't have a clue about, and that they don't care about. Some of the things he has to do is wheel and deal, make policy decisions, ride herd on a fractious and hostile Senate, deal with turncoats in his own party and woo potential help from across party lines. In addition, he has to make the g-dmned voters feel like he cares about their problems. That's just one of the things that politicians have to do. Its part of the job. Voters want what they want. There are millions of voters, and they want lots of different things. So give it to them already. Not because its sensible, or right, or moral, but because its desirable politically.

I don't understand why the Obama administration (and its defenders in the bloggosphere) has such a hard time grasping that sometimes America wants to be tucked into bed with a really good story. What does it cost Obama and his team to give them that? Gibbs seems to take the attitude that if Voters, or the media, want Obama to show some emotion they should be attacked and humiliated for this failure of maturity. Sure, its obviously risible and childish. But so what? Did any politician stay in power long if he didn't give the voters what they want? Its not like showing emotion costs anything--not even lost time. If showing anger and emotion isn't something that Obama is comfortable with--for very good reasons that Zandar and others have well explored--then he needs to hire that job out. Or put his brain trust to work figuring out how to make his wooden delivery count for him. Or both. Its not actually that big a deal.

On the first front Wait Wait Don't Tell Me poked gentle fun at Obama over this issue just yesterday and they did a fine job of turning the question "Obama: Angry Dad or Indifferent Technocrat" on its head, rhetorically, but asserting that Obama was, in fact, "Angry Dad" but in the mode of realio, trulio, good daddies in America's past. He was Leave it to Beaver Dad, whose anger was expressed in a deep sigh of disapointment more penetrating and effective than shouting. All well and good--if that's a model Obama can manage to convey he should go right ahead and do it.

But its not wholly up to Obama to carry out his duties as President alone. Its a team job with one public face, sure, but its a team effort nonetheless. One of the places Obama and his team have failed is in creating the narrative that they were, in fact, doing everything they could. I think they were, by the way. I don't think there was, technologically or realistically any other way of handling this disaster other than letting BP handle it at the level of stopping the gusher. But why didn't Obama and his team make that abundantly and publicly clear from the get go? Maybe a techno/science kind of guy listened to his scientific advisors and made the decision that everything was being done that should/could be done. Fine. But that's the policy decision, policy decisions are only part of the broader political issue and the other half is, not to be redundant, the political argument.

I'll tell you what Obama should have done on day one: he should have put together a public team of top scientists in all the related fields and brought them together on C-Span and held the kind of open, roundtable, in which all the history, technology, and other issues were canvassed. Not Congressional hearings. Not a media free for all. Interview them first so you know what they are going to say and what their recommendations are going to be and then let them hash it all out publicly for god damned hours of boring TV. If Obama's dream team had done that you wouldn't still be hearing NPR's bright young things interviewing their own husbands in order to get a soundbite of some moron wondering aloud if "they every thought...and I don't know if they did...of dropping a nuke on the well?..." weeks after this issue had been canvassed in the major media, on cable TV, and on the same day that Obama's people had to come out and explain that they'd nixed nukes for perfectly good, sound, reasons.

Of course the media are botching the reporting. That's their job. We know that. Rumor and hysteria will grow up in the hollow space left by this kind of Media failure. Just as it did in and around the Kennedy assasination and 9/11. The slow unfolding of the disaster makes the Media's failures just that more intense. Just as they failed to alert the public of how bad this would be because of a lack of good pictures in the first days, they are going to go into a major hysterical backlash as soon as the full damage starts to unfold economically and ecologically--that is: spoils the second homes and leisure hours of wealthy media personalities and political figures. In the absence (and not doubt long after) any kind of official White Paper report has come out the average moron voter is left with no clear impression of the obvious fact that Obama and his team are, in fact, as on top of this response as they can be. Obama's long game may or may not be the right one for the disaster in an economic and ecological sense but its a terrible one politically because politics is a short game.

Other people are influenced not by sound science, or the thought that policy decisions are being made unemotionally, but by emotion. Sorry, but its true. Those people vote, too. So give them what they want. Its not hard. If Obama wants to, or can only, play Ward Cleaver that's not a bad thing. He has his own June to dispatch to the coast to make his emotional commitment visible. Why the White House doesn't grasp this I don't know. Send Michelle, already. She's the hugger. She's the emotional mommy that people want right now. There were good reasons the White House couldn't get out ahead of this disaster and run around with their hair on fire early on: there weren't any good photo ops and they would have been accused of baseless, anti corporatist, communistic hate. But of course there are tons of ways of getting around that. If I'd been them I would have called sent Michelle and Energy Secretary Chu down to Ixtoc and up to where the Exxon Valdez cracked up and had them do a stand up routine based on "what can we expect under a worst case/best case scenario" and how do the victims of these previous disasters want us to respond to BP. Go on Oprah and explain to an America that has just discovered that toxic dumps don't only happen to people in other countries, just what it means when Bhopal comes to our shores. Attack the BP/Corporatist narrative using "real," "regular," anxious white and Republican voters who have already suffered from the destruction of their livlihoods and local environment.

Obama and his whole team--and this includes Gibbs--have to start to grasp that they have a duty to set the narrative the voters want if they want the voters to support what they are doing. Its great that we have the world's smartest, coolest, most sciency President. I really mean that. He suits me to a T. But I'm not the median voter. I'm not a swing voter. Lots of other people are. Getting the people to continue supporting you and your party is not a distraction from the job, it is the job. There's no other way to be in office than to run for office constantly. You don't get to relax and just be yourself. Give the voters what they want emotionally while doing what you have decided to do rationally. If you want people to feel good about what you are doing you need to market it agressively. You need to demonstrate it any way you can because the people you are talking to--the voters--are really busy, really stupid, really anxious, really indifferent. So do it, already. Use words, pictures, semaphore, morse code, cave paintings, puppets, or interpretive fucking dance. But however you need to do it, for different constituences, go ahead and do it.


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