Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Politico's Roger Simon published a piece early this morning called "Obama, the One-Term President" and a number of people -- most prominently David Weigel -- chided readers for missing the sarcasm and snark in what Simon wrote. I'll confess that I missed the snark on my first read -- but I'm actually not ashamed of that.

Simon wrote:

Q: Will Barack Obama be a one-term president?

A: Yes, he might last that long.

... I am not saying Obama is not smart; he is as smart as a whip. I am just saying he does not understand what savvy first-term presidents need to understand:

You have to stay on message, follow the polls, listen to your advisers (who are writing the message and taking the polls) and realize that when it comes to doing what is right versus doing what is expedient, you do what is expedient so that you can get reelected and do what is right in the second term. If at all possible. And it will help your legacy. And not endanger the election of others in your party. And not hurt the brand. Or upset people too much....

That's snark, but Simon is inadvertently speaking some truth -- and not just a dirty, grubby truth about how our democracy functions in its current debased state, but a real truth about democracy in general.

What does the Declaration of Independence say? That "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Maintaining "the consent of the governed" is essential to democratic governance. There are very bad ways this can be done -- fear, demagoguery, gross deception -- and there are honest ways, like legitimately responding to the needs of the electorate. In the middle are less-than-ideal mechanisms -- husbanding political capital, floating Clintonesque "small-ball" ideas that are trivial and offend no one. Sometimes you just do it with rhetoric.

But you've got to do it, and Obama has struggled to do it. Taking an unpopular stand on the issue of Cordoba House isn't his big problem -- his big problem is that over a year and a half he's lost the public's trust, and thus the public's consent, and he doesn't seem to know how to get it back. (It's not clear that he realizes he needs to get it back.)

Maybe the V-chip and school uniforms really did allow Bill Clinton to get up off the mat, and maybe that helped give us four years of prosperity and somewhat less income inequality and a few other real benefits. Maybe that was worth it.

No, Barack Obama shouldn't poll-test his entire presidency. But he needs to get the public's consent back. So maybe a little more caution with what's left of his political capital actually is in order.

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