Thursday, July 15, 2010

Process, Substance, and Political Reality

This Politico piece by John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei contains some interesting moments in the midst of a more conflicted analysis. Perhaps one of the loudest notes of a process-obsession can be seen in the following two paragraphs:
“I tell you, it’s very frustrating that it’s not breaking through, when you look at these things and their scale,” said a top Obama adviser, who spoke on background to offer a candid take on the state of play. “Can you imagine if Bill Clinton had achieved even one of these? Part of it is because we are divided, even on the left…And part of it is the culture of immediate gratification.”

But there are many other reasons for Obama’s woes. Based on interviews with officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill, and with Democratic operatives around town, here are a half-dozen reasons why Obama is perceived as failing to win over the public, even though by most conventional measures he is clearly succeeding...
The words of this Obama adviser may be a sign that the rhetoric of historical "achievement" and scale is more than merely a talking point for the Obama administration: they may actually believe that radical change is, in and of itself, a good thing.

Politics is, alas, more complicated than merely getting what you want, and getting the policies that you desire is no guarantee of a successful presidency. Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon got things done, but how many people would call these three men successful presidents?

Whether you are succeeding by the conventional standards of the Beltway does not necessarily have that much to do with actual political and electoral success. And the results of Obama's policies cannot be adjudicated by the opinions of the DC cognoscenti: reality is there, and the voters will eventually encounter it.

The voters have seen, for example, that the Obama administration's economic model for the stimulus was wildly inaccurate. According to this model, unemployment would be kept under 8% with the stimulus. The unemployment rate has stayed well above 8%. Obama staked massive political capital on this stimulus bill and rammed through a bill with close to no Republican support.

Democrats---on the stimulus, on health-care, and on other topics---chose to turn their backs on bipartisanship and their plans have not delivered. Is it any wonder that independents are abandoning the administration?

Obama was able to pass his health-care reform package over massive public opposition, which is a substantive legislative accomplishment. However, the partisanship, double-talking, and legislative hardball involved in passing health-care reform have made the passage seem less a victory for the republic and more a triumph of cynicism and ideology.

The title of Harris and VandeHei's piece is appropriate: "Why Obama Loses by Winning." Thus far, Obama has been able to chalk up a number of legislative wins, but the substance of these wins may undermine the electoral future of Congressional Democrats and, potentially, the Obama administration. In politics, as elsewhere in life, you might at first enjoy getting what you want, but, if you don't want the right things, you may end up regretting your achievements.

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