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This President Ought to Know Better

My post yesterday flowered into a full-blown column for the Baltimore Sun today, in which I concede that America is a center-right nation–but not, however, in the way you might think. An excerpt first, and then some further observations to follow:

Let me preface the following analogy by clarifying that I am not equating conservatives or Republicans to terrorists. But enacting progressive change is akin to defending against terror in one important way: Progressives must win repeatedly and at every stage, whereas those opposed to change typically need to win but once, at any stage. Power is as power resists.

Consider, for example, that Republican George W. Bush was able to push not one but three far-from-popular income tax cuts through a Congress boasting smaller Republican majorities than those the Democrats enjoy today. Thanks to the Republican voting tendencies of smaller states, the GOP’s Senate majority at the time represented fewer Americans nationally than did the Democratic minorities.

What this and other juxtapositions tell us is that a supermajority is needed to govern from the center-left, whereas a simple majority or even a minority is capable of governing from the center-right. See, for example, the 2000 election result…

When conservative commentators grumble that “America is a center-right nation,” they are right in one, undeniable sense: The institutional dynamics of American politics favor doing less in general, and yet more in the pursuit and preservation of powerful, monied interests. Nobody familiar with the long, slow, costly political battles for abolition, labor equality, consumer protection, civil rights and women’s rights would dare argue otherwise.

This is why the flip of a single Senate seat means more for obstructionism than it ever could for progressivism. All ties go to the status quo even though, with 59 percent Democratic majorities in each chamber, Congress is hardly split evenly.

Look, liberals should be rightly upset with the Obama Administration for failing to recognize that battles to effect major, non-incremental policy change require (1) a lot of political capital in the first place; (2) and the exertion of unusual presidential influence on other Washington elites; (3) and a sophisticated and coordinated message campaign; (4) and probably a bit of luck.

On the first, as political scientist Paul Light explained long ago, a president’s political capital–comprised as Light contends of public approval ratings; electoral margins and mandates; congressional party support; and presidential reputation–is largely an external resource, mostly determined by others or outside forces. Although presidents surely can do things to improve their public standing or boost their congressional majorities, their bank reserve of political capital is not entirely within their control. On the last, well, luck is luck: You take it when you can get it and hope it doesn’t turn against you.

That leaves the middle two factors–exertion of presidential influence over key Washington actors, and the education and persuasion of the broader public–both of which remain(ed) almost exclusively within the control and purview of the White House. In that regard, while recently re-reading recently an autumn National Journal article by Kirk Victor entitled “Is Obama Tough Enough?”, this three-paragraph section near the start of the piece jumped off the page at me:

“Obama has created an atmosphere of no fear,” says Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University and the author of several presidential biographies. “Nobody is really worried about the revenge of Barack Obama, because he is not a vengeful man. That’s what we love about him — he is so high-minded, and a conciliatory guy, and he tries to govern with a sense of consensus — all noble goals, but they don’t get you very far in this Washington knifing environment.”

“He has been all carrots and no sticks so far,” observed a veteran Senate Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. Obama’s style “has to be more Lyndon Johnson. Half, ‘I love you, but I’ll stick this screwdriver right through your heart in a second if it is to my advantage.’ On the fear question, I don’t think he or his team is feared.”

Brinkley agrees: “He needs to be more like LBJ or Theodore Roosevelt. He has to change his tactical framework, if his personality will allow it, to being a much more in-your-face, cutthroat, high-minded nationalist, pushing the country’s agenda to the people.”

Connecting the top and bottom halves of this post, Obama–who, incidentally, is not only a former community organizer fully conversant in the history of social movements and the resistance to them, but a former constitutional law professor and student of presidential politics–needed to recognize from the jump that a supermajority-worthy personal and public campaign had to be waged on behalf of healthcare reform. A few heads should have rolled, a few prisoners taken. Rather than worrying as she was today about disgusting and devious wiretappers, Sen. Mary Landrieu–no Senate titan she–should have spent the past few months worried about the Wrath of Obama. Joe Lieberman, ditto.

Meanwhile, there should have been a rollout explaining that reform was not only good for corporate employers and thus American productivity, but also for worker and workplace performance and, thus again, American productivity. He should framed reform in those terms–rather than as a series of vignettes, true and as sad as they may be, about people with dropped coverage or bankrupting bills–and then publicly dared Republicans and their tea-partying conservative allies to vote against a bill that would make the American economy and the workers who fuel it more effective, more efficient, more productive and more competitive because we would no longer lose time and money and paperwork and missed work days to a cobbled-together health care system constructed more or less around the time The Edsel rolled out.

This much is for sure: Tomorrow night is a big moment for the President. And Obama should come out with guns ablazing. Hope, bipartisanship, compromise and listening are great while campaigning as a presidential candidate. But this is governing by the President of the United States and, more specifically, presidential governing within a political system and during a partisan era in which truly progressive reforms will always need to clear more and higher hurdles…as this President–of all presidents–ought to know.