It would be a gigantic mistake to believe that Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid or anyone else of prominence in today’s Democratic Party actually gives a damn about the fate of the American people.
But it’s not such a stretch to imagine that they might care about their own political careers. I think the Founders of the American republic had this in mind when they wrote their blueprint for representative government, in which a politician’s fate would be tied to their popularity with voters.
Of course, it doesn’t entirely work that way so much anymore because of the influence of big-monied players, but if it did we’d still be left with another big problem: These idiots don’t even know how to save their own skins by governing well. Few things have amazed me more over the last year than how incompetent President Obama has been, given the exemplary skills of Candidate Obama, who ran a near-perfect, textbook campaign.
So, Barack Baby, I know you couldn’t care less about the American public, but just in case you might still care about your own legacy and perhaps even winning a second term, might I be of some assistance?
Here, for your reading pleasure and educational benefit is The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Governing (and you are a complete idiot when it comes to governing). I’ve laid it all out for you. You don’t even have to take notes.
FIRST, PICK AN ISSUE THAT PEOPLE CARE ABOUT. Is the American health care system a problem for this country, especially in the long term? You betcha. But most people are not very focused on health care right now. They are, on the other hand, really, really focused and fearful about their jobs. Such economic insecurity is not just "this year’s issue", like say the war was in 2006. This is existential. People are staring out over the edge of a cliff and down into their own personal abyss. You cannot address ANY other issue under circumstances like that. Even in normal times, people "vote their pocketbook", let alone during the Great Recession. Nobody gets out of a Poli Sci 101 class without learning that simple fact. So how did the president of the United States get all the way to the White House without doing so? Barack Obama has spent virtually all of his political capital, and that of his comrades in Congress too, on an issue way down in priority for most Americans right now, while almost entirely ignoring the single thing they are obsessed about. This would be like, say, invading Iraq in response to an attack launched at you from Afghanistan. I wonder how that would work out for a president?
SECOND, STAKE OUT THE HIGH MORAL GROUND. If you’re trying to do something as president – and especially if you’re trying to do something big – you have to be bold and you have to sell it bold. There needs to be a big problem to be solved. You need to be offering a big solution to the problem. Your position has to be the only morally defensible one. It doesn’t hurt if you can identify some sort of enemy, too. You have to get people excited, motivated, passionate and afraid to not get on board with your solution. That will not happen if you offer them half-measures backed by a wimpy lack of conviction. Imagine if Roosevelt had gone to Congress on December 8th, 1941 and said, "Golly, those darn Japanese can be mean sometimes! I urge your support for sending them a telegram strongly protesting their attack on Pearl Harbor." Would that have motivated a nation to the sacrifices necessary to win World War II? Would that have mobilized America? What if LBJ had said that institutionalized racism is unfortunate, and what we must do about it is make discrimination illegal. On Tuesday afternoons and all day Sunday, that is. Would that have given him the wind necessary to fill his legislative sails and better the country in ways that few presidents have ever matched? Call me crazy, but I’m guessing not.
THIRD, KEEP IT SIMPLE AND PRINCIPLED. Legislating properly involves attention to detail, and I certainly don’t subscribe to the latest regressive appeal to the stupidity of their tea party mobs that slams Obama’s health care bill for being 2000 pages long. Just because people who get their politics from Limbaugh and Beck need stuff dumbed down in order to assuage their own wholesale inadequacies, I sure don’t want my government governing on that principle. That said, sometimes complexity in legislation means that one is tying oneself in knots, trying to avoid the simple and obvious solution to a problem. And it is always the case, even when bills must legitimately include boatloads of detail, that they should nevertheless be rooted in simple, easily-extractable, foundational first principles, and that these should form the narrative core of how the legislation is marketed to the public. At the end of the day, if you can get across to people that your bill will accomplish one, two or three really important, basic and necessary objectives, they won’t care how many pages it runs. If you can’t do that, on the other hand, they also won’t care how many pages it runs. They’re not going to support your crummy law, regardless.
FOURTH, USE THE BULLY PULPIT. One of the things that astonishes me about the Obama team is how little they understand the modern presidency. It seems so clear what you need to do, because we’ve seen it done so many times, and we’ve seen it not done. FDR, LBJ, Reagan and Lil’ Bush all more or less got what they wanted as president because they understood these simple principles, while Clinton and Carter and Poppy Bush and Ford were Potemkin presidents because they didn’t. One of the key aspects of the formula is using the president’s most important single power, the bully pulpit. This means that you have to talk about your bill incessantly. You have to talk about it with great gravitas. You have to persuade. You have to go over the heads of Congress, to the people, and get them to lean all over Congress like your cousin Eddy with the big coke habit who is constantly hitting you up for money. You have to put the fear in the bellies of members about what it will cost them to be on the wrong side of public opinion. You have to be incessant. The model is not only crystal clear, but entirely proximate in time. Think of the obsessive full-court-press campaign that the Bush administration ran to sell the Iraq war just back in 2002 and 2003. Big speeches. Loads of public appearances. Top administration officials on every broadcast, every day. Relentless beating of the same drum. No distractions with other issues. Message coordination with sympathetic pundits, public intellectuals and activists from outside the administration. Total media domination. Strident, urgent exhortations. Intimidation and delegitimation of anyone who dared oppose the policy. And so on. Ironically, Obama has never come close to mounting a public campaign for solutions that people actually desire that would equal one-tenth of the intensity that Bush brought to the party when he took policies the public didn’t want and jammed them down their throats until they begged for more.
FIFTH, LEAN ON YOUR OWN PARTY. Some of my favorite photos from recent history are of LBJ applying "The Johnson Treatment" to members of Congress and others who needed a bit of course correction. This hulking president would get right up in their faces, towering over them, and causing political figures normally otherwise possessed of quite healthy egos to arch themselves over backwards in obeisance, and presumably also to minimize the amount of LBJ’s spittle that ended up on their foreheads. The guy knew how to intimidate you. He knew how to stroke you. He knew how to threaten you. He knew what you cared about. He knew your pressure points. He knew how to appeal to your sense of history. He knew how to take advantage of your pettiness. He knew how to twist your arm. And, if you were dumb enough to make it necessary for him to do so, he knew how to rip it right out of its socket. Mostly, he just knew how to pocket your vote. And so that’s what he did. Over and over again. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of LBJ. He is not only being dictated to by Congress, rather than the other way around, but he actually set it up that way. He’s getting the LBJ treatment from punks on Capitol Hill, rather than giving to them. He has stood for nothing in his negotiations on major bills, and that is precisely what he has in his pocket so far as he slinks back home, beat and bruised, wobbling down Pennsylvania Avenue. You wanna win? You gotta discipline your own troops first.
SIXTH, MAKE THE OPPOSITION PAY. Right now, regressives are taking the most outrageous pot-shots at Barack Obama, Democrats in Congress, and all of their legislative initiatives. And why shouldn’t they? No one ever calls them on it. No one ever makes them pay for it. No one ever fires back. No one ever ridicules them when they say ridiculous things. No one ever shames them. No one ever puts them on the wrong side of history. This is a real bad governing posture, made all the worse because of who we’re dealing with here. Regressives tend to have the worst instincts imaginable, just on their own. They’re the most frightened people in the world, and they’re therefore capable of anything, including lies, smears, dirty tricks, cheap attacks, personal destruction and ruining the country they claim incessantly to be so patriotic toward. They look at thugs like Limbaugh or Rove as role models, rather than as the escaped felons that they actually are. They are more than a problem, just left to their own devices. You cannot add to the problem by incentivizing their criminal behavior. Anybody who wants to govern effectively needs to make opponents pay for their opposition. Obama and the Democrats in Congress, on the other hand, have made opposition to them pay off for their opponents. A year ago, the Great-big Old Pigs party was so smashed to bits from its own insane politics, it looked like the thing could seriously be toast. Now, they are right back in contention, and poised for smashing victories in the next two election cycles. All because they called Democrats socialists, fascists and granny-killers, and no one ever made them eat their scorched earth destructive lies.
SEVENTH, BET THE FARM. If you’re pushing some big legislative package, you might as well act like you’re betting the farm, ‘cause you are. Look at the Democrats today. They’ve hardly made the slightest case for the urgency of their stimulus or bail-out or health care legislation. They’ve hardly telegraphed to anyone that these are all-in questions, for which they’re willing to risk a lot, and punish a lot. And yet they are, in fact, high-stakes gambles, regardless of how Democrats treat them, because their opponents have made them that. The Dumb Dems have therefore managed to realize the worst of all worlds. Whether they like it or not, they live or die on the hill of these bills. But mostly die. Their legislative agenda has been so badly botched that it is hard to say now which will cause them more damage with voters, passing a health care bill or failing to. The worst possible approach here is to take half-measures and let your opponents turn them into full ones. It’s lose-lose scenario, well fit for chumps like those in today’s Democratic Party. Instead, someone who really understands how all this works would’ve raised the stakes, right from the get-go.
And that’s it, folks. That’s how you govern in Washington. That’s how you win.
On the other hand, if being a crash-test dummy is more to your liking, there’s a formula for that too. What you do is pick the wrong issue, take some mealy-mouthed embarrassingly nothingburger position on it, make your pitch incredibly complex so the public neither understands it nor can rally behind any core moral principles, fail to use the bully pulpit to sell it, don’t lean on your own party to fall into line, don’t make it expensive for your opponents to trash you and your bill, and let them define the stakes.
Maybe you’ve seen that approach before, eh? Like every morning of this last year, when you open your newspaper, perhaps?
All evidence suggests that Barack Obama is a pretty smart guy. And, unless he’s some sort of alien pod-growth creature, he’s lived through the same epoch of American history I have.
You just wouldn’t know it, though, watching him in action.
He’s an awfully nice guy. He seems like a good father. Maybe he’s even a swell dancer, too. I dunno.
He just doesn’t know squat about how to govern.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (mailto:email@example.com), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.