Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Advising Obama

I don't hear the name Doug Wilder mentioned very often these days.

There was a time, though, when one heard his name quite frequently — the late 1980s, when he was narrowly elected the first black governor of Virginia, and the early 1990s, when he was (briefly) a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

After his term as governor ended (and he was prevented, by state law, from seeking re–election), he sort of dropped out of sight. He emerged to run for mayor of Richmond — and was elected — in 2004, then decided not to seek a second term.

Other than that, he seems to have been content serving as an adjunct professor in public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, but he has been known to write editorials for various papers in Virginia, where he is still highly regarded as a knowledgeable and influential figure.

Today, though, he seems to be trying to expand his influence beyond Virginia's state lines in his quest to aid the first black to be elected president.

The midterm elections, in which Democrats are now widely expected to take anywhere from a modest beating to a severe thrashing, have not been held, but Wilder writes, in Politico, that "[i]t would be good for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party to address some important issues" well in advance of 2012.

He points out that Obama's approval ratings have been poor (perhaps not as poor as George W. Bush's were at the end of his presidency, but, when compared to the approval ratings he enjoyed in the early days of his presidency, his current numbers certainly seem puny) and observes, like a parent scolding a child over a bad grade in school, that he must improve.

It won't be easy, he cautions, and there is no "simple fix," but there is one thing Obama can do.

Now, when I think of "important issues" — the most important issues facing America in 2010 — I think of matters of substance, things that can affect the quality of people's lives — like the jobless rate or housing foreclosures or unpopular wars (Obama asserted yesterday, by the way, that American military involvement in Iraq, something he says he has opposed all along, is on schedule to conclude at the end of this month).

Actually being seen doing something every day to deal with one — or preferably all — of these issues might help his fellow Democrats who are on the ballot this year. It worked for FDR in 1934. Roosevelt's policies had not ended the Great Depression. But he was visibly trying to do something about unemployment every day, and the voters knew it.

And they rewarded his party for it in the midterm elections.

Time is short. There isn't much that can be achieved in 13 weeks. And, to be sure, this vague talk about unverifiable jobs that have been saved by Obama's policies is a tough sell for voters. The Bible may praise those who have believed without seeing, but, for most folks, seeing is believing.

Perhaps we'll see evidence this week that jobs are being created. It seems more likely that we will not. But Obama will still be in office after the midterms are over. The as yet unanswered question is how many Democrats will there be in Congress? If Obama has learned anything as president, it should be that his party's control of Congress is the key to the success of his administration.

The more Democratic seats that are saved, the easier it will be for Obama to make tangible improvements in the second half of his term. And that will be at the heart of his case for a second term.

That's how his presidency will be judged. Whichever party controls the chambers of Congress come January, it seems likely to me that, in 2012, Republicans will ask voters the same question Ronald Reagan asked them in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Public opinion, of course, is fluid, and what poll respondents say today may differ from what they will say tomorrow. But, whether it's by a narrow margin or a wider one, today's polls consistently suggest the answer is not likely to be the one Obama wants.

Focusing in a very public way on the things that people are really worried about is a long shot now. It's what he should have been doing all along. His failure to do so has caused a lot of suffering that many voters will find it hard to forget.

But I guess that's all water under the bridge now, isn't it?

Well, anyway, that would be my advice to Obama — if he's really interested in improving his standing with the voters before 2012. The people are scared. Do something — or at least look like you're trying to do something — about what scares them.

But Wilder's got something else in mind.

Obama, he says, needs to "reconnect with the 2008 campaign themes he used to barnstorm the nation: 'audacity' and 'change.' "

And Wilder says the way to do that is to change running mates.

Now, dumping a vice president is not a new idea. I recall plenty of talk in 1992 about how George H.W. Bush should jettison Dan Quayle — which, ultimately, he did not do. I guess he recalled how he felt when, eight years earlier, there were some Republicans who said Ronald Reagan should pitch Bush overboard.

It was kind of a weird case of recent history repeating itself — sort of. In the early 1970s, some prominent Republicans urged Richard Nixon to discard his vice president, Spiro Agnew. He didn't, but, in hindsight, he may have wished he had. Agnew resigned the year after his re–election, awash in a sea of corruption charges. A generation earlier, many Republicans said Dwight Eisenhower should drop Nixon from his ticket — until Nixon swung public opinion in his favor with his famed "Checkers" speech.

Don't get me wrong. Democratic presidencies haven't been immune. There just haven't been as many of them. I remember hearing some talk and reading some columns in 1980 that advocated dropping Walter Mondale from the Democratic ticket. He wasn't inspiring enough, it was said. Turned out, Carter wasn't inspiring enough to be re–elected. It's doubtful the outcome would have been altered if Mondale had been dropped from the ticket.

Actually, while there may have been talk — sometimes fanciful, sometimes serious — about dropping just about every vice president (especially those who served under unpopular presidents), it has rarely happened.
  • FDR was elected president four times with three different running mates. His first vice president, John Garner, had been his political rival until it became clear FDR would win the nomination. At that point, Garner made a deal with the likely nominee that earned him the No. 2 spot. His relationship with Roosevelt appears to have been good; he was renominated for a second term, but after the two were re–elected, things turned sour.

    Acting on the assumption that FDR would limit himself to two terms (at a time in American history when presidential term limits hadn't yet been voted into law), Garner jumped into the race. Then FDR let it be known that he would seek a third term. Garner, who was more conservative than most New Dealers would have preferred, probably could have remained on the ticket if he had chosen to withdraw from the race, but he didn't.

    So FDR chose his decidedly progressive agriculture secretary, Henry Wallace, to be his new running mate. And Wallace was elected in 1940. But he was dropped in 1944, when FDR was nominated for a fourth term. Wallace was thought to be too pro–Soviet by those who were prominent in the party — most of whom suspected that Roosevelt's health was worse than he or his doctors would admit and feared (rightfully, as it turned out) that he wouldn't live through a fourth term.

    If that came to pass, they didn't want Wallace next in line to be president.

    Thus, Harry Truman was chosen to be FDR's third and final running mate — and, as it turned out, his successor. And Wallace, who wound up running for president as the nominee of the Progressive Party in 1948, missed becoming president by less than 90 days in 1945.
  • In 1892, Republican President Benjamin Harrison was nominated for a second term, but his vice president, Levi Morton, was not. As the president of the Senate, he appears to have been ineffective at promoting Harrison's agenda, so Harrison selected someone else to be his running mate.
  • Interestingly, the president with whom Obama has most closely identified, Abraham Lincoln, dropped his original vice president as well.

    Lincoln was elected as a Republican, but, when he sought a second term in 1864, he ran as the nominee of the National Union Party, which was really a coalition of Republicans who were loyal to Lincoln and some Northern Democrats — as well as some Southern Democrats.

    Lincoln's thoughts were on Reconstruction, and the decision to drop Vice President Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket appears to have been made primarily with that in mind.
Back in September of 2008, there were still those in the Democratic Party who thought Obama's former rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, should have been his running mate — and among those who wondered publicly if Clinton would have been a better choice was the man who got the nomination (and the job), then–Sen. Joe Biden. Before the economic meltdown, which appears to have permanently altered the dynamics of the race, there was considerable speculation about what those who had supported Clinton in the primaries would do in November. Well, Wilder seems to feel that Biden has come up short of expectations as vice president, and he advocates replacing Biden with Clinton in 2012. "That would be both needed change and audacious," Wilder writes, adding that Clinton has been a "team player" since the president–elect tapped her to be secretary of state. Actually, a lot of people spoke very highly of Clinton's speech to the 2008 Democratic convention, in which (it was said) she demonstrated that same "team player" mentality. I didn't get the same feeling, but I must admit that she appears to have been loyal to this administration. And Wilder believes Clinton could be helpful in retaining the support of middle–class independents and working–class voters, who were staunch supporters of Clinton in the 2008 primaries. "Without their support" in 2012, Wilder asserts, "Obama cannot win." I can't argue with the case that he makes that Biden was chosen because Obama had long campaigned against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he wanted to shore up his credentials on foreign policy when he selected his running mate in August of 2008. In that regard, Biden brought much more to the table than Clinton did. But the political dialogue is considerably different now. People are still interested in seeing the wars ended — and the money that is being spent on them redirected to domestic concerns — but millions of Americans have lost their jobs and/or their homes since Biden was chosen. For whatever reason, Clinton is perceived as being more sympathetic to their plight. Meanwhile, Biden has been having a string of "YouTube moments." "Biden has not distinguished himself, other than to be more prone to gaffes," says Wilder, "which had been cited by some skeptics when Obama first announced his choice." I admit, he makes a good point when he complains of the impression Biden left after an appearance on behalf of the Democrats' gubernatorial candidate in Florida. And criticism of Biden's assertion that "the heavy lifting is over" is well taken.

But, ultimately, I will say what I have said all along about running mates.

People do not vote for the running mate. They vote for the candidate at the top of the ticket.

And the Democrats' likely standard bearer in 2012 has a lot of work to do — work that he should have been doing all along.

It is not work that either Biden or Clinton can do for him.

If his re–election depends on his running mate, that says a lot more about his presidency than any one individual can say.

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