Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Still Waiting for Change We Can Believe In

I have watched, with increasing dismay, as Barack Obama has been traveling a path that other Democratic presidents have traveled in my lifetime.

He's been trying to do everything when what he absolutely, positively needed to be doing was focus on a couple of essential things in his first year in office.

Perhaps he believed that was the way to satisfy everyone. And, yet, it hasn't. In fact, it may very well turn out that he has satisfied no one by trying to be all things to all people.

As I say, it is a mistake I have seen other presidents make. Jimmy Carter made the same mistake and didn't manage to turn things around by the time he sought a second term. Bill Clinton's party lost control of Congress, but he revived his personal political fortunes and won re–election. It took his party another decade to reclaim Congress.

Maybe the temptation to try to do everything at once is too great to resist, even though there is ample evidence of what can happen when a president treats governing like an all–you–can–eat lunch buffet. It's better — for many reasons — to have lunch where you have to choose a single entree instead of nibbling some of everything.

And that's what it feels like Obama has been doing. Sure, he has narrowed his focus lately to health care reform — the same issue that tripped up Clinton in his first year in office — but in the first six or seven months of his presidency, Obama was all over the place. His diehard supporters will tell you that he had no choice, that issues that had been neglected for years needed immediate attention.

I won't argue the point. When Obama took office, there was a veritable laundry list of things that needed to be dealt with. But, even after the passage of the massive stimulus package, people still have advice for him on a whole range of issues.

All those issues are important. But job creation was the most important issue and, because it has been largely neglected, it remains the most important issue. Now, however, there is a certain sense of urgency that didn't exist before.

Maybe that is because unemployment is closing in on 10% nationally. Maybe it is because many of America's unemployed are on the verge of losing their benefits. Both can be embarrassing for a president who just won the Nobel Peace Prize and has enough votes in Congress to do anything he wants without consulting the opposition.

I think it is safe to say that many Americans voted for Obama last November in part because they believed that his message of "change we can believe in" included a more enlightened approach to governing, a departure from the finger pointing and the mud slinging that characterized American politics.

If that was the motivating factor, many Americans have been disappointed, which may account for the steady movement we've seen in recent months of independent voters toward the political center away from Obama and his left–leaning supporters.

It is possible, I suppose, that many of those supporters have been influenced by Democratic strategists who think it is still a good idea to blame the Republicans, even though they haven't been in charge of anything since January.

But rather than remaining stuck in the early days of 2009, many people have their feet firmly planted in the quicksand of today, and they don't exactly see the rosy future that some Democrats continue to take for granted.

In The Hill, Brent Budowsky speaks for many when he writes, "I am fed up with those Democratic strategists who parade to cable–news shows and pollute the pages of newspapers with the pap that the way for Democrats to win in 2010 is to throw mud at Republicans."

He refers to what he calls John Harwood's recent account of the "dumbed–down view of American politics" in the New York Times.

"As James Carville might say: It's the jobs, stupid," Budowsky writes. "Many Democratic strategists don't care much about policy, but for anxious Americans who elected Democrats, it's all about policy.

"Democrats will do more to win in 2010 by creating 2 million new jobs than by spending $20 million to pay Democratic strategists to produce dirt–caked television ads."

Budowsky proceeds to reel off a list of things Democrats need to be doing to promote job creation, then concludes with a paragraph that ought to hit lackadaisical Democrats right between the eyes:

"Democratic strategists must realize that Americans are not stupid people to be manipulated by cheap–shot attacks. They are a good, fair and generous people with mortgages, frustrations, ambitions and dreams who elected Democrats to stand up for them."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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