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Harry Shearer

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The Two Things Obama Got Wrong

Posted: 09/05/11 05:03 PM ET

August. The month that Democrats seem to think doesn't count. Think John Kerry in 2004. Think Barack Obama the last two years. Somebody had better look at Washington Democrats' calendars and circle August in red. It might help.

This August, in addition to the media swoonfest over Michele Bachmann's meaningless Ames straw poll victory (which even the media polpundits admitted was meaningless), there have been new signs that the economy is swooning, too. Pinch me if I'm dreaming, but isn't it 2009? It must be, because the president is about to deliver a major speech on jobs.

But this August has been bad for the Obama administration primarily because the liberal knives have finally come out for him, with the maraschino cherry on top being the backdown on ozone regulations at month's end. Drew Westen's attack at the beginning of the month, and Jon Chait's rejoinder at the end, seem to have bookended this debate, at least for New York Times readers. But, not to brag, I've been off the Obama bandwagon almost since before it had Michelins. In mid-March 2009, back around the time he gave the big jobs speech (not), I started criticizing him here for (a) doubling down in Afghanistan; and (b) ignoring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' announcement that they were choosing the "technically not superior" solution for a part of the new protection system for New Orleans. Obama fans here pelted me with digital spitballs, on the grounds that "his plate's so full" and "he'll get to it."

And now, here we are. Oddly enough, the president's plate has just gotten fuller. What's with that kitchen staff? And the intervening two years have shown me -- and yes, commenters, I know, I'll get back to doing cartoon voices just as soon as this post is completed -- that this president has committed two profound strategic blunders.

One is based on the circumstances he faced on taking office. The economy was in a shambles. When that happens in this country, history tells us there's a big wave of populism that sweeps through the population most severely affected by economic turmoil. Sometimes it's left-wing populism; sometimes it's right-wing populism. I think the president had the moment, and the option, to select which direction that populist wave would break. Had he gone left-wing populist, directing the anger of Main Street at -- to quote Teddy Roosevelt -- the "malefactors of great wealth," it's quite possible that he could have cornered the market on populism. Leaving that field vacant opened a big market for right-wing populism, which conveniently swooped in, in the form of the Tea Party. Yes, I'm suggesting that Barack Obama, not the Koch Brothers, is primarily responsible for the rise of the Tea Party.

The second strategic blunder has to do with misunderstanding his opposition. What was it about Mitch McConnell saying in 2009 that his primary goal was the defeat of President Obama that President Obama didn't understand? When your adversary is hell-bent on denying you any victories, making conciliatory policy moves towards them is quixotic and self-defeating. Example: adopting Mitt Romney's (and many other conservatives') model for market-based insurance "exchanges" in his health-care plan merely allowed the opposition to demonize a previously conservative policy, thereby moving the argument to the right. It didn't earn him the votes of (almost extinct) moderate Republicans, nor the ardor of centrists. It merely allowed another set of policy options to be labeled "socialist." Drew Westen decries this as the failure to understand bully politics. I'd go simpler, based on my own experience as one of the shortest white guys to play street basketball in NYC: if you get into a game that surprises you with its free use of elbows and other apparent deliberate contact, with the determination of both teams to cheat on the score and argue every foul and out-of-bounds call, you're ill-advised to call "time" and say, "Hey, guys, I do happen to have a copy of the rules here...." You play the game you find yourself in, and you rev up your elbows.

The truly sad thing is that, for this administration, the whole year is August.

I can't wait till 2010 and that big jobs speech.

 

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