01/09/2011 07:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting Beyond Sound-Bite Wars? Urge Daley and Sperling to Help Obama Lead -- Like Clinton Did

The terrible shootings in Arizona should make us all get beyond the sound-bite wars. Will the media let us?

As soon as the story leaked that President Obama was about to appoint former aides to President Clinton, Bill Daley and Gene Sperling, to key positions (Chief of Staff and head of the National Economic Council, respectively), reporters from major media started calling me, seeking quotes to substantiate the story they were already writing: "Progressives Outraged, New Democrats Delighted."

Now I know enough about Daley and Sperling that my initial instinct was to join other progressive colleagues in criticizing the appointments. Daley joined the Clinton Administration to help pass NAFTA, which has since devastated US manufacturing jobs and pissed off blue collar workers (and voters in the heartland in general) who should be solidly voting Democratic, but aren't. And I remembered that, just as we began the successful fight against the Bush plan to privatize Social Security, Sperling was actively promoting his plan for private investment accounts which could have led to a Democratic version of privatization. Luckily, the movement ignored him back then, and virtually all Democratic lawmakers joined to stop the dangerous Bush plan for Social Security in its tracks. And, of course, recent news reports made it hard to ignore the strong connections both have with big Wall Street firms that helped engineer the deregulation of banking and the speculative orgy that followed, leading to the massive collapse of the economy.

But with every reporter who called, I tried to get beyond the sound-bites. One reporter, trying to provoke me to give him a quote full of outrage, asked "Doesn't this appointment show the administration is now just Clinton retreads?" I replied that we are waiting to see whether Obama is willing to act as decisively as Clinton did to defend Social Security and Medicare in the face of Republicans calls to cut or dismantle those popular programs. I reminded the reporter that Clinton was at least willing to stand up to Gingrich when he threatened to shut down the government. I asked him if he remembered Clinton's defense of M2E2 -- Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment -- and Clinton's mantra of "Save Social Security first." I told him we hoped these new appointments might help Obama to fight for programs Americans value - just as Clinton did. At the very least, we hoped they would help Obama avoid the massive unpopularity of becoming the first Democratic president to cut Social Security and Medicare. But this didn't fit the reporter's narrative that the left should be outraged at these Clinton-style centrists. So he didn't use my narrative. He used a short "lefty outrage" quote.

Again and again, reporters called -- from the NY Times, USA Today, the AP, and National Journal. And each time I tried to interest them in my idea that Daley and Sperling could help Obama stand up to the Republicans in Congress the way Clinton successfully rallied the country against Gingrich's attempt to shut down the government in order to get draconian budget cuts.

But while some reporters patiently listened to me, they all went with my more obvious "lefty" sound bite: "I'd be happier if one of these top appointees was closer to main street than to Wall Street." Clearly, the reporters were all calling for the same quote, one that substantiated the "Outraged Progressives" story they had already written in their heads. (Another problem: many of these reporters were too young to remember Bill Clinton's successful and very popular public refusal to cooperate with the dismantling of Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment -- and his popular "Save Social Security First declaration in the State of the Union.) Surely this stuff is in textbooks, right? Here's one, Congress From the Inside, written by US Senator Sherrod Brown. See page 177.

I told the reporters who called that Daley should also be in a good position get his Wall Street buddies to pressure Republican crazies not to use the debt limit fight to threaten to destabilize the US financial system. Wall Street would be hurt most by that threat. Surely Daley could see the benefit -- for Obama and the country -- of taking a principled stand: don't try to placate conservatives with capitulation (cutting Social Security, for instance). No deals. Just act in the national interest. But that hopeful thought, coming from one of their professional progressives on their call list, just did not compute -- and got no ink or web space.

So once again, let me use the pages of this progressive blog, to express some optimism that the mainstream media doesn't have time or space for: Bill Daley and Gene Sperling know how Bill Clinton became the comeback kid. Yes, he did capitulate to the right and "reform" welfare, but he also stood up and fought when Republicans wanted to turn Social Security and Medicare from popular programs useful to the broad middle class into crippled programs that serve only the poor. (This is exactly what the Deficit Commission proposals would do, and polls show those austerity proposals are very unpopular with the very middle class voters Obama needs to gain reelection.) Daley and Sperling know how to read polls and they learned their politics from a master politician who knew how to rally the country -- not only to protect safety net programs but to fight for future-oriented investments in education and the environment. Who knows, they might even look at the reasons Democrats did so badly and help President Obama run for reelection on a program that could plausibly get America back to full employment. That would be a strategy that Clintonistas, many Reagan voters, and supporters of "Change We Can Believe In" could all rally around.

But the first thing Daley and Sperling need to do: Rally the Obama administration to defend Social Security and Medicare. If they can't manage do that, the Democratic Party will fracture -- and they will come to think of their years with Bill Clinton as their glory days. The country expects more from their new boss.