The modern political media's business model requires that presidential politics resemble a soap opera; and while Sarah Palin's Alaska ascends the reality show ranks, President Obama reigns as king of the political soaps. After the Obama show's thrilling 2008 election evening premiere in Grant Park and the ratings success of inauguration, it's been a long slide down a slippery hill. Some of this is the president's own doing: the master communicator and politico of 2008 became a low-key policy wonk in 2009. Our new FDR and JFK may be on the way to becoming the next Jimmy Carter. One hopes he will at least discover his inner Bill Clinton and recognize the Presidency as the 21st century contact sport it has become.
The new health care plan, the economic stimulus (including the Obama tax cut!), financial regulation and averting a depression were the major accomplishments of Obama's first two years in office. He receives little credit for these accomplishments. Given the left's anger with him, it is amazing that some see him as a socialist. The left opposes his moves in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan. Liberals were distraught when the health bill emerged without universal coverage and without a public option. Financial regulation is far from radical. Still, President Obama has been unable to counter the message that he is a foreign-born, Islamic terrorist with communist and anti-Semitic leanings. While Obama contributed to this image by trying to stand above the political fray, I am not sure there is anything he could have done to prevent it. The story line of 2010 had to be Obama's humiliation in order to set up the triumphant comeback that will generate high ratings on CNN, MSNBC and Fox in 2012; not to mention hits on this site, Drudge and others throughout the blogosphere.
Of course there are counter-plotlines and competing shows that could interfere. This week's NY Times Magazine features an inadvertently terrifying story by Robert Draper about Sarah Palin's political operation. The piece seems to imply that Ms. Palin is smarter and more talented than many people think; and that she will learn enough foreign policy in the next couple of years to be a serious candidate for president. Draper argues that Palin's political moves have been so successful and her instincts are so good that she simply must be talented.
The other competing storyline is the role of the Republicans in Congress and the president's ability to counter them and finally get the upper hand in the national media's message battle. Ever since the midterm elections, we have seen a concerted effort by both the Republicans on the Hill and the national political media to push the line that the President and Democrats are on the road to irrelevance. There has even been an effort to rehabilitate George W. Bush and his ridiculous presidency. Somehow this crew is trying to hang the economic meltdown, the nuclear peril in Iran and North Korea, and even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Obama. Still, the president needs to understand the political danger to his Administration if a plausible revisionist view of history results in Bush's rehabilitation. The constant clean-up operation that Obama has presided over these past two years has had a high political cost and the President needs to turn this page in a hurry. He needs a focused, clear message, and he needs to create policies that back it up: jobs and green economic growth at home, a focus on a strong security presence overseas.
It's time for everyone to remember the immense political power of the American presidency. As Newt Gingrich learned in 1994, the Congress is no match for a determined, strategic and aggressive American president. The American president is both our head of government and head of state; he is the Prime Minster and the King. Executive orders, vetoes, military command, emergency power, foreign policy and the bully pulpit are very powerful tools. So too is the fact that as head of state, the Presidency is associated with love of country, patriotism and the nation's security. When Obama's political opponents attack him in his role as head of state, they risk being seen as unpatriotic. This is why the initial attack on Iraq was supported by most of the Democrats in Congress. When the president pursues a foreign policy objective, the assumption is that everyone else should support that objective. In this sense, politics is supposed to "stop at the water's edge". Vietnam and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have helped erode that tradition, but it still remains.
Pushing hard for the New START nuclear weapons control treaty is a first step toward re-claiming the presidential national security mantle. That picture of President Obama with former Secretaries of State Kissinger, Baker and Albright endorsing the treaty is the type of image Obama should project every day; it is the very definition of the political center. The danger of missing warheads ending up in the wrong hands is obvious to most sane people. If the Republican strategy of saying no to everything ends up defeating the New START treaty, President Obama can and will use this defeat as an example of the irresponsibility and recklessness of his opponents.
In addition to their adroit message spinning, the Republicans in the House of Representatives know that all budget bills must begin in the House. It's true that Congress has the power of the purse, but a government shutdown was attempted in the mid-1990's and turned out to be a mistake for the Republicans in Congress. The president should avoid thinking that he is re-fighting 1995's Contract with America. I suspect that Representative Boehner and his colleagues will not attempt a shut down, but will deploy subtle legislative tactics to defeat the President.
From Harry Truman to Rocky Balboa, Americans love it when an underdog makes a comeback. The drama of the two minute drill in football is hard to resist, so be prepared to view Barack Obama as the star of the 2012 version of the Comeback Kid. Yes, he can -- can't he? Is there really hope? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of As the presidency Turns...
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