THE BLOG
03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Message Catastrophe

As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited -- I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships. In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years. That's why I pushed for quick action. And tonight, I am grateful that this Congress delivered, and pleased to say that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is now law.

(Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2009).

The political crisis facing the Democratic Party and the Obama administration can be traced back to the president's statements on "big government" made one year ago. In the space of a single paragraph he lays out an argument that is nonsensical, contradictory and utterly unconvincing. That he does not "believe in bigger government" and that an $800 billion government spending spree on every Democratic pet project is the answer to the country's woes.

It is no wonder that pundits are scratching their heads at how the alleged "greatest communicator" since Ronald Reagan could be in the midst of a "message" catastrophe. The president's faulty message: government is bad except for all the government I expand. It is no surprise that he has not been able to carry the American people along with him.

The problem he faces has been endemic to Democrats for the past two decades, and he is the latest incarnation of it -- a chronic identity crisis combined with cowardice and insecurity. On each fundamental principle they are perched uncomfortably in the middle: whether they want to expand government or shrink it, whether they are for invading other countries or appeasing them, whether they do support rights for gay people or they do not, whether they do wish to strengthen trade unions or export their jobs abroad, and so forth. And, when the time comes when they do take such a stand, they run away from it at the first revealing of danger.

We have just heard every stripe of the Democratic Party insist on the necessity of health reform for the past nine months only to switch immediately, a single day after a special election, to declare that, if it doesn't pass, everything will be OK after all. The parallel to Iraq is breathtaking: Democrats lined up to vote for W.'s war, only to run away from it the moment public opinion tipped against it. In an initial attempt to show their "strength" they ended up coming across as weak, and deservedly so.

And now, after selling a health care and stimulus package that approached a trillion dollars each, Obama announces a $250 billion spending freeze to commence in 2011. What message does this send? No doubt the administration aims to reconnect with independent votes. But announcing a spending cut now, after the $2 trillion horse has escaped from the barn, is to put it lightly, a little to late. He has defined himself by epic spending. There is no undoing this. Denouncing big government and announcing cuts only undercuts his argument further: that the critics were right, he was a big-spending liberal, and that is a bad thing, and maybe we should have voted for McCain after all.

Obama's mixed message is understandable, given his carefully crafted brand as a bridge between opposing sides. Yet, there was always a subtle -- but hugely significant -- distinction between the symbolic politics of healing America's fractured political geography of red and blue and the New Democrat, "Third Way," which attempted to split the difference between left and right as a matter of policy. His accession to the presidency brought about a drift from this symbolic healing, to an incoherent policy position that he was unable to articulate and his audience did not understand.

If the administration turns against their last year, they will fail. Such a move would make him look insincere and misguided at best, and at worst, a flip-flopper who is too scared to lead. Obama should instead return to his symbolic politics that bridges America's cultural divides whilst at the same time articulating the case for how "big government" can save the middle class.