Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Obama: The Anti-Reagan

I haven't posted here in a long, long time, but a friend texted me that Obama is losing him. Time to get back on it.

Obama is the anti-Reagan. The superficial contrasts are obvious, apart from the skin color; Obama is a young president; Reagan was our oldest. Reagan came from the heartland, Obama literally from the geographical fringe of the country. Reagan was a movie star; Obama is a policy wonk. Reagan had a long history with both America and the conservative movement long before he became president; Obama sprang into Democrat consciousness literally overnight with one speech. They had similar family backgrounds, both from dysfunctional or non-traditional families of modest means. But where Reagan was divorced and a famously distant father, Obama is a devoted family man, with zero skeletons in his closet.

It is on policy political strategies where the differences are, of course, most important. The policy differences are obvious, although the argument could be made that Obama shifted closer to Reagan after he was elected. On the other hand, just about any president could be accused of changing in ways that make their constituencies uncomfortable.

But what was gone unnoticed and unremarked - probably because it's very difficult to tell - are the stylistic and strategic differences. Both, of course, are excellent public speakers, but the similarity basically ends there. Reagan had three basic beliefs: lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong defense. He believed in capitalism and the basic goodness of the American people. That was pretty much it.

Obama's political philosophy cannot, on the other hand, be reduced to a slogan, and he's barely tried to do so. He believes in the broad spectrum of liberal ideas; feminism, civil rights, gay rights, empowering the poor, protecting the environment, etc. The closest he's come to a tag line of late is "Winning The Future," which translates into a very poor choice of acronym, and which seems to be fading quickly. In 2008, he was all about hope and change, the epitome of nebulous campaign promises. It's hard to pin Obama down to specifics, either in terms of policy or even tenets of his ideology. Many of his supporters are uncomfortable with this, because it looks like he's waffling, or not making a commitment, or compromising too early or too often.

The other great contrast between Reagan and Obama is in terms of political strategy. Reagan would outline a basic goal, give uplifting but vague speeches, challenge his opponents directly, and refuse to compromise. But then he would compromise at the last minute, declare victory, and move on, so it looked like he won. This is one reason conservatives idolize him. They buy into the myth that he was a rigid ideologue, when he was also very much a realistic, pragmatic politician.

Obama is famously willing to compromise, and constantly reaching out to his political opponents, trying hard to reach consensus, broker deals, make sure everyone is involved in the process. Again, many of his supporters are uncomfortable with this approach, because it looks like he's compromising when he doesn't have to, or he's letting his opponents dictate parts of the agenda.

But the most important difference between Reagan and Obama - and this is where Obama beats Reagan, hands down - is that Obama is an absolutely masterful political tactician. Obama is very good at seeing the big picture politically, and defining a successful strategy. Hillary Clinton learned this too late - the 2008 campaign was a great strategic success. Obama and his team mapped out how they were going to win, followed the plan, and won.

But what is almost impossible for the public to see is how good Obama is with political tactics. His work on gay rights is the best illustration of this. He campaigned on ending the ban on gays serving in the military. For a long time, it looked like he wasn't doing much to advance that cause, and his supporters were grumbling. He had set up a commission to look into it, and the commission was set to issue its report in early December, 2010. That would be after the election, but before the new Congress took office. The results of the commission's study therefore would not be released in time to be an issue in the election, but they would be released in time for Congress to act on them.

I don't remember exactly how repealing the ban went down. It happened between Christmas and New Year's, when the American public is not paying much attention to politics. There was some kind of parliamentary maneuvering going on, but the Democrats got enough Republicans on board to make it happen. I think some of the Republicans who voted for it were about to retire, so they could "vote their conscience." I seem to recall Joe Lieberman being a strong advocate of it.

I have roughly the same perspective on his actions on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). There isn't much Obama can do on this. It's not going to be repealed by Congress any time soon. Obama's position on gay marriage is "evolving," which is a very politically convenient way of not making a commitment for it, but not rejecting it either. That may even be true. But it's a classic politician's finesse - he doesn't want to piss of his gay supporters by coming out (sorry, couldn't resist) against gay marriage, but he's also aware that there are many independents and conservatives who are strongly against it. So he had his Attorney General come out with a hair-splitting position - the Dept. of Justice will not defend part of it in court, but they will continue to enforce it. I'm not quite sure how it works, and I work for a law firm.

It's all very confusing.

Which is exactly the point.

The fact that these processes - of repealing the ban on gays in the military, and challenging DOMA - were confusing is part of Obama's political strategy. Republicans had a hard time finding a point to challenge repealing the ban on gays in the military, other than the vote itself - which took place at the end of a lame duck session. Who would argue against a commission set up to study the issue? Now that the law has been passed, the Pentagon still has to draw up plans for implementation. Once it's official, most gay members of the military will probably come out slowly. The whole process is long, drawn out, and involved lots of people besides Obama himself - Bob Gates at the Pentagon, Harry Reid in the Senate. It's an incendiary issue, but Obama's process - long, bureaucratic, mostly behind the scenes - obscured the opportunities for heated rhetoric, and therefore diffused the anger. There is time between when the debate happened, when the law passed, and when it's implemented, giving the American people time to adjust to the issue.

But homosexuals in the military will be a fact of life by November 2012, and Barack Obama will take the lion's share of the credit. He'll tell his gay supporters that he delivered on a key campaign promise.

We see the same thing in DOMA. Obama's DOJ is not defending it, but is enforcing it. The DOJ informed Congress that it could DOMA in court if it wanted to, but that, of courses, puts the pressure to do so on John Boehner. I can barely follow it, and I work for a law firm. But it's a win-win for Obama. If DOMA is partially overturned, he will declare victory, but claim that it was a decision by a court. If he doesn't win, he can claim that he tried, but that it's either the fault of Republicans, or a court. Tactically, it's great. But it's very difficult to understand unless you are a hardcore political geek.

One problem with this approach is that while it confuses his opponents, it also confuses his supporters, even those who are smart and fairly politically savvy, like Matt Damon and other celebrities. This article explains why he and other celebrities are disillusioned. Unfortunately for both Obama and his supporters, it's in the media's best interest to play up how disappointed Obama fans are. But this particular article is both incredibly sloppy and clearly intent on playing up the disappointment. The picture of Matt Damon shows him scowling, to accentuate the point that he's unhappy. But the wall on the background reads "TIFF," or Toronto International Film Festival. That takes place in September. Since then, Matt Damon has been nominated for an Oscar, and photographed dozens, if not hundreds, of times. He's generally a very upbeat guy. But they somehow managed to find a picture of him looking unhappy.

Barbra Streisand is quoted as being unhappy that Obama didn't use executive privilege to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. The quote is from some time "in December," i.e. before Congress repealed it. I think we can safely assume that Barbra Streisand is now happy with Obama's strategy to repeal DADT given that THE STRATEGY ACTUALLY FRICKIN' WORKED. Matt Damon is not happy about testing kids in schools. Neither am I, but that's a product of the Bush administration, and Obama has not been able to undo it. Jane Lynch is disappointed that Obama has not been able to do anything about gay marriage. The quote from her is from early January, again, well before Obama ACTUALLY DID SOMETHING ABOUT GAY MARRIAGE.

Other celebrities who are unhappy with Obama about a particular issue include Hugh Hefner, Spike Lee, and Robert Redford. You know what? Give me 10 minutes, and I can find a whole bunch of celebrities who are unhappy with Obama. There were lots of liberals unhappy with Clinton. Lots of conservatives grumbled about Reagan. That's the nature of politics. As someone (I think Maria Cuomo) said, you campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose. The nuts and bolts of actually governing are always less exciting, and infinitely more frustrating, than the campaign. Obama waits a long time to move before he does so. But in the process, he's refining his plans and laying the groundwork. Which is difficult, if not impossible to see. But absolutely necessary.

What's the best possible evidence that Obama moves quickly? This is a man who went from being an Illinois state senator to being president of the United States in four years.

There is one more similarity between Obama and Reagan: both of them were seriously underestimated by their opponents. And, occasionally, their supporters.