Barack Obama Promised A New Kind Of Politics, But Played The Same Old Game
In the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson was left to pursue his predecessor’s unfinished legislative agenda. White House insiders considered the task nearly impossible. The civil rights bill was bottled up in the House Rules Committee, where its chairman was intent on running out the clock
until the election the next year. A critical tax cut, meanwhile, was bogged down in the Senate, where the Finance Committee chairman was holding it hostage.
Johnson surveyed the legislative landscape and knew he had to shake things up.
Rather than negotiate with Congress, Johnson turned the goodwill of the nation into a force with which to bludgeon the GOP and expand what was politically possible. He took his case to the American people, reminding them that the GOP was the “Party of Lincoln,” and flooded Washington with religious leaders who lobbied Congress.
The result was a tax cut that is largely credited with ushering in an era of high growth and, of course, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Had Johnson stuck to inside baseball, he would have struck out twice.
Barack Obama could have learned something from LBJ. As a candidate Obama promised to change the way Washington works and he rode a wave of global support into the White House. His first two years in office have repeatedly been compared to the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Society under Johnson, with historic achievements on health care, Wall Street reform and other domestic priorities.
But Obama’s first term has also left many of his supporters wondering whether those accomplishments could have been bigger in size, scope and impact. The health care reform legislation was built largely off a conservative model, with millions of people shuttled into the private market. The financial regulatory reform bill contained carve-outs for the private sector and is widely regarded as not far-reaching enough to curb some of the banking industry’s worst practices. The White House made little effort to push labor priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have granted workers more avenues to form unions. The Iraq war may have ended, but the war in Afghanistan heated up, with lingering confusion as to why troops remain there.
Now, just a few months before the election, Obama is suffering from an engagement gap. According to a late July Gallup poll, only 39 percent of Democrats said they were “more enthusiastic” than usual about voting. That number was 61 percent at a similar time in 2008. Republicans, meanwhile, are more fired up now (51 percent) than they were in 2008 (35 percent).
Obama is no longer regarded by the majority of voters as a constructive reformer. An August 21 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 37 percent of the respondents thought he would bring the “right kind of change” in his second term.
Although Democrats tend to like the president more than Republicans like Mitt Romney, his re-election is far from assured.
How did a candidate who drew two million individuals to his inauguration and retained a 13 million-member email list lose that magic?
According to campaign officials, White House aides, members of Congress, top party strategists, labor leaders and progressive advocates, the main reason is that Obama has come to resemble the creature of Washington he campaigned against.
Whereas FDR and LBJ marshalled the American people as weapons in legislative combat, BHO came to Washington and tried to play the game like an old hand.
A president, by definition, is an inside player, tasked with executing difficult rounds of political negotiations. But without the energy of the campaign, Obama found himself with far less power than expected. “They got to Washington and they became of the place, and assumed that by virtue of having an email come that has ‘WH’ on it, that everyone will go, ‘Oh, OK,’” said Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee.
Van Jones, a former White House official whose background in grassroots organizing gave him a different perspective from those of officials who’d come from the Clinton administration, summed up the consternation felt by many Obama supporters.
“Who killed the hope?” Jones wondered. “And what happened?”
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