Obama's real leadership challenge: Democrats

Leadership isn't about getting drinks with McConnell or bad sports metaphors. The president must rally progressives

Published May 6, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

          (AP/Charles Dharapak)
(AP/Charles Dharapak)

There’s been so much trolling President Obama in the last two weeks, with columnists and pundits and politicians calling him “a lame duck” or “just lame” -- Peggy Noonan knows lame -- or comparing his leadership unfavorably to fictional characters in movies and TV shows (not to mention LBJ), that the most important task for a reasonable political analyst has been to swat aside the silly and try to clear the air of delusion, projection and dejection.

Chasing delusion and projection is easy. Dejection, not so much, especially when some of it seems to come from the president himself.

First the easy part: Obama is a real president, Michael Douglas wasn’t. LBJ had overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and Senate; Obama’s party lost the House, and its Senate majority is meaningless because of the outrage of current filibuster rules. LBJ also dealt with reasonable Northeastern Republicans, who gave him overwhelming majorities for civil rights legislation when the Solid South began to secede from the Democratic Party largely over race. Obama, by contrast, has mainstream Republican leaders who are terrorized by their right flank and who declared their highest priority was blocking his reelection and his agenda; they failed at the first part but are doing a good job at the second.

But the definitive answer to the magical-thinkers who insist Obama could do more to win over recalcitrant Republicans came from Sen. Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who teamed up with Joe Manchin on background check legislation. “In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it,” Toomey said.

That’s pretty much what the president himself has been saying, and it makes Maureen Dowd’s slamming Obama’s “failure” to rally Republicans on gun control look particularly foolish. It’s also an answer to the National Journal’s Ron Fournier’s equally influential but empty column insisting that despite the intransigent opposition he faces in Congress, Obama should take a page from sports greats and “play above the breaks.”

So, clearly, the delusion and projection around what the president can do to get his Republican opponents to accept his leadership is farcical and easily refuted. But the dejection is tougher to chase. The president himself made things worse in a press conference held at least partly to fight the momentum gathering around the notion that he’s lost his mojo. Suddenly the debate focused on Obama’s petulant answer to ABC’s Jonathan Karl asking if he still had “juice.”

Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home. (Laughter.) Golly. You know, the — I think it’s — it’s a little — (chuckles) — as Mark Twain said, you know, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.

I happened to be in Washington for the press conference last week and found reasonable people in both parties dispirited by the first 100 days of the last Obama administration. A few used the dreaded word “malaise” to describe their Beltway funk. Republican moderates worry that their party’s attempt at broadening beyond its white Southern base, with immigration reform as well as less demagoguery on social issues, is flagging, while extremists like Sen. Ted Cruz plan a 2016 run, and no one can name a moderate or centrist who’s a safe bet to stop him in the GOP primary. The only happy and galvanized Republicans are on the right.

Meanwhile, many Democrats are experiencing whiplash, one moment fighting the silly notion that Obama is a lame duck, or “not relevant”; the next having to face their latest frustration with lackluster leadership from the White House. The FAA sequester fix bothered even people who voted for it; while the White House pointed to the veto-proof majority that approved it in the House and Senate to prove the futility of a presidential veto, Congress members, staffers and advocates said it would never have had a veto-proof majority in either body if the president made clear he intended to veto it. And fixing a problem that disproportionately hurt rich people as well as Congress confirms Americans’ cynicism about both parties caring only about the wealthy. That particularly hurts Democrats.

Clearly vetoing the FAA fix would have been a huge risk politically for the president. Still, it’s at least possible to envision a parallel universe in which a feisty president did it at a cancer clinic postponing chemotherapy appointments, or a Head Start program holding a lottery to see which kids will get rejected, or a local Meals on Wheels deciding which seniors to cut off from the service, and returned to his campaign theme: “We’re all in this together.” Instead we’ll be battling over which powerful constituency next gets relief from the sequester squeeze, and it probably won’t be poor kids or seniors. Right now, the Democrats look outplayed on the sequester.

Meanwhile, the administration found the time to reopen the Plan B contraception controversy, which had effectively been settled by a federal judge ruling that the FDA had ignored science and its own process when it made the contraceptive only available, from behind a pharmacy counter, to women over 17, and ordered it be available to all women instead.  The FDA then arbitrarily decided to limit the drug to girls over 15 (a move that was apparently in the works before the court decision); the Justice Department announced its intent to appeal the court’s ruling.

For his part, the president pronounced himself “very comfortable with” the FDA’s new Plan B limits, which struck me as bizarrely passive and almost self-centered phrasing. Not “it’s sound policy” or even “I support it,” but “I’m comfortable with it” – which made him sound rather like a bystander in his own administration.

And on the mess that is Syria, Obama foreign policy advisers didn't do their boss any favors by telling the New York Times that his remark about the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad constituting a "red line" that would provoke American action was an "unscripted" and "off the cuff" remark. It made the administration seem less in control, not more.

If the president can’t single-handedly force reason on Republicans, what can he do to advance his agenda? I’m reminded of his political meltdown after the debt-ceiling deal in August 2011. He got out of his funk by enthusiastically flacking a jobs bill that had no chance of passing Congress, but that let him connect with voters and remind them that Democrats had plans to make things better, even if they couldn’t implement them because of Republican obstruction.

If he can’t get anything done, he should still be telling the story of what he wants to do, what Democrats are eventually going to do, when the country gives them control of the steering wheel. Where is the progressive fighter we saw in his second inaugural speech, or even the State of the Union? Is he pushing for the hike he demanded in the minimum wage? What’s he doing to make his plans for universal preschool a reality – either by highlighting and giving a boost to great state programs or exposing the “preschool gap” that causes low-income kids to fall behind before they enter school. I’m glad he’s recommitted himself to closing Guantánamo, but how is he going to make that happen?

And while the magical-thinkers wrongly fault the president for failing to have drinks with Mitch McConnell and break down that GOP intransigence, he can rightly be faulted for inadequate consultation and collaboration with Democrats. As Roll Call’s Paul Kane told the Washington Post last week:

Democrats are the ones who privately and publicly bemoan Obama’s lack of personal persuasion. To be clear, these Democrats really like Obama and don’t have a lotta complaints on his policy positions, they just believe that he has never figured out a way to use all the tools of the presidency to bend Congress to his will and get even better deals. Much was made about Obama’s round of golf with Boehner in June 2011. I’m unaware of a single other round of golf that he has played with a member of Congress from either party, in the nearly 4 1/2 years he has been in office….There’s also a litany of complaints from congressional Democrats about other basic things, like getting invites to World Series celebrations or getting their local school to perform at St. Patrick’s Day events. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that Obama is a distant figure from them.

I’ve defended Obama from charges of “aloofness” and inadequate Beltway partying before. We elected the guy because he was an outsider, and a lot of what we like about him is his inner-directedness (not to mention the genuine enjoyment he takes in spending time with his family) and then attack him for not being a Tip O’Neill-type backslapper. But the embarrassment of the FAA sequester-fix vote, as well as hearing about the disarray among Democrats over it, made me yearn for more leadership from the president of his party, as well as the country.

So no, Obama is not a lame duck. But he hasn’t had a great 100 or so days. He’s got about 250 more of them. Let's hope we don't see another week like the last one.

By Joan Walsh