Why I’m Confident About Obama (Still)


By Joe Campbell
February 6th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve struggled to figure out how to respond to the stimulus debate – as I think many are struggling. The blogs and the polls are both drawing muddled conclusions. I share TPIP’s reservation about judging Obama’s strategies too quickly:

When it comes to strategy I never like to question Obama (although I have, like on appeasing ungrateful Republicans on the recovery package), because he has proven himself over and over again to be brilliant when it comes to strategy, particularly when it comes to taking the long view, that many often overlook.

Looking at the recent past, Obama’s savvy has been underestimated again and again – and by defending him in these moments, I think this blog has proved itself prescient – for example, before Iowa, when Hillary seemed inevitable, I wrote a post entitled, “Why I Am Confident About Obama.” I wrote at the time – in October 2007:

Clintonian hubris, an Obama strategy to put the pressure on Clinton late, with Iowa in a statistical dead heat, and a ton of other primaries following hard-upon Iowa.  It seems to me that Obama has a good chance of winning…

That sounds pretty much right even today. After the surprising New Hampshire loss, I wrote that:

Sometimes, it’s hard to have faith in democracy, in people. The same people who, in their wisdom, elected George W. Bush to a second term…

But:

If this election comes down to the fundamentals – if it comes down to people trying to decide the direction of the country – then Barack wins.

On the night of Palin’s convention speech, I wrote:

Palin can rally the Republican base like few others. But tonight, for all it’s electricity, was disappointing – because if Palin is the future of the Republican party, she has nothing to offer but fear – primarily of Obama, secondarilty of Islamic extremism, and tertiarilty, of taxes…

But that this “will not have the effect the Republicans hope it will” because “she had no vision for America, not sense of what comes next. She refused to acknowlege the tough times we are in.”

After the Sarah Palin bump had everyone scared, I tried to calm people down by posting links to various articles and posting this picture:

The reason I was confident in Obama beating Hillary – even in the worst moments – and in Obama beating McCain – even during the worst moments – is that Obama’s campaign was tapping into the fundamentals of what I believed the electorate was looking for. Whether or not he was winning in any specific moment, whether or not he was winning in any of the daily press wars, his overall strategy was a victorious one.  Sun-Tzu advised to “accommodate yourself to the enemy until you can fight a decisive battle.” This seems to have been Obama’s strategy – to allow his campaign to take hits and play defense, sticking to an overall strategy that would gain him a final decisive victory rather than exhausting his staff fighting every daily flair-up. Sometimes, this led to awful weeks – such as the long lack of a complete response to the Rev. Wright fiasco. But Obama ended up winning because, though he lost a thousand daily battles over Rev. Wright, he took the long view and gave a subtle, personal speech about race. He won that war not by fighting back charge after charge but by changing it from a war into a reflective national moment. It’s hard to describe how extraordinary that is – how rarely that has happened in history, and how difficult it was to imagine this was even possible, especially in the frenetic media environment that has existed since 1992. 

Similarly, now, Obama’s stimulus bill is being attacked on it’s thousands of small details. By some accountings, it is only 1% or 2% of the funding of the bill that is being directly attacked. Issues entirely tangential to this stimulus are dominating the media coverage – and it certainly seems true that some portion of the opposition of Republicans to this bill comes from political calculation rather than an honest disagreement with the bill. As the AFP described the dynamic at work:

[I]f Obama’s stimulus works and revives the reeling economy, [the Republicans] would be unlikely to get any credit even if they voted for it – by opposing the measure they can at least expect some political gain if it fails.

Some Democratic Senators are criticizing the bill now – and House Democrats are getting pissed. I agree with a number of the criticisms of the bill and certainly see some good reasons for a Congressman or Senator to oppose this massive new public spending.

All of this has contributed to the growing feeling among some voters and most commentators that this whole thing is being poorly managed.

Except…if you look at Obama’s role in this carefully and see the process which he is creating.

He is once again playing the long game. He did not write the bill himself, but allowed Congress to do its job and draft a bill and then fight over the provisions. This is what Congress is supposed to do. Washington pundits – not used to an executive that allows the Congress to deliberate and debate and actually play a role in governing – are criticizing Obama for not putting a stop to this process of debate and deliberation, drafting his own bill, and then forcing Congress to accept it, perhaps allowing them to amend it a bit if the president is feeling generous. That’s not the Washington that Obama wants. He accepts our Constitution and believes Congress has a role to play even in a financial emergency such as this.

At the same time, he is willing to reach out to the Republicans who might oppose him – to obsequiously try to get their buy-in for this needed stimulus, to engage in civil conversation about the issues – to avoid attacking them directly though they continue to try to score political points against him and the Democrats. He can afford to do this because of his commanding position with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. He knows he can get his way even with strong Republican opposition. But it’s hard to imagine another political figure accepting the number of attacks Obama has without responding in kind. Instead, Obama has reiterated publicly the urgency and seriousness of the crisis – and the need for quick action as he made clear in his comments today:

I hope [the members of Congress] share my sense of urgency and draw the same, unmistakable conclusion:  The situation could not be more serious.  These numbers demand action.  It is inexcusable and irresponsible for any of us to get bogged down in distraction, delay, or politics as usual, while millions of Americans are being put out of work. 

Now is the time for Congress to act…

Now, I have repeatedly acknowledged that, given the magnitude and the difficulties of the problem we’re facing, there are no silver bullets and there are no easy answers.  The bill that’s emerged from Congress is not perfect, but a bill is absolutely necessary.  We can continue to improve and refine both the House and Senate versions of these bills.  There may be provisions in there that need to be left out; there may be some provisions that need to be added.  But broadly speaking, the package is the right size, it is the right scope, and it has the right priorities…[my emphasis]

According to Obama, this stimulus bill is just the first part of a larger package of reforms and bills that will be part of his response to the financial crisis – the first steps in a Grand Bargain to tackle challenges America’s long-term financial and economic stability

All of this is why, despite the thousand small attacks and the growing chorus of concern from the pundits, I am still confident in Obama and his plans. 

Confident but not complacent.