The seemingly-certain loss of a Democratic Senate in Massachusetts today, that formerly held by Ted Kennedy, and with it, a filibuster-proof majority, is purported by Politico to be rousing Obama to a new “combative” stance.
But combative is so far from what helped Obama get where he is that his reflexes will be, as they have been to date, to undershoot what is really needed. We’ve been told, for instance, that in law school it became a standing joke that Obama would inevitably give an impressively articulate statement of the most unthreatening, conventional position. It is revealing that in a 60 minutes interview when he was trying to signal a new, hardened stance against the banksters, the toughest criticism he could come up with was to call them “fat cats” and claim he had not run for office to further their agenda. Anyone looking at White House proposals (even the tame proposed TARP fees) would have trouble with that notion.
Similarly, the planned positioning is that voters are sending a message that Obama needs to more to effect change, which one would think means move to the left:
But the president’s advisers plan to spin it as a validation of the underdog arguments that fueled Obama’s insurgent candidacy.
“The painstaking campaign for change over two years in 2007 and 2008 has become a painstaking effort in the White House, too,” the official said. “The old habits of Washington aren’t going away easy.”
But the problem isn’t Washington, or at least not in the way his loyalists think. Obama engaged in a classic marketing error, that of misrepresenting the product in a fundamental way. The “change” label appears now a way of turning what in many circles would be negatives, his lack of experience and his race, into positive attributes. But despite the talk of health care reform as a major goal, Obama never resorted to populist rhetoric. It was easy to rationalize it at the time (populism had been the death of Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy), but Obama’s reflexes are center-right, not center left. His appointments (and most important, who really has influence over him) reflects that, which will also make changing gears even harder.
Thus, even thought Team Obama may convince itself that they are taking a new stand, all I expect to see is a sharpening of rhetoric. Not only does personal inertia prevent a meaningful change in course, the President has already ceded too many key strategic positions in the key theaters of action, health care and financial services. And the Politico article effectively pointed that out:
White House strategists will be looking for modest victories that can be pulled off at a time when endangered Democrats will be even more gun-shy of tough votes than they were last year.
In other words, the plan is to replace Potemkin reform with “new, improved Potemkin reform” and more frowning during Presidential speeches.