Archive for September 1st, 2011

This is How a President Fights Back

I think by now it’s safe to say one thing about President Obama: He doesn’t like confrontation. But he also said he wanted to be a transformational president, in the mold of Reagan and Roosevelt (perhaps tellingly, he only cited Reagan. But Reagan was the Bizarro Roosevelt, so…). The problem is, if history’s any guide, transformational presidents not only have to be confrontational, they have to LOVE being confrontational. Take, for example, this video that’s been making the rounds of the Internet all day:

Transformational presidents, in times of crisis, have one thing in common: they use the bully pulpit to call out the people or institutions who caused the crisis, and don’t shy away from portraying them not as good-natured people who simply disagree on how to make America a better place, but as enemies of the people. Reagan said government was the problem and went after it with a meat cleaver… and ushered in thirty years of deregulation. Roosevelt said Wall Street plutocrats and war profiteers were the enemies, and he prosecuted them… and ushered in forty years of progressive economics and the creation of the social safety net.

Lincoln… Lincoln was the Toyota Prius of transformational presidents. Half transformational, half caretaker. He identified anti-federalism as the enemy, and turned a country in which people once considered themselves primarily Virginians, or New Yorkers, or Georgians; into one in which people considered themselves to be Americans. But on the other hand, he failed to identify racists as the enemy (he was, after all, a product of his era) and while slavery ended, we still suffered 100 more years of Jim Crow laws.

When a president is reluctant to identify an enemy in times of crisis – or worse yet, when he identifies the enemy but then fails to go after that enemy with all the powers at his disposal – he creates an enemy-vacuum. And voter anger abhors a vacuum. In the absence of an enemy, in the eyes of the voters, he becomes the enemy. Ford. Carter. Bush I. Perhaps, Obama. I’m sure both Obama’s supporters and his detractors wish he’d show some of Roosevelt’s, or Reagan’s, backbone. Americans respect strong presidents, even when they disagree with them.

On the other hand, there’s one crucial difference between 1936 and 2011: Nobody would ever have portrayed Roosevelt’s cheerful, caustic, dismissive attacks on Republicans as evidence he’s an uppity, angry black man.

To paraphrase Politico, in a few days, the President’s going to give a speech proposing either bold jobs programs the Republican House will block, or timid, ineffectual programs the Republican House will block. Meanwhile, in the alternate universe where Democrats still have testosterone, President Obama will be giving a speech that goes something like this: