By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-4-10
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is “Living in the Eighties” (Oxford University Press, 2009).
The American voters gave President Barack Obama a good, old-fashioned political whupping on Tuesday. It was a stunning political reversal as Mr. Yes We Can became Mr. Why Can’t They Understand and Appreciate Me? President Barack Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing. To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.
The rise of the Tea Party, the loss of many moderate Democrats in swing districts, and the reelections of many leading liberals, led some politicos to conclude that Americans do not want centrist leadership. This conclusion reinforces the Fox News-MSNBC view of the world as divided between good people – those who agree with me— and bad partisans—everybody else. Instead, the results reflect American structural anomalies, where moderates come from divided districts and extremists come from strongly partisan districts. During electoral tidal waves, the crucial swing voters veer left or right, wiping out moderates as extremists survive.
Yet with the end of the 2010 midterms marking the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama should worry that independent voters abandoned him en masse. It is now clear that Obama erred by fighting for health care reform before lowering the unemployment rate. And it is now clear that having the health care reform pass by such a partisan, polarizing vote, undermined Obama’s entire presidential leadership project. The twentieth century’s two greatest pieces of social legislation—the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—passed, after hard fights, with bipartisan support. That the twenty-first-century’s first great piece of social legislation passed without Republican support reflects Obama’s broader leadership failure.
Obama 2.0. must resurrect one of the most powerful messages—and successful tactics—which propelled his meteoric rise to the presidency, his lyrical centrism. Barack Obama did not just promise “hope and change,” he promised a new kind of politics. In Audacity of Hope, Obama positioned himself as a post-partisan centrist who would resist Washington’s ways. Central to his appeal was his lyrical, multicultural nationalism, exemplified by his eloquent denunciation of the red-state-blue-state paradigm in his extraordinary keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention. Americans did not just hire Obama to be president, they hired him to be that kind of a president, one who would reach out across the aisle, who would sing a song of national unity and purpose that was substantive, pragmatic, results-oriented, not just lofty and lovely.
Unfortunately, as president, Obama has stilled his own voice, and failed to reconcile with Republicans. True, Republicans share responsibility for being truculent and obstructionist. But true centrism requires finding that golden path, that middle ground. Instead of delegating the highly partisan congress to craft the health care reform, instead of negotiating so desperately to forge his Democratic coalition, Obama needed to deliver bipartisan support for such a monumental shift in America’s status quo. The Social Security and Civil Rights bills quickly became part of the national consensus, thanks to the consensus-building presidential leadership which ensured bipartisan passage. By contrast, abortion has festered as an issue for decades because the Supreme Court legalized women’s right to choose, circumventing any kind of populist, consensus-building, democratic process.
Having demonstrated great potential as a cultural leader in 2008, Obama should spearhead a fight against the gong-show-governance emanating from cable TV coverage of American politics. Watching MSNBC on Election Night, watching Keith Olbermann and company shout away at Congressman Eric Cantor—who enjoyed giving back as good as he got—I was struck by the cable echo chamber’s violent distortions. Politicians who spend their time appearing on these shows forget that only a small percentage of Americans are watching. The pols begin to think that everyone wants to play politics as a blood sport. Politicians should simply stop appearing on these shows until they foster civility.
What a shame that we needed the comedian Jon Stewart to confront the Crossfire crowd in 2004. No politician had the guts to reject the format that fostered fighting, that rewarded unreason. Franklin Roosevelt called the presidency pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. Obama should take the lead with substantive moves to cut down the culture of confrontation.
Obama also has to avoid presidential preening. Blaming his losses on miscommunication not substantive policy differences will lead him and his staff to focus on how things appear rather than what they should be. The elder statesman Dean Acheson once dismissed Richard Nixon by comparing him to a shortstop so concerned about how he looks when fielding, he misses the ball. Obama has always struggled with a grandiose and highly self-conscious side. Fighting for his political future, he needs to focus on substance, cultivating the big-tent governance he promised the American people.
In the 1950s, Joseph Stalin dismissed Mao Zedong as a margarine communist. It was a delicious phrase, capturing the gruff former farm boy’s disgust for a product that looked like butter, but wasn’t. So far, Obama has been a margarine moderate, making superficial gestures toward dialogue and compromise, then sticking to one side of the aisle.
Obama still has the time and the national good will to recover. Most Republican campaign commercials targeted Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or big government, not the president. This nuance reflected Obama’s personal popularity, despite his 55 percent negative job approval rating. Moreover, the economy could still revive, unemployment could fall, the Republicans could self-destruct by misreading this election as an invitation to showcase their extremists.
Political greatness, in fact personal greatness, does not come from winning all the time, but from knowing how to turn devastating defeats into incredible opportunities. The true test of Barack Obama the man and the president has begun.