US Elections

President Obama’s speech to Congress was impressive. Good to see some leading from the front, for a change. The tone was commanding, confident, and purposeful. Crucially, he took the initiative and presented a detailed plan. No more, “I’m willing to consider this.” No more, “I’d like to see that.” Instead, again and again, “Pass this bill.” They won’t, but the point of last night’s speech was not to persuade the House that this or any other new jobs plan makes sense. The House isn’t listening. The president’s goal was to regain public support, and hence make the GOP’s fiscal-policy defeatism harder to sustain. Making the case for specific proposals was a vital part of that. Scored with this in mind, I think it was a fine performance.

In my column this week I say Obama should propose a big, bold stimulus–but I say he should disappoint progressives at the same time, by getting serious about longer-term deficit reduction. He needs both elements, I argue. “Forget those imaginary fiscal constraints, stop urging compromise, and just be a liberal,” is bad advice.

He cannot restore his authority just by talking tough. He also needs to say the right things. Elections have consequences, the Democrats said after 2008. Indeed they do. In 2010 the party was routed, and the president’s ratings have fallen since then. Was this because the Democrats were too gentle and accommodating? Only a fantasist could think so.

If Mr Obama does what many in his party advise – stop giving way and advance an unflinching progressive programme – the GOP will finish the job in 2012. Republicans pray (literally, I expect) for Mr Obama to show more spine on behalf of an uncompromising liberal agenda. That would give them undivided control of House, Senate and White House next year.

For an instance of the fantasy-analysis I had in mind, consider this: Matt Stoller, calling for a Democratic primary challenge, devotes fewer than 100 words out of 1500 to why Obama has failed. Here they are:

[His] failures have come precisely because Obama has not listened to Democratic Party voters. He continued idiotic wars, bailed out banks, ignored luminaries like Paul Krugman, and generally did whatever he could to repudiate the New Deal. The Democratic Party should be the party of pay raises and homes, but under Obama it has become the party of pay cuts and foreclosures. Getting rid of Obama as the head of the party is the first step in reverting to form.

Reverting to form? Would that mean listening to progressive voters the way, say, Bill Clinton did?

Some months ago, I speculated that the US election of 2012 could match a failed incumbent against an unelectable challenger. The odds on this scenario have shortened. The US economy is getting worse and confidence in Barack Obama is collapsing. Meanwhile Rick Perry, governor of Texas, who scares swing voters as much as he thrills his party’s conservative base, has vaulted to the front of the Republican nomination race.

Alexis Simendinger explains that the grand bargain Obama is demanding is already out of reach.

Writing any legislation takes time, and moving it through the House and Senate could take longer. Even if the president and the eight congressional leaders from both chambers suddenly sprinted to the Rose Garden waving a grand bargain sketched on legal pads, congressional enactment before the default-clock tolls is close to impossible, according to budget experts interviewed by RCP.

That’s why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the first stab on Tuesday at an emergency escape hatch. His proposal would effectively abandon Congress’ legislative responsibility to approve the administration’s requests to lift the nation’s borrowing authority, and instead cede Obama the power — and presumably the political blame, should voters object.

Putting aside for the moment details of McConnell’s fallback idea, which appears unlikely to get serious traction among the House GOP, his search for a short-term fix was a signal that the usually canny Kentucky Republican now believes his colleagues need to identify Plan B.

If not McConnell’s stratagem, then what?

Hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the Republican party’s response to Mitch McConnell’s debt-ceiling proposal. One segment of conservative opinion sees it as a shrewd idea, a masterstroke even. Another regards it as a sell-out of historic dimensions. And a third appears to think it is both, and is trying to clarify its position.

Joe Klein interviewed David Axelrod at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday. It was an outstanding session. Klein explained that he and Axelrod were friends; he did not need to explain that he, Klein, has also been an Obama supporter. But he asked–and kept pressing–pointed, difficult questions about Obama’s unforceful leadership. It was a memorable proof of how a sympathetic and courteous interviewer can be a more probing and more dangerous interlocutor than a straightforward enemy.

Axelrod of course is unflappable. He sustained his note of immovable calm and reason throughout: we take the long view, the pragmatic view; in extremely difficult circumstances, made more difficult by an intemperate and unreasoning opposition, we make progress where we can; being loud is not the same thing as being effective; look at our record of achievement (fiscal stimulus, financial reform, health-care-reform, education reform); we will let history be the judge. But Klein kept coming back. Obama is failing to explain himself, failing to make his case. Where is the president on this? Where is the president on that? His rhetorical skills are clear. Why isn’t he using them? Good questions. I felt that Axelrod had no answer.

Obama’s address on Afghanistan was a notable political success. The tone was terse and confident. The plan calls for faster force reductions than the military wants, but slower than much of the country would like–a position that is easy to cast as a responsible middle way. And the president is keeping the promise he made when announcing the surge at the end of 2009, with the withdrawal of the 33,000 extra troops starting now, and complete not just by the end of 2012 but in time for the election.

The underlying philosophy outline in the address also strikes me as right.

[T]onight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.

As they do, we must learn their lessons. Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force –- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.

“…as pragmatic as we are passionate.” A difficult balance to strike, obviously, but right nonetheless. The characteristic emphasis on pragmatism–on balancing ends and means–is surely correct.

Politics and underlying approach aside, however, I question the wisdom of the details on Afghanistan.

The New Hampshire GOP debate was, as Carl Cannon writes, a surprisingly friendly affair.

Now that was more like it. Seven Republican presidential candidates showed up Monday night to debate one another at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College, where they looked — if not entirely presidential — then at least poised, collegial and in command of their talking points.

All seven managed to express their differences on public policy without being uncivil to one another, or even disagreeing directly with their fellow candidates. This was made easier by the their shared antipathy for the Obama administration — and because their differences are pretty nuanced: In case there was any remaining doubt, Monday’s session underscored just how conservative the modern Republican Party has become, whether one hails from Ron Paul’s libertarian wing, Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus, or the mainstream establishment of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

Of course, the format almost ruled out any possibility of actual debate, with its quick-march question-and-sorry-to-cut-you-off approach. But the tone of mutual respect was still unexpected and, as everybody has pointed out, it certainly helped Romney.

Democrats are reading a lot into their unexpected win in the New York special election. The election was about Medicare reform, they say: voters roundly rejected the House Republican plan. Republicans are dismissing the defeat, citing special factors such as the split in their vote caused by a phony Tea Party candidate. After allowing for special factors, argues Michael Barone, the GOP still did worse than it should have, and the Medicare issue was one reason why. The GOP started this fight, but is not winning it. See also Dan Balz:

Democrats should not read too much into Tuesday’s results. But it is the Republicans who have the most to learn from what happened there.

Republican leaders believe in their agenda and are not likely to back away from it just because they lost one House seat, particularly one that they could very well win back in 2012. But they have not yet won the argument over how best to deal with the country’s fiscal problems. They have accepted the responsibility to propose. Now they will need to learn how to persuade.

Mitch Daniels’s decision not to run is a shame. He is an impressive man and had a unique combination of qualities among the possible Republican contenders for 2012: a successful and strikingly popular governor, with federal and private-sector executive experience, a (mostly deserved) reputation for straight talk on fiscal issues, strong conservative credentials, and yet at the same time (having called for a “truce” on social issues) enhanced appeal to moderates. He was a plausible contender, and the Republican nomination would have been a much more interesting contest with him in it. So would the presidential race, had he won the nomination–which was far from assured, obviously. He could have given Obama a run for his $1 billion.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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