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Posted by on Jan 21, 2010 in Economy, Health, Politics | 8 comments

The Contradictions of Obamaism (Guest Voice) UPDATED

Editor’s Note: This column has been updated so we’re running this again at the top of TMV.
WASHINGTON — It turns out there were core contradictions in the promises Barack Obama made to the country in 2008. They caught up with his party on Tuesday in Massachusetts.

Things will not get easier. Republicans in Congress will be empowered to hold to their course of obstruction by Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s victory. Washington will remain the object of scorn as a dysfunctional capital, and absent a new Obama approach, the GOP can act with the confidence that only Democrats will pay a price for the failure of comity.

This problem goes directly to the tensions in Obamaism. As a candidate, he pledged to change the tone in Washington and restore amicable relations between the parties. But he also promised to accomplish large things, including a substantial reform of the health care system, major action to ease global warming, and a reshaped and more responsible financial system.

At some point, Obama’s ambitions were destined to collide with the views of a Republican Party fundamentally opposed to almost everything he wants to do. Obama could try to get big things done or he could work easily with Republicans, but he could not do both.

As a result, he found himself leaning entirely on support from within his own party, forcing a strategy of inside deal-making. This alienated Democrats from the many rank-and-file Americans who don’t like the looks of such arrangements, however necessary they are.

A related contradiction was between Obama’s commitment to sweeping change and his soothing pragmatism that disdains public fights. In the campaign, this allowed him to unite a left that believed in his promises of transformation and a center that appreciated his conciliatory style.

In practice, this meant trying to reform the financial industry while avoiding an open battle with the bankers. As a consequence, Obama is now viewed as coddling Wall Street by those inclined to populism, and as anti-business by the titans of finance. This also involved pursuing a health reform plan that his political base came to see as too soft on the insurance companies, even as many of the heath care interests tried to bring it down.

And by avoiding arguments over philosophy and ideology — by failing to offer a pointed and running explanation of why he was reversing the policies of the previous administration — Obama left independent voters confused about his goals. They saw expanding deficits and high unemployment. Absent a coherent Democratic narrative, they were open to a Republican story that linked the two and blamed the Democrats.

Brown’s victory is also a rebuke to a United States Senate that acted as if it had unlimited time to pass health care legislation and ignored how foolish its listless ways appear to normal human beings. Like a bottle of milk kept out of the refrigerator too long, the health bill came to look curdled and sour to a public that felt it never heard an adequate explanation of what was in it.

In the short term, Democrats have to make a quick decision on health care. It would be the equivalent of a political crime to have invested so much in health reform only to let it die because of one election in one state. But on Wednesday, a cacophony of party voices was sending wildly mixed messages about how they should proceed.

The once obvious path would be for the House to pass the Senate bill while reaching agreement on changes to it that could clear the Senate without requiring 60 votes. But judging from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments on Thursday, that path now seems blocked. Many progressive House members remain upset that the president took them for granted and assumed that the Senate, whose delays helped jeopardize health reform, would write something close to the final bill. Working through this thicket of dysfunction will be Obama’s first post-Massachusetts test.

It’s true that one special election in Massachusetts is not a world historical event. Brown’s five-point victory was made possible by Democrat Martha Coakley’s poorly run campaign and a colossal strategic failure to see early on the danger she was in.

Yet the flight or demobilization of so many of Obama’s former supporters — Coakley received roughly 850,000 fewer votes on Tuesday than Obama did in 2008 — cannot be blamed on her shortcomings alone. Obama needs to resolve the contradictions that are plaguing him, and to come out fighting. The president may not be entirely comfortable with this, but now he’s fighting for his political life.

This copyrighted column is licensed to run on TMV in full. Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group.

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  • keelaay

    Thank you Mr. Dionne. Informed and insightful commentary indeed!

  • Leonidas

    Obama went in offered one bipartisan cocktail party then swung far left. His efforts at bipartisanship and uniting the country have been pathetic. Now he is saying that he didn’t talk to the American people enough …..SPEECHES, COMMENTS & REMARKS: 411• Includes 52 addresses or statements specifically on his health care proposals.• NEWS CONFERENCES: 42• Of which 5 were formal, solo White House Q&A sessions. Four were in prime time. His last one was July 22, 2009. (seen at left)• Nearly all of the other press availabilities were joint appearances with foreign leaders at which as few as 1 question was taken by Mr. Obama.• Predecessor George W. Bush did 21 news conferences his first year of which 4 were formal, solo White House sessions. Only 1 was in prime time.INTERVIEWS: 158• This is a striking number of interviews and far more than any of his recent predecessors in their first year. Ninety of the sessions were TV interviews. Eleven were radio. The rest were newspaper and magazine. The number reflects the White House media strategy that Mr. Obama can best respond to questions in an interview setting.TOWN HALL MEETINGS: 23POLITICAL FUNDRAISERS: 28• The events raised at least $27.25 million. (3 of the events Mr. Obama attended declined to disclose how much was raised.• George W. Bush did 6 fundraisers his 1st year raising over $48 million.CAMPAIGN RALLIES: 7• The rallies were for Gov. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds, D-Va, and U.S. Senate Candidate Martha Coakley, D-Mass. All of them lost.ROTFLMAO

  • Don Quijote

    The president may not be entirely comfortable with this, but now he’s fighting for his political life.

    Too late, he has no political life left, he is a Zombie…

  • Don Quijote

    Obama went in offered one bipartisan cocktail party then swung far left.

    Far Left? Are you f**ken kidding me? He barely made it to the center left, which is why he has lost his base…

  • $199537

    As a result, he found himself leaning entirely on support from within his own party, forcing a strategy of inside deal-making.

    I don’t necessarily agree with this. Obama seemed to willingly give away responsibility for his programs and did not project his vision into them. The only major decision that really had his stamp on it was the build-up in Afghanistan, otherwise he let Pelosi and Reid run the stimulus package and healthcare, let Geithner run TARP, etc.

    I don’t see Obama leaning on support from his party, I see him giving away responsibility and not shepherding the things he believed in.

    Of course there were parts of his vision that in retrospect he never believed in the first place, such as controlling earmarks and improving government transparency.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    DQ, you must understand that in Republican World anything that doesn’t agree 100% with their party is a communist socialist plot of the far left.

  • DaMav

    It turns out there were core contradictions in the promises Barack Obama made to the country in 2008

    Wow, another brilliant observation from EJ Dionne. Nice use of the passive voice to try and break the news.

    Who could possibly have guessed that there were contradictions between a massive expansion of entitlements and fiscal prudence? Who could have thought that appeasing and apologizing would not bring peace? That there was a contradiction between being at war and crusading for Rights for Terrorists.

    Stand back everyone, after 2 years of sycophancy and worship of Obama Dionne now notes that “there are core contradictions”. He’s figured out that the Emperor has no glove. By this time next year, who knows — maybe he’ll notice the missing shirt as well.

  • Leonidas

    Far Left? Are you f**ken kidding me? He barely made it to the center left, which is why he has lost his base…

    Then he has a very small base of around 22%.

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