In the Arena

Obama’s New Semester

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Jason Reed / Reuters

The political year is sort of like the school year, only longer and more depressing. Both begin–after a summer recess–in September. Barack Obama will begin his new semester tonight, with his jobs speech. This is a curious moment for the President and last Sunday, the New York Times took a look at the two sides of the Obama coin, style and substance, with pieces by the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait and Maureen Dowd.

Both are right and wrong about the President. Chait is a humorless policy sort, with zero appreciation for the practice of politics. Dowd, as we know, is a devastating stylist whose interest in policy is, shall we say, something less than intermittent.  Chait defends the President against his left-liberal critics, which is shooting ducks in a toilet bowl. Dowd attacks the President for being a lump. Her last line is a brilliant stiletto:

Maybe Obama was not even the person he was waiting for.

My natural bias is similar to Chait’s, but with an appreciation for fine political maneuvering even when it represents lousy policy. But it’s interesting that Chait spends most of his energy–or the dyspepsia that often passes for energy at TNR–making hash of the left, rather than making the argument that Obama has really accomplished a lot. In fact,the great conundrum of Obama’s presidency is that he has accomplished a hell of a lot–preventing a depression with his stimulus package, passing a plausible universal health care plan, fighting the good fight on financial regulatory reform, saving the auto companies–but it has worked to his political disadvantage. Dowd is correct about one of the reasons for this: the President simply isn’t a top-draw politician. If he were, we’d be talking about the Obama tax cuts–there have been two big ones–instead of the “failed” Obama stimulus package; the Obama Senior Citizen prescription drug benefit (he closed the donut hole), universal health coverage that you can never lose instead of death panels; the Detroit auto boom as a path to a revival of manufacturing. Most important, we’d be talking about jobs instead of deficits. We would never have played the Republican deficit follies these past nine months. He would be defining the political arena. Instead, the Republicans are.

The left–including the Martha Vineyard and Hamptons liberals who, by all reports, have been kvetching about the President over their Chablis this summer–might have been less techy if the President had been more politically adept when it came to clearly challenging the Republican horde (which does not preclude negotiating with them; indeed, it might have given him a stronger hand). This is a matter of style that might also have been a matter of substance: taking on Wall Street more frontally–most Americans have no idea what’s in the Dodd-FRank financial reform bill–could have been very good politics. Challenging the GOP by appointing Elizabeth Warren to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau would have been a grand fight that would have placed Mitch McConnell and John Boehner firmly on the side of usurers and assorted shysters who use the fine print to rob middle class Americans.

Too often, those in the pundit game overplay the importance of tiny events. Most American don’t know, and will never find out, that the President stupidly attempted to compete with the September 7 Republican debate by staging his jobs speech. But it does have an immediate impact on his Republican opponents, who see a President who leads with his chin. And it lingers in the air, helping to build the impression that this guy has his head in the ionosphere.

The fact is, everything is political and Obama tries to pretend that isn’t so. His decision to step back on new smog rules will be hated by the left, ignored by the center, and pocketed by the right. But what if he had saved the announcement for a dramatic moment–his jobs speech, for example. What if he had said, “I hate to do this, and environmentalists are going to hate me for this, but we have an economic crisis here and we’re going to have to put off these regulations until we get things rolling again.” The left would still hate it, but the center–the people who actually decide presidential elections–would find it harder to ignore. And it would provide a rhetorical balance for the infrastructure spending that he plans to announce.

Obama has done some extremely difficult things as President. He has accomplished a lot, which Dowd is feckless to ignore. I would not bet against him winning reelection. But he could be in a much stronger position than he now is–and that is all about politics which, when practiced poorly, quickly leaks from the realm of style into the paralysis of substance.