Fake Left, Cut Right, Drive Down the Middle
It’s a move that should be second nature to a practitioner of Southside Chicago basketball. Driving forward, shoulder down with the basket always the ultimate goal, it’s sometimes necessary to pause, look your defender in the eye and throw a head fake. The fake has to be convincing or you’re just not going to score. But done properly, the head fake clears the lane, sending your opponent lunging in the wrong direction as you charge toward the hoop.
President Obama on Wednesday night deployed more than a few such moves in his second State of the Union speech, using the traditional set piece event to accomplish a host of contradictory political goals amid signs that his policy agenda might be running out of steam. The strategy seems to consist of four separate efforts, some tactical, some strategic and none necessarily easy to reconcile.
1) Convincing the vast “independent” segment of the American electorate – that is, those Americans who are not loyal to one of the two major political parties – that he is just as angry as they are with the conduct of the banking sector, both for the bad bets placed during the boom years and their lack of humility following a taxpayer bailout which added over $1 trillion to the U.S. national debt.
2) Galvanizing his Democratic Party, which in spite of the loss of the seat formerly held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts, still holds a 59 seat majority that Obama pointed out was the largest margin either party had enjoyed in Congress in decades. “The people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills,” he chided.
3) Offering tangible evidence of his willingness to work with Republicans to end “gridlock” in the legislative process – a case he made by directly challenging the GOP to do something other than deploy parliamentary tactics to obstruct Democratic legislation. “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions,” he said.
4) Reminding the electorate – without sounding sheepish – of his argument that much of the blame for the current financial crisis and the fiscal trauma it has precipitated predates his presidency.
Obama, perhaps the equal of any modern president as an orator, did his best to square this circle of incongruity. On point 1, his need to channel American anger against the financial industry, Obama spared no effort. This was his head fake left, if you will – bashing the least popular of all current segments of the American establishment, Wall Street. And he pulled it off like a pro.
“We all hated the bank bailout,” he said early in the speech. “I hated it, you hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. But when I ran for president, I promised I wouldn’t just do what’s popular. I would do what’s necessary.”
Obama’s case against the bailout was not, however, completely disingenuous. As network television coverage cut away to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who endured a blistering interrogation before a House oversight committee earlier in the day for his part in structuring the bailout of AIG, Obama insisted the bailout had averted a far greater catastrophe, and that he was disgusted at the post-bailout decision of American banks to begin paying out multi-million dollar bonuses.
Obama carefully worded his assertion that the government had recovered “most of the money we spend on the banks,” a construction neatly averting the many millions laid out to AIG, GM, Chrysler, GE Capital and others. With that said, he repeated his previous plan to impose a $9 billion annual tax on the 50 largest financial institutions to pay back the rest of the TARP money.
Turning to point 2, the need to rally his own party, Obama was less convincing. While he criticized, obliquely, the Senate for dragging its feet on health care and financial reform over the summer, he made no reference to some of the most outrageous “pork barrel” maneuvers by moderate Democrats who, prior to the loss of their 60 vote supermajority, knew they held the fate of such legislation in their hands. It was left to news cameras to show timely shots of Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman and Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson during these moments, and the average viewer would have missed the point. (Both men extracted special treatment for their states or favorite lobbyists in exchange for their health care votes).
Obama did chide the Senate for failing to pass a bill to create a bipartisan commission to cut government spending – then created it by executive fiat. But it was an empty gesture, as was his pledge to hold government spending steady for three years starting in 2011, adding the pregnant caveats that national security, Social Security and Medicaid would be exempted. (Where one finds significant savings without tapping those veins is hard to imagine).
On point 3, reaching out to Republicans, Obama arguably went further than expected. In spite of the populist tone – the frequent references to Wall Street bonuses, insurance company abuses, fat cats and the mess he inherited from “the previous administration,” Obama appears to grasp that his party alone cannot deliver on the promises that he rode into office. He failed to offer the juicy compromise on health care that some pundits had telegraphed – the idea that he might accept “tort reforms,” a Republican chestnut and insurance lobby favorite that would restrain the cost of malpractice insurance and other legal costs that help drive up the costs of medical care. But he did propose:
- eliminating capital gains taxes on small business investments,
- funding a new generation of nuclear power plants;
- opening new areas of the American shoreline to offshore oil and gas exploration;
- and after promising to double U.S. exports over the next five years, specifically mentioned his eagerness to trade with South Korea, Panama and Colombia – three countries whose bilateral trade agreements with the U.S. have been stuck in Congress since the Bush administration negotiated them.
These were not small issues in the internecine battles of Washington. You could almost hear liberal Democrats gasp. Still, good politician that he is, Obama was determined to put credit where credit (for the financial crisis and two raging wars) was due. So, on point 4, in a self-described effort to set the record straight, he reminded his audience of the $200 billion budget surplus the last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, left his successor in 2000.
“By the time I took office, we had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. That was before I walked in the door.”
Foreign affairs got barely a mention, and even when it did, Obama employed it on his behalf, arguing that governments which fail to take action to address perceived problems in their economic and financial systems are doomed to decline.
“China’s not waiting to revamp its economy; Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting,” he said. “These nations are not standing still. These nations are not playing for second place.”
Like all such set piece events, impressions among the intelligencia will be heavily influence by preconceptions and bias. Bankers, very likely, disliked being portrayed as the heavies, and may fear the talk of punitive taxes may mean that the good times, at least as represented by the cheap money facilities of the past year, are over. Liberals may be aghast at some of his concessions, and those who love or hate the man without reason will remain – without reason.
All in all, though, given the weight of expectations and the contradictory goals Obama c
arried into the speech, one has to admire the effort. Whether it moves the needles politically, legislatively or financially remains to be seen, and probably lays more in the hands of his party’s congressional leadership than his own. Obama himself seems keen on moving to the center, his populist tone and conciliatory gestures to the right notwithstanding. But will congressional Democrats “run for the hills” in this election year, or “finally address the problems that America’s families have confronted for years?” I know where the smart money is – and so does the president, judging from his not-so-subtle swipe at the Supreme Court, which overturned any limits on corporate money in the American political system last week.
What do you think?
5 Responses to “Fake Left, Cut Right, Drive Down the Middle”
I agree with your analysis and hope that those playing ball with Obama take his challenge to legislate and solve problems. If you fall for the fake in Chicago’s Southside pick-up games, you don’t stay on the court for long…
I know we shouldn’t kick each other when we are down, but where is the call for individual responsibility? This whole Bankers Bad and Main Street Sad narrative is exasperating. I have Main Street neighbors and I have Banker neighbors. Greed is bad. Living beyond your means is bad. Sad is empty slogans and gratuitous bickering. I want more from the best country in the world- we deserve more from our leaders and from ourselves
I wonder where this interesting confluence of events – the Supreme Court decision taht basically declares campaign finance laws unconstitutional, plus the loss of the supermajority, leaves financial reform. I was struck by how directly Obama criticized the Justices sitting right in front of him. I wonder if that had ever happened so directly before (even if he did say make reference to the “separation of powers”).I get the sense that, far more than the GOP pickup in Mass, it’s the Roberts-led SCOTUS decision that will have the longterm impact on his presidency. It could completely reverse the advantage that Dems had managed to built (via Dean-style internet fundraising) since 2000.Thanks to both Guests for smart, serious comments.
I thought it was amateur hour, the speech did not flow together it was like it a cut and paste job form the campaign trail and not treated with the reverence it should be. As far as directing a personnel attack towards the Supreme Court that seems to be an Obamo standard – personnel attacks for those who stand in the way of his agenda or achievement of absolute power. Keep in mind the man did not succeed in the corrupt Chicago political environment by reaching out and reaching consensus with your political foe, it is not in his nature
The President continued expanding on most of his themes from the campaign trail, which included bipartisan problem-solving, green jobs, education, etc. His vision for American exceptionalism has not been accepted in the Senate, and this appears to be an unsolvable problem.If you appreciate the coherence of his vision (and I do), then the lack of cooperation from Senators Nelson and Lieberman is unacceptable. We were planning on donating the maximum to the aforementioned Senators’ Democratic opponents in the next election, but now the Supremes have us questioning the value of such an investment. Bravo to Obama for calling them out.