Archive | November, 2010

Kingmaker in NY

16 Nov

photocredit: David Berkowitz

Pop quiz: Who’s the most politically important person in America right now? No, not him. Nope, not that other guy.

Answer: Michael Rubens Bloomberg.

He is, without a doubt, a kingmaker. What he decides to do in 2011/2012 will have repercussions that will go through the entire political landscape. His decision to run for president or not, as a third party candidate, will dictate the battles, the strategy, and the potential outcome for 2012.

The NYC mayor just replaced one of his most praiseworthy appointments, that of Joel Klein, Chancellor of NYC schools, with another education outsider, former publishing magnate Cathie Black.  This could either be his way of bringing in the new guard, and establishing a new foundation to carry on his legacy once he decides to run, or an infusion of new blood, to keep him going as the king of NYC for quite some time.

If Bloomberg does decide to run (and there is enough concern within the WH that they’ve been rumored to lure a cabinet carrot to keep him out of the race), he may make Sarah Palin a de facto GOP nominee, and giver her a great shot at the presidency, as expanded upon here.  There are a lot of “ifs” in this scenario, but seeing how far Palin has been able to carry her formerly non-existing political relevance, it’s not far-fetched.

IF Bloomberg does run, and IF he runs as a third party candidate, and IF all very-right-of-center voters make Palin the GOP nominee as knee-jerk response, what can we expect? Will Obama face a battle similar to 1992, when Ross Perot shaved off enough of the incumbent’s support (H.W. Bush) to make Bill Clinton the winner. If that is so, President Palin could be uttered on election night in 2012.

The parallels are striking: a formerly popular president who is struggling to stay in the public’s good graces, against a politically savvy upstart on one end, and a sufficiently moderate and well-liked billionaire on the other end. If the Democrats continue to abandon Obama, and he continues to refuse the title of party leader, this prophecy will be fulfilled. Palin would most likely earn a few more Senate seats, enough to either give her a majority in the House and the Senate; or she will be close enough to easily squeeze out the necessary votes on a regular basis. 2012 would not be 1992…it would be 2004.

There is very little Obama can do to avoid such a disaster in addition to what he is doing already. Bloomberg and Obama have had a cordial relationship, but not enough to calm Democratic nerves. Bloomberg is smart enough to know that even though he is immensely popular in his state and in some disparate regions across the country, he is quite a longshot for the presidency. His bid may end his political career a la Whitman: pouring millions into a sinking hole, an anticlimactic ending to a spirited career. Whatever he decides to do will rest either on a gut instinct, superhuman confidence, or an uncharacteristic level of carelessness. Either way, no one or no thing will dissuade him otherwise.

All Obama can do is help his own case and keep moving forward. Soon enough, sunnier times will come. The only recipe for increasing his odds in 2012 is perseverance (and despite what the American public may think, DC insiders know his prospects are not that stark). If he loses a fighting spirit, however, he may as well step aside, because his probable opponent is known for having a hunter’s appetite.

Four Letter Word: WILL

12 Nov

photocredit: ericmcgregor

A tired man is a knife too blunt

To fall through a lump of fat;

He’s a toothless dog of aching gums

Who cannot crush butter though he be hungry;

A man sick for thirty-eight years but cannot stir the waters

To possibilize his own healing!

The tired man’s only cure is rest,

Respite from his toils and tasks

After which he can with enthusiasm

Overcome mountains and level hillocks!

Thus takes this poet a breath,

Till again we meet for the joys of verse!

-Tired Man, by Hannington Mumo

The days after the Democrats’ fall from grace have been particularly unkind to two people: Pelosi and Obama. Understandably so, since these are the most evident and unabashed architects of the new Democratic order. Harry Reid would’ve been “shellacked” as well, if it weren’t for that fact that he was lucky enough to run against a woman who couldn’t tell the difference between Asians and Latinos.

Pelosi has taken it the best. She has never allowed her demeanor to falter, or her future to shiver. She’s planning on staying in a position of power in the House, as Minority Leader, and while she may not eventually get it, her prospects in local SF politics are promising, to say the least. (Mayor Pelosi?).

Obama has not been so lucky. The press conference he had after the elections, along with his “60 Minutes” interview last Sunday, have emptied his image of confidence, resilience, and hope. In a few words, Obama is not anymore.

Image can be fixed: a few passionates speeches here, some small bi-partisan legislative successes there, maybe a good photo-op opportunity to boot. Image and narrative are not set, they are constantly molded, like warm clay.

Political will, however, is definitive. It establishes the rules of the game, the power hierarchy, and an unwritten agreement between all parties as to who speaks for the people. Ronald Reagan was particularly skilled at the latter; he never doubted himself, thereby never letting anyone doubt him, that he was the voice of America.

Obama is shaken, bruised. He needs to refresh and regroup, but he doesn’t seem to be on that path. His recuperation might take longer than most presidents’ who suffered a tossed legislative. At the press conference, he let reporters question his presidency’s values time and again, making him look like a Jr. Manager being scolded by the Board of Directors.

A month ago, Obama and his team were firm: no extension of the Bush tax cuts for those earning +$250k. After the election, and after they (mis)read that as a change in the electorate’s mood, that’s no longer there. David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser and his former campaign director, said a few days ago, “We to deal with the world as we find it,” calling the extension of all tax cuts a necessary evil in order to keep the relief given to the middle class. So: All of the Bush tax cuts will be extended. For how long, he didn’t say.

President Obama’s realpolitik is refreshing. A stark contrast from the ideologically-fueled political will of the Bush years, Obama is pragmatic and thoughtful. But he can also be overly careful, like a mom not willing to let her son play pee-wee football for fear of an injury. When Careful Mom Obama is in the White House, he demonstrates a loss of political will. He can no longer claim to be on the side of the American people…because he can’t convince people that he even has a side. His fear of a political catfight or bloody debate is logical. But as Reagan knew, will is more heart than logic.

If this presidency wants to recapture it’s groove, it needs to lead with pathos, not ethos. Logic only comes in after you have them nodding along with you, it seals the deal. This administration needs to go into campaign mode, a year earlier than needed. It needs a jumpstart. In particular, Obama needs a jumpstart. He was voted in by the vast majority, he should act like it.

Lincoln knew the talk

4 Nov

photocredit: chadh

The Lincoln-Obama parallels never lost steam in 2008. Both made their name in Illinois; both tall, skinny, writers from working-class backgrounds; both creatures from the state legislature. Both magnificent orators.

Or at least, both magnificent orators during the campaign.

Lincoln’s prowess for “saying what people thought,” as one observer once summarized it, transfered seamlessly into his presidency. He was someone who was sparse with words when he needed to be (he was known for declining to speak, because his “words were carefully scrutinized”), but he also knew the power of well-delivered, and well-timed speech. His Gettysburg address is uncommonly short for a presidential speech, yet it left the audience then and readers today speechless. It captured the mood of a nation and fired up the troops fighting for its survival.

A naturally affable man, President Lincoln was a great communicator in private, as well. Full of stories and funny anecdotes that were not just delivered for amusement, but to make a point or propose a moral. He had a knack for making people feel heard and understood. After Lincoln privately met him to seek his counsel, Frederick Douglass would often tell his colleagues that the President of the United States made him feel “big” inside the White House.

He was a preternaturally cool president, yet he was never really labeled as ‘out-of-touch.’ This in spite of presiding over the bloodiest war this country has ever seen, pitting brother against brother, and patriot against patriot. He was beloved by his troops, admired by his peers, and called endearing nicknames like “Uncle Abe” by many Americans.

Lincoln’s biography lends itself to a lot of lessons, both in life and in politics. President Obama could learn from Lincoln after the major setbacks on Tuesday. The “shellacking,” to use Obama’s phrasing, was not due completely to voter discontent, but to voter disconnect. The oratorical mastery he showcased during the campaign has nearly evaporated. While it’s true that you govern in prose, his prose has been emptied of all emotional and dramatic content. He has become, in the worst sense, professorial.

If President Obama wants to recapture the hearts of Americans, and rile up his base–which, by all accounts, he and the Democrats were unable to do this election–he needs to embrace the stage he is sitting on. Political theater might not be his preferred mode of communication, but he cannot completely throw out what has worked for centuries. Lincoln did not sacrifice style for substance, but embraced both and mixed them accordingly. The Obama that echoed “Yes, We Can,” no longer communicates the thoughts of a country, just his own.

The Gettysburg address followed a 2-hour long speech by a local politician that failed to win over any critic, friend, or foe. Lincoln’s speech that day was only 256 words; it took him 5 minutes to deliver. It was said that people hesitated to applaud until he started making his way back to his chair, thinking more was to come. The silence in that outdoors setting allowed for people to hear his shoes step on the wooden stage back to his seat, “as if someone were walking through the hallways of an empty house.” Soon after, the crowd erupted, and the speech was praised by every newspaper in the Union.

Lincoln knew that embracing the theatrics and the stage of the presidency was a tool to raise the spirits of an embattled country. It was a power that no other figure can lay claim to. Even in today’s 24-hour news cycle, if Obama wants to regain the fervor he cultivated 2 short years ago, he must embrace political Shakespeare, and ditch the academic prose.

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