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DADT and Nudge Leadership

22 Dec

After 17 years, the archaic Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law was repealed today. One of the surprising victories for the Democrats in this lame duck session (waiting on START, as this is written), DADT fell under the pressures from various sides: Independent lawmakers (the ever unpredictable and formidable, Senator Lieberman), moderate Republicans, and active/retired military. This dynamic combination against a law enacted under President Clinton, after he, fearing his own political capital was at stake during the tumultous first 48 months of his presidency, buckled, was enough to push it to the president’s desk for final approval. To say that this is a victory for any party or position is only half true. This, like many other instances in our national history, is another example of pragmatic reform, and interconnected politics.


The future of the law was uncertain as of a few weeks ago. Opponents of this inherently discriminating law were afraid Obama lacked the backbone, and Democrats lacked the organization, to make their campaign promise a reality. Once more, Obama’s liberal credentials were being questioned–and during the last couple weeks, after the tax cut compromise, this alarm was beaming red.


A general sense of frustration permeated the DADT-repeal crowd, after study after study, and hearing after hearing confirmed what they already knew: the military can still function well with openly gay servicemen and women. The top military brass said this, the Pentagon said this, Secretary Gates said this…but nothing was being done. Obama looked on, and Democrats scrambled, as a seemingly momentous opportunity was drifting past us.


The tipping point might have come not from DADT opponents, but from gay marriage proponents. With the issue of legalizing same-sex couple marriages continuously bubbling up to the surface, through court battles/appeals/and the fallout of both, there is no doubt it will reach the Supreme Court within a couple of years. From this, there were two ways President Obama could’ve seen this eventual turn of events: as an opportunity or as an obstacle.


A gay marriage battle in the Supreme Court, specially during an election year, would no doubt be distracting. It would be the Brown v. Board of Education of our lifetime. This would not only substantially frame the election conversation, but it would build “camps.” The pro-gay marriage camp and the anti-gay marriage camp. Passions and forces would coalesce, and heroes would be picked and followed. If the Tea Party wave continues, it’s very probable a Tea Party favorite will be a contender for the GOP nomination and might actually become the Republican presidential candidate. At that time, the anti-gay marriage camp will have found it’s hero.


Where would this leave Obama?


If he decided to forgo a DADT repeal battle, in favor of other pressing issues (which no one can doubt he has a bevy of), he would essentially lose an opportunity to secure the vast majority of the pro-gay marriage camp’s support. He’d lose a key element of any successful campaign: a passionate core base. But he didn’t, he kept it on his desk and as a part of his priority list. Being deliberate to the bone once more, he waited until he felt it was the right time to nudge it through. He managed the process throughout, put the final wrapping, and finished the job.


Viewing it as an obstacle, Obama would’ve skipped a DADT discussion, pushed it for next year, and run the risk of having it never reach the floor ever again. His list of priorities are long and pressing enough to justify this sort of move. If he had done that, though, he’d run the risk of trailing a debate. He would be dealing with DADT, when the national conversation was on gay marriage. He would be trying to fix a crooked frame, when the entire house was being remodeled.


He would, in essence, be pulling a John McCain: in the way of historic momentum. This would not only bode ill on him, as a leader and visionary, but as a politician. “How could he not see this coming?” Fortunately, he did.


The president can now claim three uncommon and impressive achievements.


First, he presided over a very productive lame duck session of Congress, and gave bipartisanship a new jolt of vigor.


He also added another victory to his mantle that President Clinton was not able to do in his 8 years.


The third, however, might be the sweetest and most significant for America’s course through history: he nudged this generation’s civil rights movement further in the right direction. Knowing that while opening presents has to give everyone a pretty good feeling this holiday season.



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.

The Charmer and The Manager

23 Sep

photocredit: ProgressOhio

Who’s to credit for a massive legislative success like healthcare reform? Obama, Pelosi, Emmanuel…Reid? It may be a question that can’t be answered objetively, and wont be answered for years and memoirs to come. Its passage, however, realized the failed hopes of a handful of past presidents who couldn’t even come close. Presidents like Bill Clinton.

President Clinton has not only redefined the terms for the post-presidential president with the Clinton Global Initiative, but has shed most, if not all, of his political baggage. A feat that is not easy to do–just ask Nixon, Carter, or Buchanan. He is rebranding himself as a global ambassador, capable of rescuing hostages, solving world crises, and partnering with foes in the name of the greater good.

Listening to him speak on The Daily Show recently (clip below) reminded us why he was president, and why he is more influential now than any other modern ex-president. His command of language is not intellectual, but emotional. He can persuade and seduce, and nudge you toward your “own” conclusions. These persuasive super-powers are not new; they’ve got him out of many jams in the past. But they are refreshing in a political climate that is livid, tense, and middling.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Bill Clinton Extended Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

If he can charm our pants off today (no pun intended), why didn’t he convince America on the necessity of healthcare reform during his presidency, 18 years ago?

He probably did convince us, but he lacked managerial expertise to handle Congress, his own party, and public opinion. This is one of the reasons Obama can claim the mantle of healthcare reformer no other president can.

President Obama is a born manager. These skills may have been honed during his tenure as a community organizer, but they are natural, and helped him reach extraordinary achievements in that capacity in a short amount of time. There was no real ramp-up period. As a candidate, he assembled a campaign team any politician would give up their spouse for. His candidacy was one of the most gaffe-free, convincing in recent history. As a president, his cabinet, with a few exceptions, has been a disciplined, on-message, conflict-free grouping of political supernovas. Only an extraordinary manager could keep each ego in check, while using each member’s talents for the administration’s good.

During the agonizingly long healthcare reform legislative process, Obama kept his cool, as any good manager should, and empowered accordingly. In this regard, one could argue that Obama is the person responsible for its passage, for he gave Pelosi and Reid a considerable amount of freedom as to how to work the process. Once things were falling off the railings, he would step in to tip it back in place and clean  up the damage. It would’ve been a much shorter process had he been more involved, but it may have also become Hillarycare all over again: the Democrats rebelling against it’s party leader after feeling like subordinates in the process.

What the president needs now is more salesman Clinton, less professor Obama. He needs to bring in the former president, informally or (preferably) formally, to his cabinet. President Clinton possesses a different set of skills that an administration lacking a clear and convincing message needs. As Axelrod and Summers plan their exit in the coming weeks, maybe it’s time to consider adding another Clinton to the White House staff. The last time both were inside, the country was in a much better mood. Why not try a proven pitchman?

The Republican Identity Crisis

17 Sep

photocredit: i_yudai

Who is Don Draper? Oops, wrong topic.

Who is a Republican? Ever since the Democrats swept into Congress, and Obama swept into the Oval Office, the Republican party has to grapple with this question. George Bush’s “Big Tent” party model was questioned and contested. Big Tent dissenters believed the party lost because it also lost its moral compass, it raison d’etre. Can anyone just prance into the tent and become a Republican, backed by the party and its members?

Being too politically tolerant was seen by many Republicans as the reason for their downfall.

Exhibit A: John McCain. All in all, Senator McCain has been a rebel of sorts within his party (although not recently, and not to the extent he’d like to believe). He was moderate, or sometimes even left-leaning, on various fundamental issues. He also failed the ultimate GOP test various times: he voted against party lines. The purists felt his inclusion into the party, and his eventual nomination as the party’s presidential candidate, was a mistake that should’ve never happened. He lost the election because he was never a true Republican to begin with. He had no rigid set of beliefs. He was not an ideologue.

While it’s harder to define what Democrat ideology is today (they have opted for the Big Tent strategy, and have already gone through some of the birthing pains), Republican ideology is much easier to peg. The modern party itself has never veered left-of-center, and “liberal Republican” is enough of a curse to sway any lefty to check themselves before joining the ensemble. With few exceptions, conservative politics and Republican politics have made loyal bed fellows.

But about those exceptions: are they weakening the GOP?

The Tea Party is currently making the case of rotten limbs. Cut them off, don’t let the weakening poison spread, and strengthen the healthy remainders. The Tea Party sees itself as the purest conservatives in existence, incorruptible, and loyal to the ideology. And they are succeeding. Darkhorse victories and surprising upsets, like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, have made this movement a politically successful one so far. It has also already sparked some clashes between the Old and New Guard.

The next step is making the case to those outside the party. Mainstream voters must be convinced that a good Republican is also a good senator or governor. Time will tell if that will happen. I don’t think it will, even with the anti-establishment mood we are in.

If it does happen, and Tea Partiers can claim seats of power, the Republican party may have made up their mind (or been forced to accept reality) as to what kind of party they will be.

No pride, no re-election

30 Aug

photocredit: zenobia_joy

In a recent poll, 61% don’t think the economy has improved during Obama’s watch. Only 41% believe he is doing a good job on the economy. This is in spite of a stimulus bill and a full-court press partnership with the Federal Reserve that has, according to most economists, staved off a second Great Depression, and has turned devastating monthly job losses into meager, but encouraging, job gains. Who’s to blame for this public thumbs down? The administration, of course.

One of the most subtle tasks as president is setting the tone of public discourse. As the nation’s leader, and the most visible and powerful American alive, the president must not only manage his own message, but nudge the debate around him toward favorable lighting. One of the most effective communicators the campaign trail has ever seen has been unable to do either.

The problem for Democrats this fall is two-fold: a Republican party that has put a good-enough spin on the decrepit state of their political existence and turned it into an asset, opting for the “body in the hallway” approach to legislating (“We were sleeping in the hallway when this all happened–don’t blame us!”); and a Democratic party with phenomenal legislative successes that is unable to go past limping speed. Considering this situation it’s easy to understand why Congressman Anthony Weiner of NY lambasted Republicans for objecting to a bill providing health services to those affected by the 9/11 (Video here). He verbalized what many observers are thinking: Obstructionism is lazy and irresponsible, and Republicans are getting away with it.

The burden of proof is on the Democrats. They need to be their own best cheerleaders. They need to be proud enough of their achievements for us to believe they are doing something worth applauding.

Their achievements thus far are more substantial that any other Congress in recent memory in such a short amount of time. Yet, hearing them talk about those victories, and the election season they are in, you’d think they were ashamed of themselves, crossing their fingers that voters will still like them in November.

Democrats need to be more like Republicans: cheer twice for themselves, then cheer again for good measure! Democrats, in particular the president, cannot hide behind their accomplishments. They need to be in front of them, touting their horn and instilling pride in their sympathetics. The Iraq War is beginning it’s end. That is worth cheering about. The economy is stumbling, but not near the cliff’s edge anymore. That is worth cheering about. No one else will communicate that message for the Dems. And no one wants to vote for the sheepish guy.

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