aimed at independent voters and intended to mollify the chorus of voices condemning
Washington for not doing more to get the economy moving and creating jobs.
The President threw some bones to those constituencies who formed the backbone of his
fundraising and organizing; but the meat of the speech appeared to be a reaction to what
happened in Massachusetts, when independent voters overwhelmingly voted Republican.
Obama's advisors wanted to stem the political bleeding and convince independents he heard
them and will put healthcare reform, energy policy reform, and financial reform on the back
burner to make way for jobs, jobs, jobs.
The strategy is to shore up political support and limit midterm election losses. The goal
is to win some legislative victories which members of Congress can tout at home and to create
jobs projects which can get the unemployment rate out of double digits. By ignoring his base,
Obama runs the risk of further disillusionment and dispiritedness among the most active of
his supporters in return for attracting independents.
Ironically, the President's speech proved his base was right; and his advisors, former
Clintonistas and Wall Street experts from Goldman-Sachs, et.al., were wrong. From the
beginning of his Presidency, progressive economists and commentators like Paul Krugman,
Joseph Stiglitz, the Progressive Caucus and others proclaimed the economic stimulus package
was too small. They wanted another stimulus aimed at job creation. The President's inner
circle rejected their advice and decided to expend huge political capital on healthcare reform
and hoping the economy would rebound. They were wrong. They advised the President that
the public would not support more spending for jobs and Main Street. They were wrong.
The President allowed the siren song of bi-partisanship to delay healthcare reform. He was
wrong. Despite repeated calls for WPA-type programs to immediately put thousands of
Americans to work, the Obama stimulus package was designed to phase in over a year or
two's time. They were wrong.
The President did present a number of proposals which are both doable and politically
savvy. He wants the biggest banks to pay a fee (tax) based on their profits, the money to go
to create jobs. He wants $30 billion of repaid TARP funds to go to community banks to be
lent to small businesses. Parents would get a $10,000 tax credit to help pay for their
children's college tuition, students who take out loans would not have to pay back more
than 10% of their income in any given year paying the loans back, and the debt would be
retired after twenty years. He promised to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and called for a
website where every member of Congress would have to list any earmarks (special requests
The highlight for me was Obama taking on the Supreme Court right in front of them.
He criticized their decision to allow corporations to spend unlimited sums on political
campaigns and claimed the decision did great harm to democracy. He called on Congress
to fix it. Supreme Court justices are generally insulated from criticism, particularly regressive
ones; and it was refreshing to see them called out in front of the American people.
The President's attempts to appeal to independents resulted in some terrible proposals
too. He suggested there might be a role to play for offshore oil drilling in his energy policy
and a place for new nuclear power plants. He mentioned "clean" coal which is a euphemism
invented by the coal companies and doesn't exist. At a time when no one has solved the
problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel rods (where do you store them for the next
thousand years?); suggesting creating more nuclear plants and thus more waste seems foolish
at best and disastrous at worst. At a time when experts will tell you offshore drilling with
all the inherent negative environmental impacts which accompany such actions would barely
dent our energy needs, and at a time when coal and coal-fired energy plants are a large source
of global warming; it is troubling to see the President trolling for independent's votes with
Politically, the President left Republicans with some interesting choices. Will they side
with Wall Street and the big banks in opposing his fee (tax) on the biggest banks? After
bragging that the election in Massachusetts gives them the ability to stop any Democratic
legislation and claiming the results show voters approve of Republican tactics; they are now
forced to offer alternatives or take the heat for just being the party of "no". The only
alternatives Republicans can offer have been rejected by the American people in the past;
so they are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Can the Republicans afford to
oppose a new jobs bill? Can they afford the President and Democrats getting credit for
creating jobs, reducing unemployment, and improving the economy? How will Republicans
vote on taking tax breaks away from corporations who export jobs overseas?
The President promised to take all combat troops out of Iraq later this year; but offered
no specifics on Afghanistan. He still has not defined what a "win" would look like in
Afghanistan, nor did he address any sort of exit strategy.
Appealing to independents and ignoring your base is a dangerous political decision. If
Obama's base does not get revved up and willing to turn out for the midterm elections at a
time when Republican voters are energized, he could split the independent vote but still lose
big because of a downturn in Democratic voters. I am not sure you can tell me what an
independent stands for or believes. They are frightened by huge deficits, but want another
economic stimulus package or jobs bill which will drive up the deficit. Do they want action
in Washington and yet vote in Massachusetts to insure more gridlock? They say they want
deficit reduction but don't seem to care if healthcare is reformed; even though rising health
care costs add billions to the deficit. Obama ignores his base at his own peril and pursues
independents who seem to sway in whatever direction the political winds blow at any given
Overall, the speech had some good progressive elements and boxed in the President's
opponents leaving them with some interesting choices ahead. However, the Afghan war
will be his undoing if he is not careful, and the pursuit of independents could leave him with
a base unwilling to mount the next battle. If unemployment drops out of double digits, if
more Americans are back to work, if the President is in a battle with Wall Street and the
big banks and the Republicans, and if some form of healthcare reform were to pass, he would
be in a much better position come November 2010. If... What do you think? I welcome
your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org