The Crux Of The Matter

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OBAMA10SaulLoeb:Getty

Here's an email that helped me understand better what's going on:

If you are correct and President Obama didn't do a single thing wrong his entire first year in office why did he have to schlepp off to the most liberal state in the country, that he won by 25.8 points to campaign against a state senator whom nobody had ever heard of before 2 weeks ago? Why are independents and moderates in Massachusetts voting against the Democratic Party knowing that a Democratic defeat may doom Senator Kennedy's life long dream of health care reform forever and damage this president so badly? Given his popularity when he came into office and overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and the House why hasn't he gotten more accomplished?

If Brown wins which meme will you be pushing? Martha Coakley was a horrible candidate, the American people just don't understand President Obama, it's all the fault of the Republicans and Fox News, or this election, much like New Jersey and Virginia had nothing to do with President Obama? 

Congratulations on the green card Andrew. Once you are squared away you need to get out of your bubble and get into the country and I don't mean this "Real America" bullshit pushed by people like Palin. When you lived in Boston did you ever go to Fenway and watch a Red Sox game? Ever eat at the Border Cafe in Cambridge or eat ice cream in the tea cup in JP Licks? Watch the Head of The Charles from Eliot Bridge? Boston Duck Tour? Newbury Comics? Ever been in a Southie neighborhood bar? When you are in NY have you ever been to Rucker Park or carved you name in a booth in John's Pizza on Bleeker Street? On the micro level Its a big beautiful messy optimistic country that you should wade into as de Tocqueville did.

I've been to almost every state in the US and tend to hang out in exactly the kinds of places my reader cites (with the exception of ballparks) but this email is unanswerable. It is almost pure populism. I am guilty of elitism - even though I'm an immigrant who was not born with any spoon in my mouth - because I support the constructive change Obama is trying to bring to the US.

You will note that my column was about the substantive progress Obama has made this past year in a deeply polarized political climate with some vast and intractable problems in the middle of the worst recession in a very long time. It was not an assessment of the politics of it all, which seems to be my reader's only criterion of success (maybe he should join the MSM elite which echoes everything he says). You will also note that my reader does not counter my arguments on this matter, or show why I am wrong in my assessment. I wish he would. Then we could have a debate. He just assumes I am out of touch. He echoes the pure feeling, removed from any actual substance, that Peggy Noonan's recent columns evoke.

Would Scott Brown have refused to pass a stimulus package? Or bail out the banks? Or restructure the collapsing car industry? Brown's core argument about health insurance reform is that Massachusetts has already done almost exactly the same thing, and he's fine with that, so screw the rest of the country. He favors controlling government debt, but wants more tax cuts and refuses to touch Medicare or defense. As Ross notes this morning:

The “right roots” activists are rallying around politicians who are promising to shrink government without offering any plausible sketch of how to do it. When Scott Brown pledges an across-the-board tax cut and sweeping deficit reduction all at once, he’s setting the conservative grass roots up for a major disappointment.

Brown is not a step forward; he's a throwback to the Bush years: more debt, more executive power, more war, more spending, more politics over governance, more Rove tactics and no substantive proposals except more tax cuts. He has no plans to help the uninsured or to control healthcare costs.

But it seems pretty clear to me that he will win, which means that the FNC/RNC machine has succeeded in perpetuating the meme that somehow Obama is a communist elitist out of touch with real Americans who want their government slashed, while they want no cuts at all in any entitlements, who want the budget balanced without any tax hikes or spending cuts, who demand access to unrestricted healthcare for ever, but refuse to support ways to reduce soaring costs. They want an end to crippling occupations overseas, but they also don't want to retreat or surrender to terrorists. They want to restore America's moral standing but retain the torture camp at Gitmo. And when told they cannot have all this, they vote for someone else who can promise it, however utopian their plans are.

A politician cannot change this mood. But Obama now has a clear warning that he must adjust his program for change in a more populist direction. How to do this will not be easy. But the attempt to offer a centrist path against a populist wave on both right and left has clearly been overwhelmed by the passion and anger of the moment and the barrage of lies and propaganda promulgated by a shameless GOP and a pusillanimous media.

But we know where we are now. Obama's George H W Bush-style focus on the merits of government has served the interests of the country well, in my judgment. But it has met the fury and shamelessness of the hard and ever more extreme right and the staggering amnesia of the electorate. With one major propaganda channel perpetuating an alternative reality and an opposition party motivated by anger, rage and populism, Obama's careful centrism is the right path but a tough sell. That tension - between substance and politics - will define the rest of his first term.

(Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty.)

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