A Weak White House Confronts An Angry Union

Depositing a solid nuts and bolts tactician like David Plouffe at the Democratic National Committee -- and declaring 2010 saved -- would be like spraying a fine mist on your tuxedo and consider it clean. That's one reason the White House isn't terribly eager to brag about the Return of the Architect. (Another is that highlighting the political when the president is attempting to move away from partisanship is paradoxical.)

Rebuilding a foundation upon which Democrats can proudly run in 2010 will be hard because the party amortized its credibility through 2009. There are few ballasts still standing, and those that remain are shadows of Obama's personal charm and integrity. Congress is a non-entity.
The president will use his State of the Union address to knit together a narrative that will serve as the blueprint for this re-imagined governing Democratic Party. It may be too late. Appearances deceive, but it appears as if the White House chose the wrong battles in 2009 and lost every one. After Massachusetts, suddenly, anything the White House does appears to be political. (Siding with Paul Volcker on a critical policy decision involving banking regulation was not sudden or reactive, officials insist, but you wouldn't know that from the way it was covered.)

The Republican Party has three sources of strength heading in 2010. One is their tactical strategy: block Democrats at every turn. It's working. Two: the memory of 1994, which fortifies candidates whom they're having trouble recruiting. The third: the Tea Party populism, in all of its incarnations and concentric, sometimes overlapping circles, producing an anti-incumbency effect that is driving Democrats out of their seats and artificially propping up no-name challengers.

The Democratic Party has one main weakness, and it's not that they're too liberal or anything like that: they're the in-party at a time when governing is made next to impossible by a confluence of events--GOP obstructionism, Senate folkways, normal Democratic interest group feeding, extreme sensitivity to new spending, fear and panic among the leadership.

I'm not sure what to make of 1994 analogies, but the position President Obama is trying to avoid is the bunker of the Bush White House circa 2005 and 2006:  ideologically bankrupt, focused on the mechanics, ignoring the base. If it seems at times that the political wing of the White House -- including Plouffe -- is stronger than the policy wing and wins more internal fights, then Obama will fall into the same pit.

So: policy. Health care is now damaged goods. Passing it, and even selling it, is not going to make it popular before November. Debt panels and tax adjustments for the middle class and symbolic spending cuts will help, but they're not going to save a House or Senate seat.

Obama's biggest ally is the Republican Party: unlike the Republicans of 1994, who had a master strategist cranking out solid proposals, the current permutation of Republican leaders hasn't seen fit to expand beyond their obstruction business.  

One theory: if Obama could stage a couple high profile fights with the left wing of his party, (freezing spending, a much more low key healthcare proposal, maybe just content to take a pilot program and declare victory, etc) while the GOP still hasn't really communicated a plan, well, suddenly he'd be back in this thing. Don't forget, while the American people are freaked out about what he's doing, they still like Obama and they think the GOP is a bunch of clowns.

As I've written before, liberal activists have been Obama's most effective critics. The White House considers them unruly and still hasn't figured out how to communicate to them -- or even how important they really are. Every president at some point has to show Congress who the boss in town is, and at no point has Obama really done that, which is why he is in the trouble he's in now. The White House, for all of its power, is weak.

In retrospect, letting Congress write its own health care legislation may or may not have been necessary, but the content of Wednesday's speech will determine whether Obama has learned that the best way to navigate between Scylla (politics) and Charybdis (the political environment) is to know where you're going, go quickly, and go boldly.