KSP Op-ed on Obama in POLITICO

by admin on March 23, 2009

Why Obama should confront his base

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Barack Obama speaking at an event.

In an Ideas piece, Pipes says in politics, it’s not just what the president says about the issues, it’s what the issues say about the president. After all, anyone can confront an enemy, but it takes a leader to confront a friend.

Photo: AP

Two months into Barack Obama’s presidency, the country has seen a man with immense political talent. Calm and calculating, the new president possesses a natural ability to lead and a remarkable degree of emotional intelligence. He’s in control of himself; but is he in control of his party?

Like a swan on water, Obama glides gracefully along the surface while below his kicking never stops. So far, the kicking has hit only Republicans. Not long after assuming office, the president waved and smiled as he entered a Capitol Hill meeting with congressional Republicans. Once the doors were closed, he taunted them that “I won” and then mocked them for listening to Rush Limbaugh. This was power politics; but it was also easy posturing. Who isn’t beating up on congressional Republicans these days?

More impressive would be a show of force against his own base. History teaches that leaders have to fight battles with their own people. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ignited a conservative explosion when he nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Yet his unwavering support for her helped convince many Americans who hadn’t voted for him that Reagan was his own man. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton elevated this craft to an art form. Faced with a Democratic Party in Congress that leaned left, Clinton regularly looked for ways to show his independence. His work with Republicans produced welfare reform, NAFTA, a balanced budget and even a capital gains tax cut.

Obama could learn from these two presidents. But the learning curve appears steep. Little in his background suggests a willingness to confront his own party. His voting record in the Senate consisted of mainly party line votes. And his presidential campaign mostly hid fairly stale Democratic ideas behind fresh new packaging.

Since taking office, scant evidence has emerged that Obama wants to defy congressional Democrats. This strategy has hurt him. Take the stimulus, for example. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi inserted pet projects like funding for condoms (and then embarrassed herself trying to defend the idea), Obama’s brand suffered. This episode should have warned the president: Congressional Democrats possess their own agenda. At some point, he needs to acknowledge that and confront them.

Fortunately, one example does exist of Obama finally, grudgingly confronting an ally: his speech on Jeremiah Wright. No, not the vaunted Philadelphia speech. But the speech a month later in North Carolina. In Philadelphia, Obama skillfully wove an elaborate rhetorical argument to clothe and conceal an embarrassing relationship. But then the Wright shenanigans continued. A month later in North Carolina, Obama was forced to finally denounce his mentor. “I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people,” Obama said, contrasting himself with Wright, “That’s in my DNA.” This perfect metaphor gave him the moral authority to separate himself from Wright’s divisive words and ways. Delivering this rebuke of his longtime pastor must have pained Obama. But it was necessary; and he did it effectively.

Where can the president confront his party today? The Congressional Democrats’ desire to pass card check legislation presents a potential opportunity. Card check would effectively eliminate the secret ballot when employees vote on whether to unionize. In opposing this, the president could say: “I support labor. But right now, my job is to help create jobs. Let’s get the economy moving again. We can discuss labor reforms later.” This would show the president is committed to improving the economy and willing to confront his own base to do it.

In politics, it’s not just what the president says about the issues, it’s what the issues say about the president. After all, anyone can confront an enemy, but it takes a leader to confront a friend.

Kasey S. Pipes (kaseyspipes.com.s96387.gridserver.com) wrote speeches for President George W. Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and authored “Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.”

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