Transactional Presidency

Marshall Ganz in the LA Times has maybe the smartest summation I’ve read on the Obama Presidency, in the wake of last night’s election results:

In his transactional leadership mode, the president chose compromise rather than advocacy. Instead of speaking on behalf of a deeply distressed public, articulating clear positions to lead opinion and inspire public support, Obama seemed to think that by acting as a mediator, he could translate Washington dysfunction into legislative accomplishment. Confusing bipartisanship in the electorate with bipartisanship in Congress, he lost the former by his feckless pursuit of the latter, empowering the very people most committed to bringing down his presidency.

Seeking reform from inside a system structured to resist change, Obama turned aside some of the most well-organized reform coalitions ever assembled — on the environment, workers’ rights, immigration and healthcare. He ignored the leverage that a radical flank robustly pursuing its goals could give a reform president — as organized labor empowered FDR’s New Deal or the civil rights movement empowered LBJ’s Voting Rights Act. His base was told that aggressive action targeting, for example, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — where healthcare reform languished for many months — would reflect poorly on the president and make his job harder. Threatened with losing access, and confusing access with power, the coalitions for the most part went along.

Finally, the president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grass-roots organization ever built to support a Democratic president. With the help of new media and a core of some 3,000 well-trained and highly motivated organizers, 13.5 million volunteers set the Obama campaign apart. They were not the “usual suspects” — party loyalists, union staff and paid canvassers — but a broad array of first-time citizen activists. Nor were they merely an e-mail list. At least 1.5 million people, according to the campaign’s calculations, played active roles in local leadership teams across the nation.

But the Obama team put the whole thing to sleep, except for a late-breaking attempt to rally support for healthcare reform. Volunteers were exiled to the confines of the Democratic National Committee. “Fighting for the president’s agenda” meant doing as you were told, sending redundant e-mails to legislators and responding to ubiquitous pleas for money. Even the touted call for citizen “input” into governance consisted mainly of e-mails, mass conference calls and the occasional summoning of “real people” to legitimize White House events.

Disappointing, but we unfortunately saw some of this coming.

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