Friday, September 21, 2012

We should all be preparing ourselves to keep working after the election is over

An awful lot of people have opined about what they think might happen in a second Obama administration. As was the case in 2008, I fear that too many are not listening to the man himself because he's broadcasting what to expect loud and clear.

So let's take a listen and see what he's been saying.

First of all, there was his interview with Michael Scherer.
Scherer: Coming out of 2008, there was talk from you and from some of your staff that you could bring [your campaign's] sort of grassroots movement, the organization, to Washington. And 2009 ended up being very much an inside-Washington mirror. [The year] 2012 is different. But if you’re able to get a second term, have you thought about ways of doing what the sort of promise of 2008 was that was never achieved in terms of bringing larger numbers of people to have a voice in the political process?

Obama: I’ve given that a lot of thought. And I do think that we had the best of intentions in 2009 and 2010. Again, we had to move very quickly, which meant that our biggest concern was how do we get 60 votes right now to get this done.

We won’t be in that same kind of crisis, putting-out-the-fire mentality, in 2013–2014. There are a handful of big issues that we’re going to have to deal with...

But for me to get those accomplished, I do think I’m going to need to bring in the voices of the American people much more systematically, much more regularly.

Finding the right mechanisms to do that is something that we’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about. Obviously, the Internet and the digital age helps. We’ve been able to do that on our campaign. We now need to translate that more to how our government works. But I think the American people are ready for it.

The one thing I feel very strongly about, as I travel around the country, is that as anxious as people feel about the recession we’ve just gone through and the challenges that we’re getting from around the world, Americans are really tough, resilient and decent, and they’ve got good instincts. The more they are actively participating in this process, the better off we’re going to be.
Next was his emphasis on citizenship in his speech at the Democratic convention.
But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations...

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
And then he talked with Michael Lewis about how to overcome Republican obstructionism.
It’s not a fear-versus-a-nice-guy approach that is the choice. The question is: How do you shape public opinion and frame an issue so that it’s hard for the opposition to say no.
Finally, here is what he said yesterday at the Univision forum.
I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That’s how we were able to cut taxes for middle-class families.

So something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward.
So don't assume you're going to be able to grab those slippers and relax after we get him re-elected or that the time is coming when we can just just sit back and let President Obama do all the work. The Community Organizer-in-Chief is promising us that we're going to have to stay in this thing. In other words, he's going to work to keep the conversation going - the same thing he talked about way back in 2005.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Yep, that's the guy I'm voting for and what I expect in return. The promises he keeps will be the ones we help him achieve.


  1. I had so many frustrating encounters with Dems who somehow failed to hear President-elect Obama say on Election Night 2008 "We won't get there in one year, or even one term." And who also failed to understand that the whole "We are the change we've been waiting for" means "stay involved," not "stay home at the midterms because you didn't get everything you wanted."

    I have a (probably half-baked) theory that there is a cohort on the left that, unlike the hard-right, actually finds the idea of engaging in politics distasteful. They don't mind protesting, they don't mind ranting on blogs, but actual participation in the system somehow is beneath them and is ipso facto proof of selling out. Therefore, on those occasions when they do put skin in the electoral game, they have a skewed notion of what is possible and in what time frames.

    And I don't discount that there is an element of white privilege to this as well. I always say that if African Americans had given up as easily during Reconstruction and jim crow as the white vanguard lefties did after Nixon was elected, then we would NOT have seen the great strides that have been made. If feminists gave up after Seneca Falls didn't automatically win them the right to vote, then we would have a very different world. If gay rights activists had said "Okay, Stonewall got us some attention but this shit is gonna be long and hard and slow to fix so let's just stay home and not vote," then -- well, you see where I'm going.

    One thing I can say about the righties I know -- they LOVE to vote. They may or may not participate in GOTV activities, but unlike some of my leftie friends, I NEVER hear them say "Well, I think I'll sit this one out." Because they understand that you don't get to do ANYTHING if you don't win elections first. And that means across every ticket, every race, every time.

    1. Really sharp. Yes, I am convinced that white privilege has everything to do with it. Many if not most white progressives are personally comfortable, and that diminishes motivation to change things.

  2. Sorry that comment was so butt-long, by the way. ;)

    1. I don't allow talk like that on my blog!

      Nobody's comments are too butt-long around here.


  3. That's great and all, but there isn't any actual, you know, POLICY in those statements.

    What's a key priority, what's a lesser priority, what's the hierarchy? Tax reform? Or more tax cuts for the middle/working classes? Carbon pollution? The same approach from 2009-10, or a new one? DREAM Act vs. comprehensive immigration, or both? Senate reform? Campaign finance? All of the above?

    Increased participation is great and whatever, but unless he's got a master plan to repeal the 22nd amendment, his clock is running. He can "change Washington" as an ex-president. Blow up the senate rules and cram through anything within arm's reach first.

    1. I just have to smile at comments like that.

      You really have no idea about what's coming.

    2. Uh huh. And you clearly don't either, or you would be able to say what "it" is.

      I used to work for the House of Representatives. It's about the votes. Period. And there's only so many hours in a day. And so fast a committee can churn through its work.

      I saw PUSH. I've seen the DLC. I've seen "reinvented government." I've seen the rise and fall of a half-dozen different "permanent majorities." I've heard people prognosticate radiant eruptions of democracy. Phones ringing off the hook for hours on end, meet-n-greets and town halls flooded with citizens.

      Your vaunted citizens? Burn. Out. Quickly. As president, better to get the majority leader(s), the whips, the chairs together and bias the rules in your party's favor and jam stuff through the opposition's piehole. Rig the game from the inside, and cut every last necessary deal on the table.

      Barack Obama can be the eminence grise of the "new politics" in 2017. He's only gonna be the president for 52 more months. And congress as an institution will outlast him, as it has every one of his predecessors.

    3. I don't think it's a profound critique to criticize the President for not talking about policy when it's very clear that the President had no intention of talking about policy.

      Also, I appreciate that you've worked in the House, and I'm certain that you learned a lot there. However, it's a mistake to assume that the way things have worked in the past will be the way things work in the future. On the contrary, things necessarily change.

      You don't say it, but the implication of your point is that you expect an increasingly passive electorate in the future. I also imagine that you don't think this passivity is good, but rather that it is what it is and we have to allow for it. It wouldn't be a bad conversation to have to start to consider mechanisms by which we might diminish passivity. I for one think that on balance active participation by people in politics makes for better policy. Not always (viz., Bible Belt school boards), but on balance.

      I'm curious about what you think might be able to increase the regular, active participation in our political system. Just increase, even a marginal one.

    4. Anonymous @ 6:13

      I don't think Obama has been at all vague about the policies he wants to pursue.

      One of the reasons why liberals have often failed to get their policies passed is that they think that identifying what they support is the only and/or most important part of the process.

      Beyond that, your suggestions are exactly what failed against Republican obstruction. I'm confident that when the opportunity comes around next time, Harry Reid will will do some damage to the filibuster rule (assuming he's still Majority Leader). But the only really long term solution is to mobilize voters. Your mistake is in assuming all this will end with Obama's second term.

      As Bill suggests, you sound like someone who thinks the only way to do things is the way they've always been done. That's exactly the kind of attitude that ensures the status quo.

    5. People expect government to, in the old Apple slogan, "just work." It offends them that it doesn't. Random people out there don't want to have to constantly monitor and audit every weekly decision Washington does/doesn't make.

      Every once in a while there's a big wave election. We've had a couple of different ones stacked up against each other the last few cycles. But for the most part, ordinary people don't spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about politics. They're just getting by in their own lives. Wealthier people have more off-time to keep up. Same with seniors. Same with kooky fundies (but that's a different story).

      An older, more educated, wealthier society will tend towards greater participation. If you have a POLICY agenda that helps those last two parts along the way, there's your start.

      But even then, congress will do what congress has always done. Every line item in every appropriations bill is spoken for by somebody. Somebody somewhere put a lot of time/money into every little thing that crosses congress' desk. Government is a four trillion dollar enterprise. And your local congressman/woman is secretly exhausted as is trying to keep up. And their leadership is twice as exhausted keeping everything on track.

      That's the great credit of this administration. They did an excellent job keeping things on track and passing their agenda in swift order. They made government "just work." You don't have to watch over their shoulder extensively.

      But as I've asked the current generation on the ground (and have watched their faces fall when the question strikes them for the first time), what is anybody trying to do in Washington that HASN'T ALREADY BEEN DONE in ANOTHER country? Universal health care? Not a new idea. Opposite, in fact. Very old idea, long passed around the world. Clean energy? Nope. Demilitarization? Competitive grant process? Well, that one came from our own non-profit sector.

      Obama is a rehabilitation president. He's catching us up with the best practices of the rest of the world. He's trying to get the building back in code. And that's great. And it's an eight year job. But we aren't at a place where there's a new policy agenda waiting for experimentation. So what sustains a new politics? Standing watch over tax hikes on the rich that might not even address inequality? Mandating new corporate ethics? Electing a congress that is progressively less white and less male, if for no reason than the principle of it?

      What is a new generation of collective action collectively acting to do?

    6. @ Smartypants

      "I don't think Obama has been at all vague about the policies he wants to pursue."

      I don't either. I think the policies he wants to pursue were compiled for the 2000 election and merely waylaid a decade or so.

      "your suggestions are exactly what failed against Republican obstruction"

      No they didn't. PPACA passed. ARRA passed. DADT repeal passed. The system worked, despite intense institutional obstruction. You can't spend 364 days a year talking about how great and transformative the legislative agenda passed in 09 and 10 was, and then spend this day telling me it was a failure. Be straight on this.

      "Harry Reid will will do some damage to the filibuster rule"

      Exactly. So you agree with me. Rig the rules in your favor and wield power maximally. The quickest way through polarization is escalation. We don't have coalition governments. They can't fall overnight. You get a minimum of two good years in the majority to really let things rip.

      "Your mistake is in assuming all this will end with Obama's second term."

      Your mistake is assuming that it won't. The next president won't be beholden to Barack Obama. He/she won't be beholden to his money network; he/she won't be beholden to his organization. In fact, the next president will go out of their way to do things completely different from the current administration in all sorts of little, random ways just on general principle. These are very egotistical people. POLICY continuity will endure. Movement politics will not. Never have. Jefferson did not beget endless Jeffersonians, Jackson didn't beget endless Jacksonians, Lincoln didn't beget endless Black Republicans, Roosevelt didn't beget endless New Dealers, Reagan didn't beget endless Reaganites, and Obama won't beget endless Obamanites. There's always a new game. It's a really big country. New games cook up fast. Policy is where legacies are forged.

    7. Anonymous @ 8:26

      When I talk about how those ideas failed to beat obstructionism, I'm talking post 2010. It seems that you're wanting to assume we're going back to big majorities in the Senate and taking back the House. I sure hope that happens, but you can't count on it.

      You seem to be agreeing that Obama has been clear about his policy goals. Not sure why you brought up the question in the first place.

      I get that you don't think his attempts to engage more Americans in active citizenship will be successful. No sweat. You don't have much to loose by standing back and watching whether he can pull it off or not.

      The next president better not be beholden to Obama. What will change if he is successful though is that the next president will at least be more beholden to the people.

    8. May I ask, Anonymous, if and how we might imagine some sort of sustained popular engagement in politics, increased from where we are now?

      I think of examples like the sustained engagement of Black institutions, both secular and ecclesiastic, that produced policy changes that in no way were going to come from within the political system, and also of the role of organized labor through the New Deal. You might argue (and I'd agree) that much of the New Deal might have happened without pressure from labor, but lots of it wouldn't.

      It's not that you're wrong about how policy formation works, but that you aren't accounting for the role of external factors in determining which policy gets made. It's not like there are policymakers surveying the land and going out to solve problem x or y.

      It appears to me that you are approaching this as a political question, because that's what makes your point that policy is where legacies are forged true. In a political sense that is indeed the case. However, the political structure does not and indeed cannot operate without some society operated on. Further, it's not even clear to me where the one ends and the other begins.

      What does seem true to me is that as our society has become increasingly complex, the participation of people in decision-making process that actually affect their lives has diminished. The greater the need for expertise, the less little-d democracy. To some extent this appears to be inherent in the nature of our economy and society. That said, it's clear that the president is trying to think of ways to re-integrate (or integrate, depending on your read of US history) people into an ongoing political process. At the moment, we have an electoral system in which we as people choose our system's cohort of managers. I don't mean to sound conspiratorial, because I'm not--this is more of a technical issue with political results.

      Your thoughts are welcomed.

    9. Anonymous @ 8:10

      What is a new generation of collective action collectively acting to do?

      Great question. We'll see, won't we?

      One thing that I've noticed from putting a little community organizing into practice on the ground in a very small way - its inevitably an interesting dance of leading from out front and leading from behind.

    10. He did give a few recommendations for policy. He wants to pass that Jobs act from last year. He would like to cut oil company subsidies. He would like for congress to stop insider trading(doubt he'll get that). There's the tax increase on high earners. Comprehensive immigration reform is on his list. He's shooting for bigger investments in green energy. Equal pay for women is pretty popular. Should Elizabeth Warren beat Scott Brown, she may be able to push for credit reform.

      Obama's pretty good on the policy side. The debt ceiling deal gives him leverage he didn't have in 2011.

      How do the people get involved? I believe he'll have more popular support than last time. Hopefully the Obama sucks crowd will find somewhere else to go. Your question is a difficult one to answer. There were changes that many didn't notice on election night. There were people that weren't doing much deciding to make positive changes. Some went back to school. There were others that left mom's house. Romney's 47% are more optimistic about the future. Younger people care more about social responsibility. There's no telling what form this change will take. I think it'll be multifaceted.


  4. "Not sure why you brought up the question in the first place."

    Because the conflict is what sustains an all-new level of engagement for old policy? There's still a long list of unfulfilled policy promises, how do "the people" decide which is the highest priority? The answer is they don't. Relevant corporate and advocacy interest groups most amenable to getting a bill passed the quickest and easiest set the timetable. The People can decide on the "what." The interests responsible for implementation will ALWAYS decide on the "when" and the "how." That's why they exist. That's why they should exist. They have to do the work after a bill or a new set of regs are passed.

    Government is a four trillion dollar enterprise. It will only grow further in complexity and scope. You and Bill are obviously very smart, very engaged citizens. But you know maybe 25% of what your government is doing at any given time. It's simply too big, you can't be expected to keep track of it all. The more you knew, the greater your appreciation for this administration would grow, probably. It was quite a domestic policy regime change in 2008.

    The simple answer is that government is too big and complicated for idealized democracy. The people can offer what I call "one word directives." You want fairness. You want security. You want opportunity. You want equality. It's the government's job to internalize these calls. But what can the people really know about the next transpo bill? Or the next tax expenditure commission?