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Obama's words, actions & 'juice'

A lot of talk over the past couple of weeks about what President Obama can or cant do or should or shouldnt dogiven the mainly obstructionist agenda of the opposition party (there was this from Maureen Dowd, which sort of kicked things off, and there was this and this from Charles P. Pierce, who is, well, Charles P. Pierce).Now, on the Commonweal homepage, two new pieces that take a more considered approach to the question of how the president might proceed for the rest of his term. First, from Great Exhortations, James T. Kloppenberg:

It has been particularly fascinating to watch the seesawing of opinion on Obama in the past year. Often it seems that every day presents a new avalanche of commentary on the presidents performance, much of it devoted to sleuthing out backroom maneuvering in an attempt to explain what is happening. And yet perhaps because the cynicism that dominates contemporary political discourse militates against taking any politicians words at face value, surprisingly little analysis is devoted to what the president actually says in his principal public addresses. Americans are so busy figuring out Obama, they have stopped hearing him.

In American history, as in the Catholic tradition, the individual freedom prized by contemporary conservatives and liberals alike has always been bounded by the duties that democratic citizens owe one another. Only if the president insists that liberty still obligates every individualfrom the wealthiest to the poorest, from opponents of fracking to hunters paying dues to the NRAto shoulder the burdens we share in common, and only if he is able to translate that pledge into legislation, will his second term nudge the nation toward fulfilling its ideals. Government in a modern civilization, FDR reminded the nation in 1936, has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, including protection of the family and the home and the establishment of a democracy of opportunity. Recent events have shown that the insecurity FDR targeted has returned to the United Statesand not only to our vulnerable populations, clustered in cities, but to suburban cinemas and schools and the impoverished populations of Americas reddest states. Inequality has so constricted opportunity in the United States that citizens in most European nations now enjoy not only greater safety but also greater economic and social mobility than do Americans. The dramatic decision of Switzerland, hardly a hotbed of socialism, to adopt the Minder Initiative limiting executive compensation indicates the distance separating European from American social democracy.

The president in his first term often talked about his easy working relationship with his young chief speech writer, Jon Favreau, a Jesuit-trained political activist committed to Catholic conceptions of bounded liberty, community, and justice. Now that Favreau has left the White House, we shall see whether the presidents references to these themes persist. In a moving passage in Dreams from My Father, Obama recalls telling the devout Catholics with whom he worked as a community organizer in Chicago that his motives were not much different from theirs, a revelation that may help explain why he and Favreau worked together so seamlessly for so long. But the president is now at a crossroads. Will he continue fighting against the Republican creed of individualism, confronting plutocracy with the principles of democracy?

Read the whole piece here.Then, E. J. Dionne Jr. encourages Obama to ditch the cool and clinical analysis and get back to what got him here:

When President Obama was asked by Jonathan Karl of ABC News at his Tuesday news conference whether he still had "the juice" to get his agenda through Congress, I wish he had replied, "Lighten up. This is the country where hope lives."[Obama] really is dealing with a novel situation. The GOP has moved far to the right. The Senate no longer operates on the basis of majority rule. The strong presidents with whom Obama is often compared, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, did not face these obstacles. In his heyday, LBJ had huge Democratic congressional majorities. The Gipper could always count on winning votes from conservative Southern Democrats who had joined Republicans regularly for many years before he took office. Obama has every right to be frustrated: When Republicans obstruct, he takes the blame.But getting an "A" for analysis is not the goal here. In the areas he does control, Obama has to talk less about the hurdles he faces and more forcefully about what he's doing to get over them.

Read it all here.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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The strong presidents with whom Obama is often compared, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, did not face these obstacles.

Yes they did. Politics is politics and it has not changed. What has changed are the issues and the willingness to compromise on all side.When a relationship begins to break down, or has broken down, frequently the first thing the people do is begin to blame each other. Then, through a series of sometimes mediated discussions, the couple discover that each has contributed to the sorry state of the relationship. Each side owns their contribution and works and endeavours to contribute positively to the solution. This does not mean that there are not differences and important differences.In a democratic system, structured as it is in the US, differences are ultimately resolved through elections and right now people want divided government and that is not a bad thing. It is wise, Slow decisions down. Think it through.The partisans in the press need to just chill out and just start reporting on progress.

I really liked Jonathan Chait's take, too, on the "magical thinking" of commentators like Dowd. Although in her case "thinking" is probably too strong a term. And he quotes that same passage from Dionne.

@George D (5/2, 12:10 pm) True, politics itself has not changed, but political institutions can and do change. And, over the past generation it is the Republican Party that has changed most drastically.As Norman Ornstein has repeatedly observed recently, the Republican Party has changed so radically that it has, in large part, ceased to function as a mainstream political party in a (small d) democratic polity. It is now defined almost exclusively by its oppositional stance. As Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said about members of his own party on the recent gun-control vote, "There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it...."This is a different kind of opposition than we saw from Democrats during the Bush and Reagan administrations, and a different kind of opposition than we saw from Republicans during the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations. Can we agree on that?

Today's Republican opposition in Congress is definitely something new under the sun, a virtual monolith dedicatd to obstruction above all else. In the past, it didn't matter how angry opposition leaders might be, a President could always find mavericks, individuals or groups, willing to bargain if approached properly. Today, even overwhelming public opinion in favor of the President's position can't sway Congressional Republicans: They vote together, and they vote AGAINST Barack Obama, and that's it. The only way to break the stalemate is to get the obstructionists out of office ASAP. Until then, the Executive-in-chief is going to have to come up with creative ways around the Legislative barricades. Bush with all those executive orders may have inadvertently shown him a way. What else is there?


This is a different kind of opposition than we saw from Democrats during the Bush and Reagan administrations, and a different kind of opposition than we saw from Republicans during the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations. Can we agree on that?

It is easy to romanticize the past as all of the conflicts from that era have been resolved, wounds healed over, and emotions less raw. So, it is easy to look at those periods of history with a more sanguine eye and see the conflicts as less sharp and less divisive than they were. My preference when dealing with conflict is to look at according to a "contribution" system as opposed to a "blame" system. Looked at in that light, Obama has contributed to the problem and the congressional Republicans have contributed to the problem. The media has also contributed to the problem as they are the ones who frame the issue for the public. And the public, too, has contributed to the problem.From that perspective, it is not so much about right or wrong, good or evil but differing contributions to a problem. And obviously, differing contributions to a solution. But, there will be a solution there always is!

The GOP first term agenda was to insure no second term for Obama. The GOP agenda is now to spoil Obama's 'legacy'. Of course neither I or any print comment magazine will be around in 2025 to record the GOP complaints about Obama legacy. What a stupid, shallow agenda with no hope of fulfillment. .

Either one of those articles could have been written immediately after the 2010 elections were in the books. The President's strengths, weaknesses and political situation hasn't changed appreciably since then. What has he done to change his field position, and how has he grown since then?I'm too young to have any memory of the Johnson Administration, but I don't think President Obama is particularly like Ronald Reagan. To me, he seems more like Bill Clinton in his desire to be pragmatic, and also in having to deal with a recalcitrant Congress, but unlike Clinton, I don't think he knows how to get there, or for reasons that I assume are politically motivated, he has no desire to get there.

@Jim Pauwels (5/2,11:33 pm) Take a look at today's column by Michael Tomasky:'s the first in what Tomasky promises will be an occasional series of columns giving historical examples to support his claim that "today's GOP is simply not a mainstream political party in the traditional American sense. It is a radical oppositionalist faction, way beyond the normal American parameters both in terms of ideology and tactics."Can you (or anyone) imagine today's Senate Republican caucus providing 16 votes in favor of a similarly controversial treaty?David Corn's book , "Showdown", provides an in-depth look at one year and one issue from President Obama's first administration. In the course of the book, Corn (though this is not his main point) makes abundantly clear that the president has been more than willing (and able) to use a variety of tactics and political strategies to try to accomplish his goals. Regardless of what he does, a significant faction of the Republican party is determined to oppose him. This is their failing, not his. (Or, alternatively I suppose, it is to their great credit.)

@George D (5/2, 8:28 pm) Thanks for the reply. I agree it's easy to romanticize the disagreements of the past. (Ah yes, remember those golden days when giants of political skill and comity like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich ruled the land....)However, I find your conclusion that "there will be a solution there always is!" disturbingly Panglossian. I'm happy to look at conflict from a "contribution" rather than a "blame" perspective (and certainly none of us is blameless). Looking at our current national politics, it seems to me that the "contributions" to the conflicts that exist come from the Republican party in a ration closer to 80:20 than to 50:50.And yes, as long as there's a quarter (or so) of the electorate that's driven in large measure by racial resentment, fear and rage, then there's going to be a political party that will seek to represent them. (That was the Democratic party until sometime in the mid-20th century when the Republican Party made a conscious, strategic decision to recruit and represent that faction.) But that's an explanation for why today's Republican party is the way it is; it's not an excuse.

Obama needs a new rhetorical style. His response to the "juice" question the other day was witty enough, but most people didn't hear it and some wouldn't get it. He needs to talk faster with more punch and his argument should be explicit. Currently he talks slowly pauses between words! and sounds too casual. This may not be substance but it is performance before the public that is needed to turn the Congress. James Klopenberg's analysis praises the current substance of Obama's speeches, but as long as Obama's rhetoric sounds like your basic high school sophmore, he's convincing no one. I keep waiting for the universal "uh" or "you know"; that doesn't come, but it may as well.

todays GOP is simply not a mainstream political party in the traditional American sense. It is a radical oppositionalist faction, way beyond the normal American parameters both in terms of ideology and tactics.... and yet the GOP has managed to achieve a majority in the House that last two elections during President Obama's tenure, and for most of the time dating back to President Clinton's administration. And save for the first two years of the Obama Administration, has had either a significant minority or outright majority in the Senate, dating back to 1980. And that doesn't even get to the number of state houses and state legislatures the GOP controls. How is it that this marginal gang of extreme ideologues sends so many people to Congress?

I was trying to stay on the sideliines here, but...Margaret, remember the Lincoln movie? That squeaky voiced guy was never going to get anything done. Fortunately, he hired a speech coach, lowered his voice, dropped the homey comparisons, became commanding... oh? no? No, instead his enemies had the decency to secede and make him fight it out on their terms. And lost (something forgotten by some of Obama's foes).And Jim, those Republican majorities? Read Ornstein and Mann (start with "It's Even Worse than it Looks"{). In some districts, Lady Gaga could be elected as a Republican if she were nominated, and in other districts she could be elected as a Democrat. In about 370 of the 435 House districts, the voters have been selected by the candidates instead of vice versa. Let's remember to factor that into election analyses.

Tom - true, gerrymandering is ubiquitous. But that districts are mapped to demographic and psychographic reality doesn't really change my thesis. Unless there are a lot more rotten boroughs than we suspect, it appears that there is a real, live and substantial electorate that supports these guys in Congress. I.e. the makeup of Congress reflects, to some rough extent, the makeup of the American people. If the GOP has changed (and if the Democratic Party has changed), perhaps it's because Americans have changed.But all of these factors and trends are beyond President Obama's control. He is supposed to govern the country that elected him, and working with the opposition is part of the package. Pace Chait and Sargent, it's not Magical Thinking to expect a president to be able to build coalitions, strike deals, change positions, persuade, expend political capital, reward and punish, and deploy the other tried-and-true tactics that his predecessors have managed in order to get things done.

@Jim Pauwels (5/3, 12:53 pm) Throughout his political career, Barack Obama has deployed all of the tried-and-true tactics you listed. In fact, it was his ability to build coalitions, strike deals, persuade, etc., that first helped him rise to prominence as a state senator."Magical Thinking" is the failure to recognize that the Republican opposition led by Mitch McConnell is fundamentally different from, say, the Democratic opposition led by Tip O'Neill (or George Mitchell).

TB: Didn't see the Lincoln movie, so I don't get your point (who had the squeaky voice? Lincoln?)But then, Obama is no Lincoln. Just to keep in the weeds: Did he ever take a speech class? I know, I know, totally boring, but actually learned a few things in mine. All I'm saying is substance isn't his problem (or only problem). Political impasses can be broken if someone convinces enough voters. E.G. Michael Peppard's post about national parks and the livings locals make in Montana; the locals are now affected by the sequestration cutting national parks. Someone should tell them they voted for the wrong representative. Ditto Kelly Ayotte being confronted over her vote against gun control:"Ayotte's vote against the legislation has not only made her a target for gun control advocates nationwide, but also has left her fielding questions and complaints about her stance on the divisive topic of guns from voters across her state. During a town hall Tuesday in Warren, N.H., Ayotte was confronted by the daughter of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, who was killed by Adam Lanza in the Dec. 14 massacre in Newton, Conn. Later Tuesday, in Tilton, N.H., members of the audience waved signs that read, "Demand action to end gun violence." Obama (and other Dems) should campaign during the 2014 house elections, saying precisely how the current representative of any given district has voted against the interests of his/her constituents. I believe this is called wholesale politics and it needs strong and certain voices. Obama (and other Dems) need to take speech lessons.

Jon Favreau takes the issue up today in the Daily Beast ( ). Yes, Obama's supporters need to help Obama, but:"Ive also seen what happens to Republicans who dare to even contemplate cooperation with the White House. When Congressman Scott Rigell of Virginia accepted the presidents invitation to join him at an event highlighting the shipyard jobs that sequestration would destroy in his district, the two men had a warm and constructive conversation aboard Air Force One. The president talked about his willingness to pursue entitlement reform. Rigell said he was open to closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. In return, he was threatened with a primary challenge by his local Tea Party, attacked by Grover Norquist as a cheap date, and flooded with nasty calls and emails from conservative activists.If youre a Republican in Congress, whats more likely to sway your votea trip on Air Force One and a personal plea from Barack Obama, or the threat of a Tea Party challenge thats taken down so many of your colleagues in recent elections?"

Jim, More rotten boroughs than we suspect. From where I sit, Florida has 4.8 million registered Democrats and 4.2 registered Republican voters. From that, you would expect our elections to be close. And they are. Famously so. We have one senator from each party. But where district lines are possible, we have: 28 Rs and 12 Ds in the state Senate 75 Rs and 44 Ds in the state House 17 Rs and 10 Ds in the U.S. HouseNow, guess which party was in power and redrew district lines after the 2010 census.

Power is at an historic imbalance in Congress thanks to gerrymandering that elected a group of extremists to Congress who show no reticence when it comes to bullying members of their own party who don't do what they say. Clearly, this isn't the first time in history members of Congress have played dirty or strongarmed the opposition, but it IS the first time one party monopolized the bully tactics and used them with so few scruples about the public good for no apparent purpose other than making one man -- the President of the United States -- look bad.

Well, at least Obama managed to find time to speak to Planned Parenthood. Obama does remain unswervingly loyal to the abortion industry.

The good news this week is that a Pew report shows that many senators who voted against gun control have lost significant approval at home, while the few courageous ones, like Mary Landrieu, who voted for it have gained a lot. For her the gain might just be enough to keep her in office. And hopefully the votes will make a difference in other elections, especially in those involving Tea Partiers. Jim P. = Gerrymandering often gives an unfair advantage to one party. Why else would politicians vote for it?

[FLASH -- The Israelis have apparently launched an air strike against Syria. Hmmm. Won't that change the balance of power in the M.E. somewhat if the rebels finally win? Wouldn't Israel then have an Arab semi-ally?]

Margaret S suggests that Obama should be a smarter campaigner in 2014 and get Dems elected. Margaret, please tell us and him how can he change a Senate system that requires 60 votes... and win more Senate seats where four Red states Senators have states with a population of 3 million... these 8 senators have the same number of seats/votes as four Blue states with a total population of 80 million. The red states of Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota and Montana have a majority of the small population believing that the Federal Government, who supplies them with beau coup dollars, will invade them and take away their guns.. I suggest your suggestion of Obama speech classes seems like a meager remedy. [maybe silly?]

Ann O....... NO

Ed Gleason: I was generally thinking of the House races, in which, of course, everybody is up. I will grant that redistricting has emphasized partisan divisions and taking the House back is a major issue for the Dems. Nonetheless, ....voters need to be educated that ideological positions focused on Big Government, are screwing most ideological voters. Political speeches should point that out in detail with good examples, and at every opportunity. Obviously the candidates themselves (Dems) should be in the forefront, but strong language from Obama would help. I also grant you that the insistent racism that seems to lie at the heart of so much anti-Obama attitudes (I am not voting for this because I don't want him to get credit) is genuinely surprising at this point in history. Is it possible that another strong speech on race would call our collective attention to the issue? I don't know.Here is a piece in May 4 Times about the Senate races: no one wants to run! Here's your chance.

Margaret O'S... I agree with your analysis of the House. But I have no sympathy that electable Dem candidates [think Indiana's Byah ] retire because of the Senate bickering. Not while GIs are dying by IED on Afghanistan dirt roads. Patriots serve, not bug out..

How about some of them retire, Levin and Harkins, for example, because they can't get anything done. To run again they'd have to spend a lot of time fund-raising. A Times' story this morning observed that it used to be that Senators with big committee assignments like Levin and Harkin were carried out in their caskets. If you've been there thirty or forty years, even GIs get to retire. I'm sorry to see those two go, but I wouldn't call them unpatriotic.

Evan Byah's excuse to retire was he could do more good teaching. He did even more real good.... for himself.. he lobbies..

Evan Byah is the son of Birch Byah, long-time senator. Are you confusing them?

No confusion.. Evan 'inherited' the Senate seat... as his father who was also a Indiana senator. My take is that both inherited money and inherited public office gets no respect from the recipient.That's why the US has no aristocratic titles and tax reform might take on the money transfer.

It should be clear by now to any honest, astute observer that before we can solve any of our other serious problems, economic, social, international, etc., we have to fix our broken political system.  Three major reforms are required:  1.  Take special-interest money out of politics.  Other countries like Canada and the U.K. have done it, and so can/must we.  2. Put an end to gerrymandering of congressional (and state legislative) districts which keeps a person from one party or the other in office, in perpetuity, no matter what he does or fails to do.  3.  Abolish the U.S. Senate's anti-democratic, much-abused filibuster rule, which enables a minority of 41 to prevail over the majority.  Believe it or not, 51, not 60, is a majority of 100!  Given the filibuster rule, we only need 41 Democrats in the Senate!  Those who care about keeping our democracy should focus on these issues.

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