Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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Blasts from the bully pulpit

Obama decides it's no more Mr. Nice Guy

Blasts from the bully pulpit



As evidenced by the two speeches he delivered yesterday, President Obama has apparently decided - with good reason - that it's a waste of time to make nice to Republicans who consider outreach to be a sign of weakness.

His only viable option, at this moment of economic crisis (underscored today by the new jobless figures), is to use the power of the presidential bully pulpit, because the only thing Republicans really understand is power. Obama now appears to recognize that it's exceedingly difficult to break bread with a party that quakes in the presence of a buffoon (Rush Limbaugh), a party that seems bent on completing the destructive work of the failed administration that expired 17 days ago.

And so, with his economic recovery package hanging in the balance, he has opted to take his case to the people. He'll reportedly follow up early next week in prime time. Frankly, this would seem to be a no-brainer; the polls report that Obama's popularity is roughly 40 points higher than the congressional Republicans, whose minority numbers, lest we forget, were substantially reduced by the voters just three months ago. Moreover, the latest Gallup survey, released yesterday, reports that Americans currently favor a large-spending economic plan by a margin of 52 to 38 percent (fundamentally unchanged since early January), with 55 percent of swing-voting independents voicing their approval. Those numbers give Obama something to build on, as he also prepares to hit the road next week in salesman's mode.

Bearing all that in mind, consider this passage from Obama's noon speech yesterday to Energy Department staffers: "We can't delay and we can't go back to the same worn-out ideas that led us here in the first place...You've been hearing them for the last 10 years, maybe longer. They're rooted in the idea that tax cuts alone can solve all our problems; that government doesn't have a role to play; that half-measures and tinkering are somehow enough; that we can afford to ignore our most fundamental economic challenges...Those ideas have been tested, and they have failed. They've taken us from surpluses to an annual deficit of over a trillion dollars, and they've brought our economy to a halt. And that's precisely what the election we just had was all about. The American people have rendered their judgment. And now is the time to move forward, not back."

And this passage, from his evening pep talk to a House Democratic caucus (an event typically closed to the media, but this time kept open, so that the public could hear him): "We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face...If you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction. That's what the American people called for in November, and that's what we intend to deliver...They did not vote for the false theories of the past, and they didn't vote for phony arguments and petty politics. They didn't vote for the status quo, they sent us here to bring change. We owe it to them to deliver."

Shaping public opinion is what presidents are supposed to do; indeed, it should not be an impossible task for Obama to shape public opinion that is already inclined to follow his lead. And, by doing so, there's always the chance that a smattering of Republicans - particularly, at the moment, in the Senate - might see the wisdom of bowing to the wishes of their constituents. I'm referring to Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Obama won those states last November, and he may need three or four Senate Republicans in order to attain the filibuster-proof 60 votes for passage of the stimulus plan.

It has become increasingly clear that Obama can't win the economic recovery battle by kowtowing to his Republican flank. His best strategy is to rally the country and ensure that the Republicans are outflanked.

That's the way Ronald Reagan played it during his early months, successfully so, when he faced recalcitrant Democrats on Capitol Hill. He delivered a pair of well-timed prime-time TV addresses in 1981, while his controversial budget package hung in the balance, and in the end Democratic opposition crumbled. Reagan earned the title "great communicator" for good reason. It's up to Obama to prove he's equally worthy.

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I've devoted zilch attention thus far to the Minnesota Senate sideshow, starring Norm Coleman, the deposed Republican senator who recently lost the statewide hand recount to Al Franken, but who, in court litigation, continues to scour the 4,797 rejected absentee ballots - one by one - in a desperate quest for a net gain of 226 votes, which would allow him to defeat Franken by one.

No need to dwell on the details. It's merely worth noting that Coleman is starting to behave like one of those homeless people who rummages through trash in search of food scraps. It is one such scrap that I want to highlight (hat tip to Eric Keefeld at TPM), if only for its bemusement potential:

In court yesterday Coleman's lawyers suspected that they might have found an improperly rejected absentee ballot. Some guy in Pine County had requested and received such a ballot, but Pine County election officials had rejected his vote. Coleman's lawyers pursued this matter, questioning the Pine County auditor. It turned out that the guy's home address was in a different county, and the only reason he had been situated in Pine County was because...that's where the regional jail is located. And he was in it.  

This is what Norm Coleman has been reduced to. In fact, let's reverse the situation and posit that Franken had lost a statewide recount and was trying to use the courts to count the rejected ballots of jailbirds. It doesn't take a genius to recognize what the Republicans would do with such material.

It's noteworthy that Republicans aren't calling Coleman a "sore loser," as they did in 2000 when Al Gore was merely seeking (much less receiving) a statewide recount in Florida. Indeed, they recognize that Coleman is actually performing a valuable service for the party:

By challenging each rejected ballot one at a time, Coleman is ensuring that Franken will not be in the Senate for the economic stimulus vote, to help the Democrats creep closer to the magic 60.

As the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live used to say, "How conveeenient!"

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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