Monday, February 09, 2009

Stay Stumpin'

This morning Obama held a town hall meeting in Indiana that was sublime. He took a significant number of unfiltered questions from the audience, including one from a self-identified Hannity listener. The USA Today annotates that interaction like this:

A young woman (Tara Nisley) asks the president why some of the people he nominated for key positions weren't trustworthy (because they had failed to pay some taxes). "I'm one of those who think you need to have a beer with Sean Hannity," she adds, referring to the conservative Fox News Channel host.

Some in the crowd object to the woman's question. Obama quiets them, saying it's a legitimate one.

"There are a couple who had problems before they came into my administration," he says. "I think they were honest mistakes and I made sure they were honest mistakes beforehand." That said, if only people who never made mistakes could be in his administration, "you're not going to have anybody taking your jobs."

As for having a beer with Hannity, Obama says he'll take that under advisement. He knows Hannity doesn't like him, the president jokes, "but I'm always good for a beer."

It was powerful live because of the way in which Obama comforted his detractor as the crowd went to boo the question. He celebrated the question's legitimacy quite genuinely, answered it, and finished with some jokes. The whole event was masterful, I thought. We haven't had a sitting President willing to answer unfiltered questions from regular people since when?

One thing that this event and last week's speech to Democratic members of the House have got me thinking about is the relative weakness of the grassroots Left. The stimulus debate has exposed a lot of the cleavages masked by the unity harnessed to put him over John McCain in November. There are those that are freaking out about how bad the stimulus package is and blame Obama's bipartisan strategy for the bill's relative weakness. There are also those that have defended the Obama stimulus plan and bipartisan posturing as part of a longer term strategy. (I look at the blog debate between David Sirota and Al Giordano as generally indicative of some of the disagreements that I've seen.)

Without getting into too much of the back and forth, I tend to agree with Al's view that Obama's campaign is a remarkable achievment for organizers and represents, perhaps more than anything else, an incredible opportunity to build grassroots coalitions that can sustain a long term movement for real progressive change.

But right now, after so many years of backsliding and in the midst of a truly frightening economy, the grassroots Left still really doesn't have what it takes to win in DC. In spite of the immense progress that was the Obama campaign, 'winning' a debate in Washington depends too entirely on the oratory of Obama himself - or the confidence that it inspires.

Over the long term, a progressive movement will only sustain based upon the activities of the grassroots foot soldiers. But in the very short term, in this crisis, Obama has got to make sure he continues to speak to the American people directly, almost as if he were still on the campaign trail. Though he and his communications staff, probably correctly, tend to deemphasize the importance of the 24 hour cable news cycle, too much of the media discourse on the stimulus bill was given to the Herbert Hoover hacks. There is too much uncertainty. People are fearful. I'm anxious myself. When Obama speaks, it helps people more rationally contextualize the first three weeks of his Presidency, the utility of the stimulus package, and the overall long term direction of his administration. When Obama is silent, people are more easily consumed by fear and doubt. The economic situation is that scary and Obama is that powerful. I think he has the responsibility to use the bully pulpit to maintain the public's hope levels.

Ultimately, the Left will never be able to do anything until organizers build that kind of power for the grassroots. I believe that Obama wants to contribute to that kind of movement. For right now, however, I think he has to be careful not to over-delegate the responsibility of selling short-term legislative priorities to the public. That's why I'm so glad he's finally getting out on the stump. I think if he hadn't waited so long, we'd probably have a better stimulus bill overall and a calmer, more fact-based media discourse on the matter.


jeffrey said...

1) I don't think laughing off the tax-dodging elitism of utterly corrupt souls like Tom Daschle as "a mistake" qualifies as a "genuine" answer.

2) The President is "late" to stumping for the bill. The problem with that is it has become a bill no longer worth stumping for.

This is not simply a problem of a beginner's mistake or naivete either. The process of Republican obstinance coupled with Democratic cowardice and media ignorance is so utterly predictable that any of us could have just written the script for it before inauguration day. Surely Obama's well-compensated (hell half of them keep their tax liability in their pockets) pros could have seen all of this as well.

Instead it is indicative of a profound lack of understanding or concern real people on the part of our Yuppie ruling classes.

3) The very idea that we should be blaming "the grassroots Left" is simply another way of blaming the victim.

E said...

I certainly don't think anyone is "blaming" the grassroots Left for anything. I was just trying to point out the very clear cleavages within what others might identify as an unified blob and that these fissures underscored the fact that the Left needs to grow if it is to stand alone as a movement for change independent of an Obama. And I was also trying to point out that Obama has a very clear leadership role that he must fulfill in the here and now because the grassroots Left isn't necessarily ready to realize trickle-up politics, though things will hopefully continue to head in that direction.

Grassroots = still developmental
Obama = needed to be on the stump earlier

Anonymous said...

For the sake of accuracy, I don't think there is a white "Left" in New Orleans, if the definition of Left is that it makes paramount the sruggle against local white racism. Look at the Left in Chicago and their relentless opposition to the Vallas neoliberals on terms of race. Nothing like that here. What we have in New Orleans are "neighborhood activists" who key their strategy to unseating the local black governance structure. That's certainly activism, but it's not leftism.

E said...

I wasn't discussing local politics at all within this particular analysis.

Anonymous said...

Well thought out piece. One thing it shows is the importance of being in power and being able to seize the stage. That is why governing coalitons are so important. Don