Politics

01.29.14

Will Obama Ever Play Hardball?

The executive order stuff was good, but Obama didn't go at the GOP in the way he should have.

Was that really only the sixth Obama State of the Union address? Because somehow after watching this one, I felt I’d seen at least eight or nine and made the same complaint every time.

It was...fine. There were moments, a few moments, where it was better than fine. The Obamacare section came across to me as the most spirited, the one part where he dropped the guarded formality that characterizes his approach to SOTU addresses and talked a little bit, just a little bit, of street talk: “Let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

That was sort of a throw-down. At least it had to make Republicans feel pissed off. And that’s always what I want Obama to do at these speeches. Here’s the most obstructed president in the modern history of the country. (Yes, there’s no serious disputing this.) His approval numbers are down, dragged down by the opposition party, which does everything it can to make sure there will be no economic recovery while he’s president. He’s got three years left, three years during which he stands only one remote shot of getting anything positive done—have the Democrats win back the House this November. If that doesn’t happen, with the party simultaneously holding the Senate, then pffft.

He acknowledged this reality with all that executive order business, and that was good. But by and large, he didn’t go at the Republicans in the way I think he should have. I see it like this. Nothing’s going to pass. That’s a given. So, given that nothing’s going to pass, then what? The only thing you can do—and this ain’t very uplifting, but it’s where we are these days—is set it up so that when nothing passes, the country blames the other guys.

That entails...what? Some shaming. Some calling out. Some zingers at the other side. Some direct challenges to the Republicans—you are defying the will of the clear majority of the American people on the minimum wage, on unemployment insurance, on gun control, et cetera. It’s true; they are. To say so would, I believe, put them on the defensive, and it would provide a framework for the whole year: The president directly challenges Congress to act, even taunts them a little.

That gives the Democrats something to run on. You keep that challenge up all year. Obstructionist, obstructionist, obstructionist. And then by November, when nothing has happened, hopefully people will think that it’s the Republicans’ fault. You’ve galvanized your side.

I really don’t understand the downside. It’s too partisan? Meaning what, that his attempts at bipartisanship for these last six years have worked like a charm? That he shouldn’t offend the Republicans in the chamber because then they’d refuse to work with him? Please. That’s just fantasy land.

He did mention the recent government shutdown, but that’s all he did—mention it. Contrast that with what Bill Clinton did in 1996. Amanda Terkel of HuffPo pointed out that in that January right after the Gingrich shutdown, Clinton pointedly mentioned the shutdown, making a big deal of it. Then he introduced one of his guests sitting next to Hillary. He’d risked his life to save others during the Oklahoma City bombing. And, Clinton then said—he was furloughed during the shutdown.

Why didn’t Obama get somebody up there who’d been furloughed during the shutdown? How about two or three somebodies? Imagine—that actually would have been pretty dramatic! It’s all people would be talking about post-speech. Again, what’s the downside? The Republicans would get mad? Ooooo! Good! What else? The famous swing voters would think it was too partisan?

Let’s remember something about these swing voters. Obama and his advisers had them uppermost in mind back in summer 2011 when Obama was trying to negotiate the first debt-ceiling hostage situation. Obama and David Plouffe and the others felt that with election year around the corner, Obama had to look accommodating, reasonable. So he gave a lot of ground. And you know what independent voters thought? Did they admire him for compromising? No! They thought he looked weak. And they were right.

He didn't look weak Tuesday night. But put it this way: No one was really excited by this speech. They praised it on MSNBC, and CNN too, and the elected Dems trotted out said what they were supposed to say. But no one was excited. Now, imagine a speech that had excited Democrats, that had had something surprising in it, something that made Republicans livid. Would that be bad? How, exactly?

Obama is never going to be Mr. Confrontation. I should just give up on this, I guess. I get it. But it’s a missed opportunity. He only has one opportunity to make anything domestically of his last three years, and that’s to win back the House. It’s a long shot to begin with, but his only shot at it is playing hardball. With the executive order theme, this speech wasn’t quite softball. But it wasn’t anywhere close to as tough as he needs to be to salvage the next three years.