The Republican Party, with the willing help of conservative Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Democratic turncoats like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), has forced Obama to agree to a joke of a stimulus package that is nearly half composed of tax breaks which will do nothing to bolster the economy (since most of the money will end up either paying down credit card debt or buying Chinese and Sri Lankan imports) and that is stripped of $40 billion to help struggling state and local governments.
Fresh from its rout in November, the GOP is, in fact, openly trying to sabotage Obama's economic stimulus plan, because the last thing Republicans want to see is an economy on the upturn in 2010 or 2012.
Meanwhile, Obama, who had the chance to add 2-4 Democratic senators to the Senate by naming Republicans to his cabinet or to other key administration positions, and having Democratic governors replace them with progressive Democrats, has wasted several opportunities. When he did name a Republican senator from a state with a Democratic governor--Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, named to be Commerce Dept. Secretary--he instead cut a pathetic deal to have the state's Democratic governor name another Republican Senator to replace Judd. Almost as bad, in New York, when he named Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State, he allowed New York's Democratic governor, David Patterson, to name a conservative Democrat to replace her.
What is this guy trying to do? Obama is from Chicago, a town where politics is a blood sport, and where as a young politician, he played that game with brass knuckles himself. Now he's trying to be everybody's best friend?
The result is he's being steamrollered.
So what should he do? Tell conservative Democrats in Congress that if they want any of their pet bills or projects passed in the next four years, they will pass a stimulus bill as he wants it written, with limited tax breaks and with all the money he proposed for states and localities. Republicans, meanwhile, should be told bluntly that if they vote against the measure once it is reconciled in a House-Senate conference, they get shorted on stimulus money in their districts. Let them explain it to their constituents.
Play Hard ball.
That's how Republicans have played for the past eight years, and how they've turned Congressional Democrats into a quivering mass of gelatinous goop.
Obama won a landslide electoral victory and a big popular vote majority. It wasn't his promise to be bi-partisan that gave him that win. It was his promise to be a real leader.
Leaders have to be respected, and they get respect from the opposition not by being courteous and by bending over, but by carrying a big stick and using it occasionally. Those who fail to use that stick end up getting whacked by one themselves, which is what happened to Obama's two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The other thing Obama is going to have to recognize, and recognize fast, is that his strength lies his progressive base. He has been dissing that base since the minute he won the election. Progressives have cut him a lot of slack--far more than he deserves--as he appointed (mostly white male) Clinton hack after Clinton hack to his cabinet, held over key (all white male) Bush appointees like Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and Gen. David Petraeus as head of Central Command (CentCom), and backpedaled on key campaign promises like ending the war in Iraq and winning passage of the Employee Free Choice labor rights restoration bill.
With this odious betrayal of his base, he is losing support from the very people who can sustain his presidency through four tough years of struggle. Without them, he is doomed to a one-term failure of a presidency.
Obama now faces three key tests. If he fails on any of them, I would argue that his presidency is finished before it starts.
At that point, Obama will have won the passionate support of his base, and the grudging respect of conservatives in Congress. The remaining years of his presidency will inevitably be full of conflict, but he will be fighting his political battles from a position of strength. This will allow him to campaign forcefully for progressive House and Senate candidates in the 2010 off-year congressional elections, when he could win more seats and stronger control in the Senate.
Meanwhile, he should replace Gates at Defense, ideally with some liberal Republican senator from a Democratic state (I'd suggest one of the two women, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who represent the state of Maine--a woman Secretary of Defense would be a great move), so that another Democrat could be appointed to the Senate. He could do the same thing with the Department of Health (another good place for a woman senator from Maine!). That would give the Democrats 61 seats in the Senate, assuming Al Franken finally gets named the winner in Minnesota.
The key thing is, no more nice guy. Obama needs to return to his roots and start acting like the Chicago pol that he began as. It's what his base wants, it's what the broad mass of the electorate wanted when they voted for him, and it's what the country needs.
About the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
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