Obama’s Dunkirk moment

What is Obama’s agenda for his second term?

Barack Obama will certainly be nominated by his party and probably reelected President. The polls, Intrade and Nate Silver agree; so it seems do such conservatives as David Cameron and Boris Johnson; even Rupert Murdoch is unenthusiastic about the GOP slate. So does common sense, weighing Obama’s reasonable-to-good record against an outstandingly poor Republican ticket. So why is such little attention being paid to Obama’s plans for his second term?

At first sight, it’s sensible for liberals to concentrate on defeating Romney and Ryan. But even in terms of narrow electoral politics, running a purely negative, defensive campaign rarely works. Obama and the congressional Democrats need to offer their alternative. I tried to get a discussion going in February on this with a catchy eight-point plan, but had no success. Obama’s acceptance speech provides a better hook.

Democrats have two alternatives: steady-as-she-goes, or the vision thing. The former aims to keep the recovery going, manage crises for the best, and shepherd ACA through to full implementation. Without a Congressional majority, that may be all that’s attainable. But it’s rather sad and wimpy.

From my safe and distant armchair, I’m a vicarious fire-eater and would like to see more ambition. More’s the point, I think Obama’s sense of his place in history will require it. The chance of a House majority is admittedly slim, but it’s not enhanced by steady-as-she-goes and praying for an unlikely GOP implosion: Ryan isn’t Palin. The Democratic strategy is to beat GOP ad-buying by a superior ground game – and that depends on an army of volunteers, whose enthusiasm, after years of disappointment, needs to be rekindled. This needs an agenda, not just pretty feelgood speeches.

So I hope and and expect Obama will make a bold acceptance speech. He won’t just defend the progressive heritage of the New Deal and the Great Society, and his own contribution, ACA. What are the other big issues left on the shelf in his first term? I see two.

  • Campaign finance. Restoring democracy from the grip of money requires radical reform of the way politics in the USA is paid for: not just a rollback of Citizens United, but real transparency and strict limits on contributions, possibly public funding and free access to the airwaves. The problem here is that reform requires a majority not only in Congress but the Supreme Court, and the latter depends on the fickle demography of death. The issue is also very wonkish and many voters don’t appreciate its importance.  Obama is not likely to launch a battle he has so little chance of winning.
  • The second big item is climate change. Obama should, and I think will, finally come off the fence here. If he does so, he must propose a sweeping plan to lead the world away, just in time, from the climate breakdown we are already beginning to witness. (This useful phrase is George Monbiot’s.) He may fail in Congress; but the attempt would hearten the many states (including Midwest swing ones) and the corporations and nonprofits and citizens that are taking the challenge seriously, and just maybe enable a small-boats Dunkirk rescue.
Dunkirk beach, May 1940


Update: Kevin Drum has a good summary and a gloomier take on this problem. Unfortunately the long comment thread is off-topic rubbish.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

14 thoughts on “Obama’s Dunkirk moment”

  1. I guess there’s a couple things to say here:
    1) All the evidence suggests that Obama is a sincere believer in the virtue of cooperation and compromise as a good in and of itself. He’s fairly unlikely to declare total ideological combat with the extremist right-wingers who’ve managed to enforce complete unanimity in support of their views on the Republican party, however justified such might me.
    2) The path to achieving a substantive legislative result seems daunting indeed. No-one seems to be predicting a great year for the Democrats in Congress, and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is a pipe dream. The Republicans can on current form be expected to block every step of every piece of legislation, no matter how anodyne, no matter how many Republican ideas it contains. So even if Obama wanted a major legislative accomplishment, it seems impossible.
    3) The other two points having been made, it does appear that Obama has a very clear view of his priorities, and is willing to commit a total effort to the accomplishment of long-term structural change. In his first term, this was the PPACA – Obamacare, as it was named by its enemies and increasingly and defiantly by its friends. DADT repeal was also a major, coordinated campaign in Congress. So despite what I said above, I can imagine Obama pushing hard on one issue in his second term – and campaign finance would be a good one, in theory, although as the current Supreme Court is inclined to ban meaningful public financing plans it’s not clear what could be accomplished even if we couldn’t guarantee that the Republicans will block anything and everything he tries. Climate Change would be even more important, perhaps, but good legislation would be hard to craft even within the reality-based community; throw in the Republicans, and it hasn’t got a raindrop’s chance in the midwest.

    The synthesis of my observations would suggest the traditional course of action for second-term Presidents: to seek lasting accomplishment and recognition in the field of foreign affairs, where little or no Congressional approval is needed. But it isn’t obvious there are great opportunities there, either.

    1. That’s a good comment. I take slight issue with the context of 3), in that I want his priority to be to use the bully pulpit to point out the obstructionism. I’m sure he is smart enough to overcome the ‘uppity Kenyan’ tactics sure to be employed if he does that, and I want him to try. Otherwise, +1.

    2. Doing anything comes down to to the Congress, which is your point 2. Consider, there is almost no House polling yet but what has been done is looking generally positive and Nate Silver, last I looked, gave a Democratic takeover about one in three.

      The Senate looks out of reach if King wins Maine and Warren can coat-tail in Massachusetts. There just are not any good GOP prospects past Nebraska, Kaine in Virginia and North Dakota after Akin imploded. North Dakota seems to be tightening significantly and Allen does not seem to go any higher than his current vote. That seems to give a result of down 1 to up 4 if Indiana and or Nevada flip. That does not look good at all for a GOP take over.

      So reasonably there are two likely outcomes: 1. The House tightens up but remains Republican and the Senate remains barely Democratic. 2. The House flips to Democratic.

      1. [Had to hit the send key early]
        So in either case 1 or case 2, Harry Reid needs to amend on day 1 the filibuster rule to not include confirmations and procedural motions. He can also make Holds public and time limited. This is doable.

        Any tax or budget progress depends on Democratic control of the House.

        The scorched earth GOP tactics will only intensify in the House and Senate if the there is not a flip to Democratic control of the House. That in turn means only what can be done by executive action or appointment will take place until 2014.

  2. On climate change, the executive is not without resources. Obama’s one first-term achievement here was the raising of fuel efficiency standards by regulation, against a background of policy ambiguity. The EPA could surely do a lot more with a wholehearted political commitment behind it. The question is, what can Obama achieve in spite of Congress? Besides, he can try to set the stage for a House majority in 2014 with a good, popular bill blocked by the GOP.

  3. Much of today’s national Democratic Party “leadership” is committed to the current corrupt forms of campaign finance.

    Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Steny Hoyer, Steve Israel : these folks have built their political careers by selling themselves to well-heeled influence. They will not help dismantle a system that has put them on top. Rather the reverse — in the primaries, DCCC chair Israel steers national Party dollars preferentially to the most conservative and corrupt Democrats, freezing out progressives and good-goverment activists.

  4. The title of your post led me to think of the Congressional Democrats piling into boats to cross the Potomac fleeing the Republican hordes descending on Capitol Hill. Obama wants to be reelected, that much I agree with. As for “the vision thing” — I’ll believe it when I see it. Obama is pretty talk and thoroughly corporate friendly c

  5. I think Obama is avoiding bold vision statements because he thinks that if he offers one he will lose. He might well be right.

    1. No, but he’s a good instinctive politician. I think it’s worth noting that both he and the far more calculating Cameron both decided that there was little downside to responding in kind to Romney’s offensive doubts about London’s readiness for the Olympics.

      1. Actually, Boris Johnson did respond, in a way – by leading a chant of “Are we ready? – Yes, we are!!” at a eve-of-Olympics pop concert.

        The man is easily the most interesting, and possibly the most skilful, political operator in these islands. Cameron will need to watch his back because many are tipping Johnson to lead the Tories eventually.Johnson’s comments on the American election are probably shrewdly observed.

        As for Cameron, I am sure he has his own sources in Washington.

        PS I seem to remember Cameron telling a press conferecence something like “It’s easy to organise a winter Olympics on top of a mountain, but it is not easy to have an Olympics in a major city”. So Romney did not get away unscathed.

        1. Cameron’s actual words were: “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
          This is much more offensive than Boris Johnson’s chant, and even than Romney’s initial gaffe. Not something a politician would say about a man he thinks is going to be the next President of the United States.

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