“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick”: The Coach and the President Heed an African Proverb

African-American leaders know better than to frighten their followers. Shouldn’t the rest of us know better than to berate them for their self-restraint?

The people who’ve spent the past several seasons calling for the head of Coach Lovie Smith on the grounds that he’s “ignorant and weak” and “emotionless” (among many less printable adjectives) are nowhere to be found since he led the Chicago Bears to the NFL Conference championships. Having failed to bury Smith, they absolutely refuse to praise him.

Why?   Because Coach Smith is a soft-spoken professional who leads not by shrieking but by—well, leading.   Chicagoans, particularly Chicago sports fans, can’t seem to wrap their heads around the notion that this gentle man— this gentleman—could possibly be any good at coaching football. That’s because the mold for Da Coach was set by Mike Ditka, a screaming, foul-mouthed, temper-losing maniac whose heart attack only narrowly missed taking place on the field.   If you’re not yelling like that, you must not be leading.

But if Coach Smith behaved like that—berating his players and abusing the press in rants liberally sprinkled with profanity—we’d hear nothing but tut-tuts about what an angry black man he was.  Probably neither the fans nor the team itself would be willing to follow him.  It’s no accident that the most successful African-American coaches — Tony Dungee, Mike Singletary, Lovie Smith — are all matter-of-fact and free of braggadocio.   That’s the way black men have to negotiate the world to avoid waking the not-very-soundly sleeping dogs of white racism.

Which brings us to the case of President Obama.   Everyone who derides him for not being tough enough—for not being Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson—seems to forget that they’re speaking of someone whose life has required constant attention to the problem of being non-threatening.   That’s quite a challenge for a man who’s tall, brilliant and black.

But the President has succeeded at it through a combination of self-deprecation (“a skinny kid with a funny name”) and unshakable composure (“No-Drama Obama”).   If instead he’d emulated FDR in saying of his opponents “I welcome their hatred,” Fox News would have announced that he hated all white people. (Oh, right, someone on that network did that anyway.)   If like LBJ he’d insisted a reporter accompany him while he used the toilet, he wouldn’t be considered a lively and original character but just some ghetto type who didn’t know how to behave.

Consider the reportage when the president held a news conference explaining his decision to make the tax-cut compromise.  Having answered a series of questions designed to get him to say that he’d betrayed his promises, his party and his people, he was finally irate enough to respond, “It’s the health care battle all over again. Some people would rather rest in their purity than get something done,” or words to that effect.   As a rebuke goes, his was a pretty mild one.   But it was sufficient to produce several weeks of headlines about how the President had “scolded” his party and how “angry” he was.   If he’d actually been angry, we’d probably have seen articles of impeachment.

So all the people who want to give the President—and the Coach, for that matter—lessons in leadership should bear in mind that both men have learned precisely how much force they can use before that force is turned against them.   And they haven’t learned it from the Op-Ed pages or the screaming-heads fests.   Experience keeps a hard school but we will learn at no other.

I myself wrote—but fortunately did not post—the following incredibly misguided advice:

I understand the President’s unwillingness to assume the role of Angry Black Man into which his opponents wish to thrust him. But when the people on the other side of the table are card-carrying members of the Paranoid Style in American Politics, it’s time to stand up and call them the proto-fascists they are.   And hoping they’ll be willing to compromise seems a deliberate act of denial, like whistling past the graveyard. Instead, Barack Obama should emulate Harry Truman.   Give ’em hell, Barry!

WRONG!   As the Tucson shootings demonstrate, the last thing we need right now is public officials giving each other high-decibel hell.   And even if hell were called for, a black man in power couldn’t be the one to deliver it.   That’s an indulgence reserved for powerful white men—and every powerful black man knows it. It’s time the rest of us learned the same lesson.

The volume of reproach and disappointment and disapproval and correction directed at Coach Smith and the President says nothing about their leadership ability.   It’s purely a reflection of the fears and fantasies a significant subgroup of American white people have about American black people.   The fact that one of them produced a championship team, and the other achieved the health-care reform none of his white predecessors could manage (among many other victories), demonstrates that they’re far better leaders than anyone less challenged could dream of being.

So let’s stop giving them hell.

President Obama, Prove Me Wrong

Now that the House has passed middle-class tax cuts, this is President Obama’s chance to change the conversation. Will he take it?

Readers of this blog might have guessed that at times I get a little dyspeptic at our Commander-in-Chief.  Well, here’s his chance to prove me wrong.

Under the leadership of outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will go down in history as one of the best Speakers ever, the Democratic majority has just passed a bill extending the Bush tax cuts only up to the first $250,000 of income.  All Americans get a tax cut, but the wealthy do not get the extra, budget-busting tax cut that Dubya gave them.

So will Americans see the benefits of this?  No, because Senate Republicans along with such as Steaming Piece of Senator Kent Conrad will probably filibuster it.  But at least President Obama can make them pay for it and change the national conversation.

Now, today, Obama should hold a press conference demanding Senate action.  Then he should take the show on the road, going to, say Massachusetts, and Maine, and Ohio, demanding that the Republicans allow the Senate to vote on this plan.  He’s got the biggest megaphone in the country.  He can fill arenas.  Now, today, he needs to ask:

Why are the Republicans intent on raising your taxes?  Why are they holding your tax cut hostage so that they can reward billionaires?

For the rest of the session, Obama needs to elevate this issue to highest possible pitch.  This is an opportunity to damage the Republican brand: Democrats have cut your taxes and the Republicans only care about millionaires.  The only reason why the GOP is taking him for a ride here is that they and he assume that if the tax cuts are not extended, the public will blame him, and not them.

The Democrats’ fear is that the public won’t get it; the Republicans’ fear is that they will get it.  Obama can change that calculus.  That would even be change I can believe in.

Hello?  Anybody home?

Truman in 2012

The President running against the “do-nothing Congress.” Worked the last time.

A Democratic President seeking re-election in the face of a Republican-dominated Congress has two options: Clintonian “triangulation” – trying to cast himself as a moderate caught between the extremes represented by the Congressional parties – and Trumanesque “Give ’em Hell,” sending “a message a week” and setting up the “do-nothing Congress” as his adversary and the adversary of the voters.

Obama’s post-partisanship might seem to fit him for the Clinton role. But since the Republicans who will dominate the House and have the capacity to block action in the Senate are far more interested in his political destruction than they are in advancing the national interest, the situation is going to force him to be a Truman. I suspect he’ll do pretty well at it. The polls show that the public already correctly perceives Obama as wanting to work with the Republicans and the Republicans unwilling to reciprocate.

These Republicans are pretty easy to run against. Wanting to extend tax cuts for the over-paid but not unemployment benefits for the out-of-work can’t really be a popular idea. Neither is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or – I suspect – a new nuclear arms race.

Meanwhile, the latest PPP poll shows Obama carrying Virginia against all his potential rivals in 2012. Yes, it’s possible to make an electoral map where the Republicans carry the White House while losing Virginia. But it’s not easy.

The Health Insurance Companies’ Long Game

America’s health insurance companies seem to believe, along with Republicans, that they can screw up health care reform and get the voters to blame the Democrats for it. Maybe they’re right.

In the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Henry Aaron (no, not that one) details the health policy stakes for the midterm:

If ACA opponents gain a majority in either house of Congress, they could not only withhold needed appropriations but also bar the use of whatever funds are appropriated for ACA implementation, including the implementation of the provisions requiring individual people to buy insurance or businesses to offer it. They could bar the use of staff time for designing rules for implementation or for paying subsidies to support the purchase of insurance. They could even bar the DHHS from writing or issuing regulations or engaging in any other federal activity related to the creation of health insurance exchanges, even though the ACA provides funds for the DHHS to make grants to the states to set up those exchanges.


Perhaps the more likely — and in some ways more troubling — possibility is that the effort to repeal the bill will not succeed, but the tactic of crippling implementation will. The nation would then be left with zombie legislation, a program that lives on but works badly, consisting of poorly funded and understaffed state health exchanges that cannot bring needed improvements to the individual and small-group insurance markets, clumsily administered subsidies that lead to needless resentment and confusion, and mandates that are capriciously enforced.

This may be “more troubling” to Aaron, and anyone who is in interested in an efficient and minimally equitable health care system, but the real losers here would be the health insurance companies.  Let’s assume that the GOP Congress puts riders in their appropriations bills forbidding the construction of exchanges or enforcement of the individual mandate.  This means that the insurers will still have to abide by the popular provisions of the ACA: no discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions, no rescissions, no lifetime limits.  (I doubt at this stage that the GOP would ban the enforcement of these provsions.).  Thus, the insurers could not set rates according to health risks or do any of the other things that enrage most people in private plans — but they also would not get the guaranteed new millions of new customers that was supposed to be the compensation for it.  They could, of course, just raise rates on everyone, risking an even further backlash, at this time directed against the GOP, which will be the immediate cause of it.

So you would think that the health insurance industry would be wary about such a scenario.  But no: in fact they are pushing it.  As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, the insurance companies are pouring money into Republican campaigns.

Obviously, the insurers aren’t stupid.  They may think that they can get away with telling the Republicans to maintain the mandate while getting rid of the regulations, but that combination would surely be vetoed by President Obama.  So in the short and medium run, the insurers are taking a risk that the changes in the market brought about by the refusal to set up exchanges or enforce the mandate (which undoubtedly the Obama Administration would refuse to enforce in the absence of exchanges) will not disrupt their bottom line.  (So much for believing their whines about how they need rescission, lifetime limits, and discrimination to make money.).  The ensuing chaos will help elect President Palin in 2012, and create an individual mandate without any regulations against them.

In other words, they seem to believe, along with Republicans, that they can screw up health policy reform and get the voters to blame the Democrats for it.  Maybe they’re right.

Does Palin have a path to the nomination?

Walter Shapiro says yes: under Republican winner-take-all rules, a candidate with 35% backing can go all the way.

Walter Shapiro says that the winner-take-all rules of the Republican Presidential nomination process give Sarah Palin a shot if she can just keep the tea bag crowd behind her.

As he points out, what’s left of the Republican establishment could stop Palin by changing the rules, but doing so would risk a wingnut walkout the GOP can ill afford.

If Palin is actually nominated, the remnant of non-mouthbreathers in the party will face a tough choice: abandon the party’s nominee, or back someone grossly, ludicrously unfit for the highest office in the land. If I were, let’s say, Richard Lugar, I’d be working hard right now to avoid having to make that choice later.

Huckabee self-destructs as a national candidate

Huck to CPAC: “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead, but a Union of American Socialist Republics is being born … Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

During the Republican primaries, I was worried about Mike Huckabee: earnest but not priggish, funny, evidently not a hater, a non-terrible record as governor, compelling speaker. Yes, of course he believed, or at least said, some certifiably nutty stuff, but he didn’t say it in a nutty way. And I’ve remained concerned that Huckabee might use the next four or eight years to learn something about the substance of national policy &#8212 he’s poorly educated, but no one’s fool &#8212 and abandon some of the “populist” positions that made him anathema to the money-cons. The result might have looked a lot like a 21st-Century Reagan, while continuing to cover a fairly serious theocrat.

I guess I can stop worrying. Here’s the Washington Independent’s account (corrected, apparently, from an earlier version) of Huck’s CPAC speech.

“The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead,” said Huckabee, “but a Union of American Socialist Republics is being born.” Democrats, according to Huckabee, were packing 40 years of pet projects like “health care rationing” into spending bills. “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

Yes, yes, the CPAC crowd is the extreme of the extreme. But in the YouTube era you can’t go around mouthing this stuff and be taken seriously as a candidate for President. Either Huckabee is losing his ear or this is what you really have to say to get the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012.

Either way, I’m relieved.

Update More from Matt Yglesias, who notes the double standard the press applies to such things: no Democratic politician could have gotten away with calling out the similarities between Bush policies (e.g., on torture) and totalitarian practices, but Huckabee can call Obama a Stalinist and not generate a peep of protest.