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Rich Danker: Obama Uses Political Power Plays, Not Policy

Facing opposition to his proposals, the president drops his promise of forging a new kind of politics

At every turn in his struggling young presidency, President Barack Obama has used political gamesmanship to combat protest and opposition to his policy proposals. It’s a complete reversal from what he campaigned on — working together and finding common ground — and it’s sure to erode his standing with the American public.

Rich Danker
Rich Danker

Since he was able to secure passage of the stimulus bill one month after taking office, Obama has run into significant opposition on the three major proposals he followed up with: the auto bailouts, cap-and-trade and health-care reform. In response to the push-back, the president and his top aides have resorted to brute force, smear campaigns and ad hominem attacks. Rather than using the policy process to build support, the Obama administration is executing political power plays in an attempt to bulldoze its opposition.

We saw this first with the auto bailouts. In the bankruptcy reorganizations of General Motors and Chrysler, the administration staked the government and autoworkers union’s claims ahead of those of the secured bondholders. It disregarded the contractual standing of the lenders for its preferred social policy of favoring the union and the government. Much of the debt was held by large banks such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, which took TARP funds and therefore were not in a strong position to object to the White House’s plan.

That didn’t stop Obama from lashing out at the holdouts that did: “A group of investment firms and hedge funds decided to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout. They were hoping that everybody else would make sacrifices and they would have to make none,” he said at a news conference. But the losing holdouts were not just speculators; they were retail bondholders who bought Chrysler and GM bonds for causes such as retirement. Obama’s fiery admonishment on greed lumps those various interests together, along with the critics who objected to the overturning of bankruptcy principles for legal and economic reasons.

The president has used the same opposition rollover strategy in the health-care debate. Rather than addressing Republicans’ criticisms of the proposed government-run insurance option, Obama has accused them of “making wild claims” and wanting nothing more than to torpedo reform. He brushed off a summer of contentious town-hall meetings as overdramatized media coverage, which has morphed into a smear campaign against the Fox News Channel. Obama has stopped taking questions from its reporters, and his aides have tried to delegitimize it in recent weeks.

“It’s opinion journalism masquerading as news,” Obama communications director Anita Dunn said. Senior adviser David Axelrod said Sunday on ABC: “It’s really not news — it’s pushing a point of view.”

Next in the White House crosshairs is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s furious that the nation’s leading trade group is opposing its cap-and-trade emissions regulation proposal. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett attacked the chamber for its recent ad campaign touting the free market: “It’s an awful waste of money to launch an ad campaign when you haven’t tried to come in and work constructively with the administration,” she said. Jarrett even tried to play favorites with another lobbying group: “We have a very good and constructive relationship, by contrast, with the Business Roundtable.”

Obama, Jarrett and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel are working an end-run around the chamber by meeting with corporate chief executives directly at the White House. They are moving in to marginalize the group by taking advantage of its internal squabbles over cap-and-trade that have prompted Apple and Pacific Gas and Electric to quit.

The attack campaigns are not complementary efforts by the administration to defend its proposals; they are the centerpieces of a political focus that substitutes for policymaking. Obama’s top aides — Axelrod, Emanuel and Jarrett — are political operatives from Chicago who deal mainly with messaging. By leaning on them, Obama has disengaged himself from the policy process and given the White House over to people who practice nothing but power politics.

The problem with this approach is that the kind of major policy changes the president is trying to get through require significant discussion, negotiation and tweaking to be made into law. Overhauling the nation’s health-care system and energy policy can’t be accomplished through opposition demonizing, splintering and jawboning. The last major domestic reforms — the 1986 tax bill under President Ronald Reagan and the 1995 welfare reform act under President Bill Clinton — were executed only after significant cooperation between the White House and Congress, backed by general support from the electorate. Obama is confused about the power and duties of the presidency if he thinks it can be done any other way.

Obama’s White House has become a caricature of the kind he campaigned against. Through 2008 he hammered the “broken politics” of President George W. Bush’s administration. He cast himself as the one person who could deliver us out of that. “Change happens because the American people demand it — because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time,” Obama said in his nomination address.

Once he ran into significant opposition, Obama dropped his promise of forging a new kind of politics. But voters elected him on the basis of that promise, not so he could get his way on every battle he picks. In the year since he has been elected, Obama forgot why all too quickly.

— Rich Danker is a graduate student at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy in Malibu.

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