now, it should be clear to everyone that the change called for by
the American people in the election of 2008 will be difficult to
come by because it will not be gained by President Barack Obama
simply waving a wand. Once this fight to enact the Stimulus
Package is over, he will claim an important victory for having done
it so quickly after his Inauguration, but he will also have learned
important lessons on how to fight.
lesson was how to manage bi-partisanship in the Congress.
The first mistake was to give the process of shaping the Stimulus
Package for the most part, to the House Appropriations Committee.
Obama should have fashioned a bill in the White House, with guidelines
to give to the House. That would have kept Rep. Obey’s
Committee from loading up bill up with extraneous measures that
didn’t look like stimulus material. In turn, that would
have lessened the opportunity for Republicans to criticize it and
finally not vote for it on that basis. Obey also gave too
much ground in tax cuts to Republicans, rather than starting low
and ending up with 30% of the bill. It put the President on the
defensive, trying to explain that the so-called “pork”
in the bill only constituted 1% of it, but not having it there in
the first place would prevented him, in the end, from having to
call a meeting of the House Democratic Leadership to try to get
lesson is how to lead in the arena of policy interpretation.
To the public, to push a piece of legislation that would help them
as a “Stimulus Package” is confusing economic-speak.
It would have been better to push it as a “jobs bill.”
The fuel for this was the fact that the economy loss 2.5 million
jobs last year and over 500,000 in the month of January 2009.
But the media didn’t play along and gave Republicans a great
opening to seize the leadership of interpreting the bill by criticizing
it as “pork” and as “wasteful spending.”
be fair to President Obama and the Democrats, many of the items
such as those in education have been propose for some time, such
as increases in Pell grants, or school construction, but they haven’t
had the control of the Congress and the White House to enact them.
They made a judgment that putting these items in a bill which was
sure to pass, made it more likely these measures would be enacted.
the other hand, Republicans wanted such items to come up in “regular
order,” in other words, in the Education appropriation process,
where they would not be pressured to support them. In
fact, we will see what happens in “regular order” when
the heat of the Stimulus dies down and other important measures
come up in various committees.
the base of the President’s problem is a dirty little secret.
He won the election with a coalition of 60% whites and 40% people
of color. But that coalition doesn’t look like the power structure
it confronts. When that coalition confronts the power structure
and pushes for change, it confronts the overhang of conservative
politics: media favoritism to that ideology backed by a muscular
intellectual establishment, and a Democratic party in Congress that
lacks the discipline to overpower the opposition. This
situation will come up repeatedly.
the President will have to use his considerable skills of communication
to go to the American people to force change in the Congress.
As I have argued here many times, he needs a formidable force outside
of the Congress to help with the problem of mismatch between his
winning coalition and the power structure in place.
The new organization, ‘Organizing for America’ was given
orders to have house meetings where there could be “policy
discussions” on the Stimulus Package. But this
coded language was not “let’s go to war” and exact
some accountability from our elected officials. The
OFA should be given clear instructions – perhaps not by the
President -- to organize for change by pressuring local officials
to get in line. Or why does it exist?
thing that puzzles me is why the President has to learn much of
anything with such experienced people around him. The loss
of Tom Daschle as crucial because he was a respected political operative,
better in my book that Harry Reid. President Obama has
lots of policy experts, now he should find expert political operatives
to handle the strategy that gets things done.
Editorial Board member
Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director
of the African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government
and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. His latest
book is: The
Price of Racial Reconciliation (The Politics of Race and Ethnicity)
(Rowman and Littlefield). Click here
to contact Dr. Walters.