President Obama told The New York Times that he got the policies right but the politics wrong over these first two years.
What that means is that he did the right thing, but that, absent professional manipulation of our ever-pliable thinking, we proved ourselves either too ignorant or too stupid to comprehend on our own that he was doing the right thing.
I suspect he’s on target. Our collective ignorance and stupidity cannot easily be underestimated.
But we can add one more political mistake to Obama’s ledger.
That would be the one where he explains defeat for his party in the midterm elections before the actual occurrence of that defeat in the midterm elections.
It would have been more sensitive to his troops in the field if he had pretended, at least, to keep fighting until the final bell.
The best example of Obama’s good policy-bad politics assertion regards the stimulus.
He had to bail out state governments. He had to put a floor under the collapsing economy with Keynesian infusions.
But the best face one can put on those policies is that our fate would have been worse if he had failed to act.
That’s untenable politics, akin to telling a child the spinach may have tasted bad but that the poor tike could well have starved if he had not eaten it.
The best politics produces tangibly good results. The worst politics asserts that we should be grateful to have averted a disaster we can scarcely imagine.
If you cannot imagine it, you cannot appreciate escaping it.
This is a far more compelling example: The stimulus provided working people an income tax cut of $400 per person or $800 per family. But the Obama administration feared that we would simply save a single rebate check, expecting harder times, and that we more likely would spend this additional money and circulate it through the economy only if it came in smaller and subtler increments through reduced withholdings on our paychecks. So that’s how the tax cut was granted.
Obama’s doing the well-intended thing on policy made certain that he would get no political benefit, considering that the entire idea was to get people to do something with extra money without even being aware that they had extra money.
Then we turned around and fell for it when the Republicans came around to say the tax-cutting Democrats were tax-raisers.
Health care is another example of the policy-politics dichotomy, if a much less vivid one.
The better politics would have been to retreat from comprehensive reform after the Scott Brown win in Massachusetts. But the better policy was to take advantage of the rare opportunity of a large Democratic majority to pass something at long last that would provide health insurance to more people and protect people with medical conditions from being denied coverage.
The political problem on health care is three-fold:
(1) The bill is so massive, complex, jargon-infested and politically bastardized by intricate compromise that it defies clear political explanation and goes without any championing by a solid, earnest political base.
(2) Whatever tangible benefits health reform produces will not be widely in place or evident for years.
(3) Obama and health care are so politically toxic in many regions of the country that Democrats would only compound their agony if they stood their ground and tried to defend him and the bill.
Democrats get blamed for Obama while running from him. What gets lost in that madness is any defense of what they run from, which means they simply must run harder.
So we are left with only one hope.
It’s that people who cannot figure out that they got a tax cut can figure out how to make the wisest choice at the ballot box.
John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.