Where Obama went wrong (one more in the series).

I am listening to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with former Southern Congressman Joe Scarborough. He’s on with former Minnesota Governor Tim “T-Paw” Pawlenty, who flamed out a few days ago as a candidate for president in 2012.

The talk is about how the President ran on a ticket of “hope and change”, and now is seen as someone who is in over his head. They see Obama as someone who is essentially good at only one thing—the campaigning and the entertainment side–but not good at governing, and particularly on crisis management.

I think these guys are totally wrong.

Barack Obama has been great at crisis management. He was left with at least a dozen ongoing crises, as well as two unpopular “necessary” wars. I follow politics, so I watched this day-by-day. The Bush Administration drew President-elect Obama into the thick of things the day after Obama won. In the public’s mind, and with the encouragement of the outgoing Republicans, suddenly all the screw-ups of the Bush Administration became the issues Barack Obama has to tackle. Then, they became Obama’s problems, but with no bipartisan help to fix.

We all remember 2009. Most of us everyday types were reeling from the effects of what the Japanese call “Lehman Shock”, and what we here generally call the Financial Crisis. Any president coming into office at that time was going to have to spend a great deal of it putting a tourniquet on the free fall. Obama and the Democratic Congress did that. In the meantime, they finally addressed the health care situation as bad as it has gotten in America, with a program that really doesn’t satisfy anybody, but will probably do the job in 2014. (Yes, we all have to wait until January 2014.)

The Republicans were already giving their strategy away in 2009, which was to block and obstruct everything the Administration sought to do. I think the White House misinterpreted this as opposition to the health care. In fact, it was opposition to anything Democrat.

When people deliberately don’t ever cut you a break, you don’t try to make friends, and you don’t give them anything. What Obama should have been doing was being a lot more like Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969), who, when he didn’t get his way about something, began to punish whoever was in the way with whatever means the president had at his disposal. People who were on Capitol Hill were afraid to say “no” to President Johnson, because they were afraid of what would happen to them. People today on Capitol Hill are not afraid to say “no” to Barack Obama, and, in fact, it’s kind-of a game to say no. They try to out-do each other with how much they can not cooperate with the Administration.

Maybe it’s the time I spent in Japan, or some of the assholes I went to high school with 30 years ago, but when people are screwing you like that, with the unfriendly obstruction, backstabbing and undercutting, in semi-polite circumstances, you really don’t give those people anything. You do everything you can so that you don’t give over anything they want (in this sort of environment where you are dealing with political negotiations).

I don’t see Barack Obama not withholding anything. Never mind the goofy news cycle story about when the speech to Congress would be (tonight or tomorrow). What was it about the scrapped Clean Air regulations? What is in the jobs plan that is a come-3/4s-of-the-way?

Can’t the man get up there and make a simple threat that he means to carry out?

Back in the 1990’s in New Jersey, it was always entertaining to watch Governor Christie Whitman line-item veto the spending of members of the New Jersey Legislature who had pissed her off. I think Brendan Byrne in the 1970’s was a similar kind of governor. Because New Jersey has the line-item veto, it’s very easy to get back at somebody in the legislature who is pissing in your bushes. And so you’d see certain governors do this. Ronald Reagan (former California governor) was someone who was known to threaten Congress with the veto pen, and few people today seem to remember that Gerald Ford was an incredible user of the veto. Most overridden by his former Congress-mates in what were heavily Democratic houses, but still he drew lines in the sand that were really meant to be taken as legitimate positions—not mere offerings, of a wish list variety, that are subject to constant negotiation.

I think the Obama decline ends when he starts adopting a new approach. At first, it probably won’t be very believable and he’ll have to make it that. I think once certain states begin slipping out of the Blue State electoral column, though, this will begin to make sense.

[Update 9/10/11: Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter makes a similar argument as mine here, on September 9. Nice to see this old-fashioned approach getting the play it deserves in wider media.]

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