The superfluous president
Following last Tuesday’s disastrous election — disastrous for unions that is — the airwaves and Internet have been filled with attempts to find the meaning of what Wisconsin did and how it may have damaged Mr. Obama. Peggy Noonan, in her weekend column in The Wall Street Journal, fingered what was most damaging to President Obama.
“President Obama’s problem now isn’t what Wisconsin did, it’s how he looks each day — careening around, always in flight, a superfluous figure. No one even looks to him for leadership now. He doesn’t go to Wisconsin, where the fight is. He goes to Sarah Jessica Parker’s place, where the money is.”
Mr. Obama has set a record for spending his time where the money is rather than working the Congress to get his recent jobs bill enacted. Lyndon Johnson worked the phones constantly, which enabled him to assemble the coalition that passed the landmark civil rights legislation and the Great Society programs that were hallmarks of his administration. Ronald Reagan met with congressional leaders weekly when he wasn’t traveling in foreign precincts.
In 1986 the Reagan-Bradley tax reform worked because President Reagan worked hand-in-hand with Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley and other congressional leaders to devise a new tax policy that was able to satisfy left and right. Tax reform is a really big idea. It’s complicated by the need of both right and left to surrender some of their most deeply held beliefs. Republicans had to surrender to a tax policy that allowed for additional revenue while Democrats had to agree to cutbacks in some of their cherished domestic programs.
Success in 1986 was achieved because of the involvement of a serious Democratic legislator and an activist Republican president. Mr. Obama’s bow to bipartisan legislative drafting during the debate on healthcare reform was to bring a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers together, turn on the TV cameras and then proceed to lambaste the Republicans for expressing divergent views. You remember the meeting: Mr. Obama stood and lectured the Republican delegation whose demeanor was best suited for a hostage tape.
Involvement in actual governing doesn’t seem to interest our president. Speeches to college assemblies, fundraisers held at the homes of the upper strata of the one percent and an occasional press conference occupy his time.
“Why,” writes Mark Steyn, “in a typical week, you’ll find him at a fundraiser at George Clooney’s home in Los Angeles with Barbara Streisand and Salma Hayek. These are people who are in touch with the needs of ordinary Americans because they have played ordinary Americans in several of their movies. And then four days later the president was in New York for a fundraiser hosted by Ricky Martin.”
Mr. Obama may not only be a superfluous president, he might end up as a superfluous party leader. Wisconsin emphasized that, if nothing else, the unions are driving a wedge between Democrats, and the party is in need of a bit of leadership.
Unions are one segment of the progressive coalition. Another segment values public services — public safety, libraries, parks, education, support for the homeless, welfare, aid to single mothers and such. “They,” according to Michael Gerson writing in the Washington Post, “are joined by civic-minded independents and non-libertarian conservatives. These voters have seen the commitments made to public-service unions devouring state and local budgets, leaving little room for any initiatives in the public good.” (See City of Detroit for prime example.)
The decision in Wisconsin was based as much on voter’s realization that the ever-escalating cost of public salaries, pensions and lifetime health care is threatening education and other public services. If the Democratic Party ignores this fact, it is heading for disaster.
The same drama is playing out in California but it is not just a Democrat vs. Republican fight. Even in liberal California, according to Gerson, “voters are reluctant to raise tax revenues which are then transferred directly to the retirement benefits of a middle-class interest group.” The very liberal enclave of San Jose, Calif., has seen the cost of its retirement fund triple in just 12 years and last Tuesday voters approved a measure to cut retirement benefits for city workers rather than raise taxes or cut services. San Diego voters did likewise.
The Democratic-dominated state legislature in California has so far opted to cut services to the poor while proposing a massive tax increase on the newly defined wealthy. All necessary, of course, if the state is to continue to afford the current salary and retirement structure of public employees. This is a microcosm of the coming split in the Democratic Party, which threatens to get wider and wider.
Mr. Obama has proposed a new stimulus package, ostensibly to put more teachers in the classroom and more policemen on the streets. Truth be told, he wants to give the blue states enough money to support services at current levels and still support the current level of public union compensation.
California and the Democratic Party are headed for decision time. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, as quoted by Gerson, warned, “A lot of things are going to happen dramatically over the next couple of years, and then people will listen. If you close down all the parks and all the libraries, this is political dynamite.”
Once upon a time, then-President Clinton faced the press and felt compelled to say, “I’m not irrelevant.” Mr. Clinton then went out and proved he wasn’t. If Mr. Obama isn’t careful he may sometime feel compelled to say, “I’m not superfluous.” Except right now, he is.