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Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Enthusiasm Gap and Its Consequences

On election night, I found myself at the only Republican event in Chicago. Even at the swanky loop hotel, there was an Obama party downstairs. Walking to the train station through the city, the scene reminded me of some of the Chicago Bulls celebrations after one of their six championships. Cars were honking, people were celebrating, and there was a total sense of jubilation. Now, maybe Chicago isn't the best city to gauge the enthusiasm for President Obama on election night since after all Chicago is his home city. Still, I'd never seen a scene following a political election like the one I witnessed that night. I remember looking into the crowd of people all celebrating his election and wondering if any of the folks in that crowd knew any of the policies that President Obama was going to try and implement.

The scene was similar though in an opposite way on April 15th. That's when nearly 100 cities hosted nearly 1 million people to protest the policies of the government and President Obama specifically. By then, the protesters had built up a plethora of passion against the stimulus, cap and trade, and the still yet to be unveiled health care plan. Just as millions celebrated with passion on November 4th, 2008 the election of President Obama, so too did millions passionately protest the POLICIES of President Obama (along with much of the government) on April 15th, 2009.

One of the peculiarities of President Obama has always been that there is a lot more passionate followers of the man himself than of his policies. In fact, his policies are rather stale tax and spend policies reminiscent of Jimmy Carter and LBJ. There was always a gap between the passion for the man himself and the policies he supported. Either people were going to get more passionate about big government liberalism or they were going to get less passionate about President Obama. So far, it's the latter. This has all sorts of consequences. The Nation sums up the problem.

Since Obama took office, there have been very few public expressions of discontent. We've heard very little about everyday Americans--workers facing layoffs and the loss of health insurance, jobless Americans exhausting their unemployment insurance, renters facing eviction, homeowners facing foreclosures, farmers losing their farms, high school students facing cuts in school programs and college students facing rising tuition--mobilizing to demand immediate action to end their hardship and suffering.

During the Obama era so far, union, community, environmental and other liberal activists have carefully calibrated their efforts on behalf of legislation. They've engaged in lots of lobbying and meetings with members of Congress. E-mails to politicians have been fast and furious. Unions and other groups are purchasing TV and radio ads to push centrist Democrats to support healthcare reform. There are occasional rallies and public forums to show support for the president's agenda. Through Organizing for America, the lobby group created to sustain the momentum generated by millions of campaign volunteers, Obama has encouraged liberal bloggers and supporters to rally support for White House initiatives. This week, in response to the right-wing mob attacks on Democratic legislators, Obama wrote to the 13 million people on his OFA e-mail list and asked them to commit to attend at least one event this month to show support for his healthcare plan.

These polite activities are necessary, but they don't create a sense of urgency or crisis. With some exceptions, they don't generate TV stories and newspaper headlines. They don't put pressure on Congressional fence-sitters to fear a groundswell of negative publicity or a threat to their re-election chances. They are not sufficient to balance the influence of corporate campaign contributions. As a result, many of Obama's initiatives face a stalemate.

Even most of President Obama's most strident defenders often cite the need for "health care reform", "energy reform", and "education" reform. They rarely cite his own plans as the needed reform. Here's how Tom Friedman "supported" cap and trade.

There is much in the House cap-and-trade energy bill that just passed that I absolutely hate. It is too weak in key areas and way too complicated in others. A simple, straightforward carbon tax would have made much more sense than this Rube Goldberg contraption. It is pathetic that we couldn’t do better. It is appalling that so much had to be given away to polluters. It stinks. It’s a mess. I detest it.

Keep in mind that Friedman went on to say that the bill should pass. That's a supporter of a piece of Obama legislation.

So, we have the rowdy town hall debates in which opponents aren't only opposing them passionately. Democrats are stunned that so many people are not only displaying their disagreement but passionately displaying their disgust. They must be plants, "astro turfers", and organized by powerful forces. The reality is that the protestors are simply the latest manifestation of the phenomenon of the Obama presidency. The President is supported much more passionately than his policies. His policies, however, are opposed with the same kind of passion that I witnessed on election night.

The Nation demands a call to arms. It demands that liberals organize and protest in favor of Obama's health care policy. The Nation misses the point. If a policy is supported passionately, organization takes care of itself. By the same token, if a policy is opposed passionately, organization similarly takes care of itself. The problem for the Obama administration is that there is simply no passionate support for any of his policies. Worse yet, there's plenty of passionate opposition to all his policies. There's simply no way to pass any legislation with this dynamic. That's what is being played out in the town hall events and this won't be the last time that the enthusiasm gap surfaces.


Anonymous said...

Here's why I think you're wrong, Mike. Forgive me for saying so, but the passionate outbursts we saw in favor of the president made me think of a people who had freed themselves from a dictator.

Obama's personal popularity is high simply because he's not Bush. Which might not sound like much, but people happy to be free of Bush are also happy TO BE FREE OF HIS SUPPORTERS.

In short, when people say they approve of Barack Obama, they are saying they *disapprove* of people like Mike Volpe and the leaders they wound find acceptable.

mike volpe said...

Yeah, Bush was out either way. No, the passionate outbursts were in response to his message of hope and change. Of course, hope and change then becomes a policy and the specific policy is being rejected.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but hope and change *from what*? Charles Schumer once said that he felt Obama's election marked "The End of the Reagan Era."

Such an idea implies that Obama is not just different from the Conservatives he succeeded, but different in a way that Clinton was not. After all, Clinton's election was due primarily to Perot splitting the economic and social conservative vote. Obama's election was due primarily to increased turnout among younger voters and minorities. In other words, liberals. I'm sure some conservatives also stayed home, but why they would refuse to vote for McCain for being insufficiently conservative when by their own admission the alternative was a socialist/communist/muslim/foreinger/radical/terrorist sympathizer is beyond me.

mike volpe said...

I am not going to pretend to know what is in someone's head but I think this was a cult of personality. Period. People got excited because he excited them. It had a lot less to do with all of the nonsense you are talking about and a lot more about his cult of personality. Those dynamics almost always end up badly.