DEAR MR. PRESIDENT: IT'S NOT EITHER/OR
Does President Obama think you either govern or please the people who voted for you -- that if you're doing one, you can't possibly do the other?
That's certainly the impression I get from one of his answers in his Rolling Stone interview:
...What is true, and this is part of what can frustrate folks, is that over the past 20 months, we made a series of decisions that were focused on governance, and sometimes there was a conflict between governance and politics. So there were some areas where we could have picked a fight with Republicans that might have gotten our base feeling good, but would have resulted in us not getting legislation done.
I could have had a knock-down, drag-out fight on the public option that might have energized you and The Huffington Post, and we would not have health care legislation now. I could have taken certain positions on aspects of the financial regulatory bill, where we got 90 percent of what we set out to get, and I could have held out for that last 10 percent, and we wouldn't have a bill. You've got to make a set of decisions in terms of "What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to just keep everybody ginned up for the next election, or at some point do you try to win elections because you're actually trying to govern?" I made a decision early on in my presidency that if I had an opportunity to do things that would make a difference for years to come, I'm going to go ahead and take it.
I just made the announcement about Elizabeth Warren setting up our Consumer Finance Protection Bureau out in the Rose Garden, right before you came in. Here's an agency that has the potential to save consumers billions of dollars over the next 20 to 30 years — simple stuff like making sure that folks don't jack up your credit cards without you knowing about it, making sure that mortgage companies don't steer you to higher-rate mortgages because they're getting a kickback, making sure that payday loans aren't preying on poor people in ways that these folks don't understand. And you know what? That's what we say we stand for as progressives. If we can't take pleasure and satisfaction in concretely helping middle-class families and working-class families save money, get a college education, get health care -- if that's not what we're about, then we shouldn't be in the business of politics. Then we're no better than the other side, because all we're thinking about is whether or not we're in power.
I get the feeling that he thinks that if he ever "pick[s] a fight with Republicans that might [get his] base feeling good," then, by definition, he's failing to govern properly. I get the feeling that he thinks that if you're ever engaged in a "knock-down, drag-out fight" that energizes your base, then you have to be governing poorly. I get the feeling that he thinks that, if the base is ever pumped up and it's not campaign season, then he's a lousy captain of the ship of state, because if you ever care about that stuff out of season, you're no better than the Republicans, who only think about "whether or not [they're] in power."
It literally seems not to occur to him that inspiring the people who voted for you (and people who could conceivably vote for you in the future) is an essential part of how you get things done in any country that has elections. He seems to put outreach and governing in watertight compartments -- campaigning I do in these months and these years, and all the rest of the time I do governance. If you want inspiration in the non-campaign months, well, sorry, you'll have to wait -- or you'll have to try to get pumped up and inspired by all the awesome governance going on.
I'm not going to go all Maureen Dowd on you and toss out the name Spock -- I don't think Obama takes this approach out of lack of human feelings. And I'm not going to go wingnut on you and say he's being "elitist." I think he just associates campaigning with the partisan squabbling he detests -- it's tolerable if it's confined to campaign seasons, but it's toxic otherwise.
But you can rally the populace without being poisonously divisive to the nation. In fact, you may have to in order to consolidate the shift in attitudes that got you elected and turn it into a shift in favor of the policy positions you ran on. FDR didn't turn up his nose at building popular support for the New Deal -- and the belief in the rightness of his approach ultimately became nonpartisan. Reagan similarly rallied the nation in favor of tax cuts and skepticism about government. Why can't Obama see that that's how ideas on governance gain acceptance? Why can't he see that you can't separate appeals to the public from governing?