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President in training; party failing

President in training; party failing

Posted: Friday, January 22, 2010 8:01 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

 By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON — In campaigns as in war, after the battle is lost, there is the inevitable finger pointing. Examining the results of the race to fill the remainder of the term of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Democrats have plenty of blame to go around for the stunning upset that has shaken both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. If Congress had passed health care reform in September like President Obama wanted, Republican Scott Brown would have had a hard time winning the seat Kennedy had held for nearly 47 years. And if Democrat Martha Coakley had been a more diligent and charismatic candidate, she might have weathered the populist campaign mounted by the little known Brown. The political landscape is littered with “what ifs,” but the hard truth is that in campaigns, as in war, responsibility rests with the general, who in this case is Obama. If he had kept his focus with the American people, even a lackluster candidate like Coakley should have been able to cross the finish line. There are many parochial excuses to explain what happened in Massachusetts, but the overarching perception of Obama as a president who has not lived up to the promise he inspired set the stage for Coakley’s defeat. For the last year, Obama has behaved more like a member of the Senate, kowtowing to congressional leaders instead of setting the agenda and letting them accommodate him as president. We should be debating a health care plan that has his stamp instead of trying to justify concessions made to individual senators in an effort to cobble together a 60-vote super-majority to avoid a Republican filibuster. With the loss of the Kennedy seat, the Demo-crats are now liberated from the myth that 60 votes are essential to getting around a wall of Republican opposition. Obama has spent the last several months making deals to keep Democrats together, an unseemly use of his time that made him look like just another Washington politician trying to satisfy various special pleaders. President Bush governed without 60 votes; so can Obama if he uses a little muscle. Obama is an exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful man, and he will not spare himself in assessing his party’s loss. The two most obvious lessons are these: There has to be direct leadership from the White House. Turning over major components of his agenda to Congress was a mistake. All the public sees is partisan bickering and on health care reform, no results. If Obama is to rejuvenate his presidency, he must take back the reins of leadership from the Congress. The second lesson for Obama has to do with timing. The voters in Massachusetts rebelled because they did not see any benefits for themselves from the change that Obama’s election promised. It’s said that patience is a virtue, but not in the presidency. Wall Street rebounded; the banks are going like gangbusters handing out fat bonuses to executives, but the folks on Main Street are supposed to patiently wait their turn until sometime in the uncertain future when unemployment might begin to come down. That’s not a winning formula for any politician who has to face the voters. Almost every president goes through on-the-job training, and those who’ve had the roughest time in their first year, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have gone on to win landslide reelections. John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs, a disastrous meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and a House Rules committee stacked with conservatives who blocked his legislation, yet he endured to be a great president even in the limited time he served. Obama is just getting started. Published in The Messenger 1.22.10

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