The Real Cost of Obama’s Unwillingness to Fight

We all know by now that President Obama did not do well at last Wednesday’s debate. Beyond that general understanding though, I think most people fail to understand why it was so bad. Most of the analysis focuses on Obama being “lackluster,” “looking tired,” and being “disengaged.” These criticisms, while certainly valid, I think miss the more significant criticism of Obama’s performance and why the damage done by President Obama during this “debate” may be irreparable between now and Election Day.

There are certain ideals liberals and Democrats hold sacred. For example, they believe the government can play a critical role in improving the lives of each American and can, when managed properly, bring about positive change to our society in ways no individual or corporation can. They believe a duty is owed to the least among us. Democrats and liberals also hold sacred the accomplishments of their predecessors, such as: Social Security; civil rights; environmental protection; and labor laws.

On Wednesday night Mr. Romney unleashed a seemingly endless stream of dishonest attacks on Democratic ideals and accomplishments. While not enjoyable to sit through, Democrats understand this is what modern Republicans do.

The real pain on Wednesday night came from the other side of the stage—from President Obama. Here is the Democrat liberals worked tirelessly to put into office in 2008 by knocking on doors, throwing house parties, encouraging families and friends to vote, and donating their hard-earned money. They thought they had helped elect a man who would speak up for them and their ideals, and fight for those ideals. Unfortunately, President Obama made clear early into his administration that he would not fight for liberal or Democratic ideals (in perhaps the best op-ed written this year, Bob Herbert, formerly of the New York Times, described it as Obama’s “chronic unwillingness to fight”). At the very least, however, liberals at least took solace in knowing Obama could eloquently speak for them, even if those speeches rarely took form in any type of legislation or executive order. During the debate though, President Obama revealed he can no longer even be relied upon to be a mouthpiece for Democratic ideals. He stood on that stage for 90 minutes while everything Democrats and liberals stand for was desecrated and lied about, and President Obama stood idly by.

There are any number of ways President Obama could have more effectively approached the debate. I believe he could have won the debate if he had at any moment just looked over at Gov. Romney and said, “Is there anything you wouldn’t say to become president?”

Democrats deserve a person who is willing to explain and fight for their ideals. Every suspicion held by people like me that Obama is not a liberal, not a fighter, and not passionate about the issues I am passionate about was confirmed by this debate performance.

Two big problems arise from President Obama’s weak and pathetic “debate” performance. First, this debate was watched by 60 million people, many of whom are not regularly engaged in the political process in any meaningful way. For many people, this was the Democrats’ one chance to explain why President Obama should be reelected and why Democrats in general hold a more effective, thoughtful, and moral vision for America. That opportunity was squandered. As the leader of the Democratic Party, Obama made Democrats look out of touch and incoherent.

The second problem created by Obama’s pathetic showing on Wednesday night is what he did to his base. In the days leading up to the debate, I received several invitations from my liberal friends and colleagues to attend a “debate-watching party.” These people got together to unify behind their leader and be inspired. What they instead received was punch in the gut. Obama essentially told these people, “I know you are giving up your weekends and evenings to work for my reelection, but don’t expect the same kind of commitment from me. Keep working your asses off and I’ll just take it easy.” And if that wasn’t enough, Obama added for good measure, “And all those things you care about so deeply, don’t expect me to fight for them or defend them. I don’t have to. Your liberal vote has nowhere else to go.”

We are now left with an enthusiasm gap between Democratic voters and Republican voters. Democrats are just not very excited about this election, and after watching Obama’s disappointing presidency culminate into an astonishingly disappointing debate performance, is there any wonder why this gap exists? This enthusiasm gap is especially revealing when you consider the natural talents of Obama and Romney. To put it another way, how bad does President Obama have to be that a boring version of Al Gore is getting people more excited than the once dynamic and charismatic Obama? This enthusiasm gap poses a very real challenge to Democrats’ chances of winning in November up and down the ballot.

Even if Obama wins in November, his refusal to run a courageous campaign that clearly outlines what Democrats stand for will very likely have electoral consequences. Most notably, Democrats are in a great position to retain control of the U.S. Senate, and in the process, elect some great, new senators (e.g., Tammy Baldwin–WI; Elizabeth Warren–MA). We also have a decent chance of retaking the House. If Democrats could accomplish these things, there is reason for real hope (particularly if Harry Reid changes the Senate’s filibuster rules as discussed in my last post). However, these things are exponentially more difficult so long as we have the millstone around our Democratic necks by the name of President Obama.

Obama’s willingness to abandon his base and his principles is in stark contrast to President George W. Bush’s strategy in 2004. You may recall Karl Rove did not make it his goal in 2004 to make President Bush likeable to everyone (which would probably have made him unlikeable to nearly all). Rather, Rove made it his goal to get Bush’s base excited and make sure they turned out to vote in big numbers (most notably by ginning up anti-gay marriage initiatives in the states). Obama has no appreciation for Rove’s winning strategy, and is instead embracing the 2000 Al Gore model of electoral strategy (offend no one and don’t worry about the base).

President Obama’s legislative and rhetorical cowardice is inexcusable. Not only has it made the first four years of Obama’s presidency a tremendous disappointment, it may actually result in an extremist Republican Party retaking the White House and gaining even more power in the states, the majority of which Republicans already control. That would be unforgivable. If this plays out, I would hope history judges President Obama as it judges President James Buchanan—a man so lacking in courage and paralyzed by fear that he did virtually nothing as his country fell apart.

– Dylan


5 Responses to “The Real Cost of Obama’s Unwillingness to Fight”

  1. I counted a lot of “disappointing” and “disappointed”s in there. There are days I feel like that too.

    But I think a most honest appraisal of Obama is to call him a “relentless centrist.” From the individual mandate to a mixed bag on environmental issues to a nuanced approach to habeas corpus to the fight over medical marijuana in California… outside of some of the 2009 legislation, he’s a moderate’s moderate.

    Still, for all his faults, I have to vote for Obama in November because of the Supreme Court and federal judge appointments. The alternative is too destructive to the country and completely counter to my political ideals.

    (Yes, I’m aware that’s a fancy way of saying “lesser of two evils.”)

  2. I agree with John F. Yes, of course, Obama has been a disappointment — and not just in that debate. But so was Bill Clinton, and so was Jimmy Carter, and so was Lyndon Johnson, and so was JFK — all for different reasons, no doubt, but for very real ones. Judicial appointments are my most important criterion, and even there, Obama has been a disappointment — instead of seeding the courts with 40-something liberals, as Bush did with 40-something right-wingers, Obama has appointed too many white men in their 50s. Good judges, but they don’t create a bench from which future Supreme Court justices can be drawn. Nevertheless, the country can’t afford another Alito or Thomas or Scalia on the Supreme Court. So I will hold my nose and vote for Obama.

  3. John & Charlie – Thank you for the comments. I agree with both. I would hope that no one would read my article as endorsement for Romney or an encouragement to stay home. I will still vote for Obama, but it will be with my great consternation.

    It is possible that Obama is a centrist, but he strikes me more as a dispassionate pragmatist most interested in winning a second term than solving any of our problems.

    I don’t believe centrism is necessarily bad. I think there are moderate ways to solve our problems, but Obama hasn’t presented them. Obama is only a moderate if moderation means compromising between already-moderate Democratic proposals (e.g. Dodd-Frank) and insane, non-sensical solutions from Republicans (e.g. do nothing).

    – Dylan

  4. I’d add that a semi-hidden cost of Obama’s nonviolent approach is that Republicans and their donors are re-energized. Ten days ago the right was writing an obituary for Romney’s campaign. They money was drying up, according to some. The infighting was reaching a crescendo.
    Now, not so much. Opportunity missed.

  5. After watching this ungodly long election unfold and weighing all of the options, I’ve decided I’m going to vote for Jill Stein. I’m still crossing my fingers for the day 3rd party candidates are allowed on the presidential debate stage.

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