Obama on Offense

Back before the shot clock was put in place, college basketball teams would often institute a “four corners offense,” a stalling tactic used when the other team was behind.  They would try to simply control the ball and slow down the game.   Teams could keep the ball for huge chunks of time, essentially running out the clock, or vastly limiting the ability of an opponent to score enough to come back. 

Right now in Washington the GOP is using the equivalent of the “four corners offense” to try to stop the Obama Administration from passing anything of value.   They believe that lack of production from a President who was elected on the promise of change will be far more damaging to the Democrats than charges of obstructionism against Republicans.   Moreover, with Democratic majorities, they can always say “hey, they have the votes, why don’t they pass something?”

Recent Republican victories and trends nation wide that suggest strong GOP gains in November convince them that their strategy is working.  Obama seems unable to deliver, Democrats are getting scared of the next election, and the public still wants change.   If they can’t get it from Obama, they’ll turn to someone else.   Moreover, this is a strategy that is likely to bring the GOP real gains.  Obama will look weak, and they’ll say he lacks leadership or competence.  The Democrats will appear divided and fight with each other, often due to geography and ideology.   The Republicans simply have to say “no,” use the filibuster all the time, and then hope for gains in 2010, and perhaps to defeat Obama in 2012.

The best way to break up a four corners offense is aggressive ball play — go for steals, quick baskets, and getting the other side off guard.   That now seems to be Obama’s best strategy.   So, I’ll now don the hat of a political strategist and point out what I think Obama must do to turn around his political fortunes and assure re-election in 2012 and fewer losses in 2010. 

First, Obama should not tack to the center.   The thing about off year elections is it depends on how motivated the voters are.  Obama’s real threat is not that he’ll lose the center, but that Democratic activists and the people whose energy and effort got Obama to the White House will sit this one out.   Yes a lot of swing voters will go GOP this time.  They probably will do so regardless of what Obama does.   But if the Democrats loss their core supporters, their November loses will intensify.  They’ll feel like their hopes were dashed, Obama didn’t live up to the promise, and it’s not worth donating or being active in this election cycle.  Obama has to show that not only is he still a force for change, but he needs results.   This means Obama has to push through as much as he can, despite claims from pundits and others that the country is sending a different message.

Although this sounds counter-intuitive, the American public is actually far more forgiving of a politician who stands on principle despite political risks than one who appears weak and vacillating.   By September we could hear Democrats starting to say “this is turning around,” and the Republicans will appear to have been weak, unable to stop Obama’s changes.   He still may lose some from the center, at least in 2010, and a lot will depend on job creation.  But if Obama can regain the enthusastic suport of the core supporters who brought him to the White House, he’ll set himself up for a much better 2012.   How?

1.   Pass health care reform through reconciliation.  At this point it simply matters that they pass something significant.   They need a victory.   That will play better in November than caving in and appearing weak (people vote less on issue substance than personality image), and they may bet that by 2012 people will have accepted the new system.  In any event, if nothing passes on health care, Obama will have a major defeat and failure under his belt, and it will be hard to recover from it.   Then he’ll simply have to hope for job growth to be swift.

2.  Obama must spend a lot of time with Democrats explaining the need for action, and how they and the party need Obama to succeed if they’re going to avoid another 1994.   He needs face time with liberals, conservatives, moderates, all in the party who can work together and form a kind of pragmatic coalition that can push through measures either through reconiciliation in the Senate or by finding a few moderate Republicans who aren’t so committed to pure stall.  I don’t like to see the filibuster or reconciliation abused.  But in terms of strategy, if the Republicans are going to abuse the former, the Democrats need to abuse the latter if they are going to turn things around.

3.   He must be assertive.   Whether it’s jobs, “don’t ask don’t tell” (which must disappear quickly to really energize his base), health care, or nuclear energy, he must be out front, selling the policy and casting it in ways that can’t easily be cast as just ‘big government.’   He needs to own the message.

By nature Obama is a pragmatist and cautious.  In Illinois he rarely pushed or bluffed if he didn’t have a battle already won.   But a cautious, conservative team can’t break a four corners offense without taking risks and becoming aggressive.   He still needs Republican support on a lot of issues in the Senate, and he has to build a coalition within his own party that can agree enough to pass major change.   He also can aggressively use the powers of the executive branch to do things like enforce new financial regulations and in essence circumvent Congress. 

Moreover, this strategy will be more effective now then if he had done this from the start.  He has a reputation now as cautious and non-ideological.   Many in the center will respect him for moving quickly and blame the GOP for lack of cooperation now; they may not have done that if he pushed too quickly without giving bipartisanism a chance.

Not, these are not policy recommendations, I’m thinking purely in terms of political strategy.  The Republicans decided to stall and use the filibuster to make it so Obama can accomplish little.  That strategy has proven very successful for the Republicans.   By now, Obama and the Democrats have to realize that their current approach has hurt them politically and they need to change gears.   So after this week’s health summit, if there are no breakthrough agreements from moderate Republicans, expect an active, aggressive White House.  

And, should Obama be successful in his efforts, the Republicans may decide they’re better off trying to influence legislation than just stalling it.    Ultimately, I’d rather see tough compromises than politics as war.  Right now the Republicans have no incentive to change their strategy because they believe it’s working.  Obama’s task now is to turn that perception around.

  1. #1 by 152 on February 21, 2010 - 01:22

    Well put.

  2. #2 by Jeff Lees on February 21, 2010 - 18:49

    I have to agree with you, but I’d hoped Obama and the democrats would have realized this by now. Granted the elections are still 8 months away, and a lot can happen in 8 months. I’m hoping Obama will use this healthcare summit to really begin to push legislation and be more aggressive politically. We will wait and see.

    • #3 by classicliberal2 on February 22, 2010 - 13:48

      “I have to agree with you, but I’d hoped Obama and the democrats would have realized this by now.”

      The should have realized it as soon as the Obama was elected. Wearing my own political strategist hat, I predicted everything that would happen with Obama and his limp “bipartisanship” before he was ever sworn in, and got it right enough that my blog posts may as well have been labeled as prophecy. If some anonymous nobody from nowhere whose only real qualification is that he follows things carefully could see that, why couldn’t Obama and his team? I strongly disagree with Scott on this:

      “…this strategy will be more effective now then if he had done this from the start. He has a reputation now as cautious and non-ideological. Many in the center will respect him for moving quickly and blame the GOP for lack of cooperation now; they may not have done that if he pushed too quickly without giving bipartisanism a chance.”

      Obama came into office with huge approval ratings–probably among the highest ever for a new president. That’s never sustainable, of course, but that’s when his “reputation” was at its most sterling. This past year hasn’t bolstered it. The year has, instead, seen it whittled away. He doesn’t look as if he’s “cautious and non-ideological”; he just looks weak, ineffective, and willing to throw his own base under the bus to get things done, even if the point of doing them has been lost. His year of dicking around didn’t produce a better reputation–it produced personal approval ratings that are now in the low 50 percentile or less, approval of his handling of the major issues of the day that are all 40% or below, and a lot of impressions on the general public that his enemies can effectively characterize in the most negative light.

      Real momentum, in politics, is a thing that’s very difficult to generate. Obama and the Democrats had a tremendous head of steam coming into his inauguration, while Republicans were so crushed, demoralized, and disorganized as a consequence of the Bush horror show and the election that party identification with them hit an historic low. If Obama had, back then, done what Scott suggests now, he could have flattened his enemies, and gotten whatever he wanted. That’s going to be a lot tougher now.

      For better or worse, I still think he can regain some of the old sparks he once generated, but he’s going to have to get off his ass and do it. The “compromise, compromise, compromise, and never demand or receive anything in return” MUST stop.

  3. #4 by Michael Arnis on February 21, 2010 - 19:09


    Good political advice that should lead to better policy as well. Bi-partisan discussions shed sunlight on the best and worst ideas. Usually the cream rises to the top.

    Beginning next week, D’s cannot achieve health care reform without representing the value of spending money. R’s cannot continue to say “no” without supporting our current health care system or articulating their vision. Members of either party cannot promote the wisdom of incremental changes without defending the feasability of coordinating multiple policy implementations.

    Blame, questioning the process, and re-litigating recent history will surely dominate the early-going. With all respect to Coach Dean Smith, the goal of using bi-partisanship, where everyone’s ideas can be aired under the sunlight of the American public, should be to make it harder and harder for anyone at the summit to do anything but play offense.

    I continue to appreciate the timeliness and insights of your posts, Michael

  4. #5 by rickcaird on February 28, 2010 - 01:56

    No Scott, your analyses continue to be poor. They are poor at QandO and they are poor on your own blog. First, you are over estimating the country’s appetite for change. If you go back and look at the whole campaign cycle, you will see Obama ran to the left of Hillary for the primary, but the day, the very day, she dropped her campaign, Obama tacked to the center. In fact, it was not so much a tack as a full fledged rush.

    If Obama had campaigned on a takeover of the health care system, a cap and trade system that would significantly increase cost, and $1.6 trillion dollar deficits, he would never have been elected. And, do not buy this “inherited” BS. Obama volunteered.

    Aggressively attacking the 4 corners offense is good for easy layups for the offense or a plethora of fouls. Ask North Carolina and Michael Jordon. Obama needs to tack to the center because that is how he ran. You, Scott, are advocating a continuing lie. With a significant majority of the country against all three of the health care proposals, forcing anything through is political suicide. The reason Obama’s approval ratings keep falling is not because he hasn’t “forced” health care or cap and trade through, it is because he is showing himself to be entirely different than his campaign. He is losing independents, not the far left. The far left have nowhere else to go. That is not so for the independents.

    Then, Scott, you say “Although this sounds counter-intuitive, the American public is actually far more forgiving of a politician who stands on principle despite political risks than one who appears weak and vacillating”. Let me ask you, did you think Bush was weak and vacillating on Iraq? No? Doesn’t that put the lie to your previous statement?

    It turns out your knowledge of political strategy is on par with your knowledge of basketball. No so good, Scott.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on February 28, 2010 - 02:10

      Well, I disagree. First, Obama’s constantly attacked for being too nice to the Republicans, wanting to go too far for cooperation, and not being ideological enough. The House Democrats are furious with his centrism, Labor Unions have been upset, and a commentator above has often chided me on being too forgiving and accepting of Obama’s attempt to work with the GOP and tack to the Center. Get away from partisan right wing blogs, and few see Obama as being ideological — he’s not.

      Also, he very strongly campaigned on health care reform, and most Americans want it. He has to stick with principle even if it is unpopular at a given moment. I think you see with Obama the same thing you saw with Reagan when his approval numbers tanked to 38% by early 1983 — the economy weighs on a President. Also remember, in midterm elections the importance is an energized base. If Obama doesn’t energize his base, Democratic loses will be larger than otherwise. His base is upset because he’s being too centrist and trying (in their view) too hard to work with Republicans. In fact, Obama’s approvals are driven down in part by the left being dissatisfied, overall he’s still relatively popular.

      Obama seems to me to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan, and I suspect that this moment in time for the GOP is reminiscent of how excited the Democrats were in 1982 when Reagan looked weak. A few good economic numbers, and the political winds shift again.

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