Reagan's Lesson: "Patience" In a President's First Year Is Political Suicide

by: David Sirota

Thu Oct 22, 2009 at 09:15

When the New York Times' John Harwood reported that a top Obama adviser told him that progressives "need to take off the pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult," it was a rejoinder that expressed far more than Village disdain for grassroots pressure and activism. It represented a deeper assertion, pervasive in political circles,  that says we all must be patient with the Obama White House because we're only 10 months into the new administration. "Governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult" is a euphemism for both "stop pushing so hard," "don't expect so much change so fast," "he's trying to do too much too fast" and every other similar dollop of conventional wisdom.

In one sense, there's nothing surprising about this coming from the Village. Beltway journalists, pundits and politicians are inclined to despise anything even vaguely grassroots in nature, because anything grassroots in nature fundamentally challenges their authority and power. But in another sense, it's shocking that the same Beltway culture that so consistently venerates the political vehemence, aggressiveness and legacy of Ronald Reagan would manufacture a conventional wisdom assuming that the first year of a president's first term is the time for patience.

Here's a passage from Gil Troy's Reagan biography, "Morning In America" that explains how most of the major legislative initiatives that have been come to be called the Reagan Revolution happened in 1981:

That summer of 1981, Reaganism peaked. The Reagan legislative steamroller continued to flatten the Democratic opposition in the Congress with the passage of Kemp-Roth tax cuts on the heels of the Stockman-Weinberger mix of social program cuts and defense increases...[Reagan] had solodified his image as a no-nonsense leader determined to repudiate his predecessors' weaknesses...

By September, however, the Democrats counterattacked...his rivals blamed him for the growing recession. Much of the next seven and a quarter years would be spent scrambling on the scrimmage line Reagan and his men had initially reached with breakneck speed. If the first half-year of the Reagan era could be considered to be a conservative blitzkreig, politically the next seven and a half years became trench warfare. Reagan failed to advance his revolution much further...From refreshing, cleansing, sometimes inspiriing, sometimes terrifying promises of revolution in 1981 would emerge a frustrating, polarizing, enervating legislative gridlock.

Recall that Reagan was elected in 1980 by a smaller percentage than Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and therefore Reagan had a much smaller legislative mandate than Obama. Recall, too, that while Obama came into office with polls giving him high marks and voters giving him huge majorities in both houses of Congress, Reagan came into office with polls showing him one of the most unpopular presidents entering office, with Republicans controlling only one house of Congress (the Senate), and only by a very narrow majority (53 votes).

The dichotomy is obvious: The Reagan administration, facing huge political obstacles, powered through the bulk of the Reagan Revolution's legislative agenda in his first year in office; The Obama administration, with far fewer political obstacles, has spent the first year slow-walking things like Wall Street reform and climate change, watering down health care reform, and telling the public to be patient (this is particularly strange, considering President Obama made sure to let us all know how much he wanted to emulate the transformativeness of Reagan).

To be sure, Reagan was pushing an agenda backed by Big Money, and Obama promised to push an agenda that would challenge Big Money - so the former's charge was easier than the latter's. Additionally, the current Obama dynamic could still change. We still have a few months to go before that first year runs out. However, that "first year" idea is no artificial construction - as Troy notes in his book, the reason history has seen presidents from FDR to Reagan to George W. Bush pass such large portions of their agenda in the first year is because that is when presidents are most politically powerful. They have election mandates behind them and they have the chance to change the paradigms of their predecessors...and the longer they wait, the more that "Big Mo" declines, the more the opposition is emboldened and the harder it is to pass anything.

So the next time you hear a pundit or a White House aide or a run-of-the-mill Obama sycophant tell everyone to be "patient" and stop pressuring the president to move the progressive agenda forward, remember Ronald Reagan. "Patience" today ignores the fact that if history is any guide, this moment will likely be the only opportunity in the near future to create transformative change. In that sense, "patience" now is the opposite of pragmatism - it is political suicide.

David Sirota :: Reagan's Lesson: "Patience" In a President's First Year Is Political Suicide

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Obama's clock started ticking... (4.00 / 5)
... when he whipped for TARP.

So, the year's up now.  

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

While it is accurate to say that Reagan had a majoirty in only one house (4.00 / 1)
It should be stated again that the Dixiecrats still hadn't bolted.  The Democratic caucus had plenty of people along the lines of Phil Gramm back then, and thanks to a century of Southern one-party rule, they pretty much all had seniority.  

agreed (4.00 / 1)
Although the Democrats officially controlled the house, there were enough "boll weevils" (dlc fake Dems) to give effective control to the rape-public-cans. This was the major reason for Reagan's early success. The next election corrected this problem and political gridlock prevented much further damage to the nation.

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR

[ Parent ]
There is a difference (4.00 / 3)
between doing what Reagan did, which was tearing things down as fast as possible before people realized the implications, and what Obama is trying, which requires building or improving durable programs for health care, energy, and education. It is harder and slower to start on a constructive project that it is to tear something down.

Reagan got people angry and got them to go along with his plan to destroy many of the functions of goverment. Impulsiveness can be destructive, but impulsiveness cannot be constructive. Obama has to get people to calm down enough to get over their fear of any new idea, as opposed to encouraging people to act on their fears, which is what Reagan did.

ec=-8.50 soc=-8.41   (3,967 Watts)

I Disagree, Slightly (4.00 / 3)
You're right that it takes time to build things. But it also is true that Obama could have come into office with a regulation reform agenda for the financial industry to rein them in. Basically do a Reagan and rally the public to pressure Congress to enact sensible reform.

That did not happen. Instead, we learn that the White House was afraid to tip the apple cart by putting undue burdens on the financial industry. Despite dozens of examples from around the world about how to handle this sort of financial crisis, they did nothing substantive to fix the core problems with our economy and the financial industry. They opted for a tweaked up status quo.

It argues that either Obama is uninterested in needed radical change to right the excesses of Reaganism, or he is naive.

I also wonder if the long term changes you speak of, that we all want, would happen without our pressure. My guess is no, that the White House is uninterested in fundamental progressive change. They would happily settle for a return to the go go 1990s with NAFTA and all the rest.

[ Parent ]
And Obama isn't Reagan (4.00 / 2)
Despite his packaging in the election, Obama turns out to be a conservative politician, center-right on most issues. Unlike Reagan, Obama is not willing to use the grassroots to effect change the way Reagan did.

The acid test was Obama's vote in July 2008 to immunize telecoms. Despite his Harvard law degree, his expertise in constitutional law, and the basic issue of political fairness (you don't pardon people until you know exactly what they did), Obama voted the conservative line. I held my nose and voted for Obama but did not expect much. Other than a need for us to push hard for change for many years with no help from the White House.

While I hated and still hate Reagan and all he stood for, he is a very instructive model. In terms of political skills and process, he did many things right. Too bad his policies were and are so destructive and unfair.

Final point, as long as the economy is screwed, Obama and progressives still have an opportunity for radical change. That opportunity is open for as long as we have 10% plus total unemployment (among whites, of course, unemployment among minorities probably is much higher). The average person is still pissed off and/or scared about losing their jobs, health care, and the rest.

Yes (4.00 / 1)
I think it's clear by now that the agenda Obama has "presided over" (it would be absurd to say he ever really pushed for anything) is his real agenda.

So the only question is whether it's a better political tactic for progressives to still pretend he's progressive but timid and call for boldness, or whether it's better to speak the truth.

[ Parent ]
He pushed -- hard -- for the giveaways to the banksters... (4.00 / 1)
...and for escalation in AfPak, among other things.

[ Parent ]
Calls for patience (4.00 / 5)
often hide the incompetence of his staff and some in the senate.  Remember, they wanted the health refrom bill on his desk by August.  It was on track, except for Baucus and blue dogs.  By allowing the delay, further reforms (EFCA and cap and trade) are pushed into an election year.

Good post, David.

"Patience" was never indicated (4.00 / 3)
if they had ever really wanted to pursue an anti-racket agenda.

With the Republicans and banks in a state of utter exhaustion, complete disarray, gaping wounds, political rejection, was the perfect time for the shock doctrine in reverse.

I guess there's not much point in activists obsessing on that now, except to the extent of refuting the counterhistorical and counterfactual talking point the post debunked.

And to think: "Don't let a crisis go to waste" was one of their core lies. That's certainly audacious, intentionally arousing the very expectations you intend to dash.

The Great Betrayal (4.00 / 1)
That's how it feels to me.  When I heard Obama on the campaign trail last fall talk about human rights, gay rights, the rule of law, affordable health care, helping homeowners, high-speed rail service, wind farms in the southwest, and the like, I thought I was hearing a man of courage, a man of vision.  Then he got elected and surrounded himself with the likes of Bob Gates and Larry Summers.  And I began to see how completely I had been fooled.  That's a hard pill to swallow.  And a lot of progressives haven't swallowed it yet.  Witness his reception at the Human Rights Campaign dinner the other week.  But when he winds up doing nothing in Maine, escalating in Afghanistan, and trying to pass a health care bill without a public option, perhaps even his "true believers" will decide to take the red pill.  

Major political interests: torture; human rights; stopping war with Iran.

bwedin, i hope you've learned a lesson (4.00 / 2)
there were plenty of voices out there, during the campaign, who were examining Obama's proposals in detail, reviewing his legislative record, and researching his past and current advisor, instead of hanging on every word of every speech he made on the campaign trail. some of those voices were even not supportive of HRC, or McCain, or third party candidates- we were democratic voters worried about a  conservative politician being presented in the mainstream press as "liberal."

very little obama has done so far has surprised me, he's more or less doing what his record suggested he would do. he's never been truly liberal, and David is correct: calls to tone down the pressure progressives place upon him are disingenuous and for the purpose giving cover to conservatives and those who can't or won't do what they were elected to do.

this is a very good post David.  

[ Parent ]
What's Surprised Me (4.00 / 2)
has been his rigidity.  I was one who never endorsed anyone, and took a lot of heat for some of the posts I wrote criticizing Obama, but my reading of his record was more mixed than yours.

He really seemed like someone who was attracted to different figures and ideas, without much thought to over-all consistency.  So there were the progressive stances mentioned above, as well as numerous counter-instances, from Donnie McClurkin to FISA.  This left me with the impression that he was someone who tried to please too many people, and didn't give enough thought to policy coherence.

Well, I guess that was true in a way, since the neoloiberal policy he embraces is incoherent.  But he's a lot more rigidly wedded to it than it seemed during the campaign--and the financial collapse has been the primary lens for bringing this into focus.

By now, I think it's pretty obvious that he's largely oblivious to the failure of his policies.  His concerns are so narrow that what are obvious failures look like successes to him.  The only thing that will bring about change is solid oppositon on the left--such as House progressives putting their foot down on the public option.  We need a whole lot more of that in order to start shifting the momentum in Verrailles to catch up with America.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
he's a true believer, not a cynic (4.00 / 2)
He is rigidly wedded to an ideal of conflict-free bipartisan comity that has never existed and will never exist.

I actually wish he were more of a cynic, someone who doesn't buy the bullshit he sells to others. A cynic would, when confronted with evidence of a real problem, would make at least a half-hearted attempt to solve it, if only out of political necessity. He is not prevented by his ideology from doing so.

But of course, if Obama had been a cynic, he'd never have gotten elected. Not after Bush.

Obama's a true believer. He has absolute faith in "bipartisanship". When confronted with evidence of a problem he rejects the evidence because it conflicts with his deeply-held belief.

Since he is absolutely sincere in his belief, he inspired the kind of adulation that religious leaders throughout time have inspired in their followers. And that's a problem, because like their leader, the true followers of Obama will dismiss any evidence that impinges on their belief. You cannot rationally argue policy with them. Not everyone who supported Obama is like that, by any means. But there is a significant core of people who do feel like that.

Someday someone will write the history of how the Obama campaign systematically incorporated quasi-religious elements such as this:

Although I had no part in the messaging of the campaign myself, I watched with great appreciation how the campaign tapped into the emotions of it's volunteers. They took a demoralized activist base beaten down by 8 years of quasi-fascist rule and lifted us up with three simple words and one simple concept - "Respect, empower, and include" and "CHANGE."

Day after day, they used these concepts, ritualized them, repeated them, made them into a mantra. They created the emotional truth around which the campaign drew it's power.

To this day I still tear up when I remember how, at the end of Camp Obama, our facilitator told everyone in the room to close their eyes and envision Obama and his family on January 20 - to envision Michelle and her girls as they stood to watch their father take the oath of office. And I can tell you, when I was there on the Mall and watched it happen for real, it was all I could do not to break down.

and this:

Some of the followers of Barack Obama during the campaign reminded me of the Christian right, and he used evangelical language to appeal to them, with New Age themes like: "We are the ones we've been waiting for" -- which is a phrase introduced originally by Maria Shriver. It's a Hopi end times prophecy actually. This became a theme of his campaign.  I saw his campaign as an illusion that brought together people from all different backgrounds, and actually did create a hopeful vehicle for change.

and this, and speculate on how those elements reflected the psychological makeup of the candidate himself. But the time for such cool-headed analysis is not now.

[ Parent ]
By It's Very Nature (4.00 / 1)
this sort of campaign could serve an almost limitless number of actual agendas--or none at all--and readily lent itself to having everyone read their own agenda into it, with the utmost in plausible deniability. "We never said that!"

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
worship of the néant (4.00 / 1)
of the nullity, of the Nothing, whatever you want to call it.

Obama is a signifier without a signified. A mask without a man underneath.

We conjured him up out of our collective delusion, our need to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we're nice guys deep down, that we don't have to really change anything but the label on what we do. We summoned him, and he came.

If everyone in the world were to simultaneously close their eyes, he would cease to exist.

Yes, I am joking. But as Freud said, every joke reveals a truth that could not be expressed straightforwardly.

Just as Obama was joking about being Superman:

It was a joke, and everyone laughed. But what truth did it express about how Obama was perceived, about the kinds of hopes and expectations that people placed in him?

[ Parent ]
On being "fooled" and feeling "betrayed" (4.00 / 4)
I listen to what politicians say. For instance, during his campaign for Senate in 2004, Obama called for cruise-missile strikes on Iran, and hasn't stopped threatening them since. So much for any alleged "peace" credentials -- therefore, no "betrayal."

Upon entering the Senate, he selected former DLC Chair Joe Lieberman as his "mentor." JOE LIEBERMAN!!!

I also watch what politicians DO -- particularly when such actions are anti-left, anti-progressive, etc. Tort reform. FISA. "Yes" on every CheneyBush warfunding, expansion of the police state, etc.

Watch who they select as advisers during their campaigns -- Summers, Rubin acolytes, Goolsbee, Liebman, and the rest of Wall Street's deregulate&privatize neoliberal gang on economics; bomb-bomb-bombers on "national security, lauded by neocn whackos; all were on the team he selected for his campaign more than a year before his election.

And, always, FOLLOW THE MONEY. Wall St, the hedge funders, the "health" for-profiteers, and "defense" contractors all went for O-bomb-a early and big, and he got more bribes -- uh, I mean, "contributions" -- from those sectors than any other candidate, D or R.

[ Parent ]
You make Obama's real beliefs seem so obvious to see (4.00 / 5)
And if I had known about this blog 6 months ago, perhaps you would have been able to educate me.  But if I was in the dark, what's left of this democracy?  Because I'm an old man now--who was born under FDR--I'm able to spend 3-4 hours a day reading different websites.  And still I was taken in.  So where does that leave all those people working 2 and 3 jobs just to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads?  How do you reach them?  Or even more people like me?  I found this site quite by accident.  As far as I know, no one came looking for me.  And I'm someone who wanted to be found.

Major political interests: torture; human rights; stopping war with Iran.

I don't know about anyone else here (4.00 / 1)
but I proselytize about this place shamelessly. Any time the subject of politics comes up I always end up saying something like, "if you really want to understand, you have to read Open Left."

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Lots of times (0.00 / 0)
it feels like no one is looking for you. Lots of times it feels like you are looking but can't find anyone.

Either way, I'm glad to see you've made your way here.

One thing I'll say is that Obama's real beliefs may not be the issue here. Our conservative opponents are organized, as our our corporate opponents. We're not. These institutions have a life of their own, and they reflect the balance of power which was only changed somewhat by the election.  The key, I think, is not to worry too much about what Obama believes, but rather with what he and other officials do and say.

When the White House takes a step to the left, even to do something wildly popular, there is great push back from political and media elites. When they move to the right - there is praise, even if what they do infuriates the bulk of the public.  

I'm skeptical of attempts to influence the president, but what the White House does depends on the rest of the Democratic Party and other allies. Those people are more easily influenced, and can be - if we organize.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

[ Parent ]

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