Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Where Have You Gone, Barack Obama?

Move over, Jeremiah Wright.

Barack Obama is no longer an angry black man, a closet Muslim or, gasp, a Socialist.

He is the devil himself.  He is Richard Nixon.

The headlines out of Washington are blaring.  The IRS targeting possible right-wing fringe groups.  TalkingpointsGate.  With far greater credence, the shady reporter tapping sanctioned by the Justice Department.

Do I see Obama waving the victory sign on the lawn in front of the presidential helicopter?  Laughable. 

But the power of his personal narrative as a force for real progressive policy change took flight some time ago. 

Democrats were determined to fall in love and Barack Obama was oh so available.  Progressives, still frustrated by the unrealized expectations of the Clinton years and very steamed from two terms of the culturally alien George W. Bush, took to Obama hard in 2008. 

He was the most perfect projection of liberal fantasy-- a more inspirational icon than Hillary Rodham Clinton, who toiled in vineyards of lefty non-profits, child advocacy groups and McGovern-originated thought circles for decades.  Obama's appeal as the first black president, coupled with his opposition to intervention in Iraq, brought the anti-war and civil rights movements' multi-decade march on the Democratic Party full circle. 

Obama has kept his most fundamental promise to his supporters: no new messy foreign entanglements.  Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Libya- accepted compromises in a dangerous world.  But Obama has never let his olive branch credentials wilt, no matter how hot the Syrian summer

But after eight years of trying to convince their most conservative friends that President Bush was nothing more than Dick Cheney's thought bubble, liberals didn't only want a change in foreign policy.  They wanted to feel at home in a nation where conspicuous religious evangelizing and resurgent secular nationalism caused them dis-ease.  

But on social issues, the President has seemed late and half-hearted.  Andrew Cuomo jumped the historical wave on marriage equality; the President appeared small by comparison.  Battles over abortion are flaring anew.  The Supreme Court is reviewing affirmativeaction.  State university systems, the great multi-racial, middle class promise, are fraying

Obama’s boldest policy move, the first meaningful stab at health policy in a decade, yielded vociferous opposition from conservatives without any real change in voter thinking about how to fund care-- a missed opportunity that Democrats know jeopardizes larger and moredesperately needed reforms to the long term care system.

Obama's political candle is burning at both ends, singed by cable news-driven scandalettes on its right and the slow burn of deflated energy on its left.

Can the President rekindle the flame? 

First, Obama needs to lean back into his own story.  American's hitched a ride on the hope express before they were even sure where it was going.  The only way for Obama to rebuild political capital and score any policy victories on immigration, gun violence or tax reform is to reconnect what voters know about his life to his aspirations for public policy.  This child of difference must help us make sense of our multi-ethnic, international future.

Americans still like Obama; I am unconvinced that he has exhausted the full strength of his uniquely American journey as a persuasive political force. 

Second, celebrate success.  2013 is an off year election in national politics.  But there are hundreds of other elections around country.  LA just elected a new Mayor.  New Yorkers are picking a successor to Mike Bloomberg.  Obama, with innovative public thinkers, needs to fully join the conversation about how communities, and metro regions, chart their destiny.  With a re-election campaign in a blue state, I’m sure Chris Christie is still available

Local governments are most citizens' daily demonstration of governmental effectiveness.  And most of the good things done by local governments, from parks to drainage systems to disaster recovery, involve federal funds.  Obama's progressive policy prospects for the balance of his term, and any long term improvement in the Democrats' political brand, requires increased public confidence in the effectiveness of public spending. 

Local control was ceded to the flow of dollars federal lawmakers used to lubricate the wheels of social and racial change in 1960s and 70s.  Obama carries the baggage of the federal government without credit for the fruits of its largesse.  With so many eyes on local politics, he should wrap himself in effective Mayors, County Executives and other high profile local leaders across the nation.   

Third, Obama should endorse Hillary Clinton as his successor.  Otherwise, Obama may drown his own presidency in perpetual response to the political gyrations of Clintonland.   It's a distraction the President can't afford.  There is only upside to being a cheerleader for another presidential first. If she runs in 2016, she will be the party nominee.  If she doesn't, all bets are off anyway.  Biden will forgive him.  

Second terms are a bitch-- from Iran-Contra to Monica to Katrina.  Obama's "Tricky Dick" headlines today will likely join more heated panting about overreaching administration appointees as the mid-term elections approach.  The President's supporters can take some cynical solace that he is now compared to the patron of America's silent majority rather than Chicago's social agitators.  It's tempting to smile at the irony, hang tight to the history you've already made and spend 30 months keeping Congress at bay. 

But presidential fatigue from an obnoxious, six-year long, racially-tinged culture war will be far more damaging to Obama’s legacy than any more stupidity at the IRS.  The President who promised change we could believe in must keep his own faith until the end. 

Obama travelled far on Dreams from his Father; now, he must now share, clearly and passionately, his dream for his daughters.

And for mine. 

Mr. President, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.




Sunday, May 5, 2013

Maestro Cuomo

Looks like libraries are going to need lots of shelf space for Andrew Cuomo.  In just the third year of his first term as New York's Governor, Cuomo's tenure has already spawned book plans from a Vanity Fair editor, Post columnist Fred Dicker and, as of last week, the Governor himself

It's no wonder.  While the Governor is rarely depicted as a political choir boy, the chorus he conducts in Albany is positively harmonious.

Albany earned a reputation for off-key governance long ago.  The current corruption scandals, which shook even the most calloused observers of Capitol life, could lead many veteran lawmakers to call it quits rather than seek re-election next year.  But for those who stick it out, there is a political lifeline:  Governor Cuomo.

If the Governor wasn't running for re-election last year, it was hard to tell.  Regular Democrats, Independent Democrats and Republicans all hung tight to the Governor, featuring him in their ads and tripping over each other to prove their willingness to support Cuomo's fiscally restrained, social progressive agenda.  With minor exceptions, that strategy was sound.

The Governor's approval ratings dipped this year, partially from his controversial but successful push for gun control legislation.  And, like clockwork, the press has swooped in with a breathless narrative of a politically damaged Governor.  Cue hyperventilated stories on Cuomo's hiring, flying and advertising.

In truth, he has little reason to worry.

For starters, Cuomo's poll numbers remain in very solid shape.  It is difficult for even the most skilled pols to sustain positive momentum through an entire term of office.  Cuomo's approval rating of 57% is impressive on its own-- and ten points higher than George Pataki's in the third year of his governorship.  But in the context of the charged issues the Governor has taken on in his stint on the Second Floor, it is nothing short of remarkable.

Cuomo has also steadily and skillfully redrawn the Capitol's ideological map.  He persuaded urban Assembly Democrats to adopt a suburban property tax cap they previously rejected.  He coaxed  Senate Republicans to provide the votes to pass a marriage equality bill that failed when the Democrats were in charge of the chamber. 

Efficient budget negotiations produced on-time fiscal plans that helpfully allow legislators to avoid unpleasant votes to extend expiring taxes in their 2014 election year.  Chronically late budgets embarrassed lawmakers for years.

In confronting these thorny issues Cuomo scored repeated policy wins without becoming the political target of powerful interests.  Business groups didn't like the tax extenders this year- but none ran TV ads against them.  Medicaid reform has been complex and painful to some health care providers, including campaign contributing nursing home operators, but the policy battles have been confined to task forces; there is little public clamor or sustained legislative pushback. 

None of this happens by accident.  Cuomo is a multi-dimensional political thinker who meticulously lays the bricks for his policy parades.  His allies organize around the Governor's priorities, implement a media strategy to build public support for his point of view and privately press legislators and interest groups to sign on.  Tweaks to the proposals provide cover for hesitant partners. 

The press may lament Cuomo's reluctance to open these chess matches with his own detailed bill language, but the results of the Governor's careful legislative strategy are indisputable-- there is less policy rancor in Albany today than anytime in recent memory.  No small feat with a power sharing agreement in the Senate, increasing pressure for state law changes from municipalities and continuing uncertainty over the state's economic future.

Cuomo's triumphs on three leading progressive issues-- a higher minimum wage, gun control and marriage equality-- riled grass roots Republicans and stalled the Governor's efforts to further codify abortion protections.  But the credit the Governor earns for navigating the ragged shores that impede passage of meaningful legislation far outweighs the potential loss of these conservative voters (who would likely abandon the Governor anyway as speculation about his presidential plans increases).

The legislative session is always a politically perilous time for governors.  Lawmakers can easily score press by grilling gubernatorial appointees in hearings or launching investigations.  When I served in the Assembly during the Pataki years, my Democratic colleagues and I received recommended mailers from our central communications staff so we could slam the Governor's proposals to our constituents and bring down his poll numbers before budget negotiations began.  The "sausage making" of legislation attracts legions of lobbyists, politicians and activists to Albany for a six month season of gossip and gamesmanship. 

Cuomo is seven weeks away from the close of his third session.  And though debates rage on hydraulic fracking, a potential casino referendum and the Governor's abortion proposals, a decision on fracking does not appear near, there is talk of postponing the casino referendum until 2014 and Cuomo has stated frankly that the votes are not yet there to pass his women's health agenda. 

A full, but not terribly spicy, political plate.

Most significantly, the Governor retains a powerful upper hand as the Legislature debates various anti-corruption proposals spurred by the wired woes of its members

The conventional wisdom-- generally supported by polling-- is that voters dislike legislative bodies but cheer their own representatives.  No longer.

One-third of the electorate believes it's likely their state senator will be arrested on corruption charges.  Half do not trust their assemblymembers.  In contrast, the Governor's administration has been scandal-free and around 60% of voters believe Cuomo will succeed in passing anti-corruption measures. 

Cuomo has backed public financing of state elections and reform of the Wilson-Pakula law, an electoral oddity that allows minor party chairmen to determine which candidates are permitted to compete in minor party primaries. He also introduced a bill requiring lawmakers to squeal on their crooked deskmates. 

The outlines of an "anti-corruption deal" do not take huge imagination: a pilot public financing program for state Comptroller elections (a pet project of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and a re-election guarantee for his ally Tom DiNapoli), continued high dollar fundraising for party "housekeeping" accounts controlled by legislative leaders in exchange for lower contribution limits for individual campaigns and heightened penalties for bribery without a requirement to collar your colleagues. 

The Wilson-Pakula reform would ice the governor's cake with powerful editorial boards that detest the present law and weaken the state's Conservative and Working Families parties.  Both of those parties, though ideological opposites, have caused Cuomo political heartburn.  The Independent Democratic Conference, which holds the balance of power in the Senate, strongly backs the reform.

With Cuomo defending lawmakers against the 82% of the state's voters that want legislative term limits, his leverage is clear.  Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo has not joined the Times editorial page in regularly lambasting the legislature.  He has blasted the indicted bad apples while vowing to work with untainted lawmakers to reform the system.  Legislators hear the Governor's dulcet tone but know the notes can quickly change if they refuse to sing from his hymnal.  Embracing Cuomo's political reform agenda may be the only insulation from voter rebellion in 2014.

Cuomo regularly contrasts his accomplishments in New York with the inert state of policymaking in Washington.  He avoids trips to Capitol Hill like a hypochondriac steers clear of germs.  There is little interest in dancing at anyone else's club.

The result is functional state agencies, meaningful progressive legislation and accumulated political capital at the ready for 2014 and beyond.

Mario Cuomo famously told The New Republic in 1985 that "You campaign in poetry.  You govern in prose."  But anyone listening attentively to Albany's present score hears a consistent chorus of achievement in the current Cuomo's stewardship.

There is no magic in politics, but there is music. 

And Andrew Cuomo is a maestro.