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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> June 2010

The Pulpit of a Bully

Mike Allen broke this astounding bit of news yesterday:

Phil Schiliro, the White House congressional liaison, has told the Senate to aim to take up an energy bill the week of July 12, after the July 4 break (and after the scheduled final passage of Wall Street reform). Kagan confirmation will follow, ahead of the summer break, scheduled to begin Aug. 9. The plan is to conference the new Senate bill with the already-passed House bill IN A LAME-DUCK SESSION AFTER THE ELECTION, so House members don't have to take another tough vote ahead of midterms.

A White House aide has the official word: "President Obama reiterated his call for comprehensive energy and climate legislation to break our dependence on oil and fossil fuels. In the coming weeks he will be reaching out to Senators on both sides of the aisle to chart a path forward. A number of proposals have been put forward from Members on both sides of the aisle. We're open to good ideas from all sources, and will be working with Senators on a comprehensive proposal. The tragedy in the Gulf underscores the need to move quickly, and the President is committed to finding the votes for comprehensive energy legislation this year."

The 51st Congress (1889-91) was tagged as the Billion Dollar Congress, a profligate Republican-run legislature that raided the Treasury in an effort to pay off all its supporters. The 111th should go down in history as the Trillion Dollar Congress. An enormous energy package passed during a lame duck session would be a fitting epilogue for the Trillion Dollar Congress, which has been consistently out of step with the public mood.

The only reason to pass such a major piece of legislation during a lame duck session is because the proposal is unpopular. If Democrats could sell the bill to their constituents, they would pass it before the November elections then campaign on it. Party leaders must also expect that the political will for this bill will not exist in the 112th Congress after the voters have spoken in November. In other words, the new representatives coming in are not going to vote for it - so Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama had better get the representatives who were just fired to support it before they're forced into early retirement.

This strategy has the same odor that stank up the final stages of health care reform. After the voters of Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy's seat, the President refused to take the hint. Instead, he employed budgetary reconciliation - a technically legal legislative parlor trick that, had the shoe been on the other foot, would have provoked howls of outrage from the left and especially from our holier-than-thou President - to jam through a bill that the public had expressed sustained and significant opposition to.

For somebody who seems detached from the details of policy and largely uninterested in legislative wrangling, Barack Obama sure does come across sometimes like a political bully. But this is not bullying some obstinate backbench legislator. Instead, this is bullying the American people. With health care reform, he basically told the country that he didn't care what it thought. The fact that people opposed the bill was proof they didn't know what they were talking about. Now, apparently, the evolving strategy on energy is the same. Don't like cap-and-trade? That's your problem, not his. Plan to vote out Democrats in favor of the idea? Like he cares. He'll pass it anyway.

The President had better tread carefully here. There are political issues that divide the parties, then there are "valence" issues that cut across party lines. Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions became a valence issue in 2000, sufficient to prompt Al Gore to nominate Joe Lieberman for the vice-presidency. It didn't matter what party you belonged to, what Clinton had done was wrong and gross. Ditto Republican chicanery with Jack Abramoff. It didn't matter what your politics were, you thought that had to stop. The Foley scandal went hand-in-glove with Abramoff. It crystalized the sense back in 2006 that there was something deeply dysfunctional about the Republican caucus.

Passing health care reform over howls of popular protest then jamming energy reform through a lame duck Congress might solidify the impression that this President is a bully who doesn't care what the people think. That would hand the Republicans a great valence issue for 2012. Nobody likes a bully, after all. And just as the Democrats worked hard to connect Abramoff and Foley to enhance the impression of a broken GOP, Republicans will try to make these connections for the voters, too.

Instead of passing unpopular bills through questionable methods over the opposition of the people, maybe the President should get behind proposals that can actually sustain popular support. There's a difference between bullying and leading, after all.

-Jay Cost

Obama Gives New Meaning to "Big Government"

Barack Obama has been compared to a lot of Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush. But no intrepid analyst has ever - so far as I know - dared to compare the 44th President to the 22nd (and 24th), Mr. Grover Cleveland.

And for good reason.

Rotund, stern, and mustachioed when the style was a full beard - the Democrat Cleveland was not well loved, but he was well liked. He won the popular vote for President three times in a row, and is the only man to serve non-continuous terms in the White House. Cleveland was a "Bourbon Democrat." He hated the business trusts and he felt that the nation's protectionist tariff policies had given rise to them. He stood for small and frugal government, lower taxes, and sound money - making him a tough fit with Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Cleveland and Obama also had different views on the role of the President. In his brief biography of Cleveland, historian Henry Graff writes:

Once, in his first year in office, when the Chicago White Stockings were in town for a game, (Cleveland) invited the team to the White House. He took the occasion to ask Cap Anson, the player-manager: "How's my old friend 'Pud' Galvin [once the star pitcher for the Buffalo Bisons and now a Hall of Famer]? You know he and I were good friends when I was sheriff and mayor of Buffalo." But when Anson invited the president to the ballpark, Cleveland felt he had to say "no thank you." "What do you think the American people would think of me if I wasted my time going to a ball game?"

How times have changed:

President Barack Obama says the blown umpire's call that cost a young Detroit Tigers' pitcher a perfect game dramatizes the need for Major League Baseball to "take a look" at more instant replay.

Obama was asked in an NBC interview to comment on the incident involving umpire Jim Joyce and Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. Joyce mistakenly called Cleveland's Jason Donald safe at first base on what would've been the final out. While many Tigers argued, Galarraga merely smiled at his misfortune and went back to the mound.

In the interview broadcast Tuesday, Obama said he wouldn't prejudge a review by MLB of the replay policy. And he said he thought Commissioner Bud Selig "made the right call" in not awarding a perfect game after the fact.

Oh good. I for one am glad to know what Mr. Obama thinks about instant replay in baseball. Such executive opinions are not mandated by Article II of the Constitution, but by gum they should be.

By virtue of his omnipresence, this President has given new meaning to the phrase "big government." He is everywhere. Try as you might, you cannot escape him. Mr. Obama has expanded the concept of the bully pulpit in ways we have never before seen. It is worth asking: in a country founded on the idea of limited government, is it good to have a President who appears to see no limits to what he can involve himself in?

Some of this must be political strategy. Barack Obama is the first President in American history who is primarily after the same precious 18-to-35 year olds that Madison Avenue covets. He won about 2/3rds of this age group in the 2008 election, and he needs them to vote Democrat this November. Talking sports and culture and "kicking ass" is a way to stay in touch with them. I half expect him to start driving around in a Scion xB.

But some of this must be narcissism. This is, after all, the President who got up on stage to sing "Hey Jude" with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Jerry Seinfeld. There is no electoral utility to this sort of spectacle. Obama clearly enjoys the attention that comes with being a super cool Commander in Chief.

One wonders what Cleveland would have to say about this. Actually, the above anecdote gives a hint. Cleveland declined the invitation to the ball field because he worried what the public would think. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economy was just working its way out of a three-year recession when Cleveland started his first term. Perhaps the 22nd President recognized that the American people did not hire him to make appearances at baseball games - let alone opine on what rulings the commissioner should make. He had much bigger fish to fry.

With two wars, a sagging economy, and the worst enviornmental disaster in American history unfolding in the Gulf - Mr. Obama does, too. If he is not too modest to pontificate publicly on such trivial matters, he should at least be too busy.

And anyway, Mr. Obama is a very young man. He will have years of a post-presidency to enjoy his status as a cultural icon slash pundit-at-large. But I doubt ESPN or Beatle Paul will be as interested in hanging out with him if he's a one termer. So maybe Mr. Obama should learn a lesson from old Grover Cleveland.

-Jay Cost