The "Let Obama Be Obama" Moment

Today could be a pivotal moment in the administration of President Barack Obama. Because the White House seems to have decided that the theme of next week's State Of The Union address is going to be: "Populism."

To which, I say: it's about time.

It's about time to start fighting for the little guy and against the fat cats. It's about time to start fighting, when it comes right down to it.

To say, however, that this is what I expected Obama to do would be to monumentally overstate what my expectations were. What I really expected the White House's reaction to losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat was the standard Democratic response to (sadly) just about everything -- moving further to the right. I expected the White House to sit down, read the polls which said "voters are angry about Democratic weakness," and immediately decide that they had to weaken their agenda even further.

It defies logic, but it's what Democrats usually do. Which is why it's exactly what I expected Obama to do.

Instead, it seems Obama is going to take the gloves off and start battling Wall Street. Astonishing, when you think about it -- instead of the usual "we've got to be more timid!" Democratic knee-jerk response, we're about to see "we've got to get stronger!" for once.


As I've written before, this is the traditional season where trial balloons are floated by the White House, to garner reaction in preparation for the State Of The Union speech. This whole "Populism" thing could be just a feint, and may be squelched in the speech's final text. But, thankfully, the speech will be given a week after the Massachusetts special election, and not before. Because it has given Obama time to react.

And maybe, just maybe, Obama's staff went through a "Let Obama be Obama" moment, and they really will come out fighting.

[To explain that reference will take a few paragraphs. Anyone who doesn't care that much, or already is a fan of The West Wing and knows the reference, should just skip down to the end of the quotations and continue reading. Fair warning.]

In preparing to write about the end of Barack Obama's first year in office, I recently watched a few old episodes from The West Wing. OK, call it escapism from the reality of what was happening in Massachusetts, if you must. Because, during the Bush years, the favorite form of Lefty escapism was indeed to pretend for one hour each week that we all lived in an alternate universe where America was run by President Bartlet. Truth be told, maybe I needed a little bit of that, last weekend.

The first episode I watched was far and away the most poignant, because it is exactly what a lot of people have been waiting for all year long. A minor plotline in the episode revolves around an opposition memo, which includes the stark assessment: "The reality of the Bartlet White House is a flood of mistakes. An agenda hopelessly stalled and lacking a coherent strategy. An administration plagued by indecision....' "

Bartlet is dealing with (sound familiar?) what to do on gays in the military, an approval rating that is in the high 40s, and of course, Congress. Bartlet is wondering whether to strongly take on the issue of campaign finance reform by his appointments to the Federal Election Commission (F.E.C.). Even more familiar is a line by a reporter in the episode, talking to the White House Press Secretary: "You guys are stuck in the mud around here, and none of it is the fault of the press. I know you're frustrated. But it ain't nothing compared to the frustration of the people who voted for you...."

The line that was most familiar, though, in respect to what just happened in Massachusetts, was in response to the president's "You didn't know it was raining?" where an advisor lamely responds: "To our credit sir, we knew it was raining once it started to rain."

But the real conflict was between President Bartlet and his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, which resulted in one of the more memorable scenes from a memorable episode of a very memorable television series. It's long, but it is powerful enough to include the whole scene:

BARTLET:  Just once, in this job, I'd like to end a day feeling as good as I did when the day started. [Pause.] Are you bothered by this?

LEO:  The memo?


LEO:  Yes.

BARTLET:  We've heard it all before, Leo. You drive me to political safe ground. It's not true.

LEO:  I know it's not true.

BARTLET:  Good. [Heads for his desk.]

LEO:  You drive me there.

BARTLET:  [Turns.] What the hell did you say?

LEO:  And you know it too.


LEO:  We're stuck in neutral because that's where you tell me to stay.

BARTLET:  You're wrong.

LEO:  No. I'm not, sir.

BARTLET:  You want to do this now?

LEO:  Sir?

BARTLET:  You came to my house, Leo.

LEO:  Mr. President?

BARTLET:  You came to my house, and you said, "Jed, let's run for President." I said, "Why?" And you said, "So that you can open your mouth and say what you think!" Where'd that part go, Leo?

LEO:  You tell me, Mr. President. I don't see a shortage of cameras or microphones around here. What the hell were you waiting for?

BARTLET:  Look...

LEO:  Everything you do...

BARTLET:  This morning-

LEO:  Everything you do says: "For God's sakes, Leo. I don't want to be a one-term President."

BARTLET:  Did I not say put our guys on the F.E.C.?

LEO:  No sir. You did not do that.


LEO:  You said -- No! You said, let's dangle our feet in the water of whatever the hell it is we dangle our feet in, when we want to make it look like we're trying, without pissing too many people off!

BARTLET:  You're writing a fascinating version of history, my friend.

LEO:  Oh, take a look at Mandy's memo, Mr. President, and you'll read a fascinating version of it.

BARTLET:  You brought me in on teachers. You brought me in on capital gains. You brought me in on China. And you brought me in on guns.

LEO:  Brought you in from where? You've never been out there on guns. You've never been out there on teachers. You dangle your feet, and I'm the hall monitor around here. It's my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far. I tell Josh to go to the Hill on campaign finance, he knows nothing's going to come out of it.

BARTLET:  That's crap.

LEO:  Sam can't get real on Don't Ask, Don't Tell because you're not going to be there, and every guy sitting across the room from him knows that.

BARTLET:  Leo, if I ever told you to get aggressive about campaign finance or gays in the military, you would tell me, "Don't run too fast or go to far."

LEO:  If you ever told me to get aggressive about anything, I'd say "I serve at the pleasure of the President." [Pause.] But we'll never know, sir, because I don't think you're ever going to say it.

BARTLET:  I have said it, and nothing's every happened!

LEO:  You want to see me orchestrate this right now? You want to see me mobilize these people? These people who would walk into fire if you told them to? These people who showed up to lead? These people who showed up to fight? [Points at Charlie.] That guy gets death threats because he's black and he dates your daughter. He was warned: "Do not show up to this place. Your life will be in danger." He said, "To hell with that, I'm going anyway." You said, "No." Prudent, or not prudent, this 21 year old for 600 dollars a week says, "I'm going where I want to because a man stands up." [Pause.] Everyone's waiting for you. I don't know how much longer.

BARTLET:  I don't want to feel like this anymore.

LEO:  You don't have to.

BARTLET:  I don't want to go to sleep like this.

LEO:  You don't have to.

BARTLET:  I want to speak.

LEO:  Say it out loud. Say it to me.

BARTLET:  This is more important than re-election. I want to speak now.

LEO:  Say it again.

BARTLET:  This is more important than re-election. I want to speak now.

LEO:  Now we're in business!

[Leo goes to the table and picks up a pen and writes on a pad.]

BARTLET:  What's happening?

LEO:  We got our asses kicked in the first quarter, and it's time we move up the mat.


LEO:  Say it.

BARTLET:  This is more important than re-election. I want to speak now.

LEO:  [While writing.] I'm going to talk to the staff. I'm going to take them off the leash.

BARTLET:  You have a strategy for all this?

LEO:  I have the beginnings of one.

BARTLET:  What is it?

LEO:  I'm going to try that out for a little while.

[Leo puts the pad on the desk in front of the President. It reads:


The President looks at it and back to Leo, as his Chief of Staff goes back into Leo's office. The staff are still inside. Leo takes off his jacket and leans on his desk.]

LEO:  Listen up. Our ground game isn't working. If we want to walk into walls, I'd want us running into them full speed.

JOSH  What are you saying?

LEO:  Well, you can start by telling the Hill the President has named his nominees for the F.E.C.

[Josh looks surprised.]

LEO:  And we're going to lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we're not going to be threatened by issues. We're going to put them front and center. We're going to raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy. [Turns to Josh.] That sound all right to you, Josh?

JOSH  I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.

LEO:  [To C.J.] Yeah?

C.J.  I serve at the pleasure of the President.

[Leo turns to Sam.]

SAM  I serve at the pleasure of President Bartlet.

LEO:  Toby?

TOBY  I serve at the pleasure of the President.

While it's admittedly kind of hard to see that scene playing out between President Obama and his own Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, it seems something in their relationship has now shifted, or is in the process of shifting.

Lefty bloggers have been playing the blame game for a while now over whether (A.) Rahm Emanuel has been doing exactly what Obama wants him to do all year long, or (B.) everything is Rahm's fault, and Obama is being "held back" by him and his tactics. Similar blame games have happened in relation to Obama and his economic team [Note (breaking news, while editing this): White House shakes up economic team.] Is it Obama's fault? Or is it his advisers' fault?

The hard truth is it doesn't really matter, and we'll all have to wait for the tell-all books to be written years from now to discover who was on which side of which fight. What matters for the present is the position the White House winds up taking in these fights. Which, so far, has been rather disappointing to many.

But now Obama's had his wake-up call (insert your own "3:00 A.M." joke here, if you must). If the early reports of Obama embracing Populism prove to be true, and if it becomes the major theme of his State Of The Union next week, then we may look back on this week in the future as his "Let Obama be Obama" moment.

Obama can regain his momentum. He can get his mojo back. And this would be the best route to do so. If Obama and his administration truly does take up the banner of full-throated Populism, things could turn around for him virtually overnight. Even with 41 Republicans in the Senate.

Remember this -- Obama took office with less than 60 seats in the Senate. Even counting the two independents as Democrats, he only had 58 last year. It wasn't until Arlen Specter switched sides that he got 59, and it wasn't until Al Franken was eventually seated (since it wasn't that long ago Republicans were playing the game of "delay seating him as long as possible," instead of decrying the tactic as un-American) that Obama got the magic number of 60 to work with.

And things did actually get done.

The beauty of a Populist agenda for the Democrats is that it completely and firmly paints Republicans into a political corner they've been squirming hard to avoid. Because if Democrats, led by President Obama, come out strongly for reining in Wall Street and strongly in favor of the middle-class working American, then to oppose them, the Republicans (by default) have to take the side of Big Business and Big Banking. Which will absolutely enrage their new "base" of Tea Partiers. If specific legislation aimed directly at the fat profits on Wall Street emerges, and if Obama is shouting from the rooftops why these new laws are necessary to protect Main Street, then Republicans are going to be faced with a Hobson's choice: either join with the president, perhaps giving him a political victory; or oppose the president, and appear utterly out-of-touch to the average middle-class voter.

That's a battle worth having, as we enter the midterm election season. Rather than cowering in fear before the Tea Party movement, instead co-opt some of their issues. Steal their thunder. Democrats, after all, are supposed to be the party of "the little guy." They somehow seem to have forgotten this of late, but a battle that shapes up on these lines is one designed for them to win.

Wouldn't it be nice, if (for all of next year) Democrats and Republicans fought a knock-down battle over which party could improve Main Street better than the other? And wouldn't it be nice if Democrats were actually fighting for real bills with real reforms that had real teeth to them? Wouldn't that be better than fighting over some stupid hot-button issue, the way Republicans are usually wont to do in election season? Even if the Democrats lost in Congress, if they were seen as fighting on the right side -- and fighting as hard as they could -- then even legislative losses could be chalked up as political wins, as the country sees who is on which side of the fight. Forcing such votes on Republicans (and corporatist Democrats, for that matter) is an excellent way to drive the debate and move the country towards eventually passing such bills. Even if you lose the first time around.

For this to successfully happen, however, President Obama has got to get out of his bubble. He's got to lead these fights. He's got to get out there and tell the American people -- over and over again, "overexposure" be damned -- what he is fighting for, and why. This will give a lot of timid Democrats in Congress the political cover to jump on board as well.

This year's midterms could go down in history as the Year Of Populism. It could generate some of the most Populist rhetoric and (more importantly) Populist legislation in Washington in an entire century.

So I truly hope that President Obama has received the Massachusetts wake-up call loud and clear. I truly do hope that he has "seen the light" on the fact that voters perceive him as being Wall Street's best friend -- which is destroying the Democratic Party's chances in upcoming elections. I hope he comes out swinging, and follows up the most scathing anti-Wall-Street, anti-greed State Of The Union since Franklin Delano Roosevelt next week, by channelling Teddy Roosevelt's bully pulpit for the next year to come.

In other words, I really do hope that we just witnessed the "Let Obama be Obama" moment.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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