Friday, January 29, 2010

Thoughts on Wednesday’s SOTU Address

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama gave his first State of the Union Address. To put it mildly, he delivered one of his best speeches to date.

Watch the full speech here:

It was folksy, compassionate, and at times humorous. Most importantly, it was moving.

Some in the blogosphere - from both left and right - have been quick to criticize the feeling of the speech, if not the substance. Arianna Huffington yesterday described it as the “State of the Focus Group Address”.

From her piece:

“while most State of the Union speeches have a bit of a kitchen-sink feel to them, this one seemed particularly so with its blink-and-you-missed-it mentions of "earmark reform" and cracking "down on violations of equal pay laws -- so that women get equal pay for an equal day's work." It felt less like an overriding vision for the country, and more like an attempt to deliver at least one applause line for every constituency in the country.

That's not political leadership. Obama clearly understands this. It's why he ended his speech by mocking politicians who "do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation." And he just as clearly has the ability to articulate a bold vision for the nation and lead it where it desperately needs to go.

But he didn't do it tonight.”

Huffington is right insofar as the message-testing reality of the speech. Obama is changing his tone to what the American people want to hear.

But to say its not political leadership is flat-out wrong. Americans have a deep mistrust in government right now, not because they disagree with any particular policy agenda, but because they haven’t been feeling a connection to the man they believe is responsible for the direction of such legislation. As a result, healthcare, energy, and financial reform bills have been slow to pass through Congress, and vital work is not being done.

Now, it’s not clear yet if Obama achieved that trust with the SOTU Address. We’ll be watching his approval rating in the days to come as pollsters report their data. But if any speech could rouse broader public support for his presidency, it was the one Wednesday night.

Other thoughts…

• Luckily for Obama, few liberals seem to have picked up on certain number of inferred policy objectives he mentioned, including corn-based ethanol, “clean” coal, offshore drilling, and No Child Left Behind. If they had, the skepticism of the current Democratic government among progressives would have been jolted, a concern given the prospects they may stay home come election time. Yet Obama’s rousing message of America seemed to trump the minor details.

• If Congress was a class room and Obama was the teacher, the Republicans were the brats who don’t pay attention and get bad grades. They’ve been obstructive to the legislative process over the past year the way some kids are disruptive to the rest of class. Last night I saw a few of them tweeting and generally not paying attention. Sure, this isn’t new, but it’s certainly concerning. When the President of the United State is addressing your body, you should really listen up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sports and Ideology - An Uneasy Intersection

Summary: Laura Craft Hogensen explains her frustration with Tim Tebow's pro-life ad that will air during the Superbowl.

For many Americans, Sunday is a day of worship, a day to attend church services, a day of prayer and reflection. For the past decade, the Gallup Poll has shown that about 40% of people in this country attend some sort of church service during the weekend. Though this number has dropped siginificantly from the level that it was in the late 80's and early 90's, worship and the act of worship is still a significant part of many Americans' lives. And the religion that most citizens in the US practice is still Christianity. As of 2008, 76% of Americans polled identified themselves as Christian. Though this number used to be much greater (86% in 1990), still, over three quarters of people in this country consider themselves to be Christian.

We've all heard these statistics, or something like them before. All citizens in the United States, whether politically active or not, are aware, on some level, of the religious divisions that exist in this country. And frankly, I hate talking about them. I hated even looking up the statistics on faith for this blog post. The argument for or against different types of faiths and ideologies bores me. I feel that it's impossible to sway people on issues of faith or ideology because these issues are so personal, and so close to the self. Why waste time and energy trying to convince "the other side," that you are right and they are wrong? No ground is ever gained in battles of religion, ideology, and politics. There's a reason why these three topics have been banned as polite dinner table conversation.

But, if three of the largest issues are eliminated because of impropriety, what can there be to talk about? How can Americans fill the void of conversation that occurs during business lunches, happy hours, dinners and first dates? The answer is simple and all-encompassing: Sports.

Sports is the great uniter. When watching a game or discussing a team, no attention is paid to one's politcal or religious beliefs. The questions and answers are equally complex and nuanced - one need only recall the furious speculation that occurs before the Major League Baseball trading deadline - but anyone can participate in the discussion. People of all religions and political persuasions come together to pull for the same team. In many ways, spending time on Sunday afternoon watching a game with friends and strangers, rooting for a team together, and celebrating a victory, is a communion just as powerful as the one found during a church service.

That's what I've always liked about sports. Its universality, the passion it inspires - and the values it promotes. Sports has taught me that the actions of one can affect the outcome of all. It's taught me to be strong, to persevere in the face of adversity. I've learned that all people on a team can and do contribute to a team's success and failure - that we each have a role to play, and that the best kind of success is earned through hard work. These lessons, these values, do not appear on stone tablets, but they have shaped me and others to be just as decent and moral as those who were molded by faith.

In a way, sports has been a kind of refuge for me. A way to avoid arguments of politics or religion. A way to connect to others without worrying about who I might offend. No matter what was happening with the health care bill, or what Pat Robertson said about Haiti, or how Prop 8 was voted on, the world of sports was a neutral territory where ideologies were left off the field, and for that, I was grateful.

Perhaps this is why I'm more upset than usual over the pro-life ad starring Tim Tebow and his mother that is scheduled to air on CBS during the Superbowl. By making the decision to air this ad (produced by Focus on the Family), CBS has not only chosen to align itself politically and ideologically, but it has tarnished the neutrality that sports provided. It has taken away my refuge.

This is not the first time that a network has been asked to air a political or ideological commercial during the Super Bowl - the biggest night for television viewership during the year. In 2009, NBC made the decision to reject a similar pro-life ad that alluded to newly elected president Barack Obama. Like the Tebow ad, the Obama pro life ad, which was produced by CatholicVote, asks the question, "What if this child had not been born?" and then urges the viewer to "imagine the potential of life." At the time, many pro life groups protested NBC's decision, while NBC countered that it had also rejected the issue-based PETA ad as well. In 2008, presidential candidates also made the decision to avoid political ads during the Super Bowl. While Obama chose to buy local advertising in certain states, both he and the other front-runners of both parties decided to leave political talk out of the big game.

CBS has maintained that its decision to air the ad is part of a change in the network's approach towards "advocacy ads" which has occurred in recent years. Spokesperson Dana McClintock states that "most media outlets have accepted advocacy ads for some time," and that "CBS will continue to consider responsibly produced ads from all groups for spots in Super Bowl XLIV."

I should probably divulge that I am pro choice - pretty vehemently so. And, when I first read this story, my main concern was that CBS would be unwilling to give equal time to a pro choice organization, should they want to (and should they have the money to) air an ad. But McClintock's vague statement about equal "consideration" does little to assuage my anger over this. I'm not angry at Focus on the Family or other pro life organizations that support this ad. I'm not angry at Tim Tebow or his mother - their Christianity and their commitment to their faith is deep and real. I'm angry that CBS has chosen to bring politics and religion into one of the few places where it had not yet divided this country. They've chosen a side, and by choosing sides, they have alienated others who do not, who can not, who will never agree. The Super Bowl, for all of its needless pageantry, for all of its encouragement of consumption and overindulgence is a truly American experience. Unlike other holidays like Christmas, it was a celebration that all Americans had in common regardless of faith, politics, or ideology. Yet, it seems on this day, too, we'll be a people divided.

Laura Craft Hogensen is an athlete and an avid political observer. She is married to Eric Hogensen, Principal of Hogensen Strategies Group.

Can SOTU Address Bump Obama’s Approval Ratings?

Summary: Tonight's address will set the stage for 2010 -- but how will if affect Obama's ratings?

Tonight President Obama will deliver his first State of the Union Address, although he has already addressed Congress twice before. According to pundit Howard Fineman, Obama’s test tonight will be whether or not he can win back America’s confidence.

His approval ratings could be worse, but they do suggest he is a polarizing president who has already spent the entirety of his political capital. According to Gallup, his approval rating is about 48% while his disapproval rating is about 47%.

Fineman also notes that there are “volumes of analysis written about the president are rife with the cliché that the guy’s career is made up of career-making or career-saving speeches.”

So can Obama give such a speech tonight?

If you pay attention to Gallup reports, you’ll agree the answer is “unlikely.” Hardly any presidents have managed to get significant bumps in the polls following their SOTU Address.

The only exception - really - was Bill Clinton’s 1998 SOTU Address, in which he announced one of the nation’s first surpluses in years just days after news broke about his affair with Monica Lewinski. The speech bumped his approval 10 points - up from 59% to 69%.

Most SOTU Addresses, however, don’t do that. In fact, the majority of presidents lose support after the speech, if anything.

Part of the reason approval is not expected to go up is because of who watches a SOTU Address - it’s almost always composed of more Americans who already support the president giving it.

In the two addresses Obama has made before Congress, his approval rating saw some upturn. The first - about a year ago - bumped him up 8%. But that was early in his presidency, before many Americans could get a firm opinion about him as a Commander-in-Chief. A lot has changed since then. His second - a healthcare focused speech - only gave him a 2% bump.

One interesting thing to watch will be how viewers react to the way he plans to take responsibility for the government’s shortcomings tonight. According to the New York Times (and probably other news outlets) the president is prepared to admit that his administration has made missteps.

Perhaps Americans will find it refreshing - the Bush Administration was usually reluctant to own up to mistakes - or perhaps it will confirm their skepticism about the new president.

We’ll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What Was Learned in Massachusetts?

Summary: Fellow political consultants provide critical, but reassuring insight following the Senatorial special election in the Bay State.

Recently, our colleagues at Zata3 - a Democratic consulting firm in Washington, DC - sent us an email titled “Sorting Through the Wreckage Massachusetts.”

The email contained some important lessons from last week’s special election that we thought would be good to share with you today.

From the email:

We’ve talked to several of our friends who were involved in the MA Senate race (we did not work there). We’ve read dozens of news articles, blog exchanges and statistical analyses and listened to more than our share of the talking heads from both sides of the aisle. Here’s our one minute summary of the lessons to be learned.

Don’t let the other side define you. Coakley was not on the airwaves until after the IE’s had defined her as the establishment candidate.

Take the pulse of voters frequently, especially in these volatile times. GOP polls had Brown within 3 points of definite voters a month out. By January 9, he was ahead and by all accounts, it was too late to reverse the momentum.

Expect a pragmatic, nimble, aggressive Hard Right. Brown was not the Tea Party’s ideal candidate but when they smelled opportunity, the zealots poured it on.

Get your field program in order. Accounts vary about the shape of the MA voter file going into the special election, but all agree that Democrat turnout was anemic in key areas.

In special elections, retail politics matter. The online Far Right was increasingly energized by Brown’s public appearances during the week around Christmas when Coakley made no public appearances.

Don’t expect help from the White House. The President is personally popular, but the Bush hangover (two wars, Wall Street excesses, deficit, etc.) and Obama’s own ambitious agenda negate any positive coattails.

The good news is, nearly all of these lessons are from the Politics 101 text book. A solid, hardworking candidate and a capable campaign team who execute the fundamentals will win.

Soon we plan to bring you an analysis from a Democrat on the ground during the Massachusetts race, to learn further lessons as we look forward to the November midterms.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Can David Plouffe Save Democrats Come November?

Summary: With this year's midterm elections scaring Democrats, David Plouffe takes the wheel and offers some advice.

Over the weekend it was reported that President Obama is taking a centralizing role in the 2010 elections for the Democratic Party. In order for his party to hold on to seats in the midterms he is reassembling the team that pushed him through the primaries and sent him to the oval office.

At the head of this effort will be his former campaign manager, David Plouffe.

Yesterday, Plouffe explained why November doesn’t need to be a nightmare for Democrats, and what Democratic candidates need to do in 2010.

From his op-ed piece in the Washington Post:

With few exceptions, the first off-year election in a new president's term has led to big gains for the minority party -- this was true for Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. After two election cycles in which Democrats won most of the close races and almost all of the big ones, Democrats have much more fragile turf to defend this year than usual. Add to that a historic economic crisis, stubborn unemployment and the pain that both have inflicted on millions of Americans, and you have a recipe for a white-knuckled ride for many of our candidates.

But not if Democrats do what the American people sent them to Washington to do…

… Many of last year's accomplishments are down payments on those principles.
We still have much to do before November, and time is running short. Every race has unique characteristics, but there are a few general things that Democrats can do to strengthen our hand.

-- Pass a meaningful health insurance reform package without delay. Americans' health and our nation's long-term fiscal health depend on it. I know that the short-term politics are bad. It's a good plan that's become a demonized caricature. But politically speaking, if we do not pass it, the GOP will continue attacking the plan as if we did anyway, and voters will have no ability to measure its upside. If we do pass it, dozens of protections and benefits take effect this year. Parents won't have to worry their children will be denied coverage just because they have a preexisting condition. Workers won't have to worry that their coverage will be dropped because they get sick. Seniors will feel relief from prescription costs. Only if the plan becomes law will the American people see that all the scary things Sarah Palin and others have predicted -- such as the so-called death panels -- were baseless. We own the bill and the health-care votes. We need to get some of the upside. (P.S.: Health care is a jobs creator.)

-- We need to show that we not just are focused on jobs but also create them. Even without a difficult fiscal situation, the government can have only so much direct impact on job creation, on top of the millions of jobs created by the president's early efforts to restart the economy. There are some terrific ideas that we can implement, from tax credits for small businesses to more incentives for green jobs, but full recovery will happen only when the private sector begins hiring in earnest. That's why Democrats must create a strong foundation for long-term growth by addressing health care, energy and education reform. We must also show real leadership by passing some politically difficult measures to help stabilize the economy in the short term. Voters are always smarter than they are given credit for. We need to make our case on the economy and jobs -- and yes, we can remind voters where Republican policies led us -- and if we do, without apology and with force, it will have impact.

-- Make sure voters understand what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act did for the economy. Rarely does a congressional vote or issue lend itself to this kind of powerful localization. If GOP challengers want to run ads criticizing the recovery act as wasteful, Democratic candidates should lift up the police officers, teachers and construction workers in their state or district, those who are protecting our communities, teaching our children and repairing our roads thanks to the Democrats' leadership. Highlight the small-business owners who have kept their doors open through projects funded by the act.

The recovery act has been stigmatized. We need to paint the real picture, in human terms, of what it meant in 2010. In future elections, it will be clear to all that instead of another Great Depression, Democrats broke the back of the recession with not a single Republican vote in the House. In the long run, this will haunt Republicans, especially since they made the mess.

-- Don't accept any lectures on spending. The GOP took us from a $236 billion surplus when President Bush took office to a $1.3 trillion deficit, with unpaid-for tax cuts for the wealthy, two wars and the Medicare prescription drug program. Republicans' fiscal irresponsibility has never been matched in our country's history. We have potent talking points on health care, honest budgeting and cuts in previously sacrosanct programs. Republicans will try to win disingenuously by running as outsiders. We must make them own their record of disastrous economic policies, exploding deficits, and a failure to even attempt to solve our health care and energy challenges.

During the campaign, who will be whispering in Republican ears? Watching GOP leaders talking about health care the past few days, it was easy to imagine lobbyists and big health insurance executives leaning over their shoulders, urging death to health insurance reform. When it comes to cracking down on the banks and passing tough financial regulatory reform, GOP leaders will be dancing to the tune of Wall Street lobbyists and opposing tougher oversight, as if the financial crisis never happened. We need to lay it out plainly: If you put the GOP back in charge, lobbyists and huge corporate special interests will be back in the driver's seat. Workers and families will get run over, just like they did in the past decade.

-- "Change" is not just about policies. In 2006, Democrats promised to drain the swamp and won back Congress largely because the American people soured on corrupt Republican leadership. Many ethics reforms were put in place by the Democrats. But a recent Gallup poll showed that a record 55 percent of Americans think members of Congress have low ethics, up from only 21 percent in 2000. In particular, we have to make sure the freshman and sophomore members of the House who won in part on transparency and reform issues can show they are delivering. The Republicans will suggest they have changed their spots, but the GOP cannot hold a candle to us on reform issues. Let's make sure we own this space.

-- Run great campaigns. Many Democrats won congressional and statewide races in 2006 and 2008 with ideal conditions. Some races could have been won with mediocre campaigns. Not this year. Our campaigns can leave no stone unturned, from believing in the power of grass-roots volunteers and voter registration, to using technology and data innovatively, to raising money -- especially with big corporate interests now freed up to dump hundreds of millions of dollars to elect those who will do their bidding. Democratic candidates must do everything well. Each one must make sure that the first-time voters from 2008 living in your state or district -- more than 15 million nationwide -- are in their sights. Build a relationship with those voters, organize them and educate them. On Nov. 3, many races are sure to be decided by just a few thousand if not a few hundred votes. These voters can make the difference. We have to show them that their 2008 votes mattered, and passing health insurance reform is one way to start.

-- No bed-wetting. This will be a tough election for our party and for many Republican incumbents as well. Instead of fearing what may happen, let's prove that we have more than just the brains to govern -- that we have the guts to govern. Let's fight like hell, not because we want to preserve our status, but because we sincerely believe too many everyday Americans will continue to lose if Republicans and special interests win.

This country is at a crossroads. We are trying to boost the economy in the short term while also doing the long-term work on health care, energy, education and financial reform that will lay a strong foundation for decades to come. Let's remember why we won in 2008 and deliver on what we promised. If Democrats will show the country we can lead when it's hard, we may not have perfect election results, but November will be nothing like the nightmare that talking heads have forecast.

Plouffe certainly proved himself to be worthy of political-campaign-person praise after his remarkable leadership with the Obama campaign in 2008. In my opinion, his grasp on the situation this year should be taken seriously, and Democrats should be grateful to have him in the driver’s seat.