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As Obama kept chanting ‘working together’ mantra, GOP got busy defining him

DULUTH — Two connected observations about the recent election:

1. It’s OK for Democrats to blame the outcome on President Barack Obama.

Our cerebral president seems to have missed a singular point of modern campaigns — they are profoundly Manichean (an ancient religion which held that good and evil were always at war, and people were always choosing between them.) It was Obama’s job, starting around Jan. 1, 2010, to begin to cast the Republicans in the role of evil, to give Democrats something to run against as they prepared for the 2010 election. But Obama kept chanting the “working together” mantra. That left Republicans free to define evil for the public, so they defined all government, and particularly Obama, as evil. Usually, Democrats blame business/fat cats/Wall Street as evil. In a poor economy, someone’s got to be blamed. But Obama wouldn’t take on business, so the bad economy ended up being his — and government’s — fault.

The last DFL governor in Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, must have said the words, “Jobs, jobs, jobs” at least 500 times a day when he was in office. Perpich’s background on Minnesota’s Iron Range helped him understand that nothing devastates individuals, families and communities more than desperately wanting to work but being unable to find a job. Obama didn’t seem to have that gut belief. He was trying to stop the decline, right the economy, allow market forces to begin working again — all commendable but not understandable to the average person. The stimulus needed to be much bigger than it was. It produced enough jobs to keep the economic charts from going down further, but not enough to make people feel like help was on the way.

The final problem for Democrats: Politics continued its nationalization trend, so votes for local legislators became surrogates for expressing national unhappiness.

2. The Oberstar loss: irony piled on irony.

Wy Spano
Wy Spano

a) There are few regions in the United States where government has more importantly played a role in the economy than in northeastern Minnesota. Rep. Jim Oberstar brought many of those government benefits. Duluth’s Lake Walk, its Entertainment and Convention Center, the bridges and roads all over northeastern Minnesota, the upgraded airports in many communities, the many trails — most of these would have been truncated or nonexistent without Oberstar’s skill at working the congressional system. Ironically, in this election, all that Oberstar did for the district was held against him.

b) Oberstar was recognized in transportation circles as a no-kidding expert in his own right, someone who could think with the visionaries about what the current transportation really is and what it might become. After the 2008 election, Oberstar attempted to convince Obama that substantial job stimulus was needed and that bringing our now clunky transportation system up to speed could not only provide that stimulus but could also give us long-term economic and environmental benefits. Obama took some of what Oberstar offered, “shovel ready” projects, but the president wouldn’t commit to the game-changing portions of Oberstar’s plans, like high-speed rail. It’s all very ironic because Oberstar’s massive transportation plan could have at least partially bailed the Democrats out of last week’s election results, providing jobs and giving Obama the ability to do something like what President Dwight Eisenhower did when he announced the interstate highway system. The election would have been very, very different if the economy were better off and if President Obama didn’t look so feckless — an image he could have beaten back with a bold transportation plan, Oberstar’s plan.

c) Just a year before Jim Oberstar was elected a Minnesota congressman, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Roe v Wade opinion. Abortion politics has riled the DFL Party in Minnesota ever since. Unlike most DFL office holders and activists, Oberstar was what came to be called “Pro Life.” He suffered slings and arrows for years because of that position, but to my knowledge he never wavered. This year the state’s influential Pro Life group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) endorsed Oberstar’s opponent, apparently because they disagreed with Oberstar and other Democratic Pro Life members of Congress who held steadfastly to the belief that they had amended the health-care bill so as to guarantee that no tax money would be used for abortion. For long-time Minnesota political watchers, like me, having Jim Oberstar go down because he wasn’t deemed to be Pro Life enough is ironic in the extreme.

Wy Spano is director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/09/2010 - 06:45 am.

    The Democrats had an epochal opportunity after an extraordinary swing in their direction in 2008. But instead of taking advantage, Reid and Pelosi played politics as usual, and Obama felt no need to be a leader who explains and persuades and solidifies voter support for his goals and the actions they require. No one fought back as the GOP was left free to define and distort the issues. It was clear some time ago that the Democrats were so terrified of losing their jobs that they didn’t dare do them while they had the chance. I’ve been disgusted at their gutlessness.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/09/2010 - 07:48 am.

    Our president has a basic awareness missing from his perspective on the world. It may be just a mental tick, which would only mean he needs a bit of help to shift his thinking or it may be a full-fledged psychological dysfunction, which means he needs to quietly get involved with a counselor who posses the right skills to restore the “warrior” aspect of his personality…

    Because what’s missing from the president’s current perspective is any awareness that there are people who CAN’T and WON’T be reasoned with, no matter how much you lay the facts in front of them, no matter how much you show them the suffering of those being affected by their policies, no matter how diligently you try to appeal to the “better angels of their nature.”

    Coupled with that, he is missing the ability to confront anyone with whom he disagrees – the ability, even after all reasonable efforts at achieving compromise have been exhausted, to say in no uncertain terms, “You are wrong. The facts are on my side. I will confront you and call you out on your lies at every turn.”

    I challenge anyone to come up with a situation in which Barrak Obama has confronted anyone. I’m hoping to be proved wrong in my assertions and my assumptions.

    In terms of the venerable old Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory, President Obama seems to be way out on the end of the “P” scale. This means that he is always willing to change his mind, always willing to be flexible, never willing to nail down a position and stick with it, long term.

    In Charlie Brown terms, it means he’s “wishy washy.” He’s forever standing on the pitcher’s mound after the game has been rained out, calling for his teammates to come back and finish the game because it’s not raining THAT hard and they could keep playing.

    President Obama’s enemies (and they are proud to proclaim that fact, themselves) are, on the other hand, exactly the opposite (far out on the end of the Meyers-Briggs “J” scale). Their minds are made up. They are missing the aspect of their personalities that would make them capable of compassion and empathy. There ARE NO “better angels of their nature” to which you can appeal.

    They will not change. EVERYTHING for them is a battle. EVERY time President Obama doesn’t do things exactly their way it’s a sleight. The “warrior” aspect of their personalities is running amuck, but it’s all they have. (Which brings to mind the old aphorism that “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”)

    Of course with these opposite dysfunctions and, considering the state of the US economy, the warriors will beat (and beat up on) the compassionate people every time.

    I can only hope that President Obama shifts his thinking or gets the help he needs to recover the warrior aspect of his personality very soon. Lacking that, the man who really could have saved our country from the very destructive place we’re racing toward, as fast as our wealthiest friends can take us there, will fail, our wealthiest friends having placed their faith in the idea that money really can buy them happiness, lovability and a sense of self worth and being convinced that if, despite their $billions, they haven’t achieved those things, yet, they just have to have MORE and MORE and MORE (and how can the rest of us expect them to share any of their wealth when they don’t have enough to be happy, yet – never mind the fact that they’ll NEVER find happiness in their money).

    Without making the needed moves toward a healthier perspective and operating style, President Obama will be a one term president, and all hope of the return of the US to being the strong, confident, powerful-but-at-least-moderately moral nation it was in the 50s and 60s will disappear as the richest of the rich are allowed to continue their thirty year project of stripping the poor and middle class of their income, their assets, and any hope they ever had of a comfortable retirement in order to try to find happiness in ways they can never achieve, no matter how many $billions they accumulate.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 11/09/2010 - 12:08 pm.

    The Dems have not learned how to effectively campaign in the 21st century — and allowed the Republicans to “frame” the issues, and put them on their heels the entire campaign.

    All politics are NOT local anymore — as the Republicans proved. The issue was not local roads — it was Obama and Pelosi. Toss out the lawn signs, irrelvant literature, local newspapers etc. Today (perhaps from an ad agency background as Wy knows) a NATIONAL “platform” for the party’s positions, accomplishments, and proposals will have to be created; and the only one wha can do that effectively in today’s media world is the DNC, which was largely unheard from. In the future, that sould be run by a skilled marketing person — not an politician. Sadly, that IS politics in America today.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/09/2010 - 05:19 pm.

    Mr. Spano’s comments are spot on. I’m not too optimistic our Democratic leaders have learned anything from the last two years.

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