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Mixed Signals: Will Obama Be Hard Enough on Wall Street?

Obama knows he needs to be more populist when it comes to the banks, though it remains to be seen how hard he'll fight.

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With 59 votes in the Senate, the Democrats have more senators than the Republicans have had at any time since the 1920s. If Obama has discovered the virtues of leadership and occasional anger, he should be pummeling the Republicans for their sheer obstructionism, and asking the Senate leadership to enact key legislation with a simple majority of 51 votes through the budget reconciliation process. But on this front, Obama's conciliatory side still seems to be winning.

A little populism here and a little conciliation there is no game-changer. The worst strategy of all would be for Obama to be a populist on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a conciliator on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That would signal pure mush.

Democrats, unfortunately, default to this habit, because of an excessive reliance on a shallow reading of polls. You could see this tacking back and forth in the losing Gore campaign of 2000 and Kerry's failed run in 2004, where the candidate and his handlers oscillated between a progressive stance and a New Democrat one.

If Lincoln had based his decisions on polls, we'd still have slavery. Polls show that Americans resent corporate excesses, but value corporations as sources of jobs; that they are worried about the deficit but also frightened about unemployment; and that they are fearful of losing their health coverage but also anxious about the Obama version of health reform.

These, of course, are somewhat contradictory positions. It's normal for citizens to hold views that are not totally consistent. The job of a president is to fashion a coherent narrative and strategy of reform, even if some of it is momentarily unpopular, and to persuade the people to embrace it. A president who bases his posture mainly on a tactical reading of the polls is the opposite of a leader, and will be rejected for his weakness -- even if every one of his positions tracks majority support in the polls.

The administration's response to the twin loss of the 60th senate seat and a justifiably unpopular health bill could be a turning point in the redemption of Obama's presidency. So far, we've only seen a bare beginning.



Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.