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Big-Drama Obama

Brent Budowsky: The Truman metaphor is right for Obama, but it must presage a sustained battle for jobs, and not another brief theatrical scene in an incoherent drama with an inconclusive ending.
obama school children

President Barack Obama greets children from the Valleyland Kids summer program outside a school in Chatfield, Minn., during a three-day bus tour in the Midwest, Aug. 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama was bearing false witness against Democrats when he told a joint session of Congress that he disagreed with Democrats “who don’t think we should make any changes at all” to Medicare and Medicaid. As Robert Pear wrote in The New York Times: “few Democrats fit that description.”

To understand why Democrats lost so badly in 2010, why Democrats lost an important House election this week and how Obama can revive his presidency, we must understand why he would slander his own party regarding Medicare in his joint-session address.

Obama is the John Barrymore of American politics. “No-drama Obama” is really “Big-drama Obama.”

Ronald Reagan was an actor who governed like a president. Barack Obama is a president who governs like an actor.

The Obama screenplay does not work in a nation facing economic crisis and political opponents determined to destroy him as they sought to destroy FDR, JFK, RFK, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The president should run against this politics of hostility, negativity and destruction and negotiate only from strength.

I believe the president’s jobs program must be passed. I applaud the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and the Progressive Caucus for proposing much stronger programs to rebuild America.

The Truman metaphor is right for Obama, but it must presage a sustained battle for jobs, and not another brief theatrical scene in an incoherent drama with an inconclusive ending. As Truman said: When a Republican runs against a Republican, the Republican always wins.

The great source of discontent toward the Obama presidency is the widespread view that at a time of great pain, poverty and unemployment, the president is losing the confidence of the nation in his ability to produce concrete results that improve people’s lives.

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The great source of despair among many Democrats is that the Democratic base, and the heritage of what Democratic presidents stand for, are cast as villains to be criticized or nuisances to be ignored.

So, of course, the president attacks fictitious Democrats whom he falsely says oppose any change to Medicare. In the great screenplay of the president’s post-partisan drama, these fictitious Democrats are cast as foils along with “lefty bloggers” and “the professional left,” while he attacks an unpopular Congress while often making no distinction between Democrats and Republicans.

Even on matters at the core of what Democrats stand for, the president still proclaims, with the passion of Barrymore performing a love scene, how strongly he disagrees with “members of my own party.”

This screenplay is incoherent to troubled and hurting voters. The president does not offer the nation a powerful narrative to define the challenges of our times, or inspire the nation about great deeds he seeks to achieve.

Instead, the president seeks to persuade the nation about who he is not, offering modest plans with big staging, moving to the right of every Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. He positions himself politically by distancing himself from some Democrats, triangulating himself against others and insulting Democratic voters by telling them they are stuck with him, because his opponents are worse then he is.

For 18 months the president resisted fighting for major jobs programs. The public option? Lower drug prices? Stronger reforms to lower healthcare costs? Elizabeth Warren-style consumer protection? Battling against Grapes of Wrath-like foreclosures?

These were all supported by a majority of voters but fell victim, along with many defeated Democrats and defining Democratic values, to a presidential screenplay in which they were treated like props and cast as foils in a fictional drama of a fantasy post-partisanship with a GOP determined to destroy him.

Obama can revive his party and save his presidency not by continuing a performance to an audience that has left the theater, but by reading a book called Walter Lippmann and the American Century and remembering why America has turned to great Democratic presidents in times of great economic hardship.

Brent Budowsky

Brent Budowsky

Brent Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at