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Lessons of President Obama’s First Two Weeks

It’s been less than two weeks, but patterns have emerged that are likely to continue throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. First, Obama understands how to use the media. Examples are detailed below, but the best is the widespread media story last Thursday about how the usually cool Obama “lost it” -- in front of cameras and microphones -- when denouncing Wall Street for giving $20 billion in bonuses.


Second, Obama has brilliantly handled the public desire for “bipartisanship.” The media and some progressives remain confused over his overtures to Republicans, but clearly he has put his "partisan" adversaries on the defensive. Third, Obama has signalled that he will not compromise on bread and butter issues affecting working families. Finally, it is already clear that where activist energy is missing – as in the lack of pressure on Obama to start withdrawing troops from Iraq – the President focuses elsewhere. This may be as important as any lesson activists have learned from Obama’s early days.

The Great Communicator
Barack Obama is known for rousing speeches, but he has already also proved himself an expert at using – or some would say manipulating – the traditional media.

Case in point: With microphones recording and cameras flashing, President Obama lashes out at Wall Street for issuing $20 billion in executive bonuses. He describes such acts as “shameful,” since these companies have received billions in public bailout funds.

While it seemed obvious that Obama’s anger was carefully staged, the traditional media –on the radio, television news, and Internet —played it as "breaking news." In excited tones they framed the President’s words as “Learn why the usually composed Barack Obama lost his cool today.” The media’s message: those Wall Street execs are so out of line, they even forced the cool and collected Obama to get riled up against them.

Which, of course, is precisely the message the Obama team wanted to deliver.

Obama’s Bipartisanship
Obama’s desire to “bridge partisan differences” has dominated media coverage of his first two weeks. From his walk to Capitol Hill to his lengthy meetings with House and Senate Republicans, Obama has been credited with “changing the tone” in Washington DC after the highly partisan Bush years.

Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship has been interpreted in three ways.

First, Republicans see it as a smokescreen for enacting a stimulus measure they oppose.

Second, some progressives fear that Obama is making concessions to Republicans in the name of “bipartisanship” without getting anything in return. Most often cited is the President’s removal of family planning funds, and the deletion from the stimulus package of $200 million to replace the sod on the National Mall. Some fear that Obama will now expand tax breaks for businesses and upper-income taxpayers to secure Republican votes and prove “bipartisanship” in the Senate.

I place myself in a third group that sees Obama as achieving the popular political goal of “bipartisanship” without compromising the package’s overwhelmingly progressive focus.

To win over Republican Senators, Obama is adding to the package, not deleting progressive components. That's why the Senate bill is for $890 billion, rather than the $825 billion that passed the House. Much of these additional tax breaks are for the middle-class, not the wealthy.

When one steps back and looks at some of the non-negotiable provisions in the stimulus package – a $20 billion increase in food stamps, $39 billion for health care for the newly unemployed poor, $43 billion for increased unemployment benefits and job training, $6.2 billion for weatherization of low-income housing – consider how long it has been since a President pushed for these type of progressive spending increases.

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The closest effort was President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 “War on Poverty” budget. But those dollar figures paled in comparison to the progressive measures in the stimulus package.

So if Barack Obama wants Republican votes to pass the nation’s most progressive spending measure in over forty years, if not ever, and has to throw in more tax cuts to get it done, let the President's faith in bipartisanship proceed.

No Compromising on Workers’ Needs
Another important lesson we have learned in the past two weeks is that Obama will not sacrifice bread and butter programs for working families. To the contrary, Obama has taken a hard and public line with Republicans, insisting that low-income workers deserve tax rebates, and that low-income people are entitled to greater financial assistance.

In a meeting with labor leaders last Friday, Obama stated: “I don't see organized labor as part of the problem. To me, they’re part of the solution.” When's the last time we heard a U.S. President say that?

When the media pressed him to backtrack in his support for workers – such as in complaints that the package’s “Buy American” requirements are anti-competitive – Obama has remained firm that he will champion worker interests.

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What Happened to Iraq?
Obama’s public opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq distinguished him from Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, and helped pave his way to the White House. Yet Obama has said nary a word about bringing troops home from Iraq, though his spokespersons -- echoed by -- insist he will fulfill his pledge to get all the troops home in sixteen months.

Clearly, Obama is not talking about Iraq because he is intensely focused on the stimulus package. But nobody is pressuring him about U.S. troops in Iraq, so he has no reason to bring up an issue which reportedly has him at odds with generals who do not want troops reduced at Obama’s desired pace.

Barack Obama has said time and time again that the grassroots must lead the push for change. His domestic actions are a response to such grassroots activism; his lack of action on Iraq is a similar response to the absence of such pressure.

We also learned that Obama is an authentic sports fan who openly roots for certain teams. That's why Steelers owner Dan Rooney thanked him for his support after his team won the 2009 Super Bowl -- Obama had told reporters that next to the Bears, the Steelers were his favorite team.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the newly-released Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron