November 23, 2011 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
It’s Wednesday, so Tom Friedman has some more advice for President Obama. Well, not more advice. The same old advice. But it has a new date stamp on it.
Here’s the advice.
Part 1. Obama should not waste his time criticizing his Republican opponent. Translation: politicians win when they take the high road. Sources: President John Kerry. And those swiftboat guys.
Part 2. Obama should admit “he made a mistake in spurning” the Simpson-Bowles Catfood Commission. Translation: A draconian plan to cut social safety-net programs will go over well with Democratic voters. And Republican voters will like it, too, because – well, because. Sources: Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.
Oops. Translation Fail. It seems there’s a Third Way. Friedman claims the “broad center” will see that Obama’s unpopular stance on an issue they don’t care about is evidence of “leadership.” As Friedman puts it, “In times of crisis, leaders jump first.” Off a cliff, I guess. A la Wile E. Coyote.
Friedman is obsessed with plans to reduce the U.S. deficit. He’s written about it a dozen times in the past year even though ostensibly, his beat is the Middle East. In today’s column, Friedman scarcely bothers to remix what he wrote on October 5: “By refusing to embrace Simpson-Bowles as the basis of a Grand Bargain, and instead offering a watered-down version, Obama has left a gap for a sane Republican or independent candidate.” Translation: New York Times readers have a six-week attention . They will not remember I wrote exactly the same column seven weeks ago.
(Did I mention that Road Runner cartoons were repetitive? They’re all minor variations on the same theme. And they all end the same way: Wile E. Coyote gets a shellacking. More on shellackings shortly.)
Way back on September 11, we find Friedman “arguing that the only antidote to this debilitating [deficit] situation is a Grand Bargain between the two parties — one that cuts long-term entitlement spending and raises additional tax revenues to get our fiscal house in order….” A few paragraphs down, Friedman lets on that President Obama had actually made such a proposal. However, ten days later, on September 21, Friedman complained that Obama’s “long-term spending [reduction] does not rise to the scale we need. It may motivate his base, but it will not attract independents and centrists….” That is, Obama’s plan does not cut social safety-net programs enough to satisfy centrists. Translation: Centrists are people who do not need Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, Pell grants, unemployment insurance, child welfare programs, contraceptive aid, etc. Centrists are people like me, Tom Friedman. They are not slackers dependent upon government handouts.
Now let us go back a whole year in the Friedman Cycle. Let us go back to the weeks after the 2010 elections, when Democrats got “a shellacking.” On November 28, 2010, Friedman wrote, “… most Americans don’t want a plan for deficit reduction.” So, knowing that “most Americans don’t want … deficit reduction,” what was Friedman’s advice to President Obama a year ago? “The best thing the president could do right is declare his support for the draft recommendations on how to reduce the country’s budget deficit just laid out by the co-chairmen of the White House’s fiscal commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.” Though Friedman doesn’t say, evidently that gets us back to the leadership issue: instead of giving the American people what they want, President Obama should persuade them to want what Tom Friedman wants. As Friedman wrote last week, “Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls.” And that brings us up to today’s advice: Be “risky.” “Go big, Mr. Obama.” Pay no attention to popular opinion. It’s a winning strategy!
Friedman must know that isn’t true. President Obama – to the consternation of most Democrats – did just as Friedman advised a year ago. He shifted from increasing revenue (which he could have done while Democrats still controlled both Houses of Congress) and concentrated instead on deficit reduction, which he described as “belt-tightening.” The result: Obama’s poll numbers plummeted. Americans believed, quite rightly, that the president was not handling the economy effectively. That is, when the president took Tom Friedman’s advice, the result was a disaster for him – and for the American people.
Since Obama abandoned Friedman’s advice, his poll numbers have ticked up. “A new Quinnipiac University poll released [November 2] shows a significant bump over the past month for President Obama and his party….” On November 10, Gallup noted that “President Obama now essentially ties, 43% to 42%, a ‘generic’ Republican candidate when U.S. registered voters are asked whom they are more likely to vote for in the presidential election next year. This marks a change from October and September, when the Republican candidate was ahead….” And Pew reported last week that “With much of the recent political focus on the ever-changing Republican presidential nomination race, Barack Obama’s job rating has improved modestly over the past month, although few Americans (35%) approve of the way he is handling the economy.”
I suspect there are two factors that have improved Obama’s approval ratings, if ever so slightly. First, Americans have had a look at his Republican rivals. No elaboration needed. Second, Obama quit listening to Very Serious People like Tom Friedman. He started focusing in September on what really concerns Americans: jobs and the economy. Though Republicans were not anxious to invite him, Obama spoke before a joint session of Congress in early September and laid out a credible – if small-bore – jobs package, then barnstormed the country promoting it. (Republicans have rejected almost all of the Obama jobs package.) Earlier this month, Obama demoted/reassigned his chief-of-staff Bill Daley, who was the in-house architect of the Friedman Centrist Plan. These moves were clear signs from the president that – at least during the election cycle – he would return to core Democratic values and to economic issues that concerned the American people.
The truth is that if not for pundits and politicians like Tom Friedman, President Obama could ignore the deficit until after the election. The deficit was not of Obama’s creation, and Friedman himself tacitly admits it should not be cut now. But that doesn’t stop him from urging President Obama to endorse an unpopular plan that would be best kicked down the road.
We don’t know what will happen in November 2012. As statistician Nate Silver concluded after a long analysis, published in the New York Times Magazine November 3, “It is early, and almost no matter what, the election will be a losable one for Republicans. But Obama’s position is tenuous enough that it might not be a winnable one for him.”
One thing that does seem certain: President Obama will be former President Obama come January 2013 if he takes Tom Friedman’s advice. Under the Friedman Plan, Obama would further demoralize his base. He would have flipped from deficit-reduction to jobs to deficit-reduction again, making him seem like the Undecider and a Flip-flopper of nearly Romneyesque standards. Being Almost as Bad as Romney would hardly make Obama appealing to the vaunted – and largely nonexistent – “broad center.” As for those folks who suspect Barack Obama was born in Kenya, they will still think he was born in Kenya and they sure as hell won’t vote for him.
Another thing that seems certain: if a Republican wins next November, Tom Friedman will claim Obama would have won had he listened to Tom Friedman.
Yet in a way, the outcome of the 2012 presidential election should not much matter to Friedman. Whoever wins the presidency, Tom Friedman will spend the next four years giving him the same old advice.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com and until recently was a popular commenter on New York Times op-ed columns. A short time ago, she began boycotting the Times because of a change in Times policies that stratifies “trusted” and “mistrusted” commenters.