Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Obama, despite giving away influence, pleases so few

I thought Obama's remarks about the protests in Pittsburgh were misplaced.... The president's brazen insensitivity shocked me. Consider the fact that the protesters in Pittsburgh must have included many of the same young people who worked tirelessly throughout 2008 to get Obama elected in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. 
- Jotman, Sept. 29, 2009

It would appear as if it's not just volunteers that Obama's staff insults and the president ignores.

I think there are two major reasons people give money to political candidates: One is to feel like they are making a difference, to feel important, to feel a part of something bigger than themselves; the second, to buy influence, to get something they want.   I suspect that many donors who seek influence crave respect more than anything else.   Put another way:  influence can always be negotiated, but a simple "thank you" is expected.  I think to the extent that campaign donors are made to feel validated, treated like they matter (#1), many will forgive not having been granted all the influence they might have hoped to get (#2).

Therefore, it seems to me that a principled yet street-smart Democratic president, one who wanted to do his utmost to serve the interests middle class Americans while working within the inherent limitations of today's donor-centric political system, would want to go out of his way to personally validate donors (#1), while being stingy about giving away influence (#2).   That is what I think an idealistic yet pragmatic progressive politician would want to do.

Surprisingly, Obama gives the appearance of having gone the opposite route.  We know that his administration has cut deals behind closed doors with pharmaceuticals and the insurance industry.  We know that Obama has not done a lot to regulate the financial industry.   He let the banks off the hook.  On the other hand, we are informed by Politico, in an article that quotes a lot of anonymous sources, that Obama refuses to give many donors to his campaign the time of day:
In June, during an East Room reception for top supporters at Ford's Theatre, several of the attendees were disappointed that they didn’t get to shake the president's hand and take a photo, as they had in the past. Instead, Obama greeted a few people down front, reaching over a rope line.
"People thought they were going to a reception with the president, not a campaign event," one attendee recalled.
- One veteran Democrat recalled a group of Obama donors who were chatting at last December’s State Department holiday party, hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Half of them were upset because they had not been invited to a White House party," this Democrat recalled. "The (other) half was upset because they had been invited to the White House, and were kept behind a rope line instead of getting to greet the president."
- The president invited Senate chairs and ranking members over for dinner in March 2009, but came in after they were seated and went back to the residence without shaking hands or visiting each table. . . .
Other executives complained that Obama did not do enough outreach, even after the friction became clear. And executives who did get an audience complain that he is too often behind a podium, not doing the off-the-record question-and-answer sessions that would make them feel more involved and maybe promote understanding between the two sides.
In terms of policy, Obama gave away influence by the bucketful (to the big banks, the generals in Afghanistan, big pharma, the insurance companies).    Yet,  judging by both donations and voter turnout in 2010, the president ended up pleasing neither the business elite nor his core voter constituency.   How did he mange a feat like that?  Do we see the emergence of a pattern that explains it?

Judging by the evidence, the president may be overly selective about those to whom he shows appreciation.   Politically, I think it's not smart.  Once Obama's luck runs out, supporters he might have retained will move on.

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