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Does Obama Care about Leading the Democratic Party?

- June 25, 2010

“It’s not clear” that he does, according to the hard-copy title of Matt Bai’s recent essay. This is his thesis:

bq. Unlike his predecessor and some of his own political allies, however, Obama has never betrayed much interest in building political empires. Obama ran on the notion of transcending partisan distinctions, rather than making them permanent, and the political identity that enabled him to draw millions of new voters into the process two years ago is both intensely personal and self-contained. It’s not clear that Obama can translate his appeal among disaffected voters into support for a party and its aging Washington establishment. Nor is it clear, as he looks ahead to 2012, how hard he’s going to try.

I read this eagerly, looking for what Jon Bernstein calls “a well-reported descriptive piece on something that’s actually happening.” Ultimately, I learned some things, but little that suggested Obama didn’t care about leading his party.

Here are what I see as Bai’s main points and my reaction to them:

Point #1: Bai notes that Obama’s background differs from previous presidents. He never worked as “some kind of party strategist” — a category broad enough to include presidents who actually worked for political parties (George H.W. Bush), presidents who just worked on a political campaign (George W. Bush, on his father’s; Clinton, on McGovern’s), and presidents who oversaw a party’s efforts in a particular election year (Carter, in 1974).

Reaction: Okay, but this seems to be a relatively narrow way of thinking about it. Carter and Clinton’s experiences in the party organization didn’t make them party insiders. Carter was famously antagonistic to “Washington” and worked poorly with his majorities in Congress. Clinton presented his health care bill as a fait accompli and then watched Congressional Democrats choke on it and spit it out. Obama, by contrast, has worked much more closely with Congressional Democrats and gives party leaders like Pelosi and Reid considerable freedom to negotiate with the rank-and-file. The result, of course, is a lot of successful legislation, especially health care reform.

Point #2: In 2008, Obama ran with “indifference” to the party establishment.

Reaction: Gosh, why would he do that? Bai later writes: “His party’s existing organizational structure was largely beholden to Hillary Clinton through the 2008 primaries.” But after the primaries, I don’t think “indifference” is accurate. Obama quickly moved to integrate the DNC with his own campaign operation. True, this put his people in charge, but then again, being in charge is sort of what leadership means.

Point #3: Sometimes Obama criticizes both parties, and not just Republicans. Bai reports that Congressional Democrats want Obama to stop talking about the problems in “Washington” and focus entirely on the problems with the GOP. Of course, Obama does both, so the debate is really about emphasis. Bai claims that after these concerns were aired, “Obama intensified his rhetoric about Republicans.”

Reaction: Although I don’t really think that anything Obama says about the problems in Washington will literally persuade voters not to vote for Democratic incumbents, I can see why such rhetoric makes Hill Democrats even more nervous. This was the best reportorial tidbit of the piece.

Point #4: Obama still avoids doing speeches to party regulars and robo-calls for the party organization. He has raised less money for the party than Clinton did and maintains no McAuliffe figure to keep the donors happy. (Biden has done more fund-raising events for House members.) Bai gets White House aides to comment on this. One “senior aide” says of the idea of Obama’s doing these speeches at party dinners: “For what? To talk to the same people he already has?” And then Axelrod says regarding robo-calls, “He’s got a practical objection to them, which is that they’re irritating.”

Reaction: Hey, I’ve got another objection to robo-calls. They don’t f—ing work! They are a waste of time and Obama is right to put his energies elsewhere.

Point #5: Obama’s team wants to focus on mobilizing the “15 to 20 million” voters who voted for the first time in 2008. These “surge voters” overwhelmingly voted for Obama. The importing of David Plouffe and “Obama for America” (now “Organizing for America”) into the DNC is part of this strategy. Bai questions whether these voters are loyal to the Democratic Party (“loyal to the president but not necessarily to his party”), in part via a quote from Obama’s old pollster, Cornell Belcher. Bai also notes that some other Democrats favor using campaign resources to buy ads rather than recreating the Obama field operation. This is a key paragraph in Bai’s account:

bq. By Democratic Party standards, this is a relatively muted internal disagreement. But it nonetheless points to the emergence of rival schools of thought within the party when it comes to Obama’s importance as a party leader. Some see him as having transformed both the electorate and the nature of campaigning in what could be a lasting and fundamental way, meaning that things are possible now — both in terms of liberal governance and winning elections — that did not seem possible before. Others view 2008 mostly as a cathartic election that had more to do with conditions in the country than with Obama’s peculiar magic, and they don’t think the party should assume that there are millions of new voters out there who can be tapped if you just knock on the right doors. These two worldviews coexist uneasily among the party’s elected officials and candidates, young and old, in every part of the country — sometimes just hours apart.

Reaction: Let’s separate out the various issues here. First, is the Obama team right to focus more on “surge voters” than on “party regulars” or “the base”? Only time will tell, but this strategy shouldn’t be construed as an unwillingness to lead the party. The comment of Obama’s aide above (“same people he already has”) is correct in some ways. The reason that we call these people “regulars” is because they regularly turn out and vote for the party. They do not need to be convinced. The Democratic Party could easily get more bang for its buck focusing on surge voters.

But aren’t these surge voters unreliable both as voters and as Democrats? Contra Bai and Belcher, I think these voters will prove loyal Democrats. Why? First, it is increasingly rare for voters to split their tickets. Party loyalties are strong in this day and age. Second, many of these surge voters come from demographic groups — blacks, Latinos, young people — who largely identify with the Democratic Party. Third, while undoubtedly turnout will be lower in 2010 than in 2008, voting is habit-forming. With a little urging, at least some surge voters could turn into “party regulars.”

Second, is it better to concentrate on television ads or a field operation? Bai quotes the lamentations of unnamed “party strategists” who note that Obama had so much money in 2008 that he didn’t have to make the choice, but congressional candidates won’t have this luxury. Ultimately, I don’t think that there is any conclusive evidence on the relative effectiveness of TV vs. GOTV, as it were. But it’s far from certain that TV is more effective. Here again, the mere fact that some strategists disagree with Obama’s team doesn’t mean that Obama isn’t leading his party. Leadership doesn’t imply the absence of disagreement.

Finally, and most fundamentally, I think Bai’s piece has a striking internal contradiction. Bai thinks that Bush and Rove had a “grand plan to sculpture a partisan majority that would endure for decades.” So what might that take? Let’s see, at a minimum, it would entail: creating a larger group of loyal partisans, especially among demographic groups that are themselves expanding in numbers. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s precisely what the Obama campaign helped to accomplish in 2008 and clearly wants to accomplish in 2010. No one disagrees about the goal. They only disagree about tactics.

Naturally (if over-optimistically) I read Bai’s piece for some sign that he had read the political science literature on presidential party building. Like, for example, the book Presidential Party Building, by Northwestern political scientist Daniel Galvin. You just Google “president build party” and there it is! Galvin also guest-blogged for us in December 2008.

In both his book and blog post, Galvin could only speculate about what Obama would do. But in looking at past presidents, he finds that two factors — “competitive standing” and “inherited institutional conditions” — affect whether they commit to the party. An uncompetitive situations, with long-standing and seemingly durable party majorities, led previous Democratic presidents to neglect the party organization. Obama clearly has majorities, but nothing about them is long-standing and their durability is in considerable doubt. Hence, I think, the effort to use Plouffe and OFA in 2010. Second, Obama actually inherited a Democratic Party that is institutionally much stronger, and that gives him an incentive to build on strength. Galvin cites “multiple improvements to its infrastructure and operations in recent years” as well as an activist base that is “more engaged, enthusiastic, and experienced than at any point in recent history.” (Some will question whether that base is still as enthusiastic, given the policy compromises that disappointed some liberals. I expect that any lost enthusiasm won’t be hard to rekindle, especially as Democratic activists contemplate Presidents Huckabee, Romney, Palin, etc.)

The bottom line: the economy is weak, a lot of other news is bad (in the Gulf of Mexico, Afghanistan, etc.), Democrats are nervous, and so it’s natural that not every Democrat agrees with every other. Bai has reported nicely on those disagreements, but I see little in them that signals Obama’s unwillingness to lead his party.