As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Double-Edged Sword

There's been a boomlet of commentary that Obama has learned his lesson on bipartisanship, and that future legislative fights will be strategized differently. Here's a representative sample from the Politico.

White House aides say they have concluded that Obama too frequently lost control of the debate and his own image during the stimulus battle. By this reckoning, the story became too much about failed efforts at bipartisanship and Washington deal-making, and not enough about the president’s public salesmanship.

For Obama’s next act, the program is the same as he has been planning for months: New Deal-style plans to rescue struggling homeowners and rewrite regulations on the financial markets, plus a budget proposal that lays the groundwork for sweeping health care reform.

But the strategy to promote these items is getting an emergency overhaul. Obama plans to travel more and campaign more in an effort to pressure lawmakers with public support, rather than worrying about whether he can win over Republican votes in Congress. Officials suggested that the new, more partisan tone Obama embraced last week in his speech before House Democrats at their retreat and continued at his news conference Monday was what he should have been doing all along.

This is probably a good idea, especially if combined with putting the President's supporters to work pressing wayward legislators to support a bolder agenda. Here's pretty much the same article from the New York Times.

I have a caution, however. Populism can cut both ways. As much as it supports a leftist reading of, for example, trade policy and inequality and local control, it can just as easily support a right-wing reading of scapegoating immigrants and xenophobia and mob rule. It's a small point, but I found this story about a new country song moving up the charts to be instructive.

Because in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down,
While the boss man takes his bonus paid jets on out of town.
DC’s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground.
Yeah while they’re living it up on Wall Street in that New York City town,
Here in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down.
Here in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down.

–Shuttin’ Detroit Down, by John Rich

Detroit has long been the subject of hit songs — think of “Detroit City (I Wanna Go Home)” by Bobby Bare, or “Doctor Detroit” by Devo, not to mention “Motor City Madhouse” by Ted Nugent. But now, the country singer John Rich is joining them by venting his frustration over the plight of auto workers and Wall Street bailouts.

Earlier this month, Mr. Rich — one-half of the song duo Big & Rich — released “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” which is rising rapidly on the country charts.

On Thursday, the song took the No. 18 spot on iTunes’ country listings, and it ranked No. 26 this week on the Radio and Records singles chart, another measure of song popularity.

“The demand has been crazy,” said Tree Paine, vice president of publicity for Warner Records Nashville, Mr. Rich’s label. The song, only available at the moment as a music download, will be on Mr. Rich’s new album, which is due out next month.

Ms. Paine declined to make Mr. Rich available for an interview. But earlier this month, he told KKGO-FM in Los Angeles that he recorded the song in 36 hours after watching television news reports. He became incensed after learning of banking leaders who accepted bailouts, then spent money on private jets and redecorating their offices.

John Rich most recently endorsed and supported John McCain and wrote a song for his candidacy. His distaste for banksters taking bonuses while Detroit auto plants are shuttering is to be expected, but let's be clear where this will lead. We are in an economic position where we will need activist government for a while. It's extremely easy to conflate the fat cats on Wall Street with the stuffed shirts in Washington. The right is absolutely trying to tap into populism to stop Obama's agenda. They may not have his charisma, but they still have a noise machine, one that's spread out through talk radio networks and feels much more local than a visiting President, no matter the goodwill toward him.

Populism is a dangerous instrument and it can get away from you quickly, is my point. If Obama's not careful, the songs about the "boss man" could increasingly be about him, as odd as that sounds.

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