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Hard Lessons of a Rookie Year

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Posted on Jan 19, 2010
Barack Obama
White House / Pete Souza

By Eugene Robinson

President Obama begins his second year in the White House with such anemic approval ratings, you’d think he was another Ronald Reagan: Among recent presidents, only the Gipper had fallen so low in the esteem of voters at this stage of his presidency.

In the end, things worked out rather well for Reagan—a landslide re-election victory, success in changing the course of the nation and the world, canonization by the Republican Party. In this context, the serenity of Obama’s political advisers is understandable. It has been a tough year, and the president has had to make a host of decisions that he knew would be politically unpopular. If history is any guide, these early approval numbers say little about where Obama will stand politically in 2012, much less how he will rate at the end of his presidency. The White House is right not to panic.

But serenity isn’t the same as complacency. There are important lessons from the past year that Obama and his team had better learn if he is to achieve his goal of being a “transformational” president like Reagan.

The first is that the “enthusiasm gap” matters, and it matters a lot. There is no way that a Democratic candidate for the Senate from Massachusetts, running to fill the seat that the late Ted Kennedy held for decades, should have anything but a cakewalk to victory. It’s true that Martha Coakley ran a mediocre campaign and that Republican Scott Brown ran a very good one, but still, this is Massachusetts we’re talking about. That Obama would have to fly in two days before the vote and stump for Coakley and the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority was absurd.

But the Brown-Coakley race was just the most stunning manifestation of a phenomenon that we’ve been seeing for at least the past six months. Vocal opponents of the president and the Democratic congressional leadership are eager, motivated and so excited that they can’t wait to grab their “tea party” signs and march around the neighborhood. Vocal supporters of the president are ... well, at the moment they aren’t even particularly vocal.


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There are several reasons for the enthusiasm gap. Some are beyond the president’s control—the decision by Republicans, for example, to take a purely obstructionist stance toward Obama’s domestic initiatives. “No to Washington” is a powerful message at a time when so many Americans are anxious about the future. But the president has ways to counteract such a message, and the fact is that Obama has not given the Democratic Party’s liberal, activist base much to rally around.

The health care reform legislation that the administration and Congress have worked so hard to achieve is ending up being perceived as “the best we could hope for.” The Senate bill is in many ways a breakthrough, especially in covering 31 million uninsured Americans and ensuring that no one can be denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions. But progressives had to give up the idea of a public insurance option, and organized labor had to compromise on taxing “Cadillac” health plans. When all is said and done, these activist constituencies may applaud the final result, but they won’t be jumping for joy.

On the economy, there is probably not much more that the administration could have done to ameliorate the pain so many Americans are feeling. But only recently has the White House been trying to demonstrate that jobs are a top administration priority, and there still is no sense of great urgency about mortgage foreclosures. By contrast, bailing out Wall Street was seen as an emergency. It is galling—and, to many supporters of the administration, dispiriting—that the big banks are now reporting huge profits and have resumed paying enormous bonuses, just like in the bad old days.

The takeaway, I would suggest, is that Obama has to be seen as fighting for more than “the best we could hope for.” And there are indications he may have learned this lesson: The new tax that he has proposed slapping on the big financial firms is not only good policy but good politics as well.

The other major reason for the enthusiasm gap is that Republicans have been winning far too many battles in the “message” war—for example, turning “affordable health care for all” into “big government takeover.” The administration’s opponents are defining the issues in the minds of voters.

That’s something the Great Communicator never would have allowed.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, January 22, 2010 at 6:09 am Link to this comment


Well, this isn’t Lake Woebegone where we’re all above average.

Keep up the good fight.

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RAE's avatar

By RAE, January 22, 2010 at 5:17 am Link to this comment


If what you say is fact then I’m now doubly grateful and comforted to have reinforced that I’ve never been part of the mainstream. My plan is to continue to hold that status until long after I’m dead - you’re not going to find my corpse in any expensive, wasteful box taking up valuable space as if I was important in the first place!

Mainstream = Mediocre.

Why in the world would anyone want to be part of that bunch?

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, January 21, 2010 at 7:24 pm Link to this comment


Points well taken. Artists do have an inexorable pull on the mainstream. But, generally, the mainstream considers the artist, tugs on its chin in feigned appreciation, then trundles back to its cubicle and puts in another forty hours.

But the mainstream doesn’t want to take a valium and turn their lives over to Barak Obama. He thought it did, but it didn’t, and that was his mistake. The mainstream wants to be left alone.

Semper quotidianus.

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RAE's avatar

By RAE, January 21, 2010 at 6:11 pm Link to this comment

Oh, c’mon, rfidler, don’t be so hard on them…

“You progressives out there might want to entertain the possibility that you are still the fringe, and not the mainstream you thought you’d become.”

Keep in mind that if it weren’t for the “progressives,” the fear-filled “mainstream” would NEVER change. We’d be stuck with re-runs of “Leave It To Beaver” forever!

Isn’t it strange how yesterday’s “fringe” issue is often eventually adopted by the mainstream? The irony is that the mainstream, in adopting the change, actually BELIEVE they thought up the change all by themselves!

It’s the same with much of the art and style of the nation. The “fringe” people - the gays, lesbians and others who politically correct society labels as misfits - CREATE A HUGE CHUNK OF THAT ART AND STYLE. It’s always been the “weirdos” and crackpots that lead the way. Be damned thankful we have them. Otherwise we’d all be bored out of our gourds with SAME OLD, SAME OLD.

While President Obama cannot be lumped in with the “fringe” exactly, he is just far enough out of the mainstream to potentially be a highly effective agent for postive change. If only the “mainstream” would all take a Valium and get out of his way.

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By rico, suave, January 21, 2010 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment

Safe to say Obama has had one of the worst rookie years of any president.

My take:

1. W was such a rotten disappointment that no Republican could have won 2008.
2. Obama was a serious break from the previous 8 years.
3. He really thought he had a mandate for a progressive redesign of the country.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

You progressives out there might want to entertain the possibility that you are still the fringe, and not the mainstream you thought you’d become.

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By ThomasG, January 21, 2010 at 3:47 pm Link to this comment

Virginia777, January 20 at 9:47 pm,

Is the backlash of the American Populace/Back Street America an inconvenient truth for you Virginia777——or what?

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By rico, suave, January 20, 2010 at 6:47 pm Link to this comment




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By Virginia777, January 20, 2010 at 5:49 pm Link to this comment

At least the liberals can’t be accused of not accepting blame.

The commentators here on Truthdig are friggen’ proud of their “accomplishment”, yet another Neocon in the Senate.


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By Virginia777, January 20, 2010 at 5:47 pm Link to this comment

ThomasG: you’ve hit the nail on the head here. They put a Neocon in Ted Kennedy’s seat as a “backlash” against Obama.

How stupid can you get??

(I can just hear the cackling of the right just now, they are eating this up, good work, liberals)

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ThomasG's avatar

By ThomasG, January 20, 2010 at 5:38 pm Link to this comment

Barack Obama had the chance to claim the American Populace/Back Street America and, if he had done so, he would have been supported by millions of grateful small contributors from the American Populace that are not represented by the Democratic Party and in the making and enforcing of legislated law and order in the United States, and would have made Barack Obama politically invulnerable; Barack Obama could not bring himself to represent the American Populace and chose to represent the Middle Class to the exclusion of the American Populace.  The result is the backlash loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate Seat for the Democrats and that is just the beginning of the backlash.

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By Archie1954, January 20, 2010 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

President Obama ran for the job, he wanted it and he got it now he has to do it. He knew, considering the circumstances, that it would not be easy. He can’t complain “I didn’t know”. There is no shame in being a one term president as long as he changes things for the better during that one term. He has to take unpalatable actions to get the country back up and running again. They simply must be done whether they reflect unfavourably on his potential for a second term or not. His job is to do whatever is in the best interests of the country whether that will get him re-elected or not. It’s time to put the country first. War and irrationally huge expenditures on the military is simply not going to do it, not in a long shot. Is the president in charge or not? Who runs the country, the pentagon? Please Mr. President either put up or shut up!

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By rico, suave, January 20, 2010 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

Isn’t “Schadenfreude” the neatest word?

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By rollzone, January 19, 2010 at 11:32 pm Link to this comment

hello. yes, he has lost his controlled speech drone, of talking down to the public, with careful cadence from the TelePrompter; and others are giving what he asked for; and he may be a rookie for another year; and just begin getting in stride, well into his third year: but make no mistake about this- Mr. Reagan was never this low in the polls, nor public opinion. this schmuck is the worst, most inexcusably inexperienced waste of party affiliation, in an unprecedented way, in the poster child history of American national politics. HE NEEDS TO CHANGE.

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By McTN, January 19, 2010 at 10:22 pm Link to this comment

Eugene has once again tried to soften a harsh message. He knows absolutely what the problems are with Obama’s presidency and to put them in the context of growing pains of a rookie will not work.  Those of us who voted for him remember his words.  Experience was not a factor for Obama, a big issue he duked out with Clinton—he could hit the deck running, he said.

Obama’s choices seem at odds with his campaign stance. How can anyone have reform and hire Timothy Geitner?  What exactly are the values these days cause they sure aren’t reconciling with the populist messages of his historic campaign. All those promises seemed to evaporate pretty quickly.

He’s in need of a vision…bad.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 19, 2010 at 9:58 pm Link to this comment

Mr. President:

Lesson 1) You are not a senator anymore.  You are not part of that club and you don’t have to kow-tow to it.  You have to BEND IT TO YOUR WILL!  Shmooze, bully, wine-and-dine, strong-arm, promise, threaten, whatever it takes.

Lesson 2) Opportunities lost are lost. Your first year is over and you have NOT gotten health care passed—see Lesson 1.

Lesson 3)  The Republicans don’t play nice.  They haven’t for a very, very, VERY long time—since long before YOU could vote. They have kicked your @$$ in Virginia, New Jersey and now in Massachusetts

Lesson 4) It’s your fault.  YOU are the head of the Democratic party and EVERYONE, including Reid, Pelosi, the 60 (now 59) senators, the Congress and the governors ALL take their lead from you. You aren’t leading them to victory, you are leading them to ANOTHER Republican takeover.

Lesson 5) Time to change your advisers. They have mislead you on the economy, on Wall Street, on domestic politics, on foreign policy, and on how to WIN in Congress when YOU have the votes.  How did George W. Bush get stuff thru the Senate with 51 or 53 votes.  Ask yourself that!

Lesson 6) If you don’t learn lessons 1-5 you will have a very short un-successful time in the White House, and ALL the promises will be broken.

It’s up to you.  You’re “The Man”.  You hold the “Bully Pulpit”.  And you’ve been kicked int the balls, hard, repeatedly.  Are you going to cave or fight back?

It’s up to you.

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By Sean01, January 19, 2010 at 9:58 pm Link to this comment

Had Mr. Obama modified his “no consequences” stance regarding the Cheney administration, he would certainly be enjoying a groundswell of popularity.  ‘Hope’ was not his mandate; ‘anti-GOP’ was.

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By Jim Goodson, January 19, 2010 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama, Your poor leadership and lack of good sound advisors around you indicate that you must fall-back and regroup, simply because you cannot make Chicken Salad out of chicken S—t. Lets see some Sunshine.

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, January 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

More trouble ahead: Brown won the senate seat in
Massachusetts.  State senator moves up to US Senate and
then runs for president before completing first term. 
Does that sound familiar?  I think the republicans just
found their candidate for 2012.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 4:06 pm Link to this comment


Again. What?

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By lichen, January 19, 2010 at 3:50 pm Link to this comment

Yes, actually, people with moral standing and conviction could and would have done better than the dirty corporatism, war crimes, and poverty-creation that the Obama administration and the democratic congress dared to admit.  They had the power to do otherwise, and they chose not to; they are 100% responsible for their criminal disinvestment and murder of middle eastern civilians, and they should be prosecuted.

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By TAO Walker, January 19, 2010 at 3:27 pm Link to this comment

The reluctance of most here to ‘get’ the actual media-wide message (ie:  Best not look to “leaders” for any solution to The-Situation.  They’re all even more lost than the subject/citizenry.), is certainly understandable.  After all, it throws the responsibility for their shared predicament right back where it belongs, which is in their own slap-happy laps.’

Meantime, the disaster capitalists go right on spinning misery into gelt as if there were no ‘tomorrow’....which they’re pretty sure there ain’t anyhow, one of these fine Days.  They’re so much more ‘successful’ than “....your huddled masses,” too, because they participate in what The-Law calls a “common scheme,” while the suckers succumb to the lethal weaknesses of CONtrived “individual”-ity.

So what, really, does Barack Obama (love him or loathe him) have to do with the condition your CONdidtion is in now, tame Sisters and Brothers?  Absolutely nothing you’ll ever be able to put your finger on.

Eugene Robinson is just doing his ‘job’ again, helping to generate the smoke-screen COncealing from you the abyss you’re already plunging into.  Can’t have any “panic” here now.  Might interfere with “business,” which is ALL fly-by-night by now.

Come to think of it, this could be your last chance to acquire this genuine Wooden Indian here.


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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 3:25 pm Link to this comment


You, too. Good post. Really.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 3:23 pm Link to this comment


Good post.

No, really. Good post.

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By SoTexGuy, January 19, 2010 at 1:18 pm Link to this comment

Robinson writes well and I share his hope that the Republicans can be prevented from a mid-term resurgence. I also don’t think a new Republican Senator from Massachusetts is by itself the death knell of progressive Democratic politics.

What’s missing from his analysis and that of many who plug for the Obama administration is this; Barak Obama’s problems aren’t with the Tea Baggers or an angry right wing base.. those people hated him before he was elected and continue to do so.. Obama and the Democratic majority are in trouble with people like me who listened to what our President said BEFORE he was elected and held hope that was an indication of the President he would be.

I think if a Republican is elected Senator in Massachusetts today it will be because too many non-republicans stayed home, not from any strength of the Republican candidate or a ‘good campaign’.

Let’s see the Obama that campaigned.. reveal and prosecute the criminal torturers in the Bush administration. Repudiate the unconstitutional domestic spying and eavesdropping, get the communication corporations that aided the raiding of American’s privacy.. Bring the troops home.. cease extra-judicial executions via robots, stand up for reproductive rights.. publicly advocate for health care rights.. not insurance magnates.. and the list can keep going..

A ‘symbolic’ victory on health care? Nuts.. If the Democratic party wants my support and vote they need to start being the Democrats I voted for.

That’s it.

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By Timothy Gawne, January 19, 2010 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Excuse me: by Obama’s standards his presidency has been a wonderful

He’s given something well over ten trillion dollars to his Wall Street insider
buddies, the better part of a trillion dollars to his defense contractor buddies,
and is very close to giving a massive gift to the health insurance industry.

At this point Obama cares as much about what the American people think of
him as what farmers care what their cattle think of them.  One term or two,
Obama has it made, he will walk off into the sunset and break Bill Clinton’s
record for post-presidential profiteering from the wealthy oligarchs whose
servant he is.

When will liberals stop saying what Obama ‘has’ to do to live up to his
campaign promises?  Obama doesn’t care!  Deal with it!

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By Hammond Eggs, January 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment

Another apologist for Obama.  Obama and the Democrats have no intention of doing anything other than continuing to dip their bread in the gravy of corruption.  I despise this phony, this pretender, as much as I despised Bush and Cheney.

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By RdV, January 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment

They brushed off VA & NJ with similar excuses and blame. But, would you look at this, Mass, bluest of them all, Kennedy country for a half a century. Kennedy, champion of health CARE reform, and ironically it is MASS who has the greatest familiarity with this brand of health INSURANCE theft,is sending Obama a message.
  Does it occur to you, Mr Robinson, that your constant assurances that the white House has no reason to panic, only serves to prolong the illusion the insiders try to manufacture as consensus, when we all know the score.
  It is going to be one nasty wake up call when you can no longer deny the bottom dropped out.

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By Scotty_Mack, January 19, 2010 at 11:53 am Link to this comment

Note to Samson:  Word, man!

Why would any democrat vote for Coakley?  She’s just another Wall Street owned puppet:

I only vote for people who represent me, not corporations.

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By Smudge Martens, January 19, 2010 at 11:37 am Link to this comment

“Vocal opponents of the president and the Democratic congressional leadership are eager, motivated and so excited that they can’t wait to grab their “tea party” signs and march around the neighborhood.”

Most vocal opponents of the president that I know were initially enthusiastic supporters who, appalled and betrayed by his continuation of misguided Bush doctrines, have finally come to the pathetic realization that this “Manchurian Candidate” must be judged by his deeds rather than his soaring rhetoric.

Obama apologists, such as Mr. Robinson, are wallowing in the same stinking rationalizing double-talk as the previous eight years of Fox News Bush apologists.

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RAE's avatar

By RAE, January 19, 2010 at 11:30 am Link to this comment

As a nation, Americans expect a level of perfection from their leaders that hasn’t existed on this planet in the last 2,000 years.

When the inevitable flaws surface the fickle-minded go into obstructionist mode thereby exacerbating all the problems exponentially. And you lucky Americans get to pay through the nose for the theatre of it all.

Democrats view the world through lenses that point only forward, learning little from the past.

Republicans navigate by fixating on the scene in the rear-view mirror, unable to anticipate the consequences of where they’re headed.

Glad I’m not on either of their buses.

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By GW=MCHammered, January 19, 2010 at 11:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Politicians, as I have often said, are the only people
in the world who create problems and then campaign
against them.”

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Samson's avatar

By Samson, January 19, 2010 at 11:24 am Link to this comment

After reading the comments below, does anyone still remember back in the primaries when Obama was citing Ronald Reagan as his favorite president?

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By Samson, January 19, 2010 at 11:22 am Link to this comment

Wow, it must be really so very hard to ignore the obvious in order to create a Democratic propaganda piece like this one.

What’s obvious .... Obama lied his rear off in the last election.  Especially during the primaries when he used millions of wall street dollars to create a fictional image that he was actually to the left of Hillary.

Now, he’s been caught in his lies.  Iraq continues just as under Bush, with only vague promises that we might withdraw someday after some ‘milestone’ that we never quite seem to reach.  Exactly what Bush used to do.

Domestic spying has continued.  Only, now its not the illegal aberation that it was originally under Bush.  Obama has made it the routine procedure of the US gov to spy on its own supposedly free citizens.

And, what a load of bull Mr. Robinson gives on health care.  As he scrambles to spin this awful health care bill as ‘the best they could do’.  Well, I suppose it is.  This is the best bill the Democrats can write to pay back the big health corps who gave Obama alone $28 million last year.  But for those who wanted decent access to health care, well, we didn’t bundle $28 million did we.  The only thing not for sale in this admin is the Lincoln Bedroom.

Is it any wonder the left is pissed off?  It shouldn’t be.  In fact, instead of just a lack of enthusiasm, what the left should do this year is kick the Democrats hard right where it hurts to show them just how pissed off we are.  The left needs to run independent pro-peace, pro-single-payer campaigns in every CLOSE race.  Let the Democrats know the pain and the price for shafting us this badly. 

Remember the old Kennedy family motto.  Don’t get mad.  Get even.  The left gets mad and fumes in internet comments.  2010 is the year for the left to get even with the Democrats.  Kick them where it hurts them the most.

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By G.Anderson, January 19, 2010 at 9:22 am Link to this comment

Transformational president, are you kidding?

At this point it will be a miracle if president Obama is elected to a second term. And once the right realizes that he is finished politically, there will be unceasing wafare in both houses.

He will be lucky if he isn’t dumped by his own party in 2012. If there is a Democratic party left after the debacle that lies ahead. 

The mid term elections, will lead to Republican domination of politics in this country for another 8 years.

And to top it off, 2010 will be an economic disaster for this country much worse than 2009.

Every important chance for reform or change, has been one sellout after another. He’s lost the support of independents in this country, it’s over.

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By mrfreeze, January 19, 2010 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

Well, after 8 years, the last incompetent NEVER got it right nor did he “transform” America into a 21st Century nation. GWB was a rookie from start to finish…..born on third base and thought he hit a triple.

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By bozh, January 19, 2010 at 8:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Once again the system goes unnoticed.E.g.,US aggressions, being systemic, is not even mentioned let alone studied.
Of course, MSM avoidance to touch the system is of the same system: talk ab anything but not ever touch the system or the whole structure; since only the structure proffers knowledge.
And they must not ever know!!

Entertaining people away from an elucidation or minding own business is of the system.
Tacitly, the system via msm and pols are telling people looking in from outside: look, you’re dumb, uneducated; leave the most important things to us to manage. tnx

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thecrow's avatar

By thecrow, January 19, 2010 at 8:09 am Link to this comment

So the “Great Communicator” is your model, Mr. Robinson?

You mean Poppy’s Hollywood face man who got right in line after that Hinckley incident?

Good thing he never knew about all that drug running, torture and murder necessary to defend his “shining city on the hill”. It surely would have broken his heart.

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By thecrow, January 19, 2010 at 7:57 am Link to this comment

Don’t worry, Mr. Robinson. Zbig and the puppeteers are having a blast. What else matters?

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By DieDaily, January 19, 2010 at 6:48 am Link to this comment

Well, the article could have been worse. Slightly.

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By KISS, January 19, 2010 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

If you can forgive his lies, his giving away the treasury to wall street, his keeping us in illegal wars, his assignment of nations and our states in grave jeopardy by appointing the ex-presidents that caused such harm to citizens, and his arrogance,and his destruction of the bill of rights as was Bush great plan, and his jailing any and all who will not sign onto his give-away-to the big business, yup he is a wonderfully empathic man of the people…NOT!  In his favor, he is not a racist, he just hates poor people and licks the boots of the rich..

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By ardee, January 19, 2010 at 4:03 am Link to this comment

So, dont worry because Obama can emulate Reagan?

I do sympathize with a Democratic Party apologist like Mr. Robinson, if only for the difficulty he faces in attempting to turn a pigs ear into a silk purse. I am sorry, sir, but the facts stand firmly in the way of your optimism;
facts like the appointments President Neophyte made to his administration from the first,
facts like his emulation of his predecessor in continuing the secrecy surrounding his governance,
emulations that include the continuation of the practice of rendition for the purpose of torture.
Let us include emulating a war hawk President in an impossible task regarding Afghanistan. Can Yemen be far behind?
Shall we discuss President Obama’s abysmal lack of leadership on the issue of health care? Selling out to Big Pharma and pushing the problem onto the legislature is not a sterling example of leadership I think.

I am certain that many here can add to this partial list of reasons why I think Mr. Robinson makes an admirable but failing try. Lets give Barack Obama a break, shall we, lets say, in the interest of bipartisanship, that he isnt a wholly owned subsidiary of big business, just a dreadfully inexperienced ,almost a neophyte, politician who has surrounded himself with blue dogs and republicans and is really as lost as he appears.

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