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Obama’s Paradox Problem

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Posted on Aug 31, 2011
White House / Pete Souza

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Call it the Party-of-Government Paradox: If the nation’s capital looks dysfunctional, it will come back to hurt President Obama and the Democrats, even if the Republicans are primarily responsible for the dysfunction.

Then there is the Bipartisanship Paradox: No matter how far the president bends over backward to appeal to or appease the Republicans—no matter how nice, conciliatory, friendly or reasonable he tries to be—voters will judge him according to the results. And the evidence since 2009 is that accommodation won’t get Obama much anyway.

This creates the Election Paradox: Up to a point, Republicans in Congress can afford to let their own ratings fall well below the president’s, as long as they drag him further into negative territory. If the president’s ratings are poor next year, Democrats won’t be able to defeat enough Republicans to take back the House and hold the Senate. The GOP can win if the mood is terribly negative toward Washington because voters see Obama as the man in charge.

Everything the Republicans are doing makes sense in light of the three paradoxes, even though, by the numbers, they have been the big losers from the summer’s debt ceiling fiasco and their broader refusal to cooperate with Obama.

A Pew Research Center survey released last week showed Obama with a 49 percent disapproval rating, but Congress with a 70 percent unfavorable rating. So Obama is still “ahead.” The Democrats are also better regarded than the Republicans—or, perhaps more accurately, less poorly regarded. “Only” 50 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party; 59 percent had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.


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But the trend on the president’s numbers has been downward, and the Republicans seem willing to pay a high price to keep them moving that way. Remember: the core GOP argument is that government can’t do much good and generally makes everyone’s life worse. Democrats are the ones who insist that government can solve problems and improve people’s lives. If government isn’t doing that—if it is discredited and made to look foolish—guess whose side of the debate is weakened?

Obama’s central task is to break out of the three paradoxes, not just to get re-elected but also to get anything done. Having tried conciliation, his only alternative is to build pressure on the Republicans. He needs to get them to act, or, failing that, to make clear who is responsible for Washington’s paralysis.

That’s why his coming speech on jobs has to describe a program that’s broad and imaginative enough to capture the public’s attention. The middle-of-the-road voters his advisers want to win back look first for chief executives to be strong, decisive and principled, not at how many millimeters they are from the political center.

Despite reports that the White House is split over how much Obama should ask Congress to do, the president has signaled that he understands the stakes. “My attitude is that my job is to present the best plans possible,” Obama said in an interview Tuesday with talk-show host Tom Joyner. “Congress needs to act. If Congress does not act, then I’m going to be going on the road and talking to folks, and this next election very well may end up being a referendum on whose vision of America is better.”

Obama hates to bring up the nasty fact that we have political parties, but very soon, he will have to point out that it is Republicans in Congress who are blocking his program. They will either have to start worrying about its low ratings, or begin to pay a real price for obstruction.

The model, of course, is Harry Truman. In a lovely book on the 1948 election, “The Last Campaign,” Zachary Karabell explains the problems that Truman’s attacks on the “do-nothing” Republican Congress created for his GOP opponent, Thomas E. Dewey.

“Dewey couldn’t distance himself too much from Congress or he would lose the support of his own party and perhaps jeopardize Republican chances in the congressional elections,” Karabell wrote. “Yet he needed to create some space between himself and the Congress in order to avoid being dragged down in their wake. It was a precarious position.” Indeed it was.

Truman, it’s true, didn’t get to this strategy until the election year. But the unemployment rate in 1948 averaged below 4 percent. Obama doesn’t have the luxury of waiting.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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Angel Gabriel's avatar

By Angel Gabriel, September 3, 2011 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment

Truth is, the Democrats don’t have the Nad’s to mix it up with anybody and the
bloodsucking “others” know it, so all the “others” have to do is bark and the Dem’s
run for the corners of the room. Nobody has a Policy Platform to stand on -
Of poor us! Mr. Dionne, this article tells me you need a vacation! Maybe you were
just trying to round up your monthly billing on submissions? Very weak!!!

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By prosefights, September 3, 2011 at 5:27 pm Link to this comment

Is the Obama administration going to possibly go along with bombing Iran nuclear facilities?

Former federal magistrate judge William Deaton certified return requested letter still has not been opened.

Iran matters may be involved?

Solar generation of electricity possible New Mexico shill operation examination more important?

Certainly is more fun.

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By Ozz Diessner, September 3, 2011 at 2:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why can’t the Democrats just admit that they are the problem? The Republicans during Clinton’s presidency guided our country to a surplus. The Democrats, with Pelosi and Reid, had a congressional majority and guided our nation into its present economic disaster. Then, the Democrats have the unmitigated gall to want to blame Bush.  What a bunch of spoiled children!!

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, September 2, 2011 at 6:43 am Link to this comment

anam: All they have to do is hold Congress at a standstill—-something easy to do if you hold the chairmanship in most of the committees—-and then blame the resulting lack of results on the Democrat in office.

Good insight.

Reminds me of an old French dictum: They have learned nothing since and neither forgot anything.

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By joell, September 2, 2011 at 4:21 am Link to this comment

How   do you   reinforce the   Dem/Rep mindset and
help preserve the status   quo?

By publishing   endless predictable   articles by E.J, Eugene, Bill, Joe, David,  etc.

Confronting the status quo outside of the Dem/Rep trap is an off limits topic.

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By losingit, September 2, 2011 at 4:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

RedWoodGuy - You ask who is reading this stuff? Apparently you are.

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By glider, September 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm Link to this comment


could not make it through this read, but I got the gist of its importance very quickly.

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By Baxter W., September 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment

I think all three paradoxes magically disappear when you have a strong president.  These are all paradoxes borne of a lack of moral imagination.  Mr. Dionne, when are you going to just acknowledge that President Obama is lacking this one personality trait shared by all great presidents.

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, September 1, 2011 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment

EJD: Democrats are the ones who insist that government can solve problems and improve people’s lives. If government isn’t doing that—if it is discredited and made to look foolish—guess whose side of the debate is weakened?

And how is “government” supposed to do that if the opposition in control of the HofR stonewalls all efforts to do so.

Americans can’t see through this perversity? They may be politically naive, but are they also that dumb?

Well, maybe yes ...

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By Dave L., September 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm Link to this comment

If they ever do a colonoscopy of Obama they’re going to find E.J. Dionne’s head in there.

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anaman51's avatar

By anaman51, September 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm Link to this comment

The late, great musician and composer Frank Zappa once referred to this paradox in song (and quite accurately, too, I might add) as “The Republican Trick.” They’ve been pulling this one since I was a kid—-I’m sixty now. All they have to do is hold Congress at a standstill—-something easy to do if you hold the chairmanship in most of the committees—-and then blame the resulting lack of results on the Democrat in office. The voting public, being about as bright as an oyster, goes for it every time. Up until that idiot W. was reelected, I used to think the voters were doing their best to choose the right man, but after that debacle, I had to re-assess that belief.

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RedwoodGuy's avatar

By RedwoodGuy, September 1, 2011 at 1:52 pm Link to this comment

After reading my comment I think I was unfair to E.J. There are hundreds of these guys and gals writing everyday about the hijinx of the two parties in Washington. And they all write out long involved scripts of “what must be done.” None of which of course are ever followed by anyone.

It’s a strange job. I imagine the pay is good, and there must be prestige working for the Times or Newsweek or whatever. But it really is like reading the serial comic strips. Day after day after day of “advice” from people who haven’t been near a lever of power in their entire lives.

What I would die to ask one of these strip writers is if they actually know what they are doing? I am hoping all these Thomas Friedmans and Krugmans and Diones and Walshes and whomever the Republican versions may be,aren’t kidding themselves, and they know it’s a joke, but do it for the pay.

Even movie reviewers have more impacts on things than these guys and gals. I mean Ebert can sink a movie. But another list of the “10 things Obama must do to win?” Sheeesh.

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By John Sullivan, September 1, 2011 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m still waiting to see how this is all Ralph Nader’s fault.

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By Dave L., September 1, 2011 at 11:32 am Link to this comment

E.J. is one helluva talented person. You have the ability to dress up as a cheerleader and wave your pom poms AND carry water at the same time. What can’t you do?

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entropy2's avatar

By entropy2, September 1, 2011 at 10:30 am Link to this comment


“It’s like reading Li’l Abner in the funnies each day.”

I think that’s very unfair…to Li’l Abner (which actually had a reasonable amount of social relevance).


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RedwoodGuy's avatar

By RedwoodGuy, September 1, 2011 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

I simply can’t believe an adult human being would spend their time thinking this nonsense up, and then typing it all out. What a farce.

I guess it’s a j-o-b. Getting paid to invent silly explanations of DemoPublican hijinx, and then inventing scripts to describe what each side “must do.”

Who is reading this stuff? What on earth can be the possible purpose and use of this? It’s like reading Li’l Abner in the funnies each day.

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prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, September 1, 2011 at 7:41 am Link to this comment

What a waste of space, and words… it’s utterly laughable….

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By SarcastiCanuck, September 1, 2011 at 7:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

E.J.,I generally disagree with most of what you said.Obama doesn’t need to go on the defensive yet.He can be patient and let the GOP continue to make idiots of themselves playing dirty trick games and undermining the country.It is getting quite obvious that they will let the country sink to make the President look bad.If they are still voted in by a gullible populous then they deserve what they get.Remember,they voted in W…...twice.

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By toby, September 1, 2011 at 6:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One advantage the Repubs have this time around is that 23 of the 33 Senators whose terms are expiring are Democrats (the Repubs had the disadvantage, although a lesser one, in 2008).

I think it’s a good thing Obama was arrogant enough to try to force Boehner to let him address a joint session of Congress on Sept. 7, when the next Republican candidate debate is scheduled.  If he had any grace this could have been worked out in advance.  As it is, Obama was the one who blinked and his grand speech will now be on the next day, conflicting with a major NFL football game.  Smart people, even those who don’t like football, will tune Obama out.  Too bad, so sad, but he won’t have anything useful to say anyway.

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By Alan MacDonald, September 1, 2011 at 6:39 am Link to this comment

Democratic Party shills say, “We need to push Obama, like FDR wanted to be pushed”.

That’s not the only thing that makes Obama like FDR——both were “traders to their class”.

FDR was a ‘trader to his class’ in turning against the rich imperialist pricks who were screwing the vast majority of average American working-class citizens.

And like FDR, Obama was a ‘trader to his class’ in his guileful scam to help the rich Empire pricks screw the average people!!!

Obama doesn’t dare to say a friggin word about the global corporate/financial/militarist EMPIRE that now controls our former country (and Obama himself) by hiding behind the facade of its ‘bought and owned’ TWO-Party modernized ‘Vichy’ sham of faux democratic government.

But when the vast majority of Americans fully recognize that they are captive to an Empire they will rise up and confront oppressive political, economic, financial, and militarist EMPIRE—- just as brave Americans did in 1775!!! 

Alan MacDonald
Sanford, Maine

Liberty & democracy

New America Peoples’ Party 2012—- our last chance “Against Empire” [Michael Parenti]

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By Memory Stick, September 1, 2011 at 4:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

At this point Junior should just number his “essays”. It would make it so much easier on his tired mind. And all of us.

He could just write “See #290” or whatever column he wrote 4 years ago blaming anyone but his tribe.

Curious, that regurgitating the same crap over and over again keeps getting webplay.

Note to EJ: Your “party” controlled all of government for 2 years and all your stooges could manage to do is pass a law requiring every citizen to contribute to insurance companies bottom lines. Something your hero campaigned against, by the way, in case you didn’t know. So don’t you think it’s a bit lame to all of a sudden be running around with your hair on fire jabbering about “jobs” (which your buddy Clinton was happy to sign over to NAFTA)?

How you’re not embarrassed is the real question.

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By Chris Herz, September 1, 2011 at 1:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It took an unquestioned conservative like Nixon to recognize China, and set the USA on track to doing business with that country.

It takes a Democrat like Obama to begin the process of unraveling Social Security so as to devote all Federal financial power to the service of the masters of war.

Personally, I hope the Republicans can come back in 2012; I was impressed by the damage done to the Empire by the incompetence of Bush II.  I hope for more of the same from Perry or Bachmann.

The US state, as I see it, cannot be saved or reformed.  There has been too much damage.  The best we can hope for is its collapse, like the USSR, and for the same reasons:  Rule by ideologues and incompetents. 

At least, as with the successor state to the late USSR, Russia, whatever replaces the USA will be unable to spread war among its neighbors.

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By jbud66, September 1, 2011 at 12:12 am Link to this comment


When are you going to PULL your head out of your ASS, and admit to the fact that BOTH Republicans AND Democrats are owned by the SAME Corporatists who own virtually ALL of Washington. Obama is George W. Bush REBRANDED, and NOTHING more. His nice-guy persona only gives the Power Elite better subterfuge against the American Public as they continue their Friedmanite malfeasance that continues to bring all of us down. HOW can truthdig continue to let you write such naive drivel??? Do you truly believe your own words???

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