The First Black President

Here’s a real “check your privilege” moment. Did you know that, in 1971, Bill White became the first black play-by-play announcer in sports when he took to the mic for the New York Yankees? It took until 1971 for that to happen.

It makes sense when you think about it: Teams tend to hire former athletes as their sportscasters, and until 1947 there weren’t any black baseball players. So seeing a black sportscaster 24 years later seems right – except, of course, that neither of those lines should never have existed in the first place.

Still, I had no idea that White was so significant until I read this post on The Undefeated. (I just knew him as Phil Rizzuto’s former broadcast partner.) The piece uses White’s legacy to point out how the Barack Obama Presidency has changed the perception about further color barriers: Obama has made those barriers temporary. If a black person can be President, we assume will will be the “first black [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” at some point. Time, more than prejudice, is the enemy now.

For whatever you think about now-ex-President Barack Obama (I have some opinions), that legacy alone means something. As a white guy, I can’t even fully appreciate it myself; just as I took for granted growing up hearing Joe Morgan and Ken Singleton call baseball games. When I was young, my parents told me that if I tried hard enough, I could do or be whatever I wanted. It’s hard to imagine a parent having to tell their child the opposite – that no matter how good you are, some doors will be closed. Whether it was always true or not, that was a legitimate feeling in communities of color.

Among the debates surrounding the legacy of our 44th President, this accomplishment is worth celebrating. It’s sad that there was once a color barrier on the baseball field, or in the broadcast booth, or any number of other places. Now, hopefully, we can know there will never be a time like that again.


Obama doesn’t have to go to Nancy Reagan’s funeral, but I wish he would

Vice Presidents are supposed to be U.S. Government’s designated funeral attendee. There’s no reason President Obama should feel obligated spend his time there. The demands that he drop everything to pay respects to Nancy Reagan, and before that Justice Antonin Scalia, are shrill and senseless. They delegitimize the numerous valid criticisms of the President.

With all that said, don’t you wish he had gone?

After winning the 2008 campaign with soaring rhetoric of ushering in a new era of cooperation in Washington, Obama promptly reminded Congressional Republicans, “I won” when they expressed concern over his policies. His reelection was far from a rousing national endorsement; his campaign’s groundbreaking GOTV efforts squeezed every ounce of support from an electorate with mixed feelings.

This is the current President, but it could just as easily have been our former President. The left despised George W. Bush just as the right despises Obama, and W similarly squeaked through a close reelection relying on base voters. The man who claimed he was “a uniter, not a divider” saw a more fractured Washington in his rear view mirror when he left office than the one he had found eight years prior.

It adds up to 16 years of acidic national politics, and the choices for 2016 don’t appear likely to end the cycle.

With his days in the White House slipping into history, a warm gesture by the President to the other side would offer some glimpse of the idealistic young Senator we got to know in 2008 – and, perhaps, bandage some of the wounds. Scalia was beloved by thinking conservatives; Reagan was the First Lady to the man who, as more time passes, may prove to be the last pinnacle of post-World War II Republican Party success. Showing up at these funerals would have symbolized more than condolences; it would clearly tell the other side, “Hey, nothing personal and no hard feelings.” President Obama probably didn’t understand the significance of these two figures to his opponents across the aisle; otherwise he might have rethought his schedule.

(From a calculating, partisan perspective, it would also give the digital cheerleaders and opinion leaders within his base some motivation. “Look how magnanimous our Dear Leader is,” they could crow on Twitter.)

With eight years of sins on his record and almost two decades of political acrimony as a backdrop, surely these overtures would be rejected by some and ignored by still more. That doesn’t make them any less right. Eight years later, it would be nice for the President to go the extra mile and stand up for real change – especially because he doesn’t have to.

Could Obama win another term?

That was the big question in this week’s post at Communities Digital News. The answer (spoiler alert): You bet he could. President Obama is possibly the best campaigner the Oval Office has seen, and he certainly has more tools to help him than any of his predecessors.

An under-the-radar element of this discussion is that it sprang from a comment Obama made speaking in Africa, where he told a group of African diplomats to move away from governmental systems which allow someone to declare himself “President for Life.” He’s right, of course, but the comment had a hint of first-world arrogance. (Imagine the optics of a white American President saying the same thing.) It’s a good thing he said it, though, and that he escaped criticism for doing so.

Asking the wrong questions about 2012

John Sides and Lynn Vavreck had an insightful post on the 2012 election, where they chart out 10 points that challenge what they consider to be conventional wisdom.  Some of them are right on, but some of them simply ask the wrong questions.

Finding 1: Republicans liked Romney.  

Finding 2: Conservative Republicans liked Romney, too.

Finding 3: Republican Primary voters were not much divided by ideology

Finding 4: Romney appealed to the mainstream of the party

Much of the post tries to dispel the myth that primary Republicans were in an “anyone but Mitt” kind of mood.  The conventional wisdom, as Sides and Vavreck recount it, is that Romney was imagined as too moderate by the predominantly extremely conservative base of the Republican party.  By charting his favorability ratings against other candidates, Sides and Vavreck claim Romney was always viewed as a palatable choice.  To underscore the point, they note the philosophical consensus of most GOP primary participants based on their candidate of choice, and note that they are pretty much bunched together.

The problem with these three points is a misreading of the fundamental problems Romney had among primary voters that drove the “Anybody But Mitt” movement.  “Favorability” is not the same as enthusiasm.  Polls as late as January 2012 showed a primary electorate eager for an alternative: 58% of GOP voters wanted more choices on their Presidential slate.  Rick Perry’s campaign fizzled, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum took turns in the media spotlight but without the resources to turn go beyond media attention.

Most famously, Romney had changed his views on public health care and the right to life.  Public shifts in views when one is running for a new office are generally looked down upon by people in the know.

That all suggests Romney was the veggie tray of the 2012 buffet: it’s certainly palatable, but only when you find out there isn’t any popcorn shrimp.  Demonstrating that he had broad appeal to Republican voters doesn’t mean he inspired excitement.  Did Republicans like Romney?  Maybe the way one likes a carrot stick smothered in ranch dressing.  I would have liked to see Sides and Vavreck delve into questions of voter intensity – in other words, just how much did they like Romney?

Finding 5: The economic fundamentals favored Obama 

There’s no beef with this one – they are right on.  While those on the outside could yammer about lost jobs and economic theory, Obama could point to real progress.

Finding 6: Party loyalty is really powerful.

Finding 7: Most groups of voters move in a similar fashion from election to election.

These two were interesting and a little surprising, since party identification is down overall.  But those who still identify as Republican or Democrat tend to stick with their horse.  That should inspire a wave of voter registration and recruitment efforts and help Republicans realize how critical local party committees and organizations like the College Republicans are for building a foundation.

Finding 8: Obama “gifts” didn’t amount to much.

Demographic groups who voted for Obama didn’t view their support as transactional, Sides and Vavreck claim.  As evidence, they point to the lack of support spikes or bumps in public polling around certain events.  For example, blue collar workers did not start supporting the President more around the the auto bailout.

This is buyable, but like the Anybody But Romney findings, it glosses over the subtleties of the politics of voter support.  A vote isn’t usually a quid pro quo.  This is something that Republicans misunderstand when they clumsily try to out-conservative each other in primaries.  A pattern of action builds support more than rhetoric or an isolated policy statement.

The gifts phrase comes, of course, from Romney’s bitter postgame assessment of his failed campaign.  It’s a flawed assessment, so Sides and Vavreck are right to blow up this myth, but it wasn’t worth taking seriously to begin with.

Finding 9:  It was hard for Obama or Romney to out-campaign the other.

Sides and Vavreck look at GRPs and money spent on ads – by both the campaigns and outside groups – and find them roughly equal.  Therefore,  “their campaigns were often canceling each other out.”  This position is as questionable as the “Anybody but Romney” points.

It makes sense because there’s only so much advertising time to buy.  But there isn’t much discussion of the quality of the ads, or of the source.  Remember Obama’s strategy of targeting low-information voters at the margins with ad buys on Friends reruns?  Fewer people saw those ads  – and they cost much less – than the Romney or Crossroads GPS ad buys during local news programs.  But those ads may have turned out more voters.

This point excludes the possibility that one side’s ads could have been more effective than the others’.  Further, putting so-called allies in the same bucket with the candidate assumes that said allies are equally effective at communicating the candidates’ messages.  While both Romney rooters and Obama fans might have had equal shares of the airwaves, that’s poor evidence that one side would cancel the other out.

Finding 10: Romney did not lose because he was perceived as too conservative.

Here’s an interesting point: voters perceived Romney’s political views as closer to their own.  “This also complicates any interpretation of the election as a mandate for Obama,” write Sides and Vavreck.  “He seemed to win in spite of how his political beliefs were perceived, not because of them.”

This one is right on, and there’s a very valuable lesson in it: Voters won’t punish a candidate for being “too conservative” or “too liberal.”  They will punish a candidate for being weird.  If you use words like “varmints”,  if you randomly ask “Who let the dogs out?”, or if you say your don’t care about 47% of America,  you might have trouble getting people who agree with you to think you’d be a good President.

Obama’s data may scale – but will his support?

Democrats are clicking their heels at the prospect of using the Obama 2012 list for the 2014 campaigns.  Fresh off a special election win in Massachusetts, the main concern seems to be how to scale the data from a national campaign down to a Congressional-level race:

That’s not to say, Democrats caution, that there’s nothing lost in the scaling process. Hiring a talented analyst doesn’t mean a campaign will be able to collect the immense trove of data — and update it over and over — the way the Obama campaign did. Not every Senate and congressional candidate will have the wherewithal, or the inclination, to test the effect of slightly varying messages on an experimental slice of the electorate.

But down-ballot campaigns also don’t need that level of data awareness in order to improve their performance in some material way. And if the Massachusetts special election was one case study in transferring data and analytics tools to a nonpresidential level, Democratic operatives say there’s plenty more where that came from.

There’s a big problem, though: there isn’t plenty more where that came from.  Barack Obama is no longer running.

Sure, he’ll “sign” emails – and despite tumbling approval ratings, that will mean a lot to a certain subset of voters.  Even so, starting in 2014, Democrats have to deal with a problem Republicans have  suffered since 1988: the specter of a popular and philosophically grounded President may hang over the election, but the candidates who fill his spot on the ballot won’t match his charisma.  Voters vote for candidates more than they vote for ideas.

And Barack Obama ain’t walkin’ through that door.



Obamacare and the NFL

News broke yesterday that the Department of Health and Human Services hopes to enlist the NFL as a partner in expanding enrollment in health insurance plans through state exchanges.

There’s probably no better, more apt partner for Obamacare than the NFL, a league which is certainly familiar with health care:

Will Obamacare offer a system that will take care of you the way the NFL takes care of its players?  Kathleen Sebelius might want to re-think the optics of that partnership.

How to handle a scandal? Pick on coal.

President Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy” long before the Lewinsky perjury scandal.  But that one kind of cemented the legacy.  The President lied about an affair with a subordinate to a Grand Jury (who was investigating a sexual harassment claim by a former subordinate), lied about lying about it to the American people, and eventually got to keep his job as if none of it happened.  Famously, Dick Morris’s polling showed that the American people didn’t care about his boss’s poling so long as it was a matter of personal indiscretion and not a government matter.  When Clinton and Co. managed to turn the whole circus into a story about sex, it lost its steam.

President Barack Obama is in plenty of hot water today, and his approval rating is starting to wane.  Even the hard left is less than pleased with the NSA revelations.

How does the President blunt the scandal-based criticism and win back his most ardent supporters?  The same way Santa punishes bad kids: coal.  In a speech on Tuesday, the President has promised bold action through executive fiat on climate change.  Coal plants are expected by be in the crosshairs, as they have been since Obama was a candidate.

The rules don’t have to go into effect for Obama to win.  The best case scenario for the administration plays out like this:

  • Pro-energy groups, who tend to have plenty of allies on the right, react strongly to the rules.  Words and actions from the center-right are focused on the President’s extreme agenda.  Suddenly, the most influential opinion-leading voices drop the discussions about non-impeachable issues like the IRS targeting the Tea Party and the NSA surveillance programs.
  • Environmentally-themed left-wing groups rally to shut down coal plants.  There are teach-ins, rallies, and maybe even a hunger strike or two supporting the President’s crusade rather than defending Edward Snowden.
  • Energy industry companies and trade groups spend money on paid advertising and grassroots activation to mobilize public support opposing the rule changes.  Every computer screen in Washington, D.C. that pulls up Politico sees banner ads about clean coal, and pro-coal TV spots run during the local DC news.

Clinton made it through a scandal by getting people to look at it in a different way and trying to win popular sentiment to his side.  Obama may get through a half dozen scandals by prioritizing a hot button issue to create the type of hyper-political environment he claims to hate.


Obama’s Bad News Power Rankings: 6.15.2013

The Guardian hit the nail on the head this week while analyzing polls this week: The most damaging effects of the current spate of scandals is the erosion of trust in government.  Trusting government is the basis of  the President’s agenda.

  1. NSA Verizon. (New!)  Surveillance is the most serious of these scandals, according to Rasmussen polls, which gives this one the edge.
  2. IRS. (Last week: 2) There hasn’t been much new news this week, but Americans still care.
  3. NSA PRISM. (Last week: 1) Edward Snowden pushes this lower on the list, as does the fact that many reasonable Americans feel like spying on foreigners is an acceptable counter-terrorism measure.
  4. Benghazi.  (Last week: 4)  Americans may not care as much about it, but they do think that there was a cover up surrounding the events in Benghazi.  Worse, they believe the cover up was politically motivated.
  5. DOJ. (Last week: 3)  The Rasmussen poll linked above shows that Americans find this among the least serious scandals, but bet on ongoing media coverage.


Biden is kind of right on this one…

Vice President “Diamond Joe” Biden had plenty of choice comments last night while he was helping Ed Markey raise some scratch in Massachusetts.  One of them isn’t so crazy:

“There’s a big difference in this race,” Biden said, according to the pool report. “Barack Obama’s not at the head of the ticket. And that means those legions of African Americans and Latinos are not automatically going to come out. No one has energized them like Barack Obama. But he’s not on the ticket. So don’t take this one for granted.”

Leaving aside for a moment the unintentional racism of assuming minority groups vote as a bloc for members of other minority groups, Biden is right on one point: much of the Democrats’ success over the previous six years came in large part due to voters excited about President Obama himself.   Yes, the 2012 campaign team made unprecedented use of data to identify supporters, but they did so in the name of an exciting candidate.

Edward Markey doesn’t excite people they way Obama does.  Joe Manchin, Max Baucus, and Tim Johnson probably wouldn’t, either, which is a big reason they aren’t running for re-election in 2014.  Corey Booker might, but outside of him or a similar candidate rising through the ranks, the Democrats won’t have candidates who can duplicate Obama’s success.

That’s not an indictment of the Democrats yet – politicians like Obama don’t come around all that often, and the Republican ranks only have a few political rock stars of their own.  But it will become an indictment if Democrats feel like Obama will carry them to victory again in 2014 and 2016.

Obama’s Bad News Power Rankings: 6.08.2013

What’s worse than spending a week rehashing an old scandal? Spending a week rehashing old scandals while dealing with a new one.

  1. NSA targets everybody. (New!)  The President’s explanation that the concept of domestic is critical for national security makes the assumption that America looks at him the way they looked at his predecessor in 2003.  Claiming that broad oversight powers are necessary doesn’t sound so good after the public has spent weeks of hearing about flouting First Amendment rights, picking on political opponents with the IRS, and inconsistent stories about the attack in Benghazi.  Further, the wording of the President’s response – that there must be a choice between rights and safety – won’t help allay the public’s fears.
  2. IRS targets the Tea Party.  (Last week: 4)  The good news for the IRS?  The expensive and idiotic videos, coupled with news about the opulent conferences, give credence to the Administration’s claim that the IRS is not malicious, just incompetent.
  3. DOJ targets the Press.  (Last week: 1)  Senator Joe Manchin suggested that Eric Holder ought to think about resigning.  That someone in his own party would even bring this up demonstrates the bipartisan misgivings about seizing phone records from reporters.
  4. State Department targets the truth about Benghazi.  (Last week: 3)  Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings are sinking.  What difference, at this point, does that make?  It’s evidence that the American public is highly skeptical of the Administration.
  5. Obamacare targets American wallets.  (Last week: 2)  Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said this week that the Obamacare-induced hikes in insurance rates actually represent reductions in cost.  Yes, she did actually say that.

Wild Card: GOP targets Facebook.  The hiring of new CTO Andy Barkett from Facebook means the RNC may actually have the tools to start organizing around some of these scandals.