Obama must transform the debate

Neil Abercrombie learned a lot from the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign in fashioning his Hawai‘i gubernatorial campaign theme of hope and change.

Now there’s something Obama could learn from the Abercrombie campaign as he deals with the Republican resurgence in Congress and prepares to run for a second term in two years.

Abercrombie won by surprisingly wide margins against Mufi Hannemann in the primary and James “Duke” Aiona in the general election by claiming the high road from the start of the campaign and never wavering from the course.

When an opponent took a below-the-belt shot at him, Abercrombie would respond by lecturing, “This is not how a governor acts.” He got in plenty of his own shots, of course, but he drew a line and never sank below it.

Voters who were turned off by the negativity that inundated the airwaves this election season responded to his message.

Obama could benefit politically and do the country a favor by making a similar aggressive claim to the high road.

With the standoff between Obama and the Republicans, there’s not going to be a lot of policy transformation in the next two years. But he could do something about transforming the poisonous political tone of polarization, demonization and name-calling by making civility, decency and common respect the issue.

To this point, the president has mostly shrugged it off as the opposition has rudely shouted him down, refused him the respect traditionally given the presidency and spread lies about his birth and religious beliefs.

Maybe it’s time for him to take to the presidential bully pulpit with some stern lectures about how this isn’t the way a civil society acts.

There are partisans Obama will never reach, but he might be surprised by the response of the more reasonably minded who are tired of the toxic politics.

It’s just not a sustainable future for our country to have our people divided in half with each side refusing to cede any legitimacy to the other.

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19 Comments on “Obama must transform the debate”

  1. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    Hear!! Hear!!

    Great piece, David – I am going to submit it to a couple of national online publication because it sums up succinctly what a lot of us have felt starting within weeks of Obama’s inauguration in January, 2009.

    What I don’t understand is why there haven’t been more discussions about why these 22 months have been so awful. I know my #1 reason – racial AND ethnic hostility towards a man who is half white and has a Muslim name. Had someone named Bernard Smith with red hair, freckles, and blue eyes who proposed the exact same agenda gotten a similar response? I doubt it.

    We need to examine not just our own political motives but also our core beliefs about any individual of color with an un-American name being the President of the United States of America.

    Again, mahalo for challenging Obama to do not just the right thing but the only thing too help this country – not to mention the rest of the world – survive.

  2. Michael Says:

    Governor Abercrombie changed his debate from Mainland debate where mostly trash talk to Hawaii debate in a more Civil intelligent discussion. That was the difference. Governor Abercrombie did not gag anyone with issues but offered them or suggested.
    People of Hawaii do not like to be told I am better than you by Education, or anything else. There is a competition on bigger car, bigger house, etc. hanneman and aiona lost because they became to Mainland and forgot their roots.

    President Obama is trying. That is all I can say.
    He is trying to clean up a mess that has been going on for years. I also notice a lot of rich republicans but democrats as well. The people they are too lead are unemployed. hannabusa gets another pay raise with her rise in Power. Hawaii people see President Obama as one of their own. Others see President Obama as an African American but not considering he is Half Caucasian. Judging him by his religious beliefs as Muslim. What is wrong to accept Muslims as well as other religions? Some people are just one sided. One way. That is not Aloha. They think they are right, and the other could be right too.

  3. Kolea Says:


    I think you are correct that Obama must change his approach in order to both survive and to accomplish even part of his agenda. But I am not sure what YOU want him to do differently when you call upon him to take the high road and demand civility from his opponents. I agree on the need for civility. And I agree he needs to get a bit more “stern” in dealing with the opposition. But I think you are stopping short of describing the real weakness in Obama’s approach.

    I think Obama is expecting the Republicans to be reasonable and does not know how to respond when they are not. He has repeatedly gone into negotiations with them offering a starting proposal designed to win their support, based upon positions they have taken in the recent past. His healthcare reform proposal closely resembled “Romneycare,” the system Mitt Romney developed in Massachusetts. Most of the ideas his people were circulating for discussion were actually based upon REPUBLICAN proposals developed as alternatives to Hillary Clinton’s proposal in the early 90s. But when Obama said he liked these ideas, they demanded more and more. (More accurately, “less and less.”)

    When Republicans introduced a bill calling for the creation of a deficit commission, Obama adopted the idea. One by one, the original Republican authors of the bill withdrew their support.

    In my read of his personality, he is congenitally incapable of dealing with bad faith negotiators. He assumes everyone in a position of responsibility has good intentions behind their ideological posturing.

    I think he has to toughen up. When FDR was facing an obstructionist Congress and a resistant business community, he rallied the people against the “economic royalists” who placed theri interests above those of “the People.” FDR came from the patrician class, so he had no illusion about their intentions and no fear calling them out.

    Obama MAY still be that gawky kid with the strange name and big ears, trying to get the Punahou kids to like and accept him. In so many ways, he is an outsider trying to convince the rich, powerful and cultured elite that he bears them no ill-will. Can he be a part of their crowd?

    A lot of folks on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party saw the same factors which made Obama an outsider, plus his experience as a community organizer in Chicago, and assumed he was committed to a progressive agenda. I am starting to think we misread the signals just as the right wingers misread the signals. He had all the “cultural signifieers” to suggest a commitment to progressive ideals, but I think it is a mistake to misread his STYLE as though it is SUBSTANCE.

    He is a VERY moderate, centrist politician, not eager to break from the policies of the Clinton and Bush eras. He doesn’t understand why the Republicans and corporate elite don’t GET THAT about him.

    If he remains floundering as a result of that confusion, he will be a one-term president. The best way out, from my perspective, is to learn from FDR and use his impressive oratory to rally the public against obstructionist leadership of the GOP and the leaders of Big Business. Would that work for his personality and core values? I dunno.

  4. anticoqui Says:

    In sort of an extreme way, too bad this is the UNITED States of America; the obstructionists bring down everyone not only their own states. If the RED States don’t like or follow Pres. Obama’s plans, then, let only the BLUE States receive help from his programs. Less States to help, less $$$ to budget and spend….or more for the States that like his programs. Some States want less Federal ‘interference’ so, they can ‘hang out’ while the other States get their share of Federal funding. OH OH!!! that sounds like what happened to the U.S.S.R…..splintering of that Union. del/ctrl/esc.!!!!

  5. Michael Says:

    According to many Asian Scholars on having large ears is a Sign of Wisdom. Refudiated by those who have small ears. One such as sarah palin. “Got to celebrate it”

  6. charles Says:

    Well, when Sen. McConnell says the number one priority is making President Obama a one-term president, that doesn’t sound like someone intent on collaboration and cooperation.

  7. David Shapiro Says:

    An interesting take on the matter from the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/12/opinion/12brooks.html?_r=2&ref=opinion

  8. Scott Angle Says:

    By “claiming the high road” I believe Mr. Shapiro means not calling your opponents “enemies” as President Obama did in the days leading up to Election Day.

    As far as questioning the president’s religion or place of birth, I don’t believe that’s coming from any mainstream republican.

    Both the extreme left and the extreme right need to moderate their rhetoric.

  9. Michael Says:

    We the 50th State of Divided States of America.
    Party of 5 or more. T anyone?
    Interesting how the past comes back in a circle. Instead of meeting we spiral out of control. Neither party can be of any good without the other.
    United we Stand, Divided we Fall.

  10. Kolea Says:


    Here’s a commentary by Robert Reich, which I think is more clearly focussed (and reasoned) than David Brooks’ piece:

    “ROBERT REICH: Why We Should Beware Budget-Deficit Mania”


    If Obama goes down the “deficit hawk” path, it will destroy his chances for re-election AND prolong the ongoing recession.

    FDR! FDR! FDR!

  11. Peter Kay Says:

    Aloha Dave,

    Thanks again for providing this forum for discussion. Indeed, Obama must transform the debate, but I do not believe he will be able to. Why? Obama exhibits the classic personality that believes he’s right and everyone else is wrong. The only way these types of people even have a prayer of righting their ways is through a complete implosion and the presidency is not the place to undergo this self-realization.

    He rode the first half of his term on his soaring rhetoric and supermajorities in Congress. Scott Brown was the first warning flare that he needed to slow down and his response was to press on the accelerator. What was an unmistakable signal of voter frustration was simply dismissed without even a comment.

    I watched the Healthcare Summit and was struck by a few things which I believe underscore who he is: First, he talked down to Congress by addressing them informally; in a sense saying “I’m better than you. I’ll call you Bill instead of Senator Smith, but you still have to call me Mr. President”. Second was that he gave lip service to the Republican proposals on healthcare and finally he dismissed them all with a “That’s what elections are for”, which is code phrase for “I won, you lost, I have power, you don’t”.

    Obama has continually and consistently exhibited a pattern of “I’m better than you. I know better, and the sooner you understand that, the better off you will be”. This is not the kind of man that can transform. This is a man who even now refuses to acknowledge that the midterm elections were a referendum on his policies (“That’s what elections are for!”) is further proof.

    For Obama to transform the debate, he needs to transform himself and that will take big doses of humility (a very strong local trait but surprisingly absent in this, our native son). It reminds me of a part of Mac Davis’ lyrics, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way”.

    I will go on a limb and say Obama is going to press on the accelerator and crank up the partisanship, if only because he’s trapped by his far left base. I pray I’m wrong.

  12. David Shapiro Says:

    Peter, thanks for the thoughts and Mac Davis reference. I haven’t heard of him for decades. Of course I had to find the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-07_2DWfEmQ

  13. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    And just who do the Obama naysayers have to offer in the way of a qualified candidate for President in either Party?

    Although Obama is a centrist and many of his positions are neither what I like nor support actively, I truly fear the idea of having our government taken over by people who attack basic human rights and individuals living on the loert side of life.

  14. Kolea Says:


    I guess you are including me as an “Obama naysayer”?

    I don’t see a good alternative to Obama. At this point, I do not see a good primary challenger. And, as a general proposition, a primary challenge tends to lead the a sitting president’s defeat. (Or, it may be that it is a weak president who draws a primary challenge first and then goes on to lose the General, not because of the challenge, but because of the weakness).

    Which is why I am advising him (heh; we’ll talk more when he visits in December) on the need to change course. Even as I doubt he is capable of doing so. I feel like Epictetus, the slave-philosopher advising his master who was twisting his leg: “If you keep doing that, it will break.” Then, when it broke: “I told you that would happen.” (It was much more elegant in the original Greek).

    I expect Obama will not tap into the populist resentment and use it to strengthen his presidency, leaving it instead for the Republican Party to manipulate and mislead through their paid lackeys, will NOT take on the corporations more forcefully.

    The leg WILL break. And we will all limp along thereafter. (He’ll end up on boards, a multi-millionaire, paid for delivering speeches, like the scoundrel, Bill Clinton.) Unless, of course, he is assassinated in the climate being created by the semi-fascist agitators on Fox News and Clear Channel.

    (I realize as I write that last paragraph, it might strike some as inappropriate. But I think “words have consequences.” And the rightwing is deliberately foster a howling rage of irrational passion in the land. They are doing it to elect rightwing politicians and adopt legislation is service to the very rich. But there is a violent spirit BARELY below the surface. The guns at rallies, the curb-stomping in Kentucky, the demonization of Obama are warning signs. The brownshirts are here, among us. We needn’t rely upon hindsight to inform us of the potential danger. The signs are everywhere.

  15. shaftalley Says:

    President Obama appears more bush-like everyday.we still have prisoners in guantanamo,still have wars in iraq,afghanistan,and even more government surveillance on its’ citizens.still have corrupted-capitalism.bad news.

  16. Michael Says:

    Bickering amongst commentors. How our Government bickers amongst themselves. What is gained by flack flying back and forth? Nothing. President Obama is asking for help regardless of the issue and those who are Republicans, t-party etc are not helping. If this affects my life style then I will put my foot down and take stand.

    What is expected of a President to be done in less than 2 years?
    Why worry about next election? It will be a short one and The End of the Earth in 12/21/2012. If not then it will be with the Next President. America will not be around as number 1. Too much drama.
    President Obama running against palin? That would be something to see. Think about it. palin would say “You got to celebrate it” Those who drink coffee best learn how to drink T.

  17. WooWoo Says:


    As others have already pointed out, you (and some others here on this forum) give too much credence to the extremists. The media (old-guard and new-guard) always give too much attention to the outliers. Witness the local example of Eric Ryan. Everybody here knows that Eric Ryan is completely inconsequential in the local political landscape. His endorsement means nothing, his criticism means nothing. Yet, his tirades always make it onto the blogs.

    The vast majority of people who oppose the Presiden’t policies are just that; people who are opposed to his policies. The last guy that tried to push more government into healthcare was a good ole white boy from down south, and he took a beating for that.

    As Peter has pointed out, this President is the one that has mistreated the office, not his opposition. Presidents do not berate Supreme Court Justices at the State of the Union. Presidents do not blame their predecessors relentlessly.


    I am thrilled by the deficit commission’s opening salvo. I am trying not to get too excited, since I know that the almost by definition Congress fights any sort of movement. Reich’s article to me is slightly disingenuous. He states:

    “The report suffers a more fundamental error — the unquestioned assumption that America’s biggest economic challenge is to reduce the federal budget deficit.”

    He full well knows that this is not the Commission to Identify America’s Biggest Economic Challenge. This is the deficit commission, whose job it is to find ways to reduce the deficit. In that, I think that both parties need to take ALL of the proposals seriously.

  18. Kolea Says:

    Peter Kay and WooWoo,

    Two of my favorite reasonable Republicans. (Well ,not counting Cynthia Thielen, who I LOVE!)


    I think you have acclimatized a bit too much to the GOP culture in your short time within their orbit. Obama addresses congressmembers by their first names? Really? That strikes you as a sign of arrogance? You suppose previous presidents used their titles? You think Bush didn’t call Representative Livingstone “Bob”? Or maybe when Bush did, it was “folksy” instead of “arrogant”?

    Obama has explicitly said–repeatedly, he wants to work with the GOP and is willing to compromise. His “negotiations” over healthcare demonstrated that. Look at the House, the Dems (under the direction of Rahm Emanuel) gave the GOP concession after concession. And fialed to win commitments for support in return! What kind of one-sided “deal” was that? How can you witness that performance and suggest he is not prone to compromise?

    Now look at the recent explicit statements from the major GOP House and Senate leaders about their EXPLICIT unwillingness to compromise, including Mitch McConnell’s statement their goal is to make Obama a “one-term president.” And for those who think that was an individual comment, he just doubled-down, saying the only way to roll back Obama’s legislative agenda is to defeat him in 2012.

    So HOW do you end up concluding Obama is iat any risk of being “trapped by his left base,” the base Rahm referred to as “f***in’ retards”? Obama has ignored his base on issue after issue, in pursuit of some idealized “bi-partisan” compromise on all major legislation. It would be admirable if you two would admit to what has been happening. He has capitulated to the Republicans and corporate interests and you folks regard him as a weakling as a result. He is your “punk” and you folks will continue to “punk” him until you kick him to the curb in 2012.

    I want him to “man up,” but I doubt that will happen. The only time he gets mad is at the left within his own party and not at the real adversary.

  19. Teddy Freddy Says:

    Obama must get aggressive and take no prisoners or the rightwing will continue to walk all over him. The people want a leader and not an appeaser. This is standard “Bully Defense 101”. The Bully pushes you and you push the Bully back. Pretty soon the Bully stops pushing or at least knows that there is a price to pay, that hurts. Or if you already have taken the 101 course, the “Bully Defense 201” teaches you to deliver the lesson “If you f**K with a truck you get run over”. Obama has already tried the diplomacy route and the Bullies have just continued to mock and kick him at every opportunity. It is time to take the gloves off and be the leader we all want him to be (well speaking for most of the sane and rational people in the world anyway). Speak softly if you will Mr. President, but please show us that you know how to carry and use the big stick. You only have two years left Mr. President, please let us remember you as the President who was willing to fight the bullies and to stand up for the principles and values for which we elected you. We believed in you Mr. President, please do not let us down. Just do the right thing.

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