This past week saw the 40th anniversary of the “Silent Majority” speech — a reminder that RN had a couple of advantages that President Obama lacks.
The first, as a commenter on an earlier post shrewdly suggested, is that RN had a captive audience when he addressed the nation on television. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the three network newscasts could capture about 85 percent of the television sets in use during 1969. Thanks to limited viewing options, a presidential address could command a comparable portion of the viewing audience. By 2008, however, cable had brought us many more things to watch, and the Big Three news broadcasts were down to just 28 percent of sets in use. When President Obama goes on television, you don’t have to watch: you can just switch to Spongebob Squarepants. So it is no surprise that his address to Congress on health care reform was not a “game changer.” Most people did not see it.
RN could also build cross-party coalitions in Congress, which was important since Democrats controlled both chambers. In 1969, the average party unity score was 71 percent for House Republicans and Democrats, 74 percent for Senate Democrats and 72 percent for Senate Republicans. Reaching across the aisle was difficult, but feasible. In 2008, the figures were much higher: 92 percent for House Democrats, 87 percent for House Republicans, 87 percent for Senate Democrats, and 83 percent for Senate Republicans. President Obama’s party controls both chambers. But when he wants to pass something big, he generally has to do it with Democrats alone. As he is learning with health care reform, divisions among Democrats can make legislating extremely tough.
The one exception may be Afghanistan policy. If the president wants to pursue a surge, then he could find more support among Republicans than Democrats. But as columnist Dan Gerstein pointed out this week, the Obama White House is ill-equipped for this task. Whereas RN had the help of wise old pros such as Bryce Harlow, Obama’s aides consist mostly of campaign people in campaign mode.
What’s missing from this group, besides diversity of experience and interests, is a senior adviser or two with an independent point of view who could carry Obama’s post-partisan portfolio. Someone who would wake up every day thinking about how to form broad-based coalitions, to deepen the confidence and trust of independents and non-rabid Republicans in government, and push Obama to honor his promise to change politics-as-usual in Washington. Or at minimum, someone not ingrained or trained to think that the Republicans are the enemy.
From what I can tell, this void has left the Obama White House with a blind spot that has hurt the president and his agenda.