The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Governing

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By David Michael Green

IT WOULD BE A GIGANTIC MISTAKE to believe that Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid or anyone else of prominence in today’s Democratic Party actually gives a damn about the fate of the American people.

obama-sellingHealthcareBut it’s not such a stretch to imagine that they might care about their own political careers. I think the Founders of the American republic had this in mind when they wrote their blueprint for representative government, in which a politician’s fate would be tied to their popularity with voters.

Of course, it doesn’t entirely work that way so much anymore because of the influence of big-monied players, but if it did we’d still be left with another big problem: These idiots don’t even know how to save their own skins by governing well. Few things have amazed me more over the last year than how incompetent President Obama has been, given the exemplary skills of Candidate Obama, who ran a near-perfect, textbook campaign.

The Obama Crew: One of the deadliest political teams in history: cowardly, cynical, clumsy, corrupt— and too deeply wedded to the status quo to grasp the huge opportunities history laid in front of them. What’s more, they may have buried the idea of serious reform and the left for a whole generation or beyond.

So, Barack Baby, I know you couldn’t care less about the American public, but just in case you might still care about your own legacy and perhaps even winning a second term, might I be of some assistance?

Here, for your reading pleasure and educational benefit is The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Governing (and you are a complete idiot when it comes to governing). I’ve laid it all out for you. You don’t even have to take notes.

FIRST, PICK AN ISSUE THAT PEOPLE CARE ABOUT. Is the American health care system a problem for this country, especially in the long term? You betcha. But most people are not very focused on health care right now. They are, on the other hand, really, really focused and fearful about their jobs. Such economic insecurity is not just “this year’s issue”, like say the war was in 2006. This is existential. People are staring out over the edge of a cliff and down into their own personal abyss. You cannot address ANY other issue under circumstances like that. Even in normal times, people “vote their pocketbook”, let alone during the Great Recession. Nobody gets out of a Poli Sci 101 class without learning that simple fact. So how did the president of the United States get all the way to the White House without doing so? Barack Obama has spent virtually all of his political capital, and that of his comrades in Congress too, on an issue way down in priority for most Americans right now, while almost entirely ignoring the single thing they are obsessed about. This would be like, say, invading Iraq in response to an attack launched at you from Afghanistan. I wonder how that would work out for a president?

David Axelrod: reputedly a sharp political strategist. If so, Obama is not listening.

David Axelrod: reputedly a sharp political strategist. If so, Obama is not listening.

SECOND, STAKE OUT THE HIGH MORAL GROUND. If you’re trying to do something as president – and especially if you’re trying to do something big – you have to be bold and you have to sell it bold. There needs to be a big problem to be solved. You need to be offering a big solution to the problem. Your position has to be the only morally defensible one. It doesn’t hurt if you can identify some sort of enemy, too. You have to get people excited, motivated, passionate and afraid to not get on board with your solution. That will not happen if you offer them half-measures backed by a wimpy lack of conviction. Imagine if Roosevelt had gone to Congress on December 8th, 1941 and said, “Golly, those darn Japanese can be mean sometimes! I urge your support for sending them a telegram strongly protesting their attack on Pearl Harbor.” Would that have motivated a nation to the sacrifices necessary to win World War II? Would that have mobilized America? What if LBJ had said that institutionalized racism is unfortunate, and what we must do about it is make discrimination illegal. On Tuesday afternoons and all day Sunday, that is. Would that have given him the wind necessary to fill his legislative sails and better the country in ways that few presidents have ever matched? Call me crazy, but I’m guessing not.

THIRD, KEEP IT SIMPLE AND PRINCIPLED. Legislating properly involves attention to detail, and I certainly don’t subscribe to the latest regressive appeal to the stupidity of their tea party mobs that slams Obama’s health care bill for being 2000 pages long. Just because people who get their politics from Limbaugh and Beck need stuff dumbed down in order to assuage their own wholesale inadequacies, I sure don’t want my government governing on that principle. That said, sometimes complexity in legislation means that one is tying oneself in knots, trying to avoid the simple and obvious solution to a problem. And it is always the case, even when bills must legitimately include boatloads of detail, that they should nevertheless be rooted in simple, easily-extractable, foundational first principles, and that these should form the narrative core of how the legislation is marketed to the public. At the end of the day, if you can get across to people that your bill will accomplish one, two or three really important, basic and necessary objectives, they won’t care how many pages it runs. If you can’t do that, on the other hand, they also won’t care how many pages it runs. They’re not going to support your crummy law, regardless.

FOURTH, USE THE BULLY PULPIT. One of the things that astonishes me about the Obama team is how little they understand the modern presidency. It seems so clear what you need to do, because we’ve seen it done so many times, and we’ve seen it not done. FDR, LBJ, Reagan and Lil’ Bush all more or less got what they wanted as president because they understood these simple principles, while Clinton and Carter and Poppy Bush and Ford were Potemkin presidents because they didn’t. One of the key aspects of the formula is using the president’s most important single power, the bully pulpit. This means that you have to talk about your bill incessantly. You have to talk about it with great gravitas. You have to persuade. You have to go over the heads of Congress, to the people, and get them to lean all over Congress like your cousin Eddy with the big coke habit who is constantly hitting you up for money. You have to put the fear in the bellies of members about what it will cost them to be on the wrong side of public opinion. You have to be incessant. The model is not only crystal clear, but entirely proximate in time. Think of the obsessive full-court-press campaign that the Bush administration ran to sell the Iraq war just back in 2002 and 2003. Big speeches. Loads of public appearances. Top administration officials on every broadcast, every day. Relentless beating of the same drum. No distractions with other issues. Message coordination with sympathetic pundits, public intellectuals and activists from outside the administration. Total media domination. Strident, urgent exhortations. Intimidation and delegitimation of anyone who dared oppose the policy. And so on. Ironically, Obama has never come close to mounting a public campaign for solutions that people actually desire that would equal one-tenth of the intensity that Bush brought to the party when he took policies the public didn’t want and jammed them down their throats until they begged for more.


The healthcare "reform" battle is a classic example of how Obama's crew has completely mangled a great opportunity.

FIFTH, LEAN ON YOUR OWN PARTY. Some of my favorite photos from recent history are of LBJ applying “The Johnson Treatment” to members of Congress and others who needed a bit of course correction. This hulking president would get right up in their faces, towering over them, and causing political figures normally otherwise possessed of quite healthy egos to arch themselves over backwards in obeisance, and presumably also to minimize the amount of LBJ’s spittle that ended up on their foreheads. The guy knew how to intimidate you. He knew how to stroke you. He knew how to threaten you. He knew what you cared about. He knew your pressure points. He knew how to appeal to your sense of history. He knew how to take advantage of your pettiness. He knew how to twist your arm. And, if you were dumb enough to make it necessary for him to do so, he knew how to rip it right out of its socket. Mostly, he just knew how to pocket your vote. And so that’s what he did. Over and over again. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of LBJ. He is not only being dictated to by Congress, rather than the other way around, but he actually set it up that way. He’s getting the LBJ treatment from punks on Capitol Hill, rather than giving to them. He has stood for nothing in his negotiations on major bills, and that is precisely what he has in his pocket so far as he slinks back home, beat and bruised, wobbling down Pennsylvania Avenue. You wanna win? You gotta discipline your own troops first.

SIXTH, MAKE THE OPPOSITION PAY. Right now, regressives are taking the most outrageous pot-shots at Barack Obama, Democrats in Congress, and all of their legislative initiatives. And why shouldn’t they? No one ever calls them on it. No one ever makes them pay for it. No one ever fires back. No one ever ridicules them when they say ridiculous things. No one ever shames them. No one ever puts them on the wrong side of history. This is a real bad governing posture, made all the worse because of who we’re dealing with here. Regressives tend to have the worst instincts imaginable, just on their own. They’re the most frightened people in the world, and they’re therefore capable of anything, including lies, smears, dirty tricks, cheap attacks, personal destruction and ruining the country they claim incessantly to be so patriotic toward. They look at thugs like Limbaugh or Rove as role models, rather than as the escaped felons that they actually are. They are more than a problem, just left to their own devices. You cannot add to the problem by incentivizing their criminal behavior. Anybody who wants to govern effectively needs to make opponents pay for their opposition. Obama and the Democrats in Congress, on the other hand, have made opposition to them pay off for their opponents. A year ago, the Great-big Old Pigs party was so smashed to bits from its own insane politics, it looked like the thing could seriously be toast. Now, they are right back in contention, and poised for smashing victories in the next two election cycles. All because they called Democrats socialists, fascists and granny-killers, and no one ever made them eat their scorched earth destructive lies.

SEVENTH, BET THE FARM. If you’re pushing some big legislative package, you might as well act like you’re betting the farm, ‘cause you are. Look at the Democrats today. They’ve hardly made the slightest case for the urgency of their stimulus or bail-out or health care legislation. They’ve hardly telegraphed to anyone that these are all-in questions, for which they’re willing to risk a lot, and punish a lot. And yet they are, in fact, high-stakes gambles, regardless of how Democrats treat them, because their opponents have made them that. The Dumb Dems have therefore managed to realize the worst of all worlds. Whether they like it or not, they live or die on the hill of these bills. But mostly die. Their legislative agenda has been so badly botched that it is hard to say now which will cause them more damage with voters, passing a health care bill or failing to. The worst possible approach here is to take half-measures and let your opponents turn them into full ones. It’s lose-lose scenario, well fit for chumps like those in today’s Democratic Party. Instead, someone who really understands how all this works would’ve raised the stakes, right from the get-go.

And that’s it, folks. That’s how you govern in Washington. That’s how you win.

On the other hand, if being a crash-test dummy is more to your liking, there’s a formula for that too. What you do is pick the wrong issue, take some mealy-mouthed embarrassingly nothingburger position on it, make your pitch incredibly complex so the public neither understands it nor can rally behind any core moral principles, fail to use the bully pulpit to sell it, don’t lean on your own party to fall into line, don’t make it expensive for your opponents to trash you and your bill, and let them define the stakes.

Maybe you’ve seen that approach before, eh? Like every morning of this last year, when you open your newspaper, perhaps?

All evidence suggests that Barack Obama is a pretty smart guy. And, unless he’s some sort of alien pod-growth creature, he’s lived through the same epoch of American history I have.

You just wouldn’t know it, though, watching him in action.

He’s an awfully nice guy. He seems like a good father. Maybe he’s even a swell dancer, too. I dunno.

He just doesn’t know squat about how to govern.

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website,

15 comments on “The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Governing
  1. Nothing finer than this article. It sums up the case perfectly. I wish it were read by the mob at Daily Kos and similar Obamaniac precincts!

  2. No, I dont agree. It is quite easy to have after sight now the enthusiasm for Obama’s election has come to a halt. And decent health care would be closely connected to job security and the economy. This is the lament of the virgin who after marriage complains, ‘is that all there is….?’ Any sharp analysis of Obama’s political history could have given a clue where his policies would be at (read Paul Street’s excellent book ‘Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics’,(Paradigm, Boulder 2008)and no delusion about his wonderful slogans could ever have been maintained. The comparison between Barack Obama and Woodrow Wilson is remarkable, both Harvard men with a so-called liberal agenda who brought forth more destruction and dislocation about than their predecessors or followers in their position. It may well be true that a more outwardly brutal facade is required
    for a president (vide Zinn’s remark about the amoral brightness of MacNamara to Ms Goodman)and truly some European leaders from the nineteen thirties and forties were good at that and had a full popular following despite their atrocious policies. But’the more things change the more they remain the same’ applies fully to the present administration and they are not more nor less venal than any that came before…

  3. I might add that this is a Liberal’s Complaint and it is dangerous obfuscation because it deflects attention away from the real problem which is not just congress nor the executive and his cabinet, because they are as always (and nowadays even more so) mostly bought and paid for, but this kind of criticism (admonishment ?) obscures the true problem. Which is the whole present basic structure of this government and judiciary, who despite all the restrictions to state totalitarianism expressed in the Constitution, make hay with subterfuge, legalist avoidance performance and pure anti-electorate action (read Sydney Wolin ‘ Democracy Inc.’, Princeton2008). To pin all the blame on this administration is exactly what the elites like as it diverts a correct social analysis into a powerless diatribe and avoids a resistance against the system itself, held so totally in thrall by the vested interests, who will surely be railroading this kind of protest to a side line easily contained and used for conservative propaganda. At every stage of political history one finds these invectives against on stage political actors, because that is the reason why they are there for, ‘elected’ to deflect attacks on and to hide the real powers.

  4. The problem is how to get from A to B, with “B” being the deeper layer of consciousness capable of broad mobilization. Honestly I believe that at this moment we need to access more people with clear analyses like this, which are concrete. To ask people to do revolution when they don’t even understand the kind of system they live under is not very useful as a strategy (or tactic).

  5. My feelings exactly. Maybe Mr Rochad can explain a little more the grounds for his criticism?

  6. Well that is exactly why Cyrano’s Journal published Prof. Green’s article, to lay out the politics of Obama’s administration in understandable and combative terms. I agree with that decision, even though I felt it necessary to point out that the disappointment with Obama is only a starting point, not an end in itself. The outer layers of class warfare (see my article on class wars on the Greanville Post) are covered in propaganda. Any faith in redundant democratic methods of changing administrations is not doing much to affect the system. Yes, going from A to B in understanding is a tough road indeed but Obama is not really the problem, it is rather the structure which put him into power. The revolt will come spontaneously anyway when something goes click in people’s mind (and that will come surely soon enough with or without a ‘correct’ analysis). My comments on Prof. Green’s article are only meant to warn that we should not stare ourselves blind at this administration’s shortcomings.

  7. Spontaneous revolts have a poor record in history, and none other than Marx, and especially Lenin and Mao, and later Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, have all stressed the importance of a vanguard party. Guevara believed for a while in “foquismo”–the insertion of guerrilla cells into a horribly exploited region to detonate an insurrection, but even in such cases he thought the uprising would have to be coordinated by a professional cadre of revolutionists. We know what happened to poor Che in Bolivia after the empire sent its bloodhounds after his group. In fact he was betrayed by some backward-thinking peasants…Since Spartacus and his spontaneous rebellion against Rome, revolts lacking a firm grounding in tactics and strategies, with merely a broad goal of “overthowing the system” or gaining freedom, have failed disastrously. In a nation as large as the US with more than 300 million people, a tiny percentage illuminated and courageous enough to break out of the boundaries of system-approved politics have little chance of overcoming the defense and repressive forces of the status quo, especially if the media remain almost completely in the enemy’s hands. There are very real obstacles to the revolt or revolution Mr Rochat is dreaming of, but such obstacles have to be dealt a serious blow before we can think of possible victory. Spontaneism is not going to do it.

  8. Yes, I fully realize that spontaneism will not do, but where there is no basis at all for any recognition of these obstacles, how else than by example can one effect any change whatsoever? The Paris Commune and Che have much in common, both idealist and defeated but with what symbolic after effects! The Commune reverberates still in French minds, while Che became for a while an inspiration to the sixties youth. The force of Obama’s ephemeral ‘hope’ and ‘change’ got him elected, not easily defeated slogans.
    I think that there is awareness in the population, just not directed. Any revolt successful or not always started quite small…

  9. And no, we are not living in republican Rome, nor in nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia or even in Guevara’s time, but with enormously expanded methods
    in communication. If Obama sneezes, the report and commentary could be within minutes on Indonesian television. That is why small sparks sent out over the Internet could grow in a fire or douse passion. And the last is what I fear when signals about betrayal are tackling the messenger rather than the message.

  10. Marx, Engels and Lenin spoke at length about this tricky topic. The classical distinction is that made between a non-Marxian “insurrection” or “rebellion” or “uprising” and a formal revolution according to communist precepts. The classical spontaneous insurrection was the Spartacist revolt in Germany, whose ill-conceived program soon met with defeat. The justicialist peasant revolts throughout the middle ages shared that semi-anarchic aspect, even though at times they were led by charismatic figures. One might say as I do: My heart is with spontaneous revolution, my reason is for eternal rebellion morphing into revolution. This however is a false contraposition. For eternal rebellion is bound to morph into revolution which becomes “permanent worldwide revolution” or “constant revolution”. Lenin, Mao and Fidel suggested “constant revolution” or, more precisely, “constant cultural-political revolution.” Under conditions of “eternal revolution”(which the bourgeois caricature as constant chaos) the masses do not withdraw from the direct exercise of power. They don’t sit back and become spectators of history, leaving all power in the hands of representatives who, with the passing of time, become a new privileged stratum, though not necessarily a CLASS, as some claim. (Milovan Djilas, The New Class) Rebelliousness without a real cause is a juvenile or neurotic disorder. A waste of human potential.

  11. Thank you Mr Stewart for a brilliant summary of a very difficult topic. As a former pol sci student I wish I had had this kind of clear vision in a teacher when I was mostly wasting my time at UCLA. I especially liked the fact you mentioned the ill-fated peasant revolts in the Middle Ages, which Martin luther himself denounced in the most extravagant manner.

    I would have just one thing to add to your excellent comment: Rebelliousness without cause is a neurotic disorder–agreed! But rebelliousness without proper preparation is insane or irresponsible. To take on a very well organized and lethal enemy, with almost infinite resources, in the absence of a well disciplined organization is also folly. Incidentally, in my opinion the reason we have revolutionary parties is to take advantage of spontaneous revolts, IF the tactical conditions favor that.

    Thank you publishing my comment.

  12. My comments have been misunderstood. I do not advocate nor endorse spontaneous revolts. One the contrary I agree with the last comment that rebellions of this kind are to be directed once they start. But under the present oppression one cannot relieve this population from the illusion of freedom and the only realistic hope is that resistance will build up sufficiently to cause a release of tension by such spontaneous rebellions. Any other strategy is bound to sink into oblivion. One has to fight with the means at hand and not be blinded by ideology.

  13. I think Mr. Rochat is wrong. It’s not so much a matter of ideology but of tactics and strategies, which pertain to questions of military wisdom. To misread the forces arrayed against you is a capital mistake in these matters. And all great military strategists stress the fact that any assault on a well-defended fortress implies a lot of prep work—and usually a larger force than the defenders— or else it will fail. Hence, courage is no substitute for solid planning and tactics. This has been demonstrated in just about every war and major clash we have a record of—from street disturbances to global conflicts. Surprise, of course, plays a role in victory, but spontaneous revolts melt away without much effect, except making the established powers even more brutal or giving them a pretext to decimate a whole generation of would-be revolutionaries.

  14. Ryandorfer:

    Your argument makes sense but there are exceptions to your rule. The overthrow of the Shah by the Khomeini forces, which essentially waged a nonstop revolt that eventually absorbed the rank-and-file of the military, is an example of this. So Rochat may not be that naive about his analysis.

  15. I think that those spontaneous rebellions large or small will happen anyway, whether one likes them or not. To call these neurotic or juvenile and a waste of human potential is not the issue nor is entertaining a vain hope of what should or should not be. That is elitist thinking and underestimating people’s potential, like for example to speak of the Boston tea party as an immature gesture, and where had the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 a deeper layer of consciousness ? Not every rebellion is successful, but some are and realistically any action is better than none while all correct analyses are just so much theory in the present atmosphere of repression and oppression. One truly has to row with the oars available which admittedly are rotten too.

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