Obama Embraces National Decline Narrative

"The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."

-- President Obama arguing for his third stimulus package in an interview with NBC affiliate WESH of Orlando, Fla.

Vice President Joe Biden told a public radio station in Miami that while the state of the economy might be the fault of the previous Republican administration, the public is still understandably angry at the party in power for the dismal state of the economy.

His message to his interviewer and a liberal audience: Blaming Bush isn’t helping and is “not relevant” right now, so cut it out.

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Biden, though, offered hope to his audience that the time would come again soon in which Democrats could profitably attack Republicans on the economy.

“Right now -- understandably, totally legitimate -- this is a referendum on Obama and Biden and the nature and state of the economy. It's soon going to be a choice," Biden told public broadcasting listeners.

Biden’s implicit promise is that once he and Obama have a Republican with whom to draw contrasts, it will be easier to remind Americans which party is really to blame for the sour situation of the nation. The vice president summed up the Obama 2012 message: We may be no picnic, but the other guys are worse.

It’s an improbable-seeming strategy in which voters must first be convinced that the current president and his team did the best they could in dire circumstances and that while things are bad now, they could have been much worse.

While the vice president was reaching out to the base in Florida, President Obama was talking to a larger audience in the Sunshine State in an interview with the NBC affiliate from Orlando as part of his effort to shore up his deteriorating status in the swing state.

In the interview, Obama shed some light on how he aims to pull off the “it could have been worse” pitch for 2012. The answer seems to be that the administration will embrace the idea of America as a declining power as a way to lower the expectations for his governance.

Telling the TV station that America has gotten “a little soft” over the past two decades, Obama promised that his program will help burn off the flab and pump up the national fitness. By spending money to shore up government payrolls at stimulus levels and fund public works projects the president aims to rebuild the nation’s muscle tone while simultaneously burning off some of the fat by pumping up the tax rates on those earning over $200,000.

The president as personal trainer concept is an idea that means Obama must convince voters that they really are out of shape and that their country has gone to pot. This declinist sentiment is common across the political spectrum as figures on the left like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg openly ponder the chances for the unemployed rioting in the streets of the nation’s largest city and those on the right frequently express their worry that the country is following the same path to ruin that Europe has followed.

Embracing this same declinist line of thinking has electoral appeal for Obama because it allows Obama to argue that he has not succeeded in office because the problems are simply too big. It wasn’t just the Panic of 2008 but decades (including under Bill Clinton) of the government failing to spend enough on public works and being too easy on fat cat capitalists.

As Peggy Noonan points out today, in Ron Suskind’s new book “Confidence Men,” the president is seen obsessing over the failure of him and his team to establish a “narrative” for the electorate that would explain the continually weak economy, the seemingly unrelated move to enact a national health law and other controversial polices.

“We didn't have a clean story that we wanted to tell against which we would measure various actions,” Obama is quoted as saying.

Declinism could be this kind of “clean story” for Obama, one that would set new a new threshold for presidential performance. If the American people can be convinced that the nation really has been heading for a fall all these years and Obama, like the rest of them, is a victim of generational failure, it would take pressure off the president. And, if they can then be convinced that the root cause is a lack of domestic spending and low taxes on the wealthy, Obama could dramatically reverse his own declining fortunes.

The problem for Obama is that most declinists today attribute the end of American awesomeness to many causes other than insufficient domestic spending and too-low tax rates. Many are concerned that Americans have lost what the Founders called “virtue,” the good character required for a people to be self-governing. Many others believe that the flabbiness that most imperils the nation is that of an unaffordable government that taxes and spends beyond healthy levels.

For Obama to shift the blame to infrastructure and low taxes will be a difficult lift, especially since his first two stimuli are now widely seen as failures. While the administration argues that they prevented a disaster, voters aren’t sure that they were better than nothing.

But by far the biggest problem for a declinist president is that voters will more deeply associate him with that decline. Obama is looking to tell a “clean story” that casts blame back over a generation, not just his presidential predecessor, and in that way lower the expectations for his own tenure. But voters, who disapprove of Obama’s performance at increasingly higher levels, may just conclude that the dude is a downer.

American-Born Terrorist Killed in Yemen: Whodunnit?

“We made an important start with getting rid of bin Laden… I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple al Qaeda as a threat to this country.’

-- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talking to reporters in Afghanistan this summer about the effort to kill Anwar al-Awlaki.

Power Play assumes that since Yemen lacks a functional government and has dissolved into a few warring tribal factions that’s its air force is not exactly a wonderland of technological marvels.

But somebody managed to blow up New Mexico-born terrorist Anwar al-Alwaki with an air strike while he was riding along out in the Yemeni boonies. While the Obama administration and Pentagon confirm that he is dead, nobody is talking about the details. FOX News confirms that it was U.S. jets and drones, but that's as far as it goes.

It’s a far cry from the leak-a-minute moments after Seal Team Six snuffed Usama bin Laden this summer and there will, presumably, be no situation room photos of the commander in chief released.

But al-Awlaki has been on the CIA’s hit list for more than a year and it has been widely reported that the U.S. continues to escalate its remote-control air campaign against al Qaeda in the woebegone Arabaian nation. Al-Awlaki has been directly connected to the Sept. 11 attacks as one of the spiritual advisers to the hijackers and has since worked from Yemen to encourage lone wolf attacks like the one that killed 13 soldiers at Ft. Hood. So why no official fist pumping?

The answer is that for an administration that has long insisted on providing full legal rights to foreign nationals who commit terrorist acts against the U.S., it’s a little icky to be rubbing out a U.S. citizen overseas on allegations of terrorism. Kahlid Sheik Mohmmed must be tried in Manhattan, but Awlaki, born in Las Cruses, N.M. and who led a mosque in Virginia, can just get whacked in Yemen?

Hawks won’t lose too much sleep over the idea of the dual citizen who openly plotted against the U.S. being killed in what they see as an ongoing war without borders, but the doves who helped lift Obama to the White House and who had misgivings even about the bin Laden hit, will not be happy about the new standard for the exercise of lethal force.

Pass This Bill… Or Not… Whatever

“The oil-producing state senators don’t like eliminating or reducing the subsidy for oil companies. There are some senators who are up for election who say I’m never gonna vote for a tax increase while I’m up for election, even on the wealthiest people. So, we’re not gonna have 100% Democratic senators. That’s why it needs to be bi-partisan and I hope we can find some Republicans who will join us to make it happen.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, R-Ill., in an interview with Chicago radio station WLS.

Democratic opposition to President Obama’s proposal for stimulus spending and tax increases has been deeper than expected.

Even the items that administration officials said were bipartisan no-brainers have seen little support. In one surprise, Democrats have increasingly take up against the president’s plan to expand and extend payroll tax cuts. Sen. Joe Manchin and others have complained that the plan reduces funding for the already insolvent Social Security trust fund and has been seen to provide little actual hiring stimulus.

The president has had a difficult relationship with his former Senate colleagues, but the latest friction has been damaging to the president’s re-election campaign. Obama has made running against a do-nothing Republican House the centerpiece of his current Trumanic swing-state campaign blitz. But if Senate Democrats won’t push his bill forward, Obama loses his central piece of evidence on a do-nothing claim.

The White House has begun to scale back expectations for the package as the Democratic Senate has sat on the plan. It may have been a lack of coordination by the White House or simply a decision by Senate Democrats to stiff the leader of the party, but Obama has gotten no backup while he’s been out on the campaign trail.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“The problem here is the problem with all crony capitalism. It’s inefficient and its resistance – ultimately – to being corrupted is almost zero. It’s inefficient because experts or insiders who pick winners and losers are inevitably and almost always less efficient and wise in choosing investments than the market is. But apart from the inefficiency is corruption… There is no way in which proximity to power and having supported the president is not going to influence decisions of who gets the money and who is at the table when money is changing hands. Corruption is inherent to the process.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”