Lessons Governor-elect Cooper should take from the Obama presidency

Lessons Governor-elect Cooper should take from the Obama presidency

Cooper-400 In these divided times, there’s precious little common ground to find with the right-wing opposition

With Gov. Pat McCrory’s efforts to stave off his political demise by casting doubts upon the 2016 election results now, finally and blessedly, all but over, it’s past time to start talking seriously about how Governor-elect Roy Cooper should approach his new job. Indeed, Cooper’s inauguration is now set to take place just 37 days from now, so there’s no time to waste.

Of course, at this moment, Cooper himself can probably be forgiven if he’s entertaining second thoughts about the new job. With a hard right, veto-proof conservative legislative majority well-ensconced down the street and a malevolent presidential administration taking shape in Washington, the new Governor is sure to find himself in a tough and unenviable spot. Not only will caring and thinking people be turning to him for signs of hope and leadership (and actual policy change) in a way that he’s never before experienced, he will be asked to do all of this in an environment in which he’ll have scant few tools at his disposal. Especially for a man who worked his way up the ropes in a very different era and who has based his political career on a sober and moderate style, the prospect of four years of contentious battles may seem like more of a sentence than a reward.

For better or worse, however, that’s the way things are. Six weeks from now, Cooper will be governor and faced with a huge and daunting challenge of getting something positive and progressive accomplished – all while he’s up to his armpits in political alligators.

So, what to do? How can Cooper survive and maybe even thrive under such circumstances? Here are a handful of recommendations:

#1 – Don’t make the same mistake Barack Obama made –

It’s hard to remember right now – especially in recent months as the President has felt freer and freer to speak his mind on various matters, but eight years ago at the outset of his presidency, Barack Obama fully embraced the role of a cautious centrist. In one of his greatest political miscalculations, the new president tried to capitalize on his historic, breakthrough victory and the unprecedented coalition it represented by casting himself as a bridge builder who would, as the saying goes, “reach out to both sides of the aisle.”

Needless to say, the favor was not returned by conservatives. Instead, from the outset of his presidency (and indeed, even before he was inaugurated) conservatives unleashed an unrelenting fusillade of scurrilous attacks on Obama and looked for every possible way to stymie and marginalize him.

Obama was “illegitimate,” “a foreigner,” “a closet Muslim,” “an agent of the radical left” and “a socialist.” Virtually every attempt on his part to reach out and seek middle ground was loudly and rudely rejected.

In Washington and in the national media, conservatives savagely attacked Obama’s federal stimulus plan of tax cuts and emergency funds to prop up state governments reeling from the Great Recession even as they were hypocritically appearing at local ribbon cutting events made possible by those same relief efforts.

The effect of all this was to greatly and unnecessarily mute and disable the new president. At a time during which he might well have seized the bully pulpit, rallied his supporters and taken the fight to his adversaries, Obama wasted large amounts of time seeking common ground that was never there. This decision has hampered his ability to set the national policy agenda ever since.

Roy Cooper would do well to avoid the same mistake – especially given the fact that he enters his new job with even fewer chips to play than Obama did in 2009. Simply put, save for a couple of possible exceptions like criminal justice reform (and even that looks extremely shaky in many ways) there are very few areas in which Cooper can make nice with the state’s conservative political leadership. While he may want to find ways to broker deals and seek compromise, the hard truth is that it isn’t going to happen.

If the GOP-dominated General Assembly treated a governor of its own party like an errand/whipping boy, there ought to be absolutely no illusion about how it will treat Cooper. He will be cast as a “radical,” “big government, “tax and spend” leftist from the get go. Any and all outstretched hands will be ignored or batted away.

The upshot of all this is that Cooper needs to find a way to inhabit a role that doesn’t come naturally to him – that of a fighter. Lacking any kind of legislative majority to govern effectively – or even to restrain the Right – Cooper must find other ways to carry the battle to his opponents.

#2 – Promote a strong affirmative agenda and seize the initiative –

In such a constrained position, the last thing a Governor Cooper should do is set himself up as a mere reactor to conservative policy initiatives. While he should certainly veto every counterproductive proposal that comes his way – dozens, if need be – and make every reasonable effort to sustain any of those vetoes that might be possible to hold, it’s critical that Cooper associate himself publicly and repeatedly with a handful of affirmative agenda items and demand their enactment every chance he gets.

Whether it’s repeal of HB2, fighting for the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who gained health insurance under Obamacare, real teacher pay hikes and education investments, a higher minimum wage, a fairer tax code for working people, rebuilding the state unemployment insurance and Food Stamp programs, combating the outsourcing of jobs out of state, or the end of sweetheart treatment for Duke Energy, Cooper needs to fight like heck for a short and specific list of policies that becomes a priority for everyone in his administration. This was a tactic Jim Hunt used to great effect and one that has the potential to work for Cooper too.

#3 – Use the powers of the Governor’s office whenever and wherever possible –

The Governor’s office in North Carolina is far from the nation’s strongest (it was the last in the nation to win the power of the veto), but there are many specific actions Cooper can and should take right away – both to effect real change and to send strong messages.

Among the most obvious initial acts:

  • Clean house in state government – This means ridding state agencies of anti-government ideologues (there are, for instance, numerous former right-wing “think tank” employees on the payroll) as well as political hacks who were placed in office by the McCrory administration simply in order to provide jobs to campaign staffers. Cooper needs to put professionals in government who are committed to the missions of the agencies in which they will serve. The Department of Environmental Quality, for instance, is currently led by a group of employees who have made it their mission to eviscerate the state’s environmental protection efforts.
  • Use executive authority whenever possible – This means promoting rules and interpretations of state statutes that are actually about making government work for average people, rather than just the wealthy and powerful corporations.
  • Take the legislature to court when necessary – As the former longtime Attorney General, Cooper will be well-positioned to battle the General Assembly when it exceeds its authority. The newly-constituted state Supreme Court could be of assistance here when the Governor’s arguments are soundly premised and effectively articulated.
  • Convene a statewide summit on the repeal of HB2 – General Assembly leaders will likely stick to their head-in-the-sand defense of their disastrous law, but Cooper needs to make an explicit and public case for ending discrimination for local, national and international consumption.
  • Cause all outstanding McCrory administration freedom of information requests to be fulfilled in the first 30 days and establish a well-staffed office to expedite requests going forward. This is an obvious and nonpartisan step that would symbolize the break from the secretive – even paranoid – internal leadership style that McCrory employed.

The bottom line: Barack Obama has been a great president, but his term might have been even more successful had he gotten off to a stronger start that acknowledged the reality of our divided, modern day politics. Let’s hope Roy Cooper has been paying attention.