Kevin Drum wrote this a few days back:

Is Obama likely to [make recess appointments aggressively]? Pundits and bloggers love to chew over these kinds of unconventional possibilities, but Obama himself has shown little appetite for them. There are probably two reasons for this. First, he’s afraid that Republicans would become even more obstructionist than ever if he went down this road. Second, he’s unsure how the public would respond to this kind of hardball. The former has probably become less salient over time, given that there’s not an awful lot more obstructionist that Republicans can become at this point. But at the same time, the latter has become more salient because there’s an election coming up. So although the liberal base would love to see Obama show more spine on the appointment front, he probably won’t. Obama has consistently ignored his base in favor of the independents he needs to win reelection, and he’s consistently demonstrated that he thinks independents are put off by partisan confrontation.

This has some truth to this, and I’ve argued it before, but I’m now wondering if there isn’t a bigger explanation for this. Obama is and has always been perfectly willing to be confrontational rhetorically, and the payroll tax fight has made me think that I was missing some aspect of the man’s operation. That was largely a partisan confrontation, though near the end it did morph into something else. Obama didn’t seem to have much of a problem with it, though, so far as I could tell. Sure, he had more leverage than at other times, but he had some pretty strong leverage in the climate change debate that he didn’t use (hasn’t used?) to bend the outcome in his favor. A contradiction? Maybe, but there is an explanation that I can see.

I don’t think Obama minds partisan confrontation, I think he greatly minds being seen as the aggressor in that confrontation. For what reason I’m not sure, but there it is. Imposing a cap-and-trade system by another name under the EPA would have been great leverage to get a bill, but it would have been unavoidably aggressive, so he didn’t do it. In the payroll tax fight, he was able to put pressure on Republicans without seeming aggressive at all. That’s the key, I think. Obama likes to set the conditions and then hang back and let the dominoes fall, ideally making his opponents destroy themselves without his having to get his hands dirty. This was exactly how he comported himself in his 2004 US Senate race, in which opponents ranging in formidability from Blair Hull to Jack Ryan to Alan Keyes were felled by Obama’s indirect style of confrontation and their own shortcomings, and it worked brilliantly. It was also exactly how he comported himself in 2008, where again he defeated a number of strong contenders using this style of confrontation. And it worked brilliantly in the payroll tax cut fight. So, clearly, this strategy has its uses.

The problem is that it’s not infinitely useful. Obama badly miscalculated the politics on healthcare by not getting out front on it and driving the process more directly, preferring to hang back and let Congress hash out its conflicts on its own. Generally, I think it tends to be much less helpful when it comes to pushing forward an agenda–you really need to take the initiative on that, otherwise it can go in unpredictable directions. And with respect to the debt limit fight, it’s impossible to imagine a worse strategy Obama could have picked than this indirect confrontation thing. Giving up the flag and letting your opponent run it right off a cliff is a strategy that really can be effective, and Obama has gotten far with it and can play it well. But sometimes a direct assault just is the best strategy is all I’m saying, and unless he develops a feel for the direct attack he’s going to have a quite limited toolbox for the rest of his time in office. And doing this all the time (a) makes it less effective, since it becomes predictable and/or stale, and (b) can appear to people as a lack of passion/interest/control, which was pretty much the outcome of the debt ceiling debate. I think this is where the “Obama’s Playing 11-dimensional Chess” meme comes from, which is correct in that he’s playing a long game, but incorrect in that it’s not an inherently complicated strategy Obama pursues. It’s just giving the other guy enough rope. Which is fine, but there has to be a balance is all I’m saying. Perhaps giving the Consumer Financial Protection Board a chairman is a good place to start finding it.

And since I used a variant of “give ’em enough rope,” I just can’t help myself:


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