One of the more interesting questions of the Obama era is: could Obama somehow have gotten along better with Republicans, or was it a doomed cause from the outset? Jon Chait looks at the question from a few angles and basically concludes he couldn’t have, which I think I agree with. Obama could hardly have offered the right any more of a carrot to cooperate with him, as we now know that the Administration even worried about what right-wing talk show hosts thought about them. Such obsessive carefulness might actually have made bipartisanship less likely–Republicans learned quickly that they could walk all over Obama and suffer no consequences.  As soon as Obama figured out that he couldn’t let them do that anymore, his position and public standing improved immediately.

To me, the most painful failures of Obama’s tenure have been failures of pragmatism, far more so than failures of liberal ideals. The latter you expect to some extent, as it’s the nature of governing. I honestly was fine with dropping the public option if that was what was needed for the bill to pass, and I still feel that way. Of course, I would rather have had a cap-and-trade bill be priority #1–it actually got eight Republican votes in the House and the problem was more urgent, the benefits easier to sell, and the timing was right for the issue. I don’t think you can really get wholesale health reform until the current system has gotten much more broken than it is now. Too many people don’t want the status quo to be changed or even threatened. But that’s not what happened, and despite the lousy political spadework that led to it I like the ACA just fine.

If moderation just to get things done were the predominant paradigm I’d probably be more unreserved in my support of Obama, but I don’t really think that’s the theme of the man’s presidency. Really, the overarching theme has been that Obama is trying to do two different types of reform at the same time that are fundamentally incompatible. He’s tried to reform policy while also trying to reform the process, and has seemed to be equally invested in fixing both. But generally speaking, you can only do one or the other, at least at once. In the stimulus, in healthcare, and in the debt ceiling–which I’d argue are the three defining moments of Obama’s presidency to date–what you see are on one hand a commitment to solve big, real policy problems of varying degrees of immediacy, coupled with an equal commitment to fix the process by renewing bipartisanship, fixing problems together, adopting a civil tone, avoiding attacks and hardball tactics and all that. The thing is, pursuing the procedural goal made the policy more difficult, in some cases, much more difficult. Obama has tried to have it both ways, pursuing an incredibly ambitious reform agenda while somehow not worsening partisan divisions or irritating established interests. At times it’s almost been as though no conflict was expected to arise from all this activity, and when it came, paralysis set in. I don’t see how very smart people convinced themselves repeatedly to see possibilities that weren’t there–perhaps just wanting to have these opportunities was enough. And so we actually lose popular, important policies because there is a strong desire not to have to play a partisan role, rather than just accepting that some level of partisanship is unavoidable. That is not pragmatic, it’s desperation to avoid the practical reality that Obama has no choice but to work in. And the effect on morale was devastating, as the 2010 results and the president’s standing for most of last year showed.

The point I wish to make here is that this isn’t pragmatism. In fact, I don’t see Obama as a particularly pragmatic figure. A pragmatist would have given up on cooperation from Congressional Republicans ages before Obama did, probably after the stimulus, and just figured that the only way to get Republican support would be to either shame or strongarm Repubs into backing his policies. Really, what we’re dealing with is a reformer whose idealism, attention to process and distaste for partisan argument frequently has led him in decidedly nonpragmatic directions. Republicans savvily realized this and capitalized on it, so that the conversation was all about them even when they were a small minority. Really, that covers most of what’s been going on the last three years. Let’s hope it doesn’t define the rest of Obama’s time in office.


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