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.
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:
The 80th Congress of 1947 and 1948 actually had some impressive achievements, acting with commendable bipartisanship on foreign affairs by enacting the Marshall Plan and a sweeping reorganization of the executive branch that included the establishment of the Defense Department and the National Security Council. But the Republicans’ record on domestic policy was something else entirely. As historian William Leuchtenburg put it, “they veered so sharply to the right that they alienated one segment of the electorate after another. They antagonized farmers by slashing funds for crop storage; irritated Westerners by cutting appropriations for reclamation projects; and, by failing to adopt civil rights legislation, squandered an opportunity to make further inroads among African-American voters.” At the same time, by pushing the anti-union Taft-Hartley legislation over Truman’s veto, they drove a labor movement furious with Truman back into the president’s arms. In what will no doubt sound familiar to watchers of the current Congress, the sweeping GOP victories in 1946 convinced many Republicans that they had achieved a lasting ideological victory—that the American public had finished with the liberalism under FDR and Truman, and embraced their brand of conservatism. They were wrong. Voters had reacted to short-term economic conditions, and to a post-war mood for change, but not for a new right-wing ideology.All true. And the additional context was that the failure of the 80th Congress and Tom Dewey’s “unloseable” presidential bid helped empower moderate Republicans going forward, culminating in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. So there’s a lot to be said for Truman’s strategy of using partisan attacks to wreck the GOP’s already low popularity. If you ask me, though, my guess is that Obama isn’t likely to go the Full Truman. For one thing, it’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy that we’re asking a famously low-risk president to enact. The upside of the Full Truman is obvious: if it works, Obama gets another term, perhaps unified Democratic control of Congress, and also possibly a more moderate Republican Party going forward. There’s a real chance of that happening if he goes Full Truman. But there’s also a real chance that in doing it, he could wreck his remaining support among moderates and persuadable indies, and suffer an equally dramatic loss. And we’re dealing with a vastly different media and political environment than Truman had to, lest we forget. The Full Truman strategy raises other questions, too. Truman’s style isn’t Obama’s, so can Obama channel Truman effectively? He hasn’t really done so before, but then again he’s never really tried to. Would Obama be comfortable doing it? If he’s not, then it probably won’t work. This is sort of an “all-in” strategy for a notoriously careful poker player, and unless things start to look completely hopeless–I’d argue that they aren’t right now, just look at the head-to-head polls–I wouldn’t expect him to do it. Of course, he can do stuff short of Full Truman that would still be effective, I suppose. But mounting sustained, vocal resistance to Republican plans is a prerequisite to pulling off anything in the vicinity of Truman’s strategy. And that simply conflicts with a strategy of scoring bipartisan deals, ostensibly to make the middle more favorably disposed to you. Obama has been making more criticisms of Republican intransigence recently, and that’s welcome. But after a point this really is an either/or choice–the choice is between nurturing and scorched earth, basically. And nothing the Administration has said to date has made me think that scorched earth is being actively considered as an option, even though the nurturing strategy has by all indications backfired horribly.
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