‘To marry principle to a political process’

Late on Friday, the White House circulated an interesting video of President Obama speaking to some college students in Massachusetts in March. At least as far as partisan is concerned, it was a pretty diverse group, featuring Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

If you have three minutes, I’d encourage folks to take a look.

For those who can’t watch clips from your work computers, I put together a transcript.

“If you are only talking to people who you agree with, then politics is always going to disappoint you,” Obama said. “Politics will always disappoint you. You think about some of the issues we’ve worked on over the last couple of years, I think the College Republicans here would say that I was pretty liberal president, right? But if you read the Huffington Post, you would think that I was some right-wing tool of Wall Street. Both things can’t be true, but I think that what it has to do is, this sense of, ‘We have a position and we can’t compromise on it.’

“And so, one of the challenges of this generation is, I think, to understand that the nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process. That means you don’t get a 100% of what you want. You don’t get it if you are the majority; you don’t get it if you are in the minority. And you can be an honorable in politics understanding that you are not going to get 100% of what you want.

“And that’s been our history. You think about our greatest presidents — Abraham Lincoln, here is a guy who didn’t believe in slavery, but his first priority was keeping the Union. I’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation hanging up in my office, and if you read through, it turns out that most of the document is: those states and areas where the Emancipation doesn’t apply because those folks were allies with the Union so they can keep their slaves. Think about that. That’s the Emancipation Proclamation.

“So, here you’ve got a war time president who is making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue the country ever faced because he understood that, ‘Right now my job is to win the war and to maintain the Union.’ Well, can you imagine how the Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Right? Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’ There’d be protests, running a third party guy.”

Just to be clear about this, while I found the clip compelling, let’s note what this doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean. It doesn’t, for example, mean that every compromise is sensible and necessarily worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that a compromise couldn’t have been better through smarter negotiations.

But on Obama’s larger point, he’s right, isn’t he?

I’ve mentioned this before, but I often think about Social Security at its origins. In 1935, FDR accepted all kinds of concessions, excluding agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, the entire public sector, and railroad employees, among others. And why did the president go along with this? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to cut deals with conservatives, even in his own party — many of whom were motivated by nothing more than racism — in order to get the legislation passed.

When delivering red-meat speeches in public, FDR saw his Republican critics and “welcomed their hatred.” When governing, FDR made constant concessions — even if it meant occasionally betraying his principles and some of his own supporters — in order to get something done.

Obama’s focus on the Huffington Post is probably misplaced — there are far better examples — but the larger point seems persuasive to me. Wouldn’t FDR have faced a bitter backlash from the left? Wouldn’t Lincoln have drawn howls for compromising on the greatest moral crisis in American history?

I suspect we’d see and hear plenty about donor boycotts, talk of primary challengers, supporters lamenting how disappointed they are, columns about a lack of “leadership,” “failed opportunities,” “unmet expectations,” etc.

History and hindsight, I suppose, tend to round some of the edges over time.