I recently returned to a theme I’ve talked about a lot during Obama’s presidency: conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy. This time I applied it to foreign affairs and the realignment we’re beginning to see in the Middle East. In response, Martin Longman is a bit skeptical and said he’s still working on fleshing the idea out for himself. So perhaps with everyone on vacation in Washington, this is as good a time as any to take a deep dive into the topic and evaluate it’s viability.
The developing conventional wisdom about President Obama among liberals is that initially he was naive about Republicans and tried too hard to negotiate with them. This is usually followed by an assumption that his posture over the last year or so represents that “he FINALLY gets it!”
There are a couple of very serious problems with that assessment. First of all, to assume naivete on the part of a guy named Barack Hussein Obama who rose up through Chicago politics to become the first African American president is, in and of itself, a bit naive – if not tinged with a pretty good dose of racism.
But the historical record shows that he wasn’t unaware of Republican plans from the outset. In his book The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald points out that, during the negotiations over the initial stimulus package (which was signed by President Obama 28 days after he was inaugurated), a couple of Republican Senators informed Vice President Biden that the plan was to obstruct anything the President tried to do. So, at minimum, we know that Obama was not uninformed.
What we have to answer then is why the President would continue to try to negotiate with Republicans when he knew they were simply determined to obstruct. To answer that question we have to know something about how Barack Obama defines the great challenges of our democracy and what he learned about power and change as a community organizer.
In his book Reading Obama, James Kloppenberg reviews the President’s history and writing to demonstrate that he is in the tradition of this country’s philosophical pragmatists (i.e., William James and John Dewey).
It has become a cliche to characterize Obama as a pragmatist, by which most commentators mean only that he has a talent for compromise – or an unprincipled politician’s weakness for the path of least resistance. But there is a decisive difference between such vulgar pragmatism, which is merely an instinctive hankering for what is possible in the short term, and philosophical pragmatism, which challenges the claims of absolutists…and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation…
Between college and law school, Obama spent three crucial years working as a community organizer in Chicago, and observers unsurprisingly take for granted that there must be a difference between what he learned on the streets of the far south side and what he learned in the seminar rooms of elite universities. To a striking degree, however, the lessons were congruent: Democracy in a pluralist culture means coaxing a common good to emerge from the clash of competing individual interests. Bringing ideals to life requires power. Balancing principles and effectiveness in the public sphere is hard work, an unending process of trail and error. No formulas ensure success.
Kloppenberg summarized this in an article about his book:
Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it’s a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus–building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial…
After almost two years as president, Obama has failed to satisfy the left for the same reason that he has antagonized the right. He does not share their self-righteous certainty. Neither his personal restraint nor the achievements of his administration should surprise anyone who has read his books…In November 2010, President Obama remains the man who wrote Dreams and Audacity, a resolute champion of moderation, experimentation, and deliberative, nondogmatic democracy.
It is interesting to note how Obama’s law school students described him as a professor.
In class, Mr. Obama sounded many of the same themes he does on the campaign trail, Ms. Callahan said, ticking them off: “self-determinism as opposed to paternalism, strength in numbers, his concept of community development.”
But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.
In 2005, then-Senator Obama summarized his approach to politics in an article to the “netroots” on Daily Kos titled: Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party.
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate…
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.
Anyone who thought that this man would meet Republican obstruction with political warfare fueled by ideological zeal knew absolutely nothing about him.
The question becomes: what is the alternative?
Back in 2007, Mark Schmitt did a great job of forecasting the answer to that when he wrote about the different approaches to change that were evident in the three top candidates who were then vying for the Democratic nomination (Clinton, Obama and Edwards). Here’s what he said about Obama:
The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear…One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists — it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.
The scenario that played out over and over again on everything from health care reform to budgets was that President Obama would put his ideas on the table and then ask Republicans to do the same. Most of the time, they simply refused. As the President demonstrated that he was willing to meet them more than halfway, the demands they did articulate became more and more extreme – leading to things like a possible default over raising the debt limit.
Knowing that the Republican position was simply to obstruct, President Obama offered pragmatic conciliations, recognizing that the closer he moved to what had traditionally been “sensible” Republican policies, the more difficult that would become. Their options were to either work with him on solutions (his preference) or continue to obstruct – painting themselves into an ever-more extremist corner.
Here’s where Jonathan Chait’s description of “the Obama method” comes in:
[Obama’s strategy] does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries’ constituents as well as third parties.
What people constantly miss about this approach is that it is not necessarily aimed at winning over his “adversaries.” Rather, it is aimed at “his adversaries’ constituents” (i.e., the American public). A couple of years ago, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recognized what that was doing to Republicans.
[Obama’s] been using this, and I must say with great skill–and ruthless skill and success-to fracture and basically shatter the Republican opposition… His objective from the very beginning was to break the will of the Republicans in the House, and to create an internal civil war. And he’s done that.
What made this strategy less successful than it might have been was a media that – for whatever reason – has determined to adhere to a narrative of “both sides do it,” no matter what. As the story was told to the American public, it came across as “Washington is gridlocked because both sides have dug in.” According to former Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, that is exactly what Republicans had in mind.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
Occasionally sanity broke out. For example, when people like Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote, Let’s Just Say it: The Republicans are the Problem.
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them [Republicans] this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
It’s true that President Obama has changed his tone lately…or has he? He returned to these themes in his 2015 State of the Union address with his remarks about “a better politics,” and I’d remind you of his succession plan.
One senior Obama adviser says the administration “To Do list” after 2012 included thinking “about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it’s not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat.” Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on “a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do” and dare Republicans to oppose him.
What we are witnessing right now is that 17 candidates are vying for the 2016 Republican nomination and saying things like:
* “Let’s send combat troops back to Iraq”
* “Deport ’em all”
* “Climate science is a hoax”
* “Abortion should be outlawed, even in the case of incest and rape”
* “I’d send in the FBI and federal troops to stop abortions”
* “The United States is like Nazi Germany”
Can you spell “e-x-t-r-e-m-i-s-m?”
Meanwhile, we’re experiencing the longest period of private sector job growth in the country’s history, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank are working better than most people expected, there is a growing bipartisan consensus emerging from the states that it’s time for criminal justice reform, we’re likely to see a global climate accord reached in Paris this December and an amazing realignment is taking place in the Middle East.
Perhaps it’s still too soon to say whether or not “conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy” is a success.