I first started paying attention to Barack Obama about the time he won the Iowa primary in 2008. Prior to that, I figured he was just another insurgent candidate who would make a name for himself by challenging Hillary Clinton – but would ultimately lose.
The closer I looked, the more intrigued I became. Eventually it seemed to me that he was a very different kind of politician and that most pundits were viewing him through a lens of what they expected, rather than being genuinely curious. That’s how I started my blogging career – by trying to understand who this guy was and how he operated.
From the beginning, one of the few pundits that seemed to be peeking behind the curtain of conventional wisdom was Richard Wolffe. That’s why it is no surprise to me that – as we near the end of Obama’s second term – he has written one of the most intriguing essays about how this President has contributed to the implosion of the GOP.
It may seem too early to call, but we already have a winner in the 2016 election.
He’s someone the pundits wrote off long ago. An improbable outsider who rode an insurgent wave to snatch the nomination from the establishment. An unconventional politician whose raucous rallies underscored his appeal to voters far outside his party base.
His name is Barack Obama. And he can thank the freak show that is Donald Trump’s Republican party for restoring his stature as a unifying, national leader with a moderated and mature approach to a complex and unstable world.
Eight years ago, Obama represented an existential threat to the Republican party, and not just because he was going to lead the Democratic party to win the White House and Congress by large margins.
No, Obama’s biggest threat was that he could realign American politics, shifting it fundamentally towards progressives for a generation…
So the GOP leadership chose to make Obama unacceptable, unpalatable and un-American…They would not reform their policies or consider the root cause of their defeat. Instead, they would oppose Obama on everything, well before he tried to pass a giant stimulus bill or healthcare reform…
If your political priorities are the total defeat of a single politician – not the advancement of your own policies through debate or legislation – then you are already in pretty desperate shape. You render it impossible to compromise with your opponents, and you fan the flames of extremism that will burn anyone in the center.
That is basically what I have been writing about the Obama era for quite a while now. I would simply add one thing – Wolfe does a great job of describing how Republicans reacted to this President. But he leaves out how Obama played a role in framing their options.
Conventional wisdom holds that President Obama was naive in pushing for bipartisanship during his first term when the Republicans had crafted a strategy of total obstruction. Liberals were angered that he continued to offer fig leaves towards compromise when he should have known that the opposition had no intention of meeting him halfway.
But let’s imagine for a moment that the President had taken their advice and only offered progressive policy proposals. Republicans would have continued to obstruct. But they could have done so by aligning with more centrist positions themselves. By inhabiting large swaths of the political continuum, Obama left them no choice but to become more extremist in their obstruction.
That is what I have often called “conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy.” In a sense, it gave the President a win/win position in the long term: either Republicans worked with him and fulfilled his vision of being a unifying figure in American politics, or they backed themselves into an ever more extremist corner – threatening their survival as a party.
After having laid that foundation in his first term, Obama implemented his “pen and phone” strategy and developed a succession plan during his second term.
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.
Liberal critics of this President usually claim that he has failed to move the Overton Window to the left by not making enough use of the bully pulpit. What I propose is that there is more than one strategy for shifting that window. It took a while to come to fruition – but Obama has shown an alternative for how that can be done.