A strange aversion to confrontational politics

John Judis in The New Republic: "Why has the White House failed to convince the public that it is fighting effectively on its behalf? The principal culprit is clearly Barack Obama. He has a strange aversion to confrontational politics...

He was not a typical blue-collar, bread-and-butter Chicago Democrat, but the kind of good government liberal that represents the upscale districts of the city, seeing in politics a higher calling and ill at ease with (although not in open opposition to) the city’s Democratic machine. He was also a post-racial politician who eschewed the hard-edged, angry rhetoric of Jesse Jackson. (That, too, is oddly reminiscent of Carter, who partly campaigned in 1976 as the white Southern antidote to George Wallace’s angry racial populism.)

Obama carried this outlook into the U.S. Senate, into his campaign for the presidency, and then, into the presidency itself. He is a cerebral, dispassionate, post-partisan; he wants to “end the political strategy that has been based on division,” to “turn the page” on the culture wars of the 1960s and the partisan battles of the 1990s. During the campaign, his aides jokingly referred to him as the “black Jesus.” While he can tolerate and even brush aside conflict, he is reluctant to actively foment it. “In a time of crisis, we can’t afford to govern out of anger,” he declared in February 2009. During his campaign and his first year in office, he held to a blind faith in bipartisanship, even as the Republicans voted as a bloc against his legislation. He is, perhaps, ill-suited in these respects for an era of bruising political warfare...

These efforts to elevate Obama above the hurly-burly of Washington politics have been disastrous. Obama’s image as an iconic outsider has become the screen on which Fox News, the Tea Party, radicalright bloggers, and assorted politicians have projected the image of him as a foreigner, an Islamic radical, and a socialist. He has remained “the other” that he aspired to be during the campaign, but he and his advisers no longer control how that otherness is defined."

I disagree with Judis' points. Leaders have to make the hard choices. If Obama had gone for hard-core populism he would have weakened his mandate. Yes, there may have been short term political benefits to be realized from capitalizing on the anti-business backlash right after the bailouts, but he would have revealed himself to be the same kind of leader that got us into the mess. It's not about making Obama the "black Jesus" as Judis frames it-- it's about elevating him to a Presidential stature. That's the only way Obama is going to have the gravitas to try to influence moderate dems and republicans post-2010 election, when Congress goes back to being divided. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also did a good job elevating themselves above the partisan wars during their time in office, which is what a President needs to do to lead the whole country. Obama is playing the long game, which is the right way to look at it.

The simple fact is that the President is always blamed for the economy even though there's not much they can do to control it. Sure, this recovery has been weaker than anyone wanted, and maybe a larger stimulus would have accelerated things -- but it's water under the bridge at this point. I think it's more appropriate to compare Obama against Reagan at this stage (a similar response to a prior failed presidency) than Carter... it took some time to get out of the economic crisis (which began on the prior President's watch) but once things got back on track, Reagan was considered a successful president. I suspect that's where Obama is heading in the long term.

As Richard Cohen put it today:

"If it is not false analogies that pollute this debate, it is false populism... Minority rights are embedded in our Constitution. It was the perceived lack of them that caused the states to seek some immediate amendments, what we now call the Bill of Rights...

The inclination to go from the particular to the general -- to blame a people for the acts of a few -- is what has always fueled pogroms and race riots. History shows that it is a natural tendency and it will literally run riot if it is not controlled. It is the solemn obligation of elected leaders to restrain such an urge -- to be moral as well as political leaders."

Well put. Kudos to Cohen for getting it right.

Comments

I think that's why I like this administration so much -- because they are operating with the instincts of a mediator. And mediators know their job is not to be popular all the time. It's to get to solutions.

I want to believe that a conflict resolution orientation can satisfy people on both sides. But I suspect you're right... the rank and file won't be satisfied by anything other than confrontation and red meat. And the press knows that's what sells papers, gets ratings, and gathers page views.

rah

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