It sounds silly to call for less presidential leadership, but I think the evidence suggests that what’s needed here is actually a very vague and generic endorsement of the concept of tax reform plus some themeless pudding. Frances Lee’s important book Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U. S. Senate argues persuasively that what happens when a president tries to “lead” on an issue like this is that a dynamic of partisan polarization kicks in. What you really need to get tax reform is for some hard-working members of congress from both parties to take the initiative in hammering out a framework and building support on the Hill. If such a thing happens, the White House should of course try to play a constructive role. But jumping all over the issue and a creating a dynamic where tax reform becomes “a key priority for the Obama administration” that opportunists on the right want to kill for the sake of a political win would not be a constructive intervention.
That is food for thought (and I've ordered Lee's book). In rebuttal, I would point out that political vets seem in any case to be assuming that getting a tax overhaul enacted will be at least a three-year process, and that while "polarizing" the debate early by "presidentializing" it may slow that process, doing so may also a) help Obama politically, and b) improve the ultimate outcome, since his approach to revenue-raising, federal spending, and tax burden distribution is far more reality-based than the Republicans'. Not that I'm saying Yglesias is wrong - who am I to game out political strategy?
I do think that Lee's observations go a long way toward explaining Obama's policymaking approach up to this point, however. Obama's abdication of bully pulpit "leadership" at key moments has been so pointed that I think there's got to be a method behind it. The battle of the Bush tax cuts is the most recent example. Ever since the news of Obama's deal with the Republican broke, and I took in the list of stimulative goodies for the nonwealthy piled up on Obama's side of the ledger, I've suspected that the president may not have wanted the tax cuts for the top 2% to sunset right now. His silence when effectively invited to promise a veto of any bill extending those cuts has been deafening at least since September 9, when George Stephenopoulos asked him four times, and he demurred four times. Ever since the Republican landslide become a strong likelihood Obama may have been desperate to buy whatever stimulus he could while he could -- and the sunsetting tax cuts were his only currency.
Obama's following of Lee's logic is almost a matter of public record in the healthcare reform process. Hillary's grand plan in 1994, unveiled with such fanfare, might serve as Exhibit A for Lee's take on the effect of presidential lead-taking on legislation -- and Obama had famously internalized that debacle as a don't-let-this-happen-to-you reverse roadmap. Of course, if the idea of a light presidential touch was to win Republican buy-in, Obama's approach -- lay out broad parameters and give Congress room to work -- didn't work as planned. But maybe it was necessary to win conservative Democratic buy-in.
As hard evidence that Obama is aware -- perhaps too aware -- of the limits of persidential power and the dangers of too heavy-handed an exercise of it, consider his response to the question, "how has the presidency humbled you?" in his 100th-day press conference:
[I am]...humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry of American life and there are a lot of different power centers. And so I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want -- (laughter) -- or -- (chuckles) -- or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line. And so, you know, what you do is to make your best arguments, listen hard to what other people have to say and coax folks in the right direction.Obama's approach might be said to have won legislative battles and lost messaging battles. So perhaps it's time to tack back tactically now and take control of the tax reform debate early. Obama, as he testily reminded everyone in his press conference on Tuesday, is all about the long game. And nothing is more consequential for America's future than erasing the structural deficit an an efficient, equitable manner that enables necessary investments in education, energy, healthcare and infrastructure.
Regarding my own speculation that Obama may have gamed out his tax cut deal way in advance, it does raise my bullshit radar about my own propensity to forever credit Obama with playing a "long game" -- an article of faith among strong supporters. As with another article of faith -- that Obama has "the right temperament to be president" -- this is a meme planted by Obama himself. I am often torn between a perception of deep strategy and suspicion that it is a mirage.
I'm sure that the truth lies somewhere in between. Like anyone, and especially any president, and especially a new president taking office while the global economy is in mid-meltdown, Obama has had to navigate purblind through a maze of contingency, and not every decision and utterance is a result of deep planning. In the current case, Obama may have seen the deal he struck in faint outline last August or September and still have hoped until after November 2 that the Bush cut for the top 2% could be sunset. In refusing in September to promise a veto, he was probably just keeping his options open.
What I am sure of, though, is that a commitment to finding a way to take incremental steps that advance long-term goals is so embedded in Obama's rhetoric that it is unquestionably central to his theory and practice of politics, and to his own core concept of how he operates. When asked to lay out goals for his presidency, or when laying them out in speeches, his backdrop is generally a twenty-year horizon. The large goals are tempered by a focus on making a beginning, setting a course, turning a very large battleship a few degrees in the right direction. I have called this combo a modest and ambitious agenda: modest in its focus on first steps -- beginning to do x and y -- and ambitious (indeed, sometimes grandiose) in the long-term effects he envisions. The widest angle of all is his vision of a "more perfect union," always imperfect but always progressing toward fulfillment of the ideals embedded in the country's founding texts. At bottom, this concept may even have a religious underpinning.
In light of that long-held theory, the outburst that's been viewed as big dis to enraged progressives is worth a second look. Using the words "sanctimonious" and "pure" to describe his critics from the left was unfortunate. But the whole riff was more impassioned argument than rebuke. It was a theory of governance laid out in full and should be viewed in full:
Q Where is your line in the sand?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I’ve got a whole bunch of lines in the sand. Not making the tax cuts for the wealthy permanent -- that was a line in the sand. Making sure that the things that most impact middle-class families and low-income families, that those were preserved -- that was a line in the sand. I would not have agreed to a deal, which, by the way, some in Congress were talking about, of just a two-year extension on the Bush tax cuts and one year of unemployment insurance, but meanwhile all the other provisions, the Earned Income Tax Credit or other important breaks for middle-class families like the college tax credit, that those had gone away just because they had Obama’s name attached to them instead of Bush’s name attached to them.
So this notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate that we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.
Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat. This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us. And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew.
Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal. This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.
So my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.
And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight -- not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?
And I don’t think there’s a single Democrat out there, who if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.
Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.
And so the -- to my Democratic friends, what I’d suggest is, let’s make sure that we understand this is a long game. This is not a short game. And to my Republican friends, I would suggest -- I think this is a good agreement, because I know that they’re swallowing some things that they don’t like as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years.
To view this as a Sister Souljah moment, rather than as an exercise of the leadership Democrats say they want, is the myopia of the moment.