Friday, September 23, 2011

Learning from experience

Jonathan Cohn is cheered that Obama is not only following through so far on his promise to take his jobs plan to the country, but that he's also sticking with calling out Republicans by name for their obstruction, instead of inveighing against "Washington" or "Congress":
Remember those days when he wouldn’t even utter the word “Republican”? Those days are gone. He's even naming names.
As someone who was waiting on a hair trigger (with millions of other Democrats) for Obama to make this shift, which he made on Labor Day in a preview of the jobs proposal he unveiled on Sept. 8, I'm as thrilled as Cohn. On one level it's surprising, insofar as Obama was so all-in for so long on finding common ground, compromising, rising above partisan politics -- in fact, that approach a lifelong m.o. and was central to candidate Obama's brand.  But in another way it's not surprising. Obama is probably still gunning for compromise and will probably praise Republicans effusively if they put through some subset of the proposals in his jobs bill -- though he will probably also remain in confrontational mode through the election. It's a change of tactics, and one in line with another core element of his brand and probably his self-concept: pragmatism.  Here's what he told Ron Suskind about his approach to governing: of the things you discover about the presidency, which is unlike anything else, and certainly unlike the campaign, is that you can manage everything perfectly, and yet what you do still doesn't work. And then the key to management, from my perspective — this is something that I've learned in the campaign and did carry over into my presidency — is the capacity to re-evaluate what you've done, and if it's not working, to try something else, and I think having a good feedback loop, constantly asking questions and making sure that if something is not working, you empower folks and push folks to try something different is the single toughest job but most important job of the President.

In some ways, maybe the only field where I think you get an analogous situation is maybe in medicine where if a doctor has somebody who's really sick, you can go through the various protocols and you can say typically in these cases X might work, Y might work, we're going to try this medication, we might try this surgery. But the patient may not react the way you think the patient was supposed to react and then you've got to try something different.
 There's nothing surprising about this, as Obama's current situation highlights. Any elected executive has to be pragmatic in this way to a degree: you change what's not working or you're done. And in fact it took Obama a very unpragmatic length of time to recognize that Republicans were negotiating with just one goal, which was to destroy him, despite the fact that Mitch McConnell positively broadcast the fact.

But what's clear now is that Obama has turned decisively toward confrontation (which, he should have always recognized, does not obviate compromise).  The new pattern is not just to name names, it's to cite Republican leaders directly and demonstrate how they're contradicting themselves.  Here's the passage Cohn cites from Obama's September 22 speech on that crumbing bridge linking Boehner's and McConnell's districts:

...part of the reason I came here is because Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell, those are the two most powerful Republicans in government. They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can help pass this jobs bill. And I know these men care about their states. They care about businesses; they care about workers here. I can’t imagine that the Speaker wants to represent a state where nearly one in four bridges are classified as substandard -- one in four. I know that when Senator McConnell visited the closed bridge in Kentucky, he said that, “Roads and bridges are not partisan in Washington.” That’s great. I know that Paul Ryan, the Republican in charge of the budget process, recently said that "you can’t deny that infrastructure does creates jobs." That's what he said.
Well, if that’s the case, there’s no reason for Republicans in Congress to stand in the way of more construction projects. There’s no reason to stand in the way of more jobs.
Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge. Help us rebuild America. Help us put construction workers back to work. Pass this bill.

And here he is calling out Boehner in the September 19 speech unveiling Obama's deficit reduction package:

You know, last week, Speaker of the House John Boehner gave a speech about the economy. And to his credit, he made the point that we can’t afford the kind of politics that says it’s “my way or the highway.” I was encouraged by that. Here’s the problem: In that same speech, he also came out against any plan to cut the deficit that includes any additional revenues whatsoever. He said -- I'm quoting him -- there is “only one option.” And that option and only option relies entirely on cuts. That means slashing education, surrendering the research necessary to keep America’s technological edge in the 21st century, and allowing our critical public assets like highways and bridges and airports to get worse. It would cripple our competiveness and our ability to win the jobs of the future. And it would also mean asking sacrifice of seniors and the middle class and the poor, while asking nothing of the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations.

So the Speaker says we can’t have it "my way or the highway," and then basically says, my way -- or the highway. (Laughter.) That’s not smart. It’s not right. If we’re going to meet our responsibilities, we have to do it together.
This swing to direct confrontation of Republican leaders by name may have come abruptly. I want to point, once more, to what seems to be a speech never delivered -- a prepared speech announcing the Buffett tax, published by TPM on September 19, that's completely different from the speech Obama actually delivered. It's bloodless. It call out no one. The challenge to Boehner is missing, as is the argument that "Warren Buffett’s secretary shouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett" and the challenge to Republicans to abandon their "no new taxes" pledge. The word "Republican" does not appear. No resistance to his proposals is alluded to.  I am mystified by the existence of this draft, which is still live on TPM. In case it disappears, I pasted it into my 9/19 post (it's at the at bottom).  I've also written to TPM asking if they know anything about the relationship between the two speeches, the delivered and undelivered. If anyone knows anything about this, please let me know (especially if I'm being an idiot).

Of course, Obama's not the first president to talk about learning from experience and reversing course when events demand it.

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