Monday, September 16, 2013

But Greg Sargent, "handling and manipulation of process and theatrics" matter

Greg Sargent has quite rightly called out a bevy of reporters who have slammed Obama for the process by which he arrived at his Syria policy (and other policies) "without taking a stand on the substance of the policy debates underlying them. It's true that criticizing presidential process can be a dodge, shielding the writer from grappling with the policy merits of, say, a missile strike on Syria. But Sargent overstates the case, I think, by suggesting that process can be cleanly separated from policy.  Holding up Dylan Byers as Exhibit A, Sargent criticizes a
genre of criticism of Obama..largely focused on the President’s handling and manipulation of process and theatrics, and the consequences that allegedly has had for the president and the country. Into this category fall the arguments, mentioned by Byers above, that Obama’s changes of course during the Syria crisis have been “confusing and contradictory,” that this has made him “appear weak on the international stage,” and that he has failed to muscle a progressive agenda through Congress.
This argument picks up a thread from a prior Plum Line post:
Ultimately what this whole dodge comes down to is that one can’t admit to thinking that going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution are the right goals for Obama to pursue, without undermining one’s ability to criticize Obama for betraying abstract qualities we all know a president is “supposed” to possess. It’s simply presumed to be a positive when a president shows “strength” by “not changing his mind,” and it’s simply presumed to be a negative when he shows “weakness” by changing course in midstream. That’s “indecisive,” and that’s bad, you see. But it’s a lot harder to sustain these “rules” if you admit you agree with the actual goals Obama is pursuing with these changes of mind. After all, if Obama’s changes of mind have now pointed him towards goals you agree with, how was changing course a bad thing?
Sargent is eliding the reality that process affects policy -- opens or forecloses options, wins or loses allies, and sometimes battles. You can believe that asking Congress for authorizing a strike against Syria was the right thing to do, but that Obama did not prepare the ground. Or, that he need not have gone to Congress, but that having once drawn his red line a year ago, he (or his administration) should have worked to amass international pre-approval, as it were (the lack of international support drove him to consult Congress). Or that forcing Assad to cough up his chemical weapons by negotiation should have been Plan A, or better developed as Plan B, rather than languishing as the subject of desultory discussion with the Russians for a year. Arguably, any of those strategies could have been more effective if better executed.

On the other hand, an equally endemic feature of writing on foreign policy, seemingly irresistible to academics and sidelined foreign policy pros alike, is to complain that the administration -- any and every administration --  lacks a strategy, fails to prepare for contingencies, reacts to events only as the occur, etc. The criticism is endemic because it's in the nature of foreign policy to be reactive, caught by surprise by the unpredictable, and/or hamstrung by the undoable (finding a viable way to support viable Syrian rebels, perhaps). To the extent that's true, Obama has exhibited an admirable flexibility in tacking to a Syrian policy that seems to have at least a chance of achieving at least a limited goal -- forestalling further chemical attacks. Ultimately he'll be judged -- perhaps unfairly -- by the result, or by a chain of results that could include a rapprochement with Iran -- or being boxed into war with Iran.

On the domestic front, I'd pick a different bone with Sargent. You can believe that Obama's budget reflects an admirable balancing of priorities, as I do, and that, as Sargent argues, "structural realities about our politics have rendered Republicans pretty much unwilling or ideologically unable to compromise with Obama — the question that is absolutely central to understanding what is happening in American political life right now."  Accepting all that, you can still believe that Obama has failed on process, not by winning Republican hearts and minds, but by failing to fight effectively, failing to use his leverage to better advantage than they use theirs.  I have argued repeatedly that Obama failed in this way by avoiding a showdown at his point of maximum leverage: the fiscal cliff, when his election victory was fresh, and, more importantly, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts gave him $3.6 trillion in automatic tax hikes over ten years with which to force the Republicans to deal.   That was the moment to insist on $1.2 trillion in new revenue over the same period -- and a sequester replacement, which depended on the extra revenue.

From a given observer's perspective, a president could be right straight down the line on policy and still be ineffectual.  Perhaps that overstates the case in the other direction, as the "right" policy for an elected official is, by definition, at least partly one that can win support.  Process and policy can neither be fully conflated nor fully separated.

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