Sunday, April 18, 2010

Where Obama's "placation" ended

Garry Wills, summing up David Remnick's portrayal of Obama in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, is close to right, and yet so very wrong, as he segues to his own judgment:
Obama’s strategy everywhere before entering the White House was one of omnidirectional placation. It had always worked. Why should he abandon, at this point, a method of such proved effectiveness? Yet success at winning acceptance may not be what is called for in a leader moving through a time of peril. To disarm fears of change (the first African-­American presidency is, in itself, a big jolt of change), Obama has stressed continuity. Though he first became known as a critic of the war in Iraq, he has kept aspects or offshoots of Bush’s war on terror — possible future “renditions” (kidnappings on foreign soil), trials of suspected terrorists in military tribunals, no investigations of torture, an expanded Afghan commitment, though he promised to avoid “a dumb war.” He appointed as his vice president and secretary of state people who voted for the Iraq war, and as secretary of defense and presiding generals people who conducted or defended that war.

To cope with the financial crisis, he turned to Messrs. Geithner, Summers and Bernanke, who were involved in fomenting the crisis. To launch reform of medical care, he huddled with the American Medical Association, big pharmaceutical companies and insurance firms, and announced that his effort had their backing (the best position to be in for stabbing purposes, which they did month after month). All these things speak to Obama’s concern with continuity and placation. But continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done. He may have drunk his own Kool-Aid — believing that his election could of itself usher in a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state era. That is a change no one should ever have believed in. The price of winningness can be losing; and that, in this scary time, is enough to break the heart of hope. 
It is true that Obama sets tremendous stock in his ability to win buy-in from potential adversaries, to disarm them by acknowledging what he regards (or presents) as the legitimate points in their argument, to find common ground and therefore assent. Remnick captures this.  Recounting Obama's reaction to Robert Caro's portrayal of the old hard-core segregationist bull of the Senate Richard Russell, Reminick writes:
Much of Obama's self-confidence resided in his belief that he could walk into any room, with any sort of people, and forge a relationship and even persuade those people of the rightness of his positions. Jim Cauley, Obama's Senate campaign manager, said he thought Obama believed that he could win over a room of skinheads. "All of us are a mixture of noble and ignoble impulses, and I guess that's part of what I mean when I say I don't go into meetings with people presuming bad faith," Obama has said. Now he seemed to think that he would have had a fighting chance with Russell: "Had I been around at all in the early sixties and had the opportunity to meet with Richard Russell, it would have been fascinating to talk to somebody like that.  Even if you understood that this enormous talent would prevent me from ever being sworn in to the Senate"(426).

But placation is only weakness if it has no end point. Obama did persist too long in trying to win Republican cooperation. But his faith in his ability to win assent was not weakness but hubris.  According to George Packer, the title of whose long chronicle Obama's Lost Year gave Wills his keynote above:
Obama's quest for bipartisanship, in the face of exceedingly discouraging facts, has been so relentless that it suggests less a strategy than a core conviction: reasonable people can be civil, exchange ideas, and eventually find points of agreement.
Obama clung to that "core conviction" in the face of an open bid on the part of Republicans to destroy his presidency. According to Packer, it was Obama's call to let Max Baucus drag out negotiations over the finance committee's health care bill with his "gang of six," including Republicans Enzi, Grassley and Snowe so that they missed his deadline of the August recess - despite the fact that Republicans' strategy to delay the bill to death was a matter of public record.  Politico's Ben Smith reported the following from a conference call between Republican leaders and Tea Partiers on July 17, 2009:
"I can almost guarantee you this thing won't pass before August, and if we can hold it back until we go home for a month's break in August," members of Congress will hear from "outraged" constituents, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint said on the call, which was organized by the group Conservatives for Patients Rights.

"Senators and Congressmen will come back in September afraid to vote against the American people," DeMint predicted, adding that "this health care issue Is D-Day for freedom in America."

"If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," he said.
To continue in the face of such open enmity to try to pick off a few Republican senators with a history of bipartisan work and serious engagement with healthcare was to push that "core conviction" in his powers of persuasion to the breaking point.

But placation had its limit. Obama never yielded on what he deemed "the core elements of the bill."  When the election of Scott Brown put the reform effort on life support, Obama went to extraordinary lengths over the course of two months  to detail to multiple audiences that those core elements were interdependent, essential to covering tens of millions of uninsured while getting health care costs under control, and were in fact themselves the product of long consensus and compromise, most of them having been proposed by Republicans over the past fifteen years.

And while Obama never gave up on his powers of persuasion, he did finally give up on the Republicans, even as he drew them into a final sustained dialogue. At that point he shifted his audience to the country at large.  To do so, he reverted to the tool that throughout his life had showcased what Will would call his power of placation best: the open discussion, the seminar -- in this case, the health care summit he called with Republican and Democratic leadership on February 25.

The summit was a reversion to old habit. Remnick recounts a striking precursor: Obama's participation from 1997-2000 in the Saguaro Seminars on civic engagement at Harvard's Kennedy School. While he was among the least well known of the participants, Remnick writes that he "immediately attracted attention."  Robert Putnam, the seminars' leader, told Remnick:
The striking feature was his style in the discussion of hot topics with a lot of big egos. His style was to step back and listen. There were some important people who looked pretty bored; he was not, he was following. He carefully listened. Bill Clinton is also a power listener, but Obama, who has this capacity, is less forward than Clinton in letting you know what he thinks. But then he would say, "I hear Jose Smith saying X, and Nancy saying Y, but I think Joe and Nancy actually agree on Z."  and it wouldn't be pabulum. It is not a trivial thing to listen for a whole day and see common themes in the midst of an arguing bunch. It's a personal skill or a personality trait.  I don't think I have ever seen that same ability in anyone else (306).
Obama exercised this synthesizing technique, as if by reflex,  throughout the summit. He insisted more than once that "we are not that far apart," though he knew that the Republicans would stonewall against the bill that was on the table.  At the outset, he claimed common ground:
And so when I look at the ideas that are out there, there is overlap. It's not perfect overlap, it's not a hundred percent overlap, but there's some overlap. Now, what I did, what the White House did several days ago, is we posted what we think is the best blend of the House and the Senate legislation that's already passed.

(Note , though, the elision from 'overlap' between Democratic and Republican ideas to a "blend" of two all-Democratic bills with no Republican support.)  He then detailed the extent to which various Republicans had shared the concerns that the bill addressed:
You know, I was looking through some of the past statements that people have made, and I think this concern is bipartisan. John McCain has talked about how rising health care costs are devastating to middle-class families. Chuck, you've been working on this a long time. You've discussed the unsustainable growth in Medicare and Medicaid in our budget. Mike Enzi, who's worked on this and partnered with Ted Kennedy on a range of health care issues as a chairman of the committee, you said that small businesses in your home state are finding it nearly impossible to afford health care coverage for their employees. And you said that the current system is in critical condition. And Mitch, you've said that the need for reform is not in question, and obviously there are comparable studies on the Democratic side as well.

He showered praise on any little scrap of Republican input that he could dub a "good idea," like Coburn's proposal to have undercover agents seek out fraud in Medicare and Medicaid. He pointed out that core elements of the bill -- the insurance exchanges, the Medicare commission, the individual mandate -- were ideas with Republican pedigrees.

But the marathon meeting was, in essence, combat -- with Obama in the lead. He repeatedly exposed contradictions and transparent bad faith in Republican positions -- calling them on claiming that they wanted to focus first on controlling costs even as they  demagogued the bill's Medicare savings, highlighting that their proposed bill would only cover 3 million of the nation's 47 million uninsured, arguing that allowing sale of insurance across state lines without national coverage rules would trigger a "race to the bottom"  in regulatory standards and leave people with illusory insurance. 

The end of the summit was also placation's end. Obama summarized the whole, with the main emphasis on core philosophical differences: setting national coverage rules for the exchanges or allowing a regulatory race to the bottom: setting up exchanges to cover tens of millions of uninsured, or demurring. He offered to incorporate a few scraps from Republican input at the summit, but ultimately made it clear that the differences would remain irreconcilable, that Democrats would move forward:
I will end by saying this. I suspect that if the Democrats and the administration were willing to start over and then adopt John Boehner's bill, we'd get a whole bunch of Republican votes. And I don't know how many Democratic votes we'd get, but we'd get a whole bunch of Republican votes.

The concern, I think, that a lot of the colleagues both in the House and the Senate on the Democratic side have is that after a year- and-a-half, or more appropriately after five decades of dealing with this issue, starting over, they suspect, means not doing much, or doing the proposal that John Boehner or other Republicans find acceptable.

And that it's not possible for our Republican colleagues to move in the direction of, for example, covering more than 3 million people. It's not possible to move more robustly in the direction of dealing with the preexisting condition in a realistic way. It's not possible to make sure that we get people out of a high-risk pool and get them into a situation where, as Tom Harkin put it, healthy people, young people, rich people, poor people, old people, the sick, everybody is part of a system that works. That, I think, is the concern.

Having said that, what I'd like to propose is that I've put on the table now some things that I didn't come in here saying I supported, but that I was willing to work with potential Republican sponsors on. I'd like the Republicans to do a little soul-searching and find out are there some things that you'd be willing to embrace that get to this core problem of 30 million people without health insurance and dealing seriously with the preexisting condition issue.

I don't know, frankly, whether we can close that gap. And if we can't close that gap, then I suspect Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are going to have a lot of arguments about procedures in Congress about moving forward.

I will tell you this, that when I talk to the parents of children who don't have health care because they've got diabetes or they've got some chronic heart disease; when I talk to small business people who are laying people of because they just got their insurance premium, they don't want us to wait. They can't afford another five decades.

And the truth of the matter is that politically speaking, there may not be any reason for Republicans to want to do anything. I mean, we can debate what our various constituencies think. I know that -- I don't need a poll to know that most of Republican voters are opposed to this bill and might be opposed to the kind of compromise we could craft. It would be very hard for you politically to do this.

But I thought it was worthwhile for us to make this effort. We've got a lot of other things to do. I don't think, Tom, that we're going to have another one of these because people don't have seven, eight hours a day to work some of these things through.

What I do know is this. If we saw movement, significant movement, not -- not just gestures, then you wouldn't need to start over because essentially everybody here knows what the issues are. And procedurally, it could get done fairly quickly.

We cannot have another year-long debate about this. So the question that I'm going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month's time or a few weeks' time or six weeks' time we could actually resolve something?

And if we can't, then I think we've got to go ahead and some make decisions, and then that's what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about -- about the vision for the country and we'll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?
Moreover, Obama learned both from the failure of bipartisanship and from the success of rallying the Democrats. His tone and m.o. as the Democrats' financial reform bill moves to the Senate floor has been markedly different. He has directly contradicted McConnell's claim that the bill will encourage rather than end bailouts of large banks; he has accused the Republicans of doing Wall Street's bidding; he has asserted early that the core elements of the bill will not change and that it will pass; and he asserted that nonnegotiables would include current provisions on seemingly arcane topics like regulation of derivatives and securitizations.

Ultimately, too, I suspect that even Obama's overlong efforts to win some Republican buy-in to the health care bill will prove not to have been wasted.  Despite the general public's continued misgivings about the new healthcare reform law, large majorities consider Obama more willing to work with Republicans in good faith than vice versa. By large margins they trust Obama more than they do the Republicans to produce rational solutions to the country's problems. Through whatever snippets of the health care summit played on the evening news, the extraordinary synthesizing skills that Robert Putnam lauded were on full display.  The majority of the American people know that Obama deals with us in good faith, that he thinks long term, and that he is essentially pragmatist. Over time, if he lives, these impressions will only deepen. 

On some level, too, Wills' dismissal of what he call placation, even on his own terms, is misguided. Think for a moment about this claim:
Yet success at winning acceptance may not be what is called for in a leader moving through a time of peril.
Really? Does Wills, who's studied Lincoln closely, really believe that  the leader of a democracy can achieve any true success without "success at winning acceptance" -- ultimately, if not immediately?  Or would Wills not agree with Frederick Douglass' assessment of Lincoln?

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
 Or, for that matter, Barack Obama's?
Abraham Lincoln did not simply win a war or hold the Union together. In his unwillingness to demonize those against whom he fought; in his refusal to succumb to either the hatred or self-righteousness that war can unleash; in his ultimate insistence that in the aftermath of war the nation would no longer remain half slave and half free; and his trust in the better angels of our nature - he displayed the wisdom and courage that sets a standard for patriotism (my emphasis).
That is the standard to which Obama holds himself.


  1. Incredible analysis.

    What politicians and "pundits" (the most inappropriately used term in modern political culture) miss is that Obama is not a typical politician. How many "photo-ops" did you see him on the campaign trail on a duck hunting trip?

    Whether you agree with him or not, he's a real dude. Even with the ebbs and flows of political allegiance and the fickleness of the American public, Reagan, despite his flaws, was always "trusted" by the majority of the American public. Bill Clinton, despite his flaws, was supported by the American public even while the country entered a Constitutional crisis just because of his personal failing of desiring a blowjob.

    Barack Obama may be many things, but I think he has shown a lot of respect to the American people at large, despite some wackos with anger management issues. And, not surprisingly, he has gotten respect right back. He is still more popular than Congress and any potential opponent.

    Wills was wrong. Obama knows what he is doing. If things don't go is way as a result of strategy #1, he's got several more up his sleeve and he's probably several steps ahead.

    His greatest asset is that his enemies underestimate him (just like Clinton and Reagan).

  2. Minn Pipe is right - just want to add that like Reagan and Clinton, Obama is underestimated by a number of his natural allies too.

  3. "over time, if he lives...."

    Jesus thats morbid.

    Otherwise great post.

  4. It's strange to me how people still underestimate him after all this time. How many times will he have to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat before more people start acknowledging his vast political skill?

  5. > Over time, if he lives, these impressions will only deepen.

    "If he lives," eh? Talk about the 900 pound rhinocerous in the corner....

  6. You want placation? His "bowing" to saudi's and chinese leaders is enough placation for me! This man HATEs America.

  7. Oh anonymous,
    Go crwal back under your rock. I guess you never saw the numerous photographed occasions of "W" kissing and hugging King Abdullah. But that aside, do you really believe that anyone who seeks the highest office in the land hates their own country? Are you really that ignorant? I think it might be you, that HATEs America.

  8. I think one element of Obama's strategy is that if he keeps acting like a reasonable grown-up while the opposition is acting like crazy people or children having a tantrum (take your pick), then either more Americans will recognize who the grown-up in the room is, or the GOP will have to change and become more responsible. Either outcome is good for the country.

  9. "How many times will he have to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat before more people start acknowledging his vast political skill?"

    If he gets reelected -- and I'm very curious to see if he will -- it will become conventional wisdom rather quickly that he's a remarkably talented and impactful leader. That's the major pivot point in his media and public image.

  10. "over time, if he lives..." WOW!! Was this a Freudian Slip that mars an otherwise excellent post?

  11. I'm so sick of this "Obama did nothing in his first term" nonsense. Someone needs to make a list of every piece of legislation and every policy initiative the Dems passed and implemented since Jan 2009.

  12. "Over time, if he lives, these impressions will only deepen."

    Yep. That stood out for me like the other commenters. That line shocked me and chilled me to the bone. Thanks for that. ;-)

  13. "Over time, if he lives..."

    I had to read that a few times to make sure I had it right.

    How can we help to keep Pres Obama safe?

  14. Wills ends up drinking his own Kool-Aid with his final synopsis that, "if the Democrats and the administration were willing to start over and then adopt John Boehner's bill, we'd get a whole bunch of Republican votes. And I don't know how many Democratic votes we'd get, but we'd get a whole bunch of Republican votes." Repugs were trying to kill the bill by inertia and the rewrite was simply a plan to go backwards and stifle any momentum, essentially expand the "Stall of Three" to that of a Gang of 39.

  15. an interesting analysis. if you're correct, then i'm quite glad that he is beginning to move beyond placation.

  16. While I'm glad that Barack Obama won the presidency, I think there's something to the doubts cast on his slim national experience. Obama had about one year in the Senate to make friends, to cooperate in cross-party legislation, to work out deals and to establish trust and connections before he started his run for president. That he won must have stuck even more in the craw of his fellow senators, each of whom surely believes he deserves the presidency more than this uppity newcomer. I think the country needed Obama in 2008, but I believe he would have been more successful a president to this point with a decade or so of Washington experience, or even gubernatorial experience.

  17. @Julian "Someone needs to make a list of every piece of legislation and every policy initiative the Dems passed and implemented since Jan 2009."

    Someone has done a bunch and in style.