Wednesday, March 23, 2011

O Captain! My Captain! Make us all get in the boat together....

Anne Applebaum invites us to imagine "that President Obama had spent the past few weeks denouncing Moammar Gaddafi, using the soaring rhetoric he has deployed in the past." The results would not be pretty:
Had he done all of that, there would certainly be fewer European members of the “coalition of the willing” that has formed, tentatively, to prevent Gaddafi from entering Benghazi: I can’t see the French or the Spanish falling in behind an aggressive-sounding American campaign. There would probably be no Arab coalition members either...

Enthusiasm and soaring rhetoric would also now lock the United States and its allies into an implied set of promises. If we’d compared Gaddafi to Hitler we’d have to eliminate him. If democracy were the only solution in Libya, we’d have to stay in Libya until it was democratic. If Obama had been talking about nothing else for the past three weeks, his entire presidency would be on the line.
Does that mode of "leadership" in response to the Libyan uprising remind you of anything?  Remember all those calls for a Presidential crusade against the structural budget deficit? The urgings that he embrace the Bowles-Simpson plan, or lay out a detailed blueprint of his own in the State of the Union address and/or in his proposed budget? Obama has been quite explicit about why he refrained from doing this:
“If you look at history of how these deals get done, typically it’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there. Its’ because Democrats and Republican are serious about dealing with [these issues] in a serious way,” the president said. “This is not a matter of you go first or I go first,” he said before describing a goal of “everybody…ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.”
As I've noted ad nauseam, this approach is supported both by government veterans such as Kent Conrad and Jacob Lew, and by powerful political science research from Frances Lee suggesting that public presidential advocacy hardens the battle lines between parties.

Obama took a similar  approach to health care reform. At the outset, he sought buy-in (or sought to buy off) the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries and the AMA. He laid out only the broadest parameters for the legislation and let five Congressional committees shape their bills.  He famously put his chips on Max Baucus' gang of six to get Republican buy-in and came up empty -- though ultimately, he fought for some key cost controls in the Baucus bill harder than for any other specific features of the final legislation.  When the Scott Brown bomb dropped on Jan. 19 and Democrats were running around like headless chickens, publicly pleading with him to tell them what to do next, he seemingly went AWOL until the State of the Union address eight days later, and in the two months between that speech and final passage ramped up his input by degrees. Pure partisan warfare being uncongenial to him, he made his case against Republican rejection mainly with the GOP present -- in a televised marathon session in which he still labored more to stress the common ground they would not acknowledge than his rejection of their rejection.

Same pattern with the Bush tax cut extensions.  To progressives, Obama's pointed refusal to promise to veto any bill that extended the cuts to the wealthiest 2% was as agonizing as his damnation-by-faint-support of the public option in the health care bill.  His refusal to draw lines in the sand, rhetorical or legislative, was agonizing.  But he came out of negotiations with a messy, expensive unlikely second round of stimulus almost as large as the first, albeit entirely in the form of tax cuts, and saved the bulk of his rhetorical pressure for the crucial passage of the New START treaty, for which he could claim bipartisan support, though the strong Republican support was mainly in the "retired" column.

That's the way he rolls. He will deliberate, hang back, go dark, proffer, hedge, trim -- and often, come up with some complex hybrid (Afghan strategy, Libyan strategy, tax cut deal). For better and worse.

UPDATE 3/29: In his speech on Libya last night, Obama continued the exercise in risk management -- distinguishing "values and strategic interests" from vital interests, stressing coalition-building and burden-sharing, and once again separating the military goal -- preventing massacre -- from the longer-term strategic goal -- getting rid of Gaddafi. 

More on the Libyan Conundrum
Obama on Libya: all-but-vital interests (3/28/11)
The Financial Times hearts dithering  (3/22/11)
Another war, another presidential 'terms sheet' (3/21/11)
Obama's military triangulation (3/20/11)
A spectacle of war and intervention (3/18/11)
No risk-free course in Libya  (3/18/11)

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