Monday, May 23, 2011

The audacity of nuance

James Fallows today puts his finger on "complexity" in Obama's speeches:
Obama's big speeches have been unusual, because the side they come down on is that of complexity. In his classic Philadelphia "race in America" speech: the recognition that every part of our racial mix has its insecurities and blind spots. In his Nobel prize address: that military force is not the answer but is an answer. In his West Point speech a year and a half ago: that the U.S. can't stay in Afghanistan forever but should stay for a while. You can apply this analysis to almost every major address...

From some politicians, for instance those otherwise dissimilar Georgians Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich, a collection of "complex" ideas often comes across as just a list. Obama, most of the time, has pulled off the trick of making his balance-of-contradictions seem a policy in itself. Rather than seeming just "contradictory" or "indecisive." This is unusual enough that it's worth noting.  (And for another time: the vulnerabilities this approach creates.)
I would add two corollaries, one implicit above.  First, those "complex" speeches generally explain or presage complex hybrid policies -- not only in Afghanistan, as Fallows notes, but also in Libya, and in the tax cut deal Obama cut with Republicans last December.  Second, the embrace of complexity also defines his tactical approach to striking legislative or international deals. In formulating his role,  he seems to have internalized, and has in fact explicitly voiced the principle, backed by political science data and the experience of long-term legislators, that a president's public advocacy of a given policy proposal from the "bully pulpit" polarizes party positions and lessens the chance of compromise. As he put it with regard to long-term budget/tax reform negotiations in a Feb. 15 press conference:

“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.”
"Leading from behind" may be an unfortunate formulation from a messaging standpoint.  And it may be misleading to the extent that the leader in question knows his goal and steers toward it.  But it does capture the way Obama seeks to manage the legislative process -- or in the case of Libya, the process of negotiating with allies. He lays out general principles (whether "complex" or common sense or both), positions himself as umpire or good-faith broker, lets two sides expose themselves, and weighs in late.

With regard to "the vulnerabilities this approach creates," I imagine that Fallows may find himself exploring two: perceptions of weakness, and pleasing no one with compromise results. Back in March, digesting Obama's hedged commitment to Libya, I tried an early weighing of the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's m.o., and reserved judgment:
Early in Obama's term, Andrew Sullivan said that the president is a trimmer -- and Sullivan cast that as a compliment.  I think the concept is right -- Obama hedges and fine-tunes his decisions -- but it's way too early to judge the outcomes.  The problems Obama inherited were so huge, and his approach to "change" so incremental, and our political system  so sclerotic, and his "trimming" so calibrated to that sclerosis, that it will be years until we know: Whether he can steer Congress into rational tax/budget reform, whether the ACA will be implemented and successful, whether the Afghan surge will tamp down civil war and crimp extremist havens, whether by saving the economy from collapse with moderate bailout and stress tests and "trimmed" stimulus he put it back on slow course to full renewal or left it to sputter toward accelerated relative decline, whether Dodd-Frank imposes meaningful curbs on financial industry rapine and risk-taking.  And these imagined future judgments are cast in overly personalized terms,  since so many other players and outside events affect the long-term outcome.

Since the earliest complaints about Obama's trimming were floated during the stimulus debate, my own "hope" that he will effect real needed "change" has always been shaped by Frederick Douglass's assessment of Lincoln, delivered 11 years after Lincoln's death:

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.
I hope that we can say the same about Obama in 2027. But who knows?

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