Monday, July 18, 2011

On trusting Obama, revisited

James Fallows, while expressing increasing consternation over the ground Obama has ceded in deficit reduction talks, airs the views of a couple of Obama faithful. Here's one:
And now he has taken the Republican stupid-assed, testosterone addled attempt to hold the debt ceiling hostage, and has judo-thrown them into forcing a discussion of the very problem that they've been purportedly complaining about.  He is using their own two-faced complaints about the deficit...and presenting them with a very sound, very practical, very compromised, totally solid proposal to deal with the long-term structural deficit, which any Republican four years ago would have leapt at, and which contains the very broad-based sacrifices that he promised in his inaugural address...

If he succeeds in his big picture deficit plan, he'll go into 2012 having tamed the long term deficit.  He'll be in a position to lambast the Republicans and hopefully, gain more control of Congress, and, when he's reelected, he'll have a powerful mandate to pursue his more adventuresome and long-term beneficial programs. It'll take a few more years, but he's  a long-term strategic thinker, and I think he'll get us there. The Republicans look like a lot of power-addled men who are really out of touch with the electorate.
Fallows' own response: "It is indeed pretty to think so [hmm...seen Midnight in Paris lately, JF?]. And perhaps this will turn out to be true."  As for my own somewhat shaken faith in Obama's moxie as a long-range strategist, here are the caveats and counter-caveats:

1) No one questions Obama's high intelligence and analytical approach to policymaking.  But smarts don't trump nature, they bend to it, and even the smartest are susceptible to confirmation bias.  Obama's greatest character strength is also his weakness: he has got where he is by deploying what Garry Wills called "omnidirectional placation, and which in a kinder interpretation (i.e., mine, a while back) might be recast as a bottomless confidence that he can always disarm, win over, find grounds for cooperation with the most seemingly implacable ideological foes.
That orientation has determined his strategy, for better or worse: he is hell-bent on appealing to Republicans' better angels. The face he put on reasonable Republicanism is John Boehner. That made sense as far as Boehner himself goes -- I have been impressed by him this year -- but we recently seem to have learned that Boehner does not speak for his party, particularly the frosh (for the measure of their extremism, read Stan Collender's account of the first Tea Party caucus meeting of the new House).   

One part of Obama's most recent argument, expressed in his last two press conferences, indicates to me that he may be invested to the point of personal mania in transforming GOP intransigence.  It's this:

What we can do is to solve this underlying debt and deficit problem for a long period of time so that then we can get back to having a conversation about, all right, since we now have solved this problem, that’s not -- no longer what’s hampering economic growth, that’s not feeding business and uncertainty, everybody feels that the ground is stable under our feet, are there some strategies that we could pursue that would really focus on some targeted job growth -- infrastructure being a primary example.
Does he really think that striking a deficit deal will make the GOP more amenable to new stimulus?  Maybe not -- maybe the argument is that taking care of the structural deficit will undercut the political viability of the argument that we can't afford stimulative measures now. But the notion that the Republicans need any logic at all to defend an ideological position is in itself delusive -- otherwise, we'd be arguing now over whether to raise $3 trillion or $1 trillion in new taxes over the next decade, rather than whether to raise them at all.  A majority of polled Republican voters believe that a deficit reduction plan should include a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts. Does that polling data change the behavior of Republicans in office?  Moreover, the logic of "they've blocked my agenda, so I'll try to work my will on theirs" seems more a reversion to personal predilection than an analytical choice, as does "let's deal with the long-term problem before short-term one."

2) Part of Obama's placatory style is a core personal investment in recognizing "that the other side may sometimes [or always?] have a point."  Perhaps this is why, as Kevin Drum has argued in multiple posts, Obama's policy preferences are genuinely to the right of those most progressives.  This makes it seem like he's getting rolled by Republicans at times when he may be wilfully rolling with them -- in brief, using them as cover to limit tax increases. It's recently dawned on me that throughout this alleged deficit reduction negotiation process, Obama has never proposed more than $1 trillion in new tax revenue over 12 years -- and that harks back to his campaign promise not to raise taxes on people earning less than $200k/year. I had assumed that he would use tax reform (reduce expenditures/lower rates) as cover to let this promise go, but apparently not. 

Drum also has pointed out (same post as linked to above) that the kind of strategy that most Democrats want to see --stake out a position markedly to the left of what he thinks he can get, hammer Republican extremism and intransigence--is Negotiating 101, and Obama must surely have been aware of this tack as an option and deliberately opted for a different strategy.  That's true, but the question is whether foregoing this course was the fruit of deep strategy or a constitutional bias toward avoiding all-out war (see: Afghanistan, including "war" with the military brass, and Libya).  Probably both. He hatches strategies that work as he's always worked: splitting differences, hedging bets, not so much 'avoiding' conflict as attempting to defuse it while engaging in it.

3) Ezra Klein some time back had an excellent post, drawing on I think a letter from a longtime Hill staffer or some such, pointing out that while even politicians themselves tend to ascribe brilliant long-range Machiavellian planning to their opponents, in real life politics is generally a kind of desperately reactive, cope-with-the-crisis-of-the-moment-and-cover-our-past-incompetence kind of business. So, while failing to demand that the Republicans raise the debt limit as part of the December deal might be seen as a clever make-the-Republicans-make-me-cut-spending strategy (Drum's implicit argument), it might also have been a simple blunder -- Obama may have genuinely failed to recognize how intransigent the incoming GOP class would be on this point.  I suspect that his course thus far has probably been a messy mix of long-range strategy -- work with this GOP Congress to get a big budget deal done sooner rather than later; contingency -- deploy sweet reasonableness to contrast with the Tea Party Kamikaze culture; and personal bias toward defusing conflict, informing these choices.

In an odd sense, progressives' disappointment with Obama harks back to two campaign promises: don't raise taxes on anyone earning less than $200k, and "change the way Washington works" by showing good faith willingness to work with the opposition.  To our consternation, he took both promises completely seriously.  And that highlights to me a tension in what supporters hope for in Obama: a) move the country's political center back to the left, and undo the damage wrought by the extremism of the Bush years, and b) reduce political polarization. 

To me, that tension bespeaks a larger question: can American democracy survive the dangerous extremism of the GOP, which has corroded our institutions over 20-odd years?  If the answer is yes, they are going to have to get drubbed by the polls until  they are chastened back to the center.  Can Obama kill them with kindness? As he tries, he's ceding so much ground....

I would prefer all-out political warfare, because the public is on Democrats' side with regard to actual policy (raise taxes and preserve our entitlements' basic structures while cutting spending), and because you really can't placate ideologues. So I'm left merely hoping, as the two Fallows readers continue to trust, that Obama is smarter than his progressive critics -- not only in terms of mental firepower, but in his ability to navigate through his own personal biases. 

Then too, perhaps it's naive to pin speculation on the likely outcome of the United States' current political struggles on an assessment of one man.  If the U.S. is in fact in decline, it may be that our political institutions have weakened to the point where we collectively lack the ability to throw up effective resistance to an ideology that serves the narrow interests of elites that fund the GOP, and to a lesser extent the whole political class.  The GOP is starving our government of the tax revenue needed to foster shared prosperity going forward.  Collectively, we're letting them do it.

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