Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nonsense question of the day: "Does Obama have a second-term strategy?"

Sometimes it's hard not to suspect that Politico reporters don't believe their own bullshit when they spin out narratives about who's up, who's down, how A perceives B, what C's prospects are, etc.

Today's nonsense question, posed by Glenn Thrush, is Does President Obama have a second-term strategy? Of course the implied answer is no. But the argument is self-cancelling from the get-go.

The implicit premise is that because Obama said during the campaign that his victory might break the GOP's fever of no-compromise opposition, and that fever has not in fact broken, the president is at loose ends. But that premise must be hedged, because of an inconvenient truth that Thrush acknowledges at the outset: Obam never expected that his reelection would end partisan gridlock:

A year ago President Barack Obama jammed a prediction into his stump speech that evoked his 2008 hope-and-change message — a vow that a victory in 2012 would break the partisan “fever” in Washington.

But behind closed doors, people close to the president tell POLITICO, Obama never quite bought his own rhetoric and was quietly planning for precisely the opposite scenario, perpetual gridlock, during West Wing strategy sessions in the weeks before and after beating Mitt Romney.

Those clashing visions of the second term — the president’s public optimism, shadowed by his dour, private realism — have made the opening act of Obama II something of a muddle, with critics and allies alike wondering if the president has a coherent strategy for retaining influence during what promises to be 3½ maddening years of divided, even schizophrenic, government.
This makes no sense. You could argue that speaking of a breaking fever while not expecting it could make a muddle of Obama's message. But why should we believe he has no strategy if he was planning last fall for the opposition he's encountered this year?

The self-cancelling narrative continues:
Obama’s team quickly concluded the House would remain in GOP hands — with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) still too weak to control his troops — and focused most of its energy on figuring out a way to target Republican senators on the tax and fiscal deals.

Less time was devoted to an overall theory of how Obama planned to govern.

What was discussed amounted to more of a shift in mind-set than a detailed game plan based, according to current and former Obama staffers, on a simple realization: The president couldn’t control the game as he did four years earlier — but he could be less ambitious and more opportunistic in how he played it, seeking moments of leverage amid all the Republican infighting.

The idea was to be flexible, smart and patient.
Is it just me, or does "seeking moments of leverage amid all the Republican infighting"  and "figuring out a way to target Republican senators on the tax and fiscal deals" not constitute a strategy for dealing with an opposition in control of the House and with a filibuster-capable minority in the Senate?

Then there's this little footnote:
And, like every second-term president before him, he’s starting to become more intrepid in his use of executive authority.

In late June, he outlined a broad climate change agenda that includes executive actions to limit emissions from factories and coal-burning plants, a slew of new education initiatives that included an ambitious effort to connect 99 percent of the nation’s students with high-speed Internet within five years and gradual implementation of policies consistent with his support for same-sex marriage.
So let's see. Work with the GOP where the two parties' interests converge -- i.e., on immigration reform (keeping a low profile since his cheerleading would be the kiss of death for most Republicans).  Seek senators capable of compromise for the long, slow grind of tax reform and long-term budgeting.  Maximize executive action to effect major progress on greenhouse gas emissions. Also use executive action to add further momentum to the same-sex marriage revolution he helped trigger. And -- what Thrush does not address at all -- put maximum energy into implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the lynchpin of his domestic legacy. Meanwhile, the dam just broke on confirmations of his key appointments -- ensuring, among other things, that the Consumer Financial Protection Board can function as designed.

Sounds like a strategy to me.  So what's the argument - - that working with the GOP when possible, exerting effective pressure on them when possible, and maximizing executive action are just a bunch of tactics?

On tax and budget matters, I personally think Obama failed to maximize his leverage at the fiscal cliff (though Thrush doesn't seem to think so; he notes only that Obama "secured a landmark increase of taxes on the wealthy)  -- and by failing to shut off the sequester, did potentially serious damage to his long-term domestic agenda.  I think he's shown serious foreign policy weakness with feckless comments on Syria and by tacitly green-lighting the coup in Egypt

But Obama's long-term domestic priorities remain what they have always been, and he's using the tactics outlined above (by Thrush!) to advance them. He has effected major stimulus to alternative energy industries, enacted (and is en route to enact) strong pollution controls, continues the work of major structural healthcare reform, has facilitated immigration reform that only Republican nihilism can stop (and very well may, to the party's own detriment), and, on the education front, has put forward an ambitious Head Start expansion that won't become law any time soon but lays down a marker.

Thrush includes an assessment of where Obama's at from Dan Pfeiffer,  but does not position it to register as the reader's takeaway. It's the best read, however, on the facts he relates:
“The strategic filter is inherently different in a second term”...We take an even longer view now. All that matters is what we can get done and how we implement what we have already done. The pundits, the polls, the politics of the moment — that’s all secondary.”

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