osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

The Obama Restorationists

jducoeur recommended this piece by Andrew Sullivan on how Obama is really a wonderful President and nobody on the left or right appreciates it. It is part of a genre of articles coming out which attempt to woo centrists by explaining how neither the right nor the left gets Obama.

I'm always torn on whether I am more amused or annoyed by these articles. I suppose they are an improvement over the near-hysterical "Why don't you lefties love us after we spent two years saying how we hate you" articles that were floated in 2010. Even so, these tend to miss several important points.

First and foremost, how you do things really does matter. The relationship between a political party and its base is a complex thing. And, despite the whining of supposed centrists, the majority of progressives and liberals that engage in policy on a regular basis are sophisticated and mature in their analysis. To take an example. Early in the Administration, there was some outrage among rank and file when a Department of Justice brief in a district court case against, I believe, a constitutional challenge of the Defense of Marriage Act (might have been DADT) made the standard argument that the federal government must retain authority over marriage generally so as to further public policy against such things as incest.

Whatever we may think of the argument, it seems rather absurd to imagine that the President reads with meticulous care every brief submitted by the Justice Department in every case, or even that political appointees close to the matter will think of every argument that should be prohibited, even in a footnote. By contrast, more sophisticated advocates -- the so-called "professional left" -- understood that this was an implementation problem to be corrected rather than proof of Presidential perfidy. What drove the advocates to distraction, and ultimately to hostility, was the way in which President Obama consistently appeared grudging and reluctant. It is seems rather incredible for Sullivan to assert that Obama was playing a deliberate long-term strategy and that advances since 2008 can be attributed by Obama's "slow and steady" approach.

At what point do you give up on the idea that the President is playing a game of multi-dimensional chess and simply conclude that "he's just not that into you?" No Administration can have it both ways. You cannot say "make me do this" to advocates on the one hand, then demand gratitude when delivering half a loaf. While the professional advocate soldiers on, it would behoove Obama Revivalists to appreciate that disappointment and anger by those who have given their lives to a cause when they discover that a supposed ally is at best luke-warm on the subject is neither irrational nor a sign of some character defect. To the contrary, it is so wholly predictable that the failure to plan for it constitutes a significant political failure.

2. As someone with a front-row seat, albeit with a view of only one slice of the game, these sorts of articles (like so much political analysis) tend to overlook the importance of the thousands of policy makers and appointees who implement these policies and with whom the thought leaders on the right and left that engage in policy have their interactions. While the President can hardly ride herd on this swarm, he -- and his selection team! -- can pay attention to whom they appoint or hire and can take steps to bring in representatives from the base.

In this, there has been an interesting change in the Obama Administration as it has aged. When Obama won the election, there were essentially two camps in the Obama team: the "progressive" camp and the "centrist" camp. I put these terms in quotes because they do not really correspond with political views. It would be better to classify them as the "aggressive" camp and the "cautious" camp. The aggressive camp believed in favoring significant shifts in policy similar to those taken when George W. Bush became President, and that a bold approach would overcome resistance -- particularly during the early period of the President's popularity. The cautious camp believed in their own school of political pragmatism, tempering policy solutions before even proposing them to court the center while signaling a willingness to compromise further as needed. Perhaps the best example is the well-chronicled fight between Obama economic advisers on the stimulus package. The aggressive camp argued that a stimulus package in excess of $1 trillion was needed to counteract the economic recession. The cautious camp argued for $787 billion, primarily on the grounds that the lower sum was more likely to be obtainable politically.

For most of the Administration, the cautious camp nearly always won these arguments. But while caution is an admirable quality, an excess of caution is as much a liability as its absence. The most successful leaders select a few items for boldness, even if it means occasionally going down in flames, knowing that this is an important element of showing you can take a stand when needed and that you are being properly cautious, not merely timid, the rest of the time. Obama revivalists generally point to the passage of the health insurance reform bill as such an act of boldness. This ignores the fact that the entire process until the end was seen as one long act of caution and compromise that squandered the energy and goodwill of allies. Obama's decision to move forward after the election of Scott Brown was indeed bold, but by that time the damage to Obama's political image had been done.

On the positive side, there has been a shift in the Administration in the last several months. In part this is driven by the winnowing away of the "cautious camp" through natural attrition. Increasingly, the people make the decisions are neither from the original "cautious camp" or the original "aggressive camp" but are a third set who have, over the last few years, developed a feel for a more aggressive form of caution (or a more cautious form of aggression). It is a combination that while not altogether pleasing, is at least less bitterly disappointing.

Certainly some of this is motivated by election year politics and the recognition that on both the left and the right the problem in Washington is not being perceived as insufficiently "business friendly" but fundamental fairness. Which is also what gives the left pause. How long will this trend last? And what measures should be taken to ensure real lessons learned? Obama Revivalists would do well to rely more on contrition and less on lecturing and scorn if they hope to make a case that goes beyond the relatively small circle of passionate moderates.

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