the national interest

Obama’s Not Entirely Accidental Comeback

U.S. President Barack Obama applauds at the National Prayer Breakfast February 2, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Next up, phase three of The Plan: Kenyan Socialism. Photo: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

There’s a pattern in the way President Obama reacts to his opponents. He always begins with the outstretched hand, taking their goals (and complaints) at face value. But if they prove unwilling to meet halfway, he assails them for their intransigence and draws sharp lines.

Noam Scheiber, my former colleague from the New Republic, and James Fallows of the Atlantic have both published lengthy exegeses of Obama’s presidency. Noam’s piece has a great deal of reporting from inside sources (the piece is an excerpt of his must-read new book), while Fallows’s sources generally consist of Democratic Party elders outside the administration.

The question hovering over both accounts is what explains, and what we can learn from, Obama’s changing posture. Was he played for a sucker? Was it all a plan?

Fallows’s account focuses more on managerial and psychological issues — he portrays Obama as having grown into the role of president. Noam’s story is more ideological — Obama tried to move to the center and cut a deal, but discovered Republicans wouldn’t allow it.

I’ve always believed that Obama’s habit of extending his hand, and thus exposing bad-faith claims, is the essence of his political style. Early in 2009, I wrote a column arguing this:

Obama’s method begins with attempts to find common ground, expressions of respect for the adversary’s core beliefs, and profuse hope for cooperation. In his iconic 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, Obama famously announced that Democrats, too, “worship an awesome God.” In his Cairo speech, Obama pointed to the contributions and freedoms of American Muslims. In both speeches, Obama signaled cultural respect by adapting the other side’s own rhetorical formulations — invoking “a belief in things not seen” (2004) or calling the Middle East the region where Islam “was first revealed” (Cairo).

This rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict — red state versus blue state, Islam versus America — and puts it onto specific questions — Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified? — where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherents of the opposing camp.

I think this method describes much of what Obama has tried since. The deficit bargain offers a fine example. Republicans stormed into control of Congress complaining about the deficit, which they painted as an existential threat to America. Obama replied: Okay, I don’t like huge deficits either! Which is true. But then he tried to steer the debate onto specifics. His argument was, if we reduce the deficit, we need some shared sacrifice. We can cut entitlements, but rich people have to kick in higher taxes, too. That exposed the extremism and bad faith of the Republican position, which in actual fact holds minimal tax rates for the rich as absolutely sacrosanct.

That’s the theory, anyway, and at some big-picture level I think it’s right. The problem is that the administration actually seemed to get sucked into some delusional beliefs about their GOP counterparts. Here are some frightening details from the debt-ceiling debacle via Noam:

In June, the negotiators reached a provisional agreement with Republicans on more than $1 trillion in cuts, and the Obama contingent had begun to believe a much larger deal was in sight. Such a deal, they assumed, would involve Democrats agreeing to modest Medicare cuts in exchange for eliminating a few narrow tax breaks, like those benefiting oil companies and corporate jet owners. “Biden and Sperling and Lew were pretty enthusiastic about where this is going,” recalls one White House official familiar with the negotiations.

But Obama was skeptical. When his negotiators briefed him on the possible bargain, he turned to Nancy Ann DeParle, the health care expert who was his deputy chief of staff, and asked how much the proposed Medicare cuts would cost the average senior. DeParle said it would mean an increase of a few hundred dollars each year. The president then asked his negotiators what someone in his income bracket would have to fork over in tax increases as a result of the deal they were working on. “The answer was nothing,” said a White House official at the meeting. “Unless you own a corporate jet or you’re an oil company, you’re not going to have to pay anything more.” Obama frowned. “How can I ask seniors to pay $500 more and I don’t have to pay a nickel? I can’t do that.” The president instructed his negotiators to return to the bargaining table and insist on more sacrifice from the wealthy.

The problem was that Obama’s team had actually presented an optimistic view of what was possible — what it had assumed would be the best-case scenario. The negotiators hadn’t actually broached the idea of tax hikes with Cantor and Kyl in any detail, and the two Republicans certainly hadn’t said they would be open to them. Not even meager hikes, not even in return for a longstanding conservative goal like scaling back Medicare. In fact, Cantor and Kyl had waved off Democratic efforts to pin them down on the tax question.

I can confirm that I was invited to a few off-the-record briefings with high-level administration economic policy-makers, and during this time they continually expressed their belief that Republicans would agree to increase taxes on the rich. Having written my own book about how anti-tax dogma became the Republican Party’s organizational creed, I thought this was insane. The administration’s problem was aptly summarized by Larry Summers’s pithy quote to his colleagues, captured by Noam also: “What’s really important in life is not to believe your own bullshit.”

Still, the plan did work, pretty much. Republican hostage-taking on the debt ceiling caused the economy to stagger and Obama’s approval ratings to sag. But he did effectively establish the predicate for his current stance. The fact that he so obviously bent over backward to accommodate concerns on the deficit helped him expose the Republican position and give himself room to change the subject to jobs.

Ultimately I come down in the middle. Obama’s current political rebound is in part an accident of trial and error, but in part the successful application of his characteristic style.

Obama’s Not Entirely Accidental Comeback