Monday, January 16, 2012

Sullivan's version of "conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy"

Andrew Sullivan's cover story in Newsweek magazine is getting a lot of reaction and commentary today. Of course, he's mostly saying things that those of us in the pragmatic progressive blogosphere have been saying all along.

Anyone who has been reading here for awhile knows that one of my constant themes has been to talk about President Obama's conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy. And so for me, the part of Sullivan's article that stood out was this:

And what have we seen? A recurring pattern. To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider. This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself, or willing to let others to define him, or simply weak. I remember those stretches during the campaign against Hillary Clinton. I also remember whose strategy won out in the end.

Sound familiar?

Mark Schmitt gets credit for nailing it way back in September 2007 when discussing Obama's theory of change.

The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear: higher taxes, you won't be able to choose your doctor, liberals coddle terrorists, etc. One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.

And here's Jonathan Chait talking about "the Obama method" when it comes to dealing with Iran back in July 2009.

This is a perfect summation of Obama's strategy. It does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries' constituents as well as third parties. Obama thinks he can move moderate Muslim opinion, pressure bad actors like Iran to negotiate, and, if Iran fails to comply, encourage other countries to isolate it. The strategy works whether or not Iran makes a reasonable agreement.

He sums it up this way:

This apparent paradox is one reason Obama's political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it's all the same thing. Obama's defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.
(Emphasis mine)

I can only hope that with the publication of Sullivan's article and the attention its getting, more people will come to understand that this is what has been going on all along.


  1. You might want to correct the Magazine - the article is in Newsweek, not Time. Otherwise, this is the sort of thing Sully has been saying about Obama all the time. Meep meep.

  2. Sullivan wrote an astounding article on Pres. Obama way back when. I cannot remember the title and I am having no luck in finding it. However, he identifies all the way this country needs a president like PBO. The fact that he is international in his thinking, he has not been battered into submission nor is he afraid of the rethuglicans. He also noted why he would suit our times perfectly.

    His article in Newsweek continues his theme. I have respected him immensely for stating clearly his disagreements with policy even when I totally disagreed with him.

    Clarity is the most valuable commodity for this country right now and I thank Andrew for giving such a fine dose of it.

  3. From your keyboard to the ears of the Universe, Smartypants.

    Sometimes I'm glad that the President's opponents don't 'get' what he is doing with his style. Means they can't develop an effective strategy to counter it.

  4. Sullivan frustrates me, because while on the one hand he can be perceptive and his conservatism is actually Burkean, on the other he has this Bell Curve thing going on.

    His read on the President is right, and should be more obvious to everyone. Why his adversaries continue to play a short game with him is beyond me, however welcome.

  5. One of the things I'm seeing him accomplish with this approach - besides the political and policy wins - is that he's pushing the "thinking conservatives" away from the Republican Party, at least in terms of serious support.

    I know David Frum, among others, has been pretty vocal about it, that the Republicans "got nothing" when it comes to solutions, and their intransigence is not good for governing.

  6. Mo'nin', Ms. Pants

    Perhaps I have said this before, but the thing that just aMAzes me is that I am actually witnessing PBO. What history will show time and again, when something transformational is going to happen in general and, in this case, concerning black folk in particular, is that whomever is going to be charged with the task is just exCEPtional - on any number of levels. We just celebrated one such person's birthday, but there are MANY more.

    In my view, the big problem his adversaries have is believing that he, in fact, is as brilliant as he is. Because, as, for example, Bill points out up above, even Andrew as he gives PBO credit, stilllll can't let go of that foolish Bell Curve mess. I believe during a certain inaugural a statement was made along the lines of the ground having shifted unknowingly under certain people's feet.

    THAT, inDEED, is what is going on.

    And, I don't have to read about historical accounts.

    I, along with the rest of us, get to LIVE this historical time with this amazing person every day.