Friday, July 26, 2013

The Obama Way: The Long Game and Common Sense/Pragmatism

Its been a busy week so I didn't have time to listen to President Obama's speech on the economy at Knox College until this morning. But now that I have, I want to say that if you have any curiosity left about who this man is that we elected as our President back in 2008, you'll find your answers there. I'd like to summarize the things that stood out to me.

The Long Game

I've always said that President Obama plays the long game. One way we see that is that he's still prioritizing the same things he did eight years ago (the last time he gave a speech at Knox College). There are people on both the right and left who critiqued this speech because he didn't offer anything "new." If you haven't already, you should read Ed Kilgore's response to that criticism.

I first noticed this pattern of consistency a few weeks after the 2008 election when I took some time to read and write about Obama's previous gig as president (of the Harvard Law Review). He has always taken the time to review the big picture and set his sights on a North Star. Here's what he said about that back in 2010.
So, my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there, what is helping people live out their lives; what is giving them more opportunity; what is growing the economy; what is making us more competitive. At any given juncture there are going to be times that my preferred option, what I am absolutely, positively sure is right, I can’t get done. And so then, my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or that way because I am keeping my eye on the long-term and the long fight. Not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long-term.
And here's what President Obama said about that this week.
But with this endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop. This needs to stop.

This moment does not require short-term thinking. It does not require having the same old stale debates. Our focus has to be on the basic economic issues that matter most to you, the people we represent. That’s what we have to spend our time on and our energy on and our focus on...

Now, some of these ideas I’ve talked about before. Some of the ideas I offer will be new. Some will require Congress. Some I will pursue on my own. Some ideas will benefit folks right away. Some will take years to fully implement. But the key is to break through the tendency in Washington to just bounce from crisis to crisis. What we need is not a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan; we need a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades. That has to be our project.
For me, this is the essence of good leadership...clear vision and a consistent steady hand working tirelessly to get us there.

Common Sense/Pragmatism

One of the major obstacles in reaching those long term goals has been the strategy of obstruction adopted by the Republicans in Congress. As I've noted before, President Obama's response lately has been to work to develop a common sense caucus made up of both Democrats and Republicans who are willing to work together.

These efforts were made possible due to his consistent application of conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy in the first term. To sum up, that means that when he was made aware right after his first inauguration that the Republican plan was to simply obstruct anything he tried to do, his response was to reach out to them with offers of compromise. Their failure to accept that offer left them no choice but to consistently marginalize themselves more and more into an extremist corner until some Republicans began to break ranks and be willing to deal with him.

As we have seen recently, that common sense caucus is beginning to materialize. Those who can't see the long game of this strategy are currently asking questions like WTH has happened to Sen. John McCain.
The unlikeliest of alliances forged between two once-bitter rivals stands to upend the status quo of congressional gridlock and potentially resolve a bitter partisan chasm that has characterized the modern era of crisis governance.

Yes, President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are essentially working together against GOP leadership and the tea party to break the Senate out of its current situation and resolve major budget rifts that have plagued Washington for years...

“Senator McCain is the Senate Republican leadership’s worst nightmare,” said a senior Democratic aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “He is very interested in fixing sequestration, he has railed against the tax loopholes, he is clearly not afraid to defy them when he thinks it’s the right thing to do, and he takes 10 Republican members with him.
As that article goes on to point out, what is it that is motivating McCain to work with President Obama and Democrats? That awful (?) deal they negotiated in 2011 on the debt ceiling that included massive cuts to defense spending via sequestration. But you have to watch the long game to get the connection. Just sayin...

A couple of times in his speech this week President Obama reiterated his willingness to work with a common sense caucus.
And we’ll need Republicans in Congress to set aside short-term politics and work with me to find common ground.

It’s interesting, in the run-up to this speech, a lot of reporters say that, well, Mr. President, these are all good ideas, but some of you’ve said before; some of them sound great, but you can't get those through Congress. Republicans won’t agree with you. And I say, look, the fact is there are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on a lot of the ideas I’ll be proposing. I know because they’ve said so. But they worry they’ll face swift political retaliation for cooperating with me.

Now, there are others who will dismiss every idea I put forward either because they’re playing to their most strident supporters, or in some cases because, sincerely, they have a fundamentally different vision for America -- one that says inequality is both inevitable and just; one that says an unfettered free market without any restraints inevitably produces the best outcomes, regardless of the pain and uncertainty imposed on ordinary families; and government is the problem and we should just shrink it as small as we can.

In either case, I say to these members of Congress: I’m laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. So now it’s time for you to lay out your ideas. You can't just be against something. You got to be for something...

If you’re serious about a balanced, long-term fiscal plan that replaces the mindless cuts currently in place, or if you’re interested in tax reform that closes corporate loopholes and gives working families a better deal, I’m ready to work. But you should know that I will not accept deals that don’t meet the basic test of strengthening the prospects of hardworking families. This is the agenda we have to be working on.
In other words, President Obama is once again saying that he's laid out the North Star. With that, he's willing to be pragmatic in considering anyone's ideas about how we get there. But, as he said, "Repealing Obamacare and cutting spending is not an economic plan." He's calling out what we've talked about as post-policy politics. That's our Community Organizer-in-Chief talking.
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.
Those of you who have been reading here for awhile now will recognize all of this as nothing new. While people who either don't understand President Obama or don't agree with his approach constantly look for a change in what he's doing, some of us "get it" and are simply reminded once again how fortunate we are to have such a wise leader. It's not only the Obama Way, its damn smart politics.

1 comment:

  1. I've used some of the "ObamaTactics" in my own life, so it's not just that he's smart. From my perspective, he's fighting with the most powerful weapon we have as human beings, and people react to it, cooperatively. The weapon he uses is his mind. Also, you'll notice that he won't do anything all at once, but place people and ideas around that he can collect later, all at once to throw off the opposition. That's a survival tactic that comes from necessity.

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