Saturday, March 5, 2011

Conciliatory Rhetoric as Ruthless Strategy


We all know that during his time as a community organizer, Obama worked on understanding the dynamics of power and later taught what he had learned. I've never heard him articulate that very clearly since he's been in politics, but when you watch him closely, you can draw some conclusions about the theory behind the actions.

I first saw this phrase "conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy" used by Jonathan Chait in reference to Obama's approach to the health care debate and have written about it before here and here. Here's how Chait describes it:

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.

As we inch closer to the 2012 Presidential primaries, I'm seeing some fascinating ways that the strategy is being used.

In order to put it into full context, it might help to take a look at George Will's recent column.

If pessimism is not creeping on little cat's feet into Republicans' thinking about their 2012 presidential prospects, that is another reason for pessimism. This is because it indicates they do not understand that sensible Americans, who pay scant attention to presidential politics at this point in the electoral cycle, must nevertheless be detecting vibrations of weirdness emanating from people associated with the party.

He goes on to talk about the ridiculous statements Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich have made about Obama's past. And then he ends with this:

Let us not mince words. There are at most five plausible Republican presidents on the horizon - Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Utah governor and departing ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Massachusetts governor Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

So the Republican winnowing process is far advanced. But the nominee may emerge much diminished by involvement in a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons.

Obama knows what George Will knows...there are certain Republican candidates that will do nothing more than make a joke of the Republican Party. He doesn't need to worry about competition from them.

But he knows that the Tea Partiers are a powerful force in the Republican party. He also has a pretty good idea about how badly they hate him...and anyone with whom he associates. And so Obama and his aides are making sure that any even remotely viable Republican candidate appears to be his "BFF."

First of all, it was former Chinese Ambassador Jon Huntsman.

At a press conference today with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Mr. Obama praised Huntsman for his success as a U.S. representative abroad -- and then promptly noted that such praise would most likely work against Huntsman in the Republican primaries...

Mr. Obama joked today, "I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."

And then it was Axelrod's turn with Mitt Romney.

In an interview with USA Today, Axelrod goes out of his way to credit Mitt Romney for implementing a universal health care plan when he was governor of Massachusetts that shares many similarities with the White House-backed law that has proved so unpopular with Republicans.

"We got some good ideas from him," said Axelrod in a clear effort to highlight Romney's involvement with implementing a law similar to that which is so disliked among Republicans nationwide.

And finally, although its not clear he's joining the 2012 field, yesterday Obama was paling around with his BFF Jeb Bush in Florida at an event that touted the bi-partisan nature of education reform.

Most of the angst about this event noted in the media was about the left's problem with Obama sharing the stage with Bush. But I'd say that its arguable that Jeb is the only Republican out there that would have a prayer of bringing together the increasingly divided Tea Party vs establishment factions of the party. Appearing with Obama puts a nail in the coffin of the Tea Partiers ever going for that one.

Many on the left criticize Obama for not being more strident in his condemnations of the radical elements that have taken over the Republican Party. What I see is a calculation that those folks are the fringe in the country as a whole and engaging with them only brings the Democratic rhetoric down to their level.

But a strategy that deepens the divide between the two existing factions - all while continuing to present himself as "the adult in the room" - shows the real power plays that are going on behind the scenes.


  1. This post made an awful lot of sense to me, thank you! I actually went back and read the two previous related entries as well. I knew the President's strategy, whatever it was, seemed to be working, and I knew I got extremely angry when people referred to him as 'weak' or too conciliatory, but I couldn't put my finger on what he was doing that, in the end, always got him some of what he wanted for the country. I would never have thought to put it the way you (and Jonathan Chait) have, but I do now see 'conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy'.

    Keep up your informative, and supportive, posts re the President -they are really appreciated. :)

    {I added you to my favourites last week, and though I don't always say anything I've been stopping by regularly. Thanks again for you work.}

  2. A very humble "thank you" from me V.C.

    I know that there are many of us that are learning new things by watching Obama. Lately I've been thinking a lot about how visionary leaders are so often misunderstood. Its only natural since they are introducing something new. People don't understand and/or get fearful of change. But I'm confident that history will treat Obama well and that it will be his detractors that will have to cover for their foolish misunderstandings.

  3. Great article, Smartypants
    Thank you.


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