Friday, December 20, 2013

President Obama doesn't want to defeat his opponents, he wants to co-opt them

I've always thought that this interview of President Obama with Jeffrey Goldberg on Israel and Iran contained subtexts that help us understand this president's overall strategy. Particularly revealing is how he talked about his approach with Iran.
I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.
I suspect that pretty well sums up President Obama's approach to his opponents in general. His goal is to set up a situation where its in their interests to cooperate with him. This is what drives some folks on the left positively batty...he doesn't want to defeat his opponents, he wants to co-opt them.

We've seen this strategy play out over and over again. Think, for example, about how he approached the issue of ending DADT. Perhaps you'll remember how angry GLBT activists got at him for not simply issuing an executive order. What the President did instead was to co-opt the military brass into pushing for its repeal.

Rather than fight the health insurance industry and the Republicans on healthcare reform (which is what led the Clinton's to defeat), President Obama bargained with the former - using a series of carrots and sticks that provided incentives for them to transform the system.

In taking on Republican obstruction, we've seen how conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy has led to the development of a common sense caucus that is willing to break that cycle and work with the President and Democrats on finding common ground.

In the coming weeks I predict that President Obama will co-opt all the energy the Greenwalds of the world have generated about surveillance into his own platform to reform our national security apparatus.

Beyond being a pragmatic approach to change, this kind of strategy is what leads to actual transformation rather than the backlash that most often accompanies attempts to defeat your opponent. Its also an approach that goes against the grain of our western patriarchal attachment to competition and dominance as the only way to deal with an opponent. As I've talked about before, President Obama's strategy tends to align itself more with the Aikido Way.
...every technique we study in Aikido involves practicing the art of creating a change in the situation...

Creating this change requires four things from us:

1] We must maintain our own balance while taking theirs
2] We must react fearlessly
3] We must enter into the very center of the conflict
4] We must understand our opponent's intentions in order to achieve resolution

When we follow these four steps for creating change, we don't just change the situation, we change our opponents.
There are no guarantees that this kind of strategy will always be executed perfectly or that it will succeed in the short run. We saw President Obama take a huge risk on coming up with a Grand Bargain in the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling and he came up short. But if what ails our system is a march towards increasing partisan polarization leading to endless rounds of backlash, its the long game that could bring about real and lasting change.


  1. Carrots are every bit as much a part of governance, as sticks. Something neither teabaggers nor firebaggers accept.

  2. I think one reason some liberals don't like Obama's strategy is because the success of that strategy necessarily means that they won't get some of the goodies that they believe are so necessary. For example, they hated his negotiating with the insurance companies because they knew that, even if he succeeded, it would mean that the hated insurance companies would continue to be a major part of the healthcare system for years to come.

    In other words, their desire to see the insurance companies punished out-weighed their desire to help people get better healthcare. Also, their desire to see the banks punished out-weighed their desire to help people recover from the financial crisis.

    It's when I realized that this was their primary dynamic that I lost sympathy for the "progressive" cause.

    1. their desire to see the insurance companies punished out-weighed their desire to help people get better healthcare. Also, their desire to see the banks punished out-weighed their desire to help people recover from the financial crisis.


    2. Yes, and when they made of fetish of the public option and made it more important than getting people insured, they belied their liberalism. It's not just that they see everything as a contest it's that they don't care who actually loses, which is cold and hateful, whether they want to take responsibility for that or not. They think like the mainstream media, even as they decry it. Being more concerned with the battles in their heads than the battles working class, poor, and people of color have to live through every day, clearly demonstrates what privileged middle-class or higher white people they are. And they don't know why the black POTUS won't do what they want him to do. They don't understand themselves, much less what President Obama has to deal with and how our government works. They're spoiled brats who think they're such special snowflakes that this country should be run according to their whims.


Israel owes Obama a huge debt of gratitude

While we don't know the outcome of Iran's attack on Israel yet, it appears as though the worst has been avoided. According to report...