Last Monday, President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address to a crowd of mostly contented huddled masses, and within hours of its delivery, the congealed conventional wisdom had essentially declared it to have been a "bold" piece of oratory.
And to a certain extent it was just that. Obama trolled the GOP pretty hard during the speech, at times appropriating some traditional conservative rhetorical tropes as his own, and at other times taking deliberate, barely veiled shots at his former election year opponents. Paul Ryan, for example, got to hear the president's take on the whole "makers and takers" argument one last time, for auld lang syne. Meanwhile, liberal supporters got to hear the words "climate change" during the oration, as well as a fairly stirring defense of marriage equality. Obama's second term goals -- as hinted by the address -- seemed to chart a more ambitious trajectory. And at the very least, the speech was much bolder than the one he gave at the Democratic National Convention, which I am pretty sure was titled, "Bill Clinton Just Got Me Home Field Advantage Throughout The Playoffs, So I'mma Rest My Starting Lineup."
That said, given that his inaugural address was "bold" for these varied reasons, it should be pointed out that not everyone was necessarily using the descriptor as a compliment. For every progressive commentator who was leg-thrilled by the notion that the next Obama administration was going to be a firmer defense of progressive policy priorities, there was a conservative who would tell you that the "boldness" just underscored how divisive the administration was planning on being in the future.
And it's on that dividing line that a secondary concern emerges. If Obama really wants to rack up significant accomplishments in his second term -- progressive-minded or otherwise -- how does he plan to govern? The hope, in the post-election season, is that the reality of a second Obama term would cause the so-called "fever" to break and a thaw to occur in the already frosty relationship between the White House and congressional Republicans. The promise of those possibilities, of course, remains to be seen. What we do know for sure is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, despite being fully aware that his chamber has been a bowel of undigested legislative ambition, has opted not to alter the institutional rules in a way that might end the constipation.
Beyond the parliamentary realities, of course, are all the old concerns about Obama's failure to "change the tone in Washington" and usher in a new era of what was termed "post-partisanship." The National Journal's Ron Fournier, who was doing a healthy amount of emo concern-trolling before the inaugural speech was even given, was full of rueful thoughts after it had concluded:
The president was able to dismiss, at least for a day, the harsh realities of presiding over a divided government and facing obstructionist rivals. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” Obama said, “or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
Oh, but they will: Republicans as well as Democrats in Washington are drunk on partisanship, hostage to a political structure built to reward extremism and reject compromise as capitulation. In this environment, it is understandable why Obama chose to reject the post-partisan, problem-solving brand that he rode to the White House four years ago.
In its place is exactly what liberal allies wanted. Chastened by four years in Washington, Obama has decided to fight partisan fire with fire. Surely it feels good, but will it work?
Politics is the delicate art of compromise: Two warring factions solving problems by finding ways in which all sides can declare victory. It is not, as Obama said, the work of absolutists. Which is why he needs to walk the narrow line between confidence and hubris, or otherwise he won't get anything through the GOP-controlled House.
History doesn't make excuses. If Obama's agenda fails because Republicans don't bow to his demands, that will be on him. He has to work with or around the GOP. Apparently, he's chosen the latter.
What happened to the idealistic young politician who argued against dividing the country into red and blue Americas? It seems we’re not going to see him again.
And you see, its writing like that that shakes me out of the torpor of wondering how Obama is going to pull off the feat of governing and makes me wonder what happened to the people who cover politics? When did they all go off and decide that they were going to throw observable reality into the garbage and adopt this hopelessly parochial, Pollyannaish vision of how governing actually works? Why am I always reading this subliterate nonsense?
For crying in a bucket, Fournier has "what liberal allies wanted" almost perfectly wrong! What "liberal allies" wanted in the first place was for Obama to pull off this post-partisanship! 'Twas those paeans that made Obama a celebrity, among liberals.
Effective politics means "two warring factions solving problems by finding ways in which all sides can declare victory?" Did landmark civil rights legislation not "solve problems?" I am asking because, to date, only one side has declared it a victory. The other side, for decades, has run a political operation explicitly designed to turn out the votes of those who hated that legislation and have continuing grievances concerning it.
"If Obama's agenda fails because Republicans don't bow to his demands, that will be on him." I mean, I can't even take this nonsense. That was the prevailing claim of the pundit class going into the 2012 election, and the electorate very neatly and deliberately did not blame Obama for failing to tame the GOP cray-cray. Instead, it returned him to office even though nearly all the macroeconomic winds, blowing across America, contended against the prospect. It's almost as if the electorate found the GOP's "demands" to be the unreasonable ones.
"Will Obama be able to govern, I don't know? What is happening?" From that question, a million hack columns have been launched, with no end in sight. The terrifying conclusion I've reached is that I do not believe that the political press even understands what's going on in Washington anymore. In fact, the reaction to Obama's inaugural is proof of this, as the Beltway media went on and on describing policy positions that are actually massively popular in America as really difficult reaches because they were super-liberal. Here is a chart that may help in rediscovering that reality.
Because I appear to be one of the few people with an accurate scorecard on how the first nine innings of the "post-partisanship" era were played, allow me to fill in the blanks. Obama has sought, fairly consistently, a lot of very gentlemanly compromises. He bargains and he accommodates, in ways that frequently get him in dutch with his base. When he proposes policy, he includes a lot of time-worn GOP ideas. He courts GOP support pretty explicitly. Recall, if you will, how long he sought to take Chuck Grassley to the Affordable Care Act prom, as his date. He gladly allows the legislature to pursue parallel policy explorations to his own. Gangs of Six were allowed to work on health care reform, for example.
He nearly pulled off the whole Grand Bargain trick with John Boehner. It foundered only because Boehner's caucus members were unwilling to claim the massive legislative victory that was being dangled in their face -- a deal that would have so thrilled GOP majorities of yore, that they would have probably gone out and invented reggaeton, just to accommodate all the celebrating.
And even when Obama is holding all the leverage he needs, he'll still concede ground. He just did this, in the fiscal cliff fight over tax rates. Knowing that he could get the Bush-era rates repealed for earners making $250,000 and above, he nevertheless agreed to let the line slip upwards to $400,000. He did so knowing that he wasn't bringing home as much revenue as he could. He did so knowing that he may not end up with enough revenue to actually pursue his agenda, or fulfill his campaign promises.
Think about that. That's actually a problem. A problem that all these accommodations, which he cannot seem to get any credit for, have wrought. Similarly, it was Obama who -- stupidly, to my mind -- suggested that it wouldn't be a bad thing to use the occasion of raising the debt ceiling to wrangle a big deficit deal. He's since learned that the smart play is to have no truck with any such negotiations, but sadly, the knowledge came too late. The die is cast, and now we are in a sustained period where we bounce madly from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, with no end in sight.
I raise these points to make something explicit: I am only pointing out that Obama pursued the sort of "tone-changing" and "post-partisan" approach that he promised. I am not defending Obama's pursuit of "post-partisanship" as something that I believe has absolute merit.
In fact, I don't want to defend it. I think "partisanship" is just fine, thank you very much. I don't fear heated debates, or even rancorous ones. When the only good things "bipartisanship" accomplishes are the naming of post offices, and the rest is stuff like unchecked warrantless surveillance, or getting rid of the payroll tax holiday during a massive unemployment crisis, or "No Child Left Behind," or the War in Iraq, or the War in Afghanistan, then I say, "Let us have some genuine acrimony, and quickly!"
At least then we can be reminded what is looks like when both sides truly are acrimonious, and stop pretending that the one guy who's gone out of his way to be accommodating is secretly the cause of all the rancor. Must we still contend that all of our ills stem from the fact that Obama didn't make enough overtures to Republicans? Does it really sound like that crew is amenable to such overtures? Ask Dick Lugar for his take on the matter. He has lots of free time now.
And yet, the press lingers languorously over the notion that Obama's the reason that nothing is working. The conventional wisdom surrounding why we are gridlocked usually boils down to a load of mystical piffle about how Obama's not giving good enough speeches, or not winning over opponents who have vowed simply to destroy him, or that everything could be solved by everyone going to dinner with each other or doing some No Labels nonsense like "bipartisan seating."
Thomas Friedman, who drives a lot of this surreal discussion, actually believes that Obama's big problem is that he's not yet managed to use the magic words that apparently, when uttered, unleash all of the sanity and reasonableness that his opponents really have, trapped within themselves. The failure to express the appropriate rhetoric -- words of such sentimental force that they would compel the Grinch to bring back the roast beast, and carve it himself -- is to his mind, a failure of leadership. He honestly believes that Washington is one good speech away from a campfire song that produces the platonic ideal of a 50-year budget projection.
Friedman is far from alone in this mania. David Brooks, who actually shares many of the hopes and ambitions enunciated in Obama's inaugural, now thinks that the only way Obama can succeed to start offering accommodations to the far-right weevils who have actually been doing all the undercutting of Brooks' professed policy preferences. Jonathan Chait reacted to Brooks' latest thoughts on the matter by referring to him as "pathological," and that's maybe too kind:
What Obama should be doing in response, Brooks argues, is push for policies that provoke no opposition even from the craziest of the Republicans: “We could do some education reform, expand visa laws to admit more high-skill workers, encourage responsible drilling for natural gas, maybe establish an infrastructure bank.” Brooks argues that these issues would be uncontroversial enough to “erode partisan orthodoxies and get back into the habit of passing laws together.” Then, maybe we could pass some laws under a future president.
Note that solving actual problems is besides the point here. Brooks is almost explicit about this. He begins with the need for initiatives that he thinks will lead to happiness and comity between the parties in Washington, and then comes up with policies that might fit the bill.
So, Brooks thinks the way forward is more activity-masquerading-as-achievement in the short term, and we just give up doing anything of import. Like, say, finally getting around to ameliorating the effects of the 2008 financial crisis.
Chait would also, at this point, direct you to another popular argument, in which Obama's insistence on reasonable compromises just highlights that the GOP is unreasonable, and that this is a vastly unkind thing for Obama to be doing. Those who support such arguments, like Michael Gerson, apparently believe that what Obama should do is act like Amy Poehler's "cool mom" character in the movie "Mean Girls," in which her daughter slowly turns into a sociopathic monster, but she's never made to feel bad about it, because that would be "divisive."
This is almost non-thought. Reading such arguments, you run the real-live risk of becoming dumber.
The truth is, it's anybody's guess how Obama will govern over the next four years. John Boehner says his fear is that Obama intends to annihilate the Republican Party, which sounds crazy, but maybe isn't entirely wrong. From Obama's standpoint, preserving the future may boil down to making the case that the GOP has gone bonkers, instead of constantly pretending there is something salvageable and worth compromising with on the other side of the aisle.
But there's still every expectation that he'll continue to be accommodating, as he was during the fiscal cliff negotiations. Remember, it is very possible that Obama would actually prefer to make substantial cuts -- of the sort that the progressive wing of his party will find revolting -- to earned benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security. He just might not be willing to destroy them completely.
The hoped-for break in the fever might come. The GOP might start taking David Frum's advice, and start making shrewd deals that enshrine some of their ideas into the framework of legislation. And Boehner might be able to broker deals by returning again and again to the suspension of the "Hastert Rule" and cobbling a majority out of both sides. Alternatively, they may be mired in the gerrymandered, perma-shrill destiny they wrote for themselves.
Either way, it would be nice, if at this new opportunity to reflect and renew, the media people who cover the government get a grip with reality, learn what's actually been happening in this town, and stop bullshitting people for the sake of appearing polite. I'll happily concede that Obama has not succeeded in achieving "post-partisanship." That was a stupid goal to have enunciated, and I'll be thankful if it's never enunciated again.
We may never change the tone in Washington. But I am asking -- begging! -- the Beltway press to at least consider changing the drone in Washington, because it is hurting America.
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