Looked at together, President Obama's State of the Union Address last Wednesday and his appearance before the House Republican Caucus retreat in Baltimore on Friday offered a fascinating window on how Obama and his advisers believe an embattled president should lead in the face of wall-to-wall obstruction. Though the stance is high-minded and the words eloquent and heartfelt, the exercise fails as politics.
After the Democrats' stunning loss of the Massachusetts senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy, you might have expected Obama to change a posture of partisan conciliation that clearly is backfiring. Instead, what we got was an elegant fine-tuning of the same failed strategy.
The address to Congress, and the president's remarks at the Republican Caucus, obviously, are aimed at multiple audiences. Obama seems to think that if he demonstrates to the voters that he is going the extra mile to appease the Republicans, he will win approval from opinion-leaders for delivering on his pledge to "change the tone in Washington," while Republicans will reap the public's scorn for their refusal to meet him halfway. Then he will gain some leverage to pressure the Republicans to at least find some areas of common ground.
Except, politics doesn't work that way. The Republicans get far more mileage out of continuing to block him at every turn. And his increasingly plaintive pleas only make him look weak.
The voters may tell pollsters and focus group facilitators that they are sick of partisan bickering. But this is never a highly salient concern. It is certainly less important to voters than, say, unemployment, or evaporating health and retirement coverage, or declining home equity. Nobody held Republican obstructionism against Scott Brown. The only issue in next fall's election will be whether Democrats delivered -- and if not, why not.
The challenge for Obama is to say straightforwardly to voters that he has a strategy to bring about a strong recovery as well as greater security of health and retirement and mortgage relief and other first tier pocketbook concerns -- and that Republicans are standing in his way. He also needs to clearly hold Republican ideology and policy for the mess that the country got into in the first place. But he seems congenitally incapable of being a partisan in the best sense of the word.
Instead, his own anti-recession policies are puny -- a budget freeze, some modest tax credits, aid to state governments that makes up less than one sixth of their revenue gap -- so the claim that these policies would produce a strong recovery doesn't persuade. And he is too preoccupied denying that there are principled differences between the two parties to persuade voters that Republican obstructionism is the obstacle.
So, in both venues, we get efforts to cajole, co-opt, charm, shame, whatever, Republicans into making nice, as well as ideological capitulation.
From the State of the Union:
What the American people hope -- what they deserve -- is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences, to overcome the numbing weight of our politics.
No, dammit. Why ascribe symmetrical blame to the two parties, to himself and his opposition? The problem isn't "the numbing weight of our politics." It's free-market ideology and sheer obstructionism of the Republican right. Lines like this one reinforce the view that the problem is generic gridlock and the incompetence of "government." But that's a rightwing theme.
Substantively, Obama kept offering Republican-lite. Presumably, if he moves close enough to the Republican view, they will come over and play in his tree house. From the State of the Union Address:
We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college.
Democrats clap. Republicans are silent. Obama looks over at the Republican seats and ad libs, "I thought I'd get some applause on that one." Well, no, Mr. President, you won't. The Republicans are going to keep going for your jugular.
And when he got to health reform, Obama sounded almost like the playground priss, begging for mercy from the schoolyard bully:
Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done. Let's get it done.
You can almost hear John Boehner smirking to Mitch McConnell, "Whack him again."
Now, you may say that the State of the Union Address is no place for small-minded partisanship. But, if anything, it got even worse when Obama ventured into the lions den of the Republican Caucus Retreat.
Some of my friends think the Baltimore exercise was masterful. About the only thing I cared for was the juxtaposition of the words "Republican" and "Retreat." Obama did a fine job of defending his record and sounding high minded and presidential, but again the plea was for sweet reasonableness.
They sent us to Washington to work together, to get things done, and to solve the problems that they're grappling with every single day.
Obama ticked off area after area where he agreed with Republican policies. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan giving that to the Democrats? At one point, insisting that he was open to good ideas from any quarter, Obama declared:
I am not an ideologue. I'm not.
You're not? Then why bother? Ideology is not some arbitrary penchant for clinging to stale ideas. It is a principled set of beliefs about how the economy and society work, and should work.
To be a conservative Republican is to believe that markets work just fine, people mostly get what they deserve, and government typically screws things up. To be a liberal Democrat is to believe that market forces are often cruel and inefficient; that the powerful take advantage of the powerless; and that there are whole areas of economic life, from health care to regulation of finance, where affirmative government is the only way to deliver defensible outcomes for regular people.
That's an ideology, one that progressives are proud to embrace. So why does Obama think it virtuous to disclaim ideology in general? The problem afflicting America is not "ideology." It's the hegemony of rightwing ideology. And given presidential leadership, most working Americans -- most voters -- identify with the progressive view of how the world works, especially in an era where conservative ideology has produced financial collapse.
Obama's latest refinements on the politics of common ground make for a pretty pose, but they are too clever by half.
Now, if we are very sanguine, we can read efforts like these as prologue to a stiffening of Obama's spine. This is all a grand design -- he's playing chess, we're playing checkers. Along about March, he will pivot and finally deliver a tough speech declaring that he bent over backwards to accommodate the Republicans. But now, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
But I am increasingly skeptical that he will ever get there. It's just not who he is. So the obstructionism will likely continue, except in cases where Obama makes all the concessions.
Obama may think he is modeling a higher form of leadership. He isn't. If he wants to be loved by voters, it's time for some toughlove directed at Republicans.