As narrator-in-chief and legislator-in-chief, the President has not been particularly effective, but one could at least argue that it is not his “fault”. Perhaps he made poor choices, but it could simply be a strategic disagreement. He could not get a liberal health care plan through, he couldn’t achieve a big enough stimulus, etc. But on how he actually governs, which is actually a pretty big part of the job, there is no debate. He has pursued a governing strategy that is both radical in its lawlessness and authoritarian in its structure around civil liberties, war, and deference to big finance while destroying faith in government through nearly unprecedented incompetence in the millions of people touched by the HAMP program….
So why, if his Presidency has been such an unmitigated disaster, is he continuing to pursue this reckless course. My theory is that the key to the Obama administration’s political strategy is not compromise or incrementalism. It is, quite simply, fooling liberals.
Obama is not a flaccid Jimmy Carter, as some of his critics insist. He is instead a Franklin Delano Roosevelt — but a bizarro FDR. He has mustered the legislative strength of his New Deal predecessor — but he has channeled that strength into propping up the very forces of “organized money” that FDR once challenged.
As hideous and destructive as it is, this record is anything but weak. It is, on the contrary, demonstrable proof of Obama’s impressive political muscle, especially because polls show he has achieved these goals despite the large majority of Americans who oppose them.
What makes Obama so unique is the strategy he employs for enacting his goals. Presidents who get what they want usually project a public image of strength and determination, declaring what they want and then either persuading or steamrollering the opposition party to attain it. Obama is almost certainly the first American president to achieve his goals by projecting a public image of weakness and capitulation.
Instead of declaring what he wants and pushing for it, Obama asks for a centrist-to-modestly-progressive outcome and then caves and compromises until he arrives safely in the Republican camp. At which point he magically rediscovers his spine and forces reluctant Democrats to vote for the Republican “compromise” that he facilitated. He accommodates his nominal opposition and bullies his nominal allies, then claims that the end result was not what he wanted, but was the best he could get because those mean Republicans are just so unreasonable. (Of course, there are exceptions…)
As Stoller points out, the President’s true nature is revealed by his use of executive power. For all of Obama’s eagerness to embrace the Bush-Cheney vision of an imperial presidency, he has not used any of that sweeping authority to roll back their policies, but rather to continue and even extend them. Regardless of whether you want to see the Constitution abused even for a good cause, Obama’s choice of abuses is telling. And let’s not forget his decision to unilaterally engineer a “deficit reduction” commission to move Social Security cuts into the political mainstream.
LAT’s Doyle McManus bemoans Obama’s “clarity gap” – the uncertainty he creates about “what he’s willing to fight for.” But the clarity gap isn’t a bug, it’s a feature: Obama’s strategy is to retain the Democrats’ allegiance by taking credit for the red meat (Public option! Financial reform! Tax the rich!) that he feeds into the legislative machine, and blaming the Republicans for the turdlike sausage that comes out the other end. He has made the calculation that it is better to look unprincipled and weak than cruel and corrupt, but that’s not exactly a recipe for energizing the base… or anyone with less than 20 million nickels to rub together.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama’s supporters tried to explain away his apparent cluelessness and tone-deafness by claiming it was all part of some grand plan to outmaneuver the Republicans? That he was playing eleventy-dimensional chess and we just couldn’t follow his strategy? Turns out they were right all along, they just didn’t notice he was sitting on the other side of the table.