How President Obama Beats Opponents and Allies Every Time

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President Obama speaks at George Washington University on April 13, 2011. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Ever since the warm, post-racial glow of Barack Obama’s historic election victory evaporated two years ago—the rise of the oceans did not slow, and the planet, alas, did not heal—nary a day has passed without some Republican, somewhere, calling him a weakling, a wimp, or worse. But last week, as Obama prepared to respond to Paul Ryan’s long-term budget plan with a proposal of his own, an unlikely group of kvetches joined the girlie-man chorus to carp about the president’s once and future fecklessness: the nation’s top liberal pundits.

Their problem was Obama’s leadership style: either he lets others take the reins on tough issues, they said, or he makes preemptive concessions to Republicans. In The New York Times, Paul Krugman mocked the president as a “bland, timid guy who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular.” The Daily Beast’s Eric Alterman likened the leader of the free world to “a boxer who … [spends] the entire fight taking punch after punch on the ropes.” And Jonathan Chait of The New Republic declared Obama a “horrendously weak” negotiator on the brink of becoming “a uniquely powerless president.” The only thing missing was Keith Olbermann flapping his arms and clucking “chicken.”

To hear Krugman & Co. tell it, Obama was all set to stride on stage at George Washington University, collapse into the fetal position, and announce that he was willing do whatever John Boehner wanted. What actually happened, however, was quite different. In a forceful 40-minute speech, the president outlined a plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years. The speech wasn’t wholly liberal. But it hit most of the notes—raising taxes on the rich, shrinking the defense budget, protecting the social safety net—that liberals longed to hear.

How to explain the gap between what lefties feared Obama’s speech would be and what it actually was? One interpretation is that after a long, lily-livered lull, the president finally decided to man up. But the truth is more complex. Whatever your opinion of Obama, “weakness” is not a particularly illuminating description of his leadership style. It makes more sense to see him as a hard-nosed pragmatist determined to maximize results. When liberals whine, says White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, it’s like “a fourth-inning analysis of a nine-inning game. People say ‘he screwed up the negotiations,’ but the deal ends up being very good given the political reality.”

More often than not, Obama’s approach has worked in his party’s favor. But it has also caused him problems. When Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, the White House’s top priority was simple: getting legislation passed. To accomplish that goal, Obama followed two rules. The first was that he would largely allow the legislative process to run its course before stepping in. As political scientist Frances Lee has explained, when a president voices an opinion, the entire issue becomes polarized. To test this, Lee studied how the Senate voted on questions that didn’t have neat Democratic and Republican answers. Overall, these debates ended in party-line votes 39 percent of the time. But that number surged to 56 percent whenever the president took a stand. “Presidents getting involved can actually make things worse,” says Lee.

The second rule was that when Obama did weigh in, he would support the best possible proposal instead of the best imaginable proposal. The White House slashed the stimulus from $1.2 trillion to $787 billion to preempt congressional objections. After declaring himself “a proponent of a single-payer universal-health-care program,” the president wound up backing a more conservative plan than Richard Nixon. And last December’s tax deal forced Obama to abandon his pledge to end the Bush cuts for the richest 2 percent right off the bat.

Obama’s initial leadership strategy was tailored to a time when Republicans couldn’t torpedo his agenda. In policy terms, the approach paid off, helping him put more points on the board during his first two years—the stimulus package, health-care reform, financial reregulation, and so on—than any president since LBJ. But the political result was a commander in chief who was left looking less engaged, less effective, and less moderate than he actually was, and suspicious Democrats who were left wondering whether starting negotiations from a more liberal position would’ve produced even better results.

When Krugman’s crew pounced on the president last week, this was the prism they were using to predict his behavior. But now that the GOP controls the House, no laws can pass without Republican support, and no Republicans will support anything the president proposes because they’re afraid it will help him get reelected. This changes the contours of Obama’s pragmatism: in 2009 and 2010, he could champion progressive legislation; in 2011, he can only defend against the GOP’s most objectionable ideas—and position himself to win a second term. That’s precisely what he did at GWU. By baiting Republicans into moving first, Obama was able to present his proposal as the “more balanced” alternative to Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity”—a plan he made sure to frame, campaign style, as an extreme attempt to finance “$1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy” by dismantling “care for seniors and poor children.”

Some Democrats still worry that Obama’s moderate debt package will “[become] the left pole, [with] the center … halfway between this and Ryan,” as Krugman puts it. But it would be surprising, at this point, to see the president spend much political capital on meeting the GOP in the middle. Republicans will have little to run on in 2012 if they compromise, so they’re unlikely to be cooperative negotiating partners. And Obama is savvy enough to know that when he said “I refuse to renew [the high-income Bush tax cuts] again” in his speech, he made it impossible for the taxophobic GOP to play ball. But that, it seems, was the point: a pre-election deficit deal was always going to be improbable, so might as well seize the center of the debate. “Even if you get shot down,” says Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, “you can go to the people, say, ‘This is what I offered,’ and wind up looking like the grown-up.”

At times, liberals have grumbled about Obama’s policies, and Republicans almost always despise them. But the president’s so-called weakness isn’t to blame. Last week reports revealed that Obama’s agreement with Republicans to slash $38 billion from the 2011 budget—the supposedly timid compromise that kindled the left’s conniption—actually contained less than $25 billion in spending cuts, few of them to cherished Democratic programs. The same day, Public Policy Polling released a survey showing that independents, who backed Republicans 56 percent to 37 percent in 2010, now prefer Democrats 42 percent to 33 percent—a 28-point reversal. If those are the sort of things that happen when a president takes “punch after punch on the ropes,” then Obama might want to keep getting slugged.

With Howard Kurtz

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