Paul Begala: Obama’s Biggest Blunder

President Barack Obama, right, listens as John Boehner begins a speech at the Capitol in Washington D.C. on February 27, 2013. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

When Barack Obama was running for president, Greg Craig, one of his strongest supporters (later his White House counsel), described the candidate’s philosophy of dealing with Republicans. “I want a President who is looking to move the country with positive inspirational ideas rather than to fight off the bad guys and proclaim victory by defeating the forces of reaction,” he told George Packer of The New Yorker. Craig predicted Obama would win universal health coverage “by building the consensus around the positions that make sense—say, the position that we should not have forty-seven million Americans uninsured. You don’t win national health insurance by turning Republicans against you. You’ve got to get them to join you.”

Of course, President Obama won universal health coverage, but without persuading a single Republican to join him. The health-care fight proved the folly of a strategy of rational reasoning with the Republicans. And yet one reason we have the manufactured crisis of sequester is because the White House somehow believed reason would triumph over partisanship.

Obama himself said as much. After the Republican takeover of the House, but before the gavel had been handed to John Boehner, the president cut a deal with Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts. Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic asked Obama if he was worried that, since the tax-cut deal did not address the upcoming ceiling on the national debt, “it would seem that [Republicans] have a significant amount of leverage over the White House now, going in. Was there ever any attempt by the White House to include raising the debt limit as a part of this package?”

The president seemed to not even be able to comprehend the import of Ambinder’s question. “When you say it would seem they’ll have a significant amount of leverage over the White House, what do you mean?” he responded. Ambinder explained that the new House GOP majority could use the threat of defaulting on the national debt to force “significant spending cuts across the board that probably go deeper and further than what you’re willing to do.”

The president didn’t buy it. “I’ll take John Boehner at his word,” he said, “that nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse, that that would not be a good thing to happen. And so I think that there will be significant discussions about the debt limit vote. That’s something that nobody ever likes to vote on. But once John Boehner is sworn in as Speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower.”

Barack Obama is a remarkably gifted politician. But his cardinal political error has been that at times he seems to lack the imagination to even conceptualize how truly nihilistic, irresponsible, partisan, and, yes, crazy his Republican opponents are. The last Democratic president saw the Republicans shut down the government, squander millions on partisan witch hunts—including taking 140 hours of sworn testimony investigating President Clinton’s Christmas-card list—and drag the country through an impeachment process. Despite that history—and despite that Obama may be dealing with Republicans who are even more ideological and self-destructive than in Clinton’s day—he still expressed a blind faith in their reasonableness. How quaint.

This faith in the reasonableness of others is quintessentially American. We are, after all, a nation born of the Enlightenment. John Locke, the intellectual godfather of the American Revolution, said, “Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything.” But John Locke was a 17th-century English philosopher, not a 21st-century Tea Party nihilist. Obama, sadly, is not dealing with Mr. Locke—nor with Mr. Spock—but rather with zealous partisans who would, it seems, gladly harm the country in order to hurt the president. Highly illogical, perhaps, but real.

Our president, however, is nothing if not smart. And so he has adapted. Instead of sitting with Boehner and Cantor and McConnell, seeking to appeal to the cool light of reason, which failed so miserably in previous budget showdowns, he is barnstorming the country, basking in the warm glow of popular approval. Whereas once he seemed to prefer the prophet Isaiah’s entreaty, “Come now, let us reason together,” now he seems to be channeling the prophet Ezekiel: “I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes.”

Fortunately for our nation, the president seems to have hit upon a strategy that works. Republicans are more divided and more extreme, while Democrats seem more united and more mainstream. By a 3–1 margin in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, voters say the GOP prefers partisanship to national unity, while a slight plurality views Obama as putting unity before party.

It seems our supremely rational president has concluded that, rather than trying to reason with his irrational adversaries, it’s better to fight off the bad guys and defeat the forces of reaction.