The Washington pundits of the moment – a group that includes such blinding lights as Maureen Dowd and Ron Fournier – seem to believe that if only President Obama would provide adequate “leadership,” the partisan polarization on Capitol Hill would evaporate and America’s problems could be solved at last. While the president rightly mocked this notion as a fantasy worthy of Hollywood’s Aaron Sorkin, it does raise the vital question, however obtusely, of what Obama might do as he confronts an oppositional Republican-led Congress.
Whatever the punditocracy may imagine, there is no way for Obama to force his agenda on the Republicans in the House and the Senate, who range from scheming partisans like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor to Tea Party zealots like Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann. Unlike Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson, the two brilliant manipulators with whom he is sometimes compared and found wanting, the president is not equipped to bribe, blackmail, or herd in the style of those Machiavellian chief executives. If he were so equipped — and indeed used his power as ruthlessly as Lincoln or Johnson — the same pundits who now complain that he isn’t controlling the agenda would shriek about his misuse of power.
In this journalistic mindset, the president (especially a Democratic president) is always wrong; using power is bad/unethical/cynical, while failing to use power is weak/aloof/naïve. Both ends of this stick have been repeatedly applied to Obama, of course, just as they were constantly used to punish Bill Clinton.
Alternatively, those calling for presidential “leadership” — especially the oh-so-serious Beltway types — want Obama to prove his bona fides by abandoning Democratic programs and principles, even though the Republicans have showed no willingness to cross their redline on taxes. In fact, the president has offered an excess of compromise already, while failing to elicit any fresh initiative from the opposition. Yet somehow, in the pundit mindset, Obama and the Republican leadership are equally at fault.
The president understands that critics who play such jejune Beltway games don’t deserve much of his time or attention, unless they can serve as absurdist foils for a funny dinner speech. The most salient fact in American political life is (and for some time has been) the intransigent extremism of the Republican Party. Any columnist who tries to ignore or excuse that extremism has nothing useful to tell any president.
What Obama evidently doesn’t understand, despite years of bitter experience, is the significance of that right-wing extremism for someone like him, whose nature is to accept differences and seek compromise. Unable to negotiate with a reasonable counterpart on either side of the Hill, he too frequently negotiates with himself – whether over Obamacare, the debt ceiling, the budget, deficit reduction, taxes, or “reforming” Social Security.
Yet whenever he discards a progressive position, such as the public option in health care, or adopts a conservative position, such as reducing Social Security cost-of-living increases, he only succeeds in demoralizing his base. Meanwhile, rejection by the Republicans is preordained.
So what is left for President Obama to do if he wishes to see any of his second-term agenda enacted? By now he ought to have noticed that when he speaks out firmly on behalf of progressive principles, in support of working families, his polling numbers improve and his power increases. (And whenever he vacillates, his numbers diminish and his authority weakens.)
The recent battle over gun background checks indicates that even some of the most reactionary Republicans – like Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey, formerly of the Club for Growth – can be pushed into supporting sensible reform. But that doesn’t mean seeking a “grand bargain” with politicians who want no bargain at all. It does mean mobilizing citizens on the largest possible scale, every day; it means making sure they know that the president is on their side, shares their values, and will uphold his promises to them. It means explaining to the American people, with fearless candor, that the Republican Party is unfit to participate in national governance – and unless that party is defeated decisively next year, no important objective can be achieved.
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green