Friday, December 27, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Forty-Four, the Long Game of Barack Obama

Or, as Andrew Sullivan is fond of paraphrasing it: Meep Meep.

It's difficult, but not impossible, to speak on a sitting President's political Character. Professor James David Barber did it himself during the Nixon administration, predicting the collapse of Nixon's second term mere weeks before the Watergate break-in.  Barber was subsequently asked to predict the following Presidencies before they took office, and reviewed them accordingly.  It helps, mind you, to have the distance of time to look back with less biased views - I'm one of the amateur historians who'll argue that RANKING a current President should have to wait 20 years before you can see how bad the damage was - but when you're doing the full roster for evaluation you might as well evaluate.

I also have to make it clear - if it hasn't been noticed yet - that I have a positive bias for Barack Obama ever since he showed up on the primaries circuit for the 2008 election.  Granted, I compared him to Jed Bartlett (quoting the origin myth of Mrs. Landingham telling the teen Bartlett he was a "boy king" destined for great things), but that wasn't meant to be a full slight: I was noting how Obama fit the profile of the idealized Democratic left-wing leader, youthful and energetic and forward-looking, in the style of Kennedy (and to a lesser extent Clinton) in terms of motivation and demeanor.  If it was a negative comparison it was referring to his lack of national credentials to serve as President.

Obama also appeared on the scene as an innovation: a political figure of African-American heritage actually running on the issues rather than his race.  Unlike Jesse Jackson, the last major black candidate for the White House, Obama had electoral (and legislative) experience.  The only previous candidate I could compare him to in this regard was Shirley Chisholm who ran back in 1972, but that was honestly a hopeless attempt (just coming out of the Sixties when a lot of animosity over civil rights remained: Chisholm survived three assassination attempts, that was how seriously bad it was).  By 2008, the nation was honestly ready for Obama to run - and for Obama to win - the Presidency.

I should amend that.  By 2008 (and 2012), most of the nation was honestly ready for Obama to run and win the Presidency.

I thought during the Nineties that the hostility the Republicans had towards Bill Clinton was over-the-top (the obsessiveness of the likes of Limbaugh and Sciafe, for example).  That it was partisan political positioning - to make the sitting President representing the other party look a failure to voters and to history - at its worst.  But that was nothing compared to the open hatred I see anymore from the Far Right and the modern GOP party as a whole when it comes to Obama.

We had a Republican Party from Day One of Obama's tenure push a program to ensure he failed, completely, even at the cost of competent governance and legislation.  Before 2012 it was to make sure Obama was a One-Termer: after 2012, when that didn't work, it's to make sure Obama never gets anywhere near the Top Twenty rankings (where a lot of Two-Termers save the really bad ones  cough Grant and Bush cough end up).

Never mind the possibilities that the Republicans could have maintained some semblance of respect with a Beltway media market that prizes "bipartisanship" above all else.  Or at least provide more input into political agendas with an Obama administration that keeps approaching the GOP for deals primarily because the nations expects sensible leaders to do that.

It's a pity of the Republican hard-liners that they've gotten to the point where any compromise is viewed as a surrender, where any deal is viewed as a defeat.  A saner political opposition would be taking advantage of the fact that Obama is an Active-Positive President, which means that compromises and deal-making would be the norm with Obama rather than a hard ideological stance.  The GOP keeps seeing Obama through a biased lens of "Kenyan Socialist Fascist Usurper Who's Lazy and Needs Teleprompters" (oh yeah, not racist at all /headdesk) when they should have been - and should be - seeing Obama as a pragmatic centrist whose liberal leanings are nowhere near where the Far Left ever hopes them to be.

Rather than pursue straight-up Far Left policies, Obama has publicly encouraged and endorsed more centrist positions on the budget, on the economic recovery from the 2007-08 Recession, and on foreign policy issues.  Rather than accept that, the Far Right in control of the Republicans focus instead on the aspects of Obama's positions they deem "liberal" and "un-American": such as Obama's insisting on balancing a budget with tax increases on upper incomes (which a majority of Americans support), his "taking over of the automotive industry" (which was finally sold back this year after a successful industry-wide recovery), and attacking Obama on every foreign policy move - from Libya to Egypt to Syria to Iran - even when he changes gears and even when he produces results that A) prevent Americans from getting embroiled in another ground war and B) maintains respect with both our allies and our rivals.

Highlighting all this has been Obamacare, the signature law of Obama's administration that was designed to fix a broken health care system in the United States.  Even as the Far Right attack it as a "socialist" "failed" program, they refuse to recognize the facts that the law A) is based more on market control of managing health care costs, B) based on REPUBLICAN policy ideas designed to counter Bill Clinton's complex and ill-fated 1993 attempt, and C) nowhere near the truly socialist "universal healthcare" programs that are pretty much used IN EVERY OTHER INDUSTRIALIZED CAPITALIST NATION ON THE PLANET.  There's still a sizable number of leftists out there complaining we should be going to a "Medicare For All" system, fer crissakes...

Indeed, the reason why Obama went with backing the Heritage Foundation's 1993 system of healthcare reform was based on the belief that it was a "centrist" position to take.  Translation: a "centrist" legislative bill is meant to curry support down the middle of both parties for the ones leaning right in the Democrats and those leaning left in the Republicans.  Obama wanted a bill that could pass support from both parties.  Pity was, by this point the Republicans didn't want to support anything that Obama would support. As John Cole notes in his epic one paragraph:

I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

But in some twisted way, a lot of this plays to Obama's advantages - and strengths.  Because while A-P Presidents tend to be Adaptive, they also tend to be very competitive game-players (SEE Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt) who relish challenges and better still view such challenges as a long-term, long-developing program.  And the game we're talking here is 3-Dimensional Chess (it helps that Obama is an open Geek.  Want more proof?  The top photo of this Wired article is of Obama wielding a lightsaber...).

Andrew Sullivan started off calling it "the long game," where Obama takes a practical, comprehensive view of the political landscape.  Other commentators refer to the chess-master strategy of playing the whole board, looking not only at the move made now but the moves needed to be made over the next five, ten, twenty moves.

A perfect example of that was Obama's stance on marriage equality for gays.  A major issue for the liberals who championed it, Obama for the most part kept a low profile on the issue and even issuing arguments against it, while the polls showed a slim (but shrinking) majority opposed to marriage equality.  When his Vice President Biden made a public speech claiming the White House would support gay marriage, the Far Right howled in eager response, thinking at last they could hit Obama for being too liberal (and un-Christian to boot).  Obama, however, gazed upon the landscape and saw two things: A) that supporting gay marriage at that moment would galvanize Democratic fund-raising, and B) the advantages of a Presidency's bully pulpit - used brilliantly by other A-Ps like both Roosevelts - meant he could tip the scales to make the nation more supportive of gay rights as well.  Obama came out in support of gay marriage, the nation visibly turned pro-gay (what I prefer to call pro-people), and the Far Right were left standing there going "WTF?"

It even caught Sullivan - who was already viewing Obama as a chessmaster - completely off-guard.  But later on, Sully started calling it something else.  "Meep Meep."

This is in reference to the Road Runner/Wil E. Coyote cartoons where an always moving, always faster road runner keeps running circles around an increasingly frustrated coyote who keeps self-inflicting the worst catastrophes on himself trying to catch/eat the road runner.  It became a near-perfect metaphor for how Obama was getting the modern Republicans to consistently self-destruct chasing after their illusory "Fake Obama" - think Clint Eastwood chiding an empty chair meant to represent Obama but in fact made a lot of commentators laugh their asses off - while he set policy goals in the real world.

Sullivan always seems to be constantly surprised by Obama's game-changing tactics, to which I emailed him about why he needs to read Barber's Presidential Character book to get a better idea about Obama's Active-Positive adaptability.  It was a bit of a thrill to see him post the email, to which I can only hope he's finding the time to read that book.  But my key point remains:

Adaptive A-P Presidents are more keen on compromise than the other three types (Active-Negatives won’t, Passive-Negatives might but would rather let someone else do it, Passive-Positives never want to rock any boat), and are certainly more creative in their solutions and in seeking alternate solutions as well. While the Active-Positive may look like a flip-flopper (especially to the more extremist wing of the president’s party) he’s actually shrewdly calculating the “long game” of getting his enemies to trip over themselves and his allies standing there gawking like they've never seen the Hand of God before.

The only problem with Obama's A-P habits has been the "long game" approach preventing a more proactive, let's-do-something-now approach to policy that would allow him to juggle multiple policy agendas more aggressively.  Some A-P Presidents are able to pursue a variety of issues and reforms and objectives all at once: others are hampered either by a desire to complete one project before starting another, or else hampered by external forces that make it difficult to diversify the administration's focus on multiple needs/wants.

I have to think it's the latter problem that kept Obama from focusing on too many other issues.  Most other Active-Positives able to pursue a broad range of policies - Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, in some respects Kennedy, and I think Fillmore was able as well - did so with political support from a Congress either held by the same party or else amenable to bipartisan deals.  The A-Ps unable to pursue more ambitious agendas - Hayes, Truman, Clinton, Obama - were/are dealing with recalcitrant legislatures that preferred conflict over deals.

It's been a Far Right Congress - first with a Senate bogged down by Cloture rules, then by a GOP-led House - that has prevented Obama from pursuing any stronger, more jobs-oriented stimulus packages to cope with the recession.  It's been a fight - even among Republicans themselves as the party recognizes the need but doesn't have the will - to even get any immigration reform considered by Congress.

In some respects Obama can't pursue a more aggressive agenda that an Active-Positive would like because the political landscape doesn't favor it.  While this kind of gridlock can sometimes help put the brakes on an over-ambitious A-P, there hasn't been any real sign that Obama is that ambitious - to hell with the haters, Obama's not a gun-taking, commie-loving, radical religious nut looking to impose sharia law - and so it's been a long, long administration this nation's been working with.

It's a good thing Obama's good at the long game.  Here's hoping he's got moves for 2014 to break the gridlock, and get some damn economic recovery reforms in place so we can get America back to Good Jobs At Good Wages, dammit.

Meep meep.

Next Up: A Review Of The Reviews.  We Tally Up the Numbers and See What's What.

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