The Obama Way: The Politics of Being Reasonable

Barack Obama

Barack Obama (Photo credit: jamesomalley)

You wouldn’t want President Obama with you at a Mexican marketplace to talk down a merchant for a better price on a leather belt or a piece of pottery.  He wouldn’t want to start bargaining by beginning with a low ball offer in order to eventually settle with a good deal.  It wouldn’t be reasonable.  It’s not his way.  It’s not who he is.

His “way” often did not work well for him in his first administration, either, as he always worked for some kind of compromise on budget issues that would seem to a majority of us as more or less reasonable.  Some combination of spending cuts and tax hikes.

Politics usually revolves around leverage not reason, so political calculation often depends on making a convincingly do-or-die “immovable” line in the sand, so as to leave room for movement towards compromise later.  Each side does what’s reasonable only when they can’t think of something better.   In the traditional tug of war of deal making, Obama gave up lots of ground at the start, encouraging the Republicans to demand  even more making any kind of compromise impossible (*1).

However, this presidential term the Obama way is working better.    It is working better because he is playing both a small game and a big one at the same time.   An example of the small game is the gun control issue.   While a poor bargainer, Obama is a great campaigner.   The gun issue has been been turned into a well coordinated campaign, keeping the flame of Sandy Hook Elementary School alive in our collective consciousness.

Due to a Tuesday compromise agreement on background checks by a Sens. Manchin (D) and Toomey (R), there is a possibility that something akin to that will actually make its way through congress.    Still unlikely, but possible.  If  it does, it will be a success for Obama.  If it fails it will be one more indication of Republican inflexible resistance to being reasonable.  Prior to “the agreement”, 14 Republican Senators threatened to filibuster any gun legislation that would be brought up, despite not knowing what it might be, an example of how they contribute to this image.

Being the party that is inflexible and uncompromising is the image many Republicans want to change.   Meanwhile Obama’s big game is to engrave that obstructionist image ever deeper in our minds by the 2014 mid-term elections.   You can see it in everything he does.

In response to criticism that he held himself aloof from congress in his first term, he has been hosting dinner parties, like the one a couple of days ago for 12 Republican Senators.  How reasonable.  Also, he has a new budget out that aims at the center, angering some in his own party because of some cuts to entitlement programs, but it seems reasonable to many others like myself.   He has made some concessions to the Republicans, but they continue to want much more, seeming unreasonable in the process.

While I think Obama overplayed his hand regarding the pain the sequester will cause, it will hit home to more and more Americans in upcoming months and Republicans will likely be blamed more for that than Democrats, who were generally willing to scrap the agreed upon across the board cuts.

In short, I believe Obama’s way is working these days, likely to prompt small victories like some changes in gun control, or provide further proof of Republican intransigence when his reasonable proposals are rejected.   As such, even if Obama  suffers numerous setbacks in his agenda he might profit enough from adding new layers of paint to the Republican obstructionist image, so that the elections of 2014 will give the Democrats the control of the House back.

Enough of us might be sick enough of political gridlock by 2014, yes even in red districts and states, to put congressional control back in Democrat hands (*2).  As long as they seem much more reasonable than their opponents.  The Obama approach reminds me of an old boxing saying:  “If the right hand don’t get you, the left hand will.”


(*1)  To say Obama weakened his chances to reach a bargain by starting close to the middle does not exclude the possibility that the Republicans would have found reasons to resist any kind of compromise.   Recall the 2011 Republican presidential primary debate in which all eight candidates indicated they would not accept a deal of 10 dollars of spending cuts in exchange for one dollar in raised taxes.   With a mind set like that, where is there room for compromise?  If you have trouble recalling that event, click this link for a refresher course.

(*2)  Given gerrymandered congressional districts which favored Republicans in the last election, my argument may seem shear fantasy.   But the Republican party seems as fractured these days as Humpty Dumpty.   And I don’t see a way  for them to put the pieces back together.    They are not exactly big tent kind of folks.  They will muster support around their various little tents instead.  I think that lack of unity will help Democrats in 2014.

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