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.

Obama’s Charm Offensive: Hope Springs Eternal

I don’t know about you, but my previous post depressed me.   When it comes to figuring out a way for congress to actually come to grips with our federal fiscal problems, what comes to mind is the phrase:  You can’t get there from here.

However, I do recall the advice of someone who said:  “Look for the good in everything,”  words that come to mind during situations like this.  So, trying to buck myself up this morning, I’m looking for the positive wherever I can find it.

Paula Abdul Joins Papal Conclave

Paula Abdul Joins Papal Conclave (Photo credit: Mike Licht,

In terms of the president working with Congress, he has publicly reached out to members of both parties through meetings and dinners.   A common criticism of him from both sides of the aisle during his previous administration was that he made few outreach efforts to congress.

Having Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff didn’t help in terms of Republicans those first two years, as his attitude was:  “We have the votes, so F…. them.”   Sure, I know the Republicans didn’t exactly have their hands stretched out, either, and “no” soon became the only word they did no (ah, know).    But these days, I am holding out hope that  “no” may be maybe.

Despite skepticism continuing to abound, the two sides are talking nice, or somewhat nice for the moment.   Also, for once under Obama, both the House and the Senate are pulling together budgets, which is called “regular order”, because it used to be done regularly.  If both come up with budget proposals, at least it provides a place for negotiations to begin  (*1).   The Obama team tried to skirt this process and negotiate directly with House Speaker Boehner in 2011, but those talks broke down which led to the sequester which led to those forced meat clever budget cuts  recently because the two sides could not agree on a reasonable alternative to prevent them from going into effect.

The two new budgets outlined thus far are about as far apart as the edges of the Grand Canyon, with Representative Paul Ryan (R) including the elimination of Obamacare as part of his calculations and Senator Patty Murray (D) outlining a trillion dollars in raised revenue over the next ten years.   Both ideas are non-starters for the opposition.  Those who remain optimistic hope those are just bargaining positions which include hidden flexibility.   Pessimists see those as true positions with little wiggle room and continued stalemate.

As for me, I am hoping for some kind of miracle, but miracles happen some time don’t they?   One group that has a whole list of them is the Catholic church, whose members just happen to be celebrating the election of a new pope, which is what brought the possibility of miracles to mind.

I’m willing to suspend judgement for the time being, and instead ponder the idea of Paula Abul at a Papal Conclave.   Don’t ask me what she’s doing there.  The sight just made me smile.


(*1)   One reason the Senate has not come up with a budget proposal like the House has been doing each year is that anything the  Democrats would want to pass would be  filibustered by the Republicans, so why bother.   Yes, there were 60 Senate Democrats for about the first 18 months of Obama’s first term, but they could barely muster enough votes in the Senate to prevent a filibuster and pass the stimulus plan in 2009 and Obamacare in 2010.    In terms of the stimulus, of the 61 votes in favor, three came from Republicans and two from independents.

A pet peeve of mine is having to listen to someone say the Democrats “controlled” both houses in Obama’s first two years.   They “controlled” the House, but only “managed” the Senate, in the way one tries to manage a stampede.