The competing narratives that accompany the Obama administration to date might bring on whiplash. Is Obama too liberal, too activist, a Kenyan Marxist eager to drive the nation toward a socialist paradise? Or is instead he too wishy-washy, too conciliatory, even, in secret, “one of them”? Is he so eager to be a “movement leader” that he neglects realpolitik—or is he too bogged down in the partisan muck his campaign promised to transcend? Is he a great communicator, or someone who has failed to provide a master narrative for his presidency? Hailed as pioneering and inspiring for his multiracial background and multinational upbringing, Obama has been reviled and doubted for the very same reasons. And of course these contradictory critiques run in parallel with sharp electoral shifts, so rapid in sequence that they seem contradictory as well.
The upshot: as of this weekend, RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of recent polls showed a public cleanly split down the middle, with 47% approving and 47% disapproving of Obama’s job performance.
In that sense, viewed purely by the hopes of the 2008 campaign (no red states, no blue states, just the United States…) it would seem hard to answer the question “how’s Obama doing?” in an enthusiastically affirmative way. Division has not given way to unity; familiar divisive patterns have, if anything hardened. Indeed, the Change promised by candidate Obama has frequently given way to constrained continuity from the Bush years. This is most clear in national security, perhaps, from the recent executive order affirming indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay to the precedent-affirming evasion of the War Powers Resolution in the Libyan no-fly zone operation.
But such continuity raised its head elsewhere too, including on the tactical front. The Bush style for achieving legislative success – relying purely on his own party and its willingness to use aggressively exclusionary floor procedures—had real limitations, but one great advantage: it worked. Faced with a Congress even shorter on moderates (and an opposition party that saw no gain in cooperation), Obama found himself relying on a rather similar mechanism for policy change. Yet having pledged his “brand” to a uniting vision of supra-partisanship, the simple reality of contemporary politics—that well-honed party discipline is central to congressional action—meant that even policy victories threatened to undercut Obama’s broadest appeal.
Until, maybe, now? To the dismay of folks like Paul Krugman, Obama not only signed on to Friday night’s budget deal, but endorsed it. Krugman suggests this is because Obama “doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular.” I would argue it is instead because what Obama does stand for, Krugman and others on the left don’t like.
That is: contingency and compromise. Such is the Obama Doctrine abroad, as we have seen in Libya, but it carries over more broadly. Consider the informal definition the president himself gave of his overall approach to governance in a comment to a Pennsylvania audience last week. “How many folks are married here?” the president asked. As hands went up, he then stated, rather than asked, a follow-up question: “When was the last time you just got your way?”
This veered into a more conventional trope—but it was easy to think that the president meant it; he was not merely acting when he praised the weekend budget deal. This suggests that for Obama, compromise is not the grudging end, but the first principle. If so, it will be intriguing to see whether the new reality of divided government, in an era of fiscalized politics, both gives Obama more scope to follow that instinct and also makes it look more politically productive.
All this is strange for a bargaining culture (and study of a “bargaining” presidency) that stakes out ridiculous opening bids as a matter of course. It makes Obama look like a poor negotiator. The US correspondent for the BBC, Mark Mardell, opines that Obama “looks like a skilful chairman, rather than a leader.” And in an interesting post last month, Ron Brownstein of the National Journal noted the risk that late intervention means the president will be the defined, not the definer (or the decider.) The “things are bad, but would have been much worse” Democratic message of the ‘10 campaign, however accurate, was a hard sell.
But Brownstein also noted the potential parallels to Dwight Eisenhower’s ostensible passivity – a trait that political scientist Fred Greenstein later unpacked through intensive archival research as a “hidden hand” strategy masking a good deal of intent and behind-the-scenes activity.
With a government divided as it is presently, we will have far more outcomes that reflect exactly these sort of compromises; as Eric Voeten noted in an earlier post on this site, the budget vote will likely be driven by the middle with both extremes voting against. This is obvious in theory but these days rare in practice. Voting rarely followed that pattern on domestic issues during the Bush years: No Child Left Behind in late 2001 might be the exception that proves the rule. What if, like Ike, Obama affirmatively wants the substance that results from such processes? He could both get his way, and get credit (however resented by his congressional workmates) for fomenting ‘adult conversation.’ The word “triangulation” might be verboten in the White House, but the reality of triangulation plays to Obama’s strengths.
Indeed, a unity based on shared pain is consistent with the president’s rhetoric going back at least to his inaugural address. But if that is the Obama Doctrine, no wonder everyone hates it – except, the president must hope, the small but crucial bloc of swing voters lurking in key electoral college states. If so, and if the economy continues to improve, not getting what everyone wants might be what Obama needs.