Goodbye to “the most reasonable man in the room”?

Wow– seems Obama is actually coming out in favor of some liberal positions.  Sure, they won’t pass Congress, but I still think it’s a good thing.  I like how Milbank puts it:

At last, the president hasn’t conceded the race before the starter’s gun, hasn’t opened the bidding with his bottom line, hasn’t begun a game of strip poker in his boxer shorts. Whichever metaphor you choose, it was refreshing to see the president in the Rose Garden on Monday morningdelivering a speech that, for once, appealed to the heart rather than the cerebrum.

Ezra, though, is the one with the really nice analysis of just what’s going on here.  Short version: Obama has finally figured out that he doesn’t get much credit for A) trying, but failing; or B) appearing more reasonable than everybody else.  ’bout time. Ezra:

Since the election, the Obama administration’s working theory has been that the first-best outcome is striking a deal with Speaker John Boehner and, if that fails, the second-best outcome is showing that they genuinely, honestly wanted to strike a deal with Speaker John Boehner.

That was the thinking that led the White House to reward the GOP’s debt-ceiling brinksmanship by offering Boehner a “grand bargain” that cut Social Security, raised the Medicare age, and included less new revenue than even the bipartisan Gang of Six had called for. It was also a theory that happened to fit Obama’s brand as a postpartisan uniter and his personal preferences for campaigning on achievements rather than against his opponents. But though it came close to happening, the “grand bargain” ultimately fell apart. Twice.

The collapse of that deal taught them two things: Boehner doesn’t have the internal support in his caucus to strike a grand bargain with them, and the American people don’t give points for effort…

The new theory goes something like this: The first-best outcome is still striking a grand bargain with the Republicans, and it’s more likely to happen if the Republicans worry that Democrats have found a clear, popular message that might win them the election. The better Obama looks in the polls, the more interested Republicans will become in a compromise that takes some of the Democrats’ most potent attacks off the table.

But the second-best outcome isn’t necessarily looking like the most reasonable guy in the room. It’s looking like the strongest leader in the room. That’s why Obama, somewhat unusually for him, attached a veto threat to his deficit plan…

That isn’t how the White House would prefer to govern. It’s not how they would prefer to campaign. It is, let’s admit it, politics-as-usual. It’s the triumph of the old way of doing things, an admission that Washington proved too hard to change. [emphasis mine] But it’s also the only option they have left.

Honestly, one of Obama’s largest flaws as a president has been his failure to see that he simply is not a transcendent political figure who can change how Washington does things.  Presumably, he believed his own hype.  I always thought this seemed to work great as a 2008 campaign strategy, but I assumed that deep down, he knew better.  Maybe there was the potential there to actually change things in Washington, but I don’t really think so due to the current institutional features and the polarized bases of the parties.  It’s been obvious to most political observers since the beginning of Obama’s term that the Republicans were intransigently dug in against him no matter what he proposed (it’s proven a damn effective political strategy).  At least Obama himself seems to have finally caught on.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Goodbye to “the most reasonable man in the room”?

  1. itchy says:

    “Honestly, one of Obama’s largest flaws as a president has been his failure to see that he simply is not a transcendent political figure who can change how Washington does things. Presumably, he believed his own hype. ”

    I think it’s the opposite. He could have been a transcendent figure, but he didn’t rise to the occasion. And now, he can’t.

  2. Steve Greene says:

    Itchy: I’m genuinely curious… what do you think Obama could have done differently in the face of the massive and complete resistance from Congressional Republicans? Or, how do you think he could have prevented that resistance?

    • Mike Barr says:

      For the first 2 years the GOP didn’t have the House, so he certainly had a window of opportunity to get more done. Granted, GOP still focused on obstruction, but they didn’t have all of the institutional tools available to them. Also, he could have done more leading instead of ceding the details of issues to Democrats in Congress. He did not bother to learn how to control framing and agenda setting.

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