Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Not-So-Very-Good Week

David Brooks is not only an outstanding columnist; he’s also a friend. And so I want to register a friendly dissent with his column today.

As Rick noted, David argues that Barack Obama ran for president as a “network liberal” — defined as  one who believes progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions. (Brooks contrasts this with “cluster liberals/cluster conservatives,” meaning those who believe that victory is achieved through “maximum unity” and that “partisan might” should be “bluntly applied.”) But in office, Brooks writes, “Obama, like George W. Bush before him, narrowed his networks.”

That is, I think, an unfair reading of the Bush presidency.

One of the first significant legislative undertakings of President Bush, for example, was No Child Left Behind, which was the result of substantial bipartisan cooperation. President Obama has, until now, shown no such inclination to work with Republicans. In the first term, Bush also worked with Democrats on Medicare prescription drugs. Both the Afghanistan and Iraq war resolutions had substantial to overwhelming bipartisan support; so did the Patriot Act. Even on the 2001 tax cuts, Bush worked with Democrats and took into account their input. (Then House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt said a corporate tax cut was a non-starter with his caucus; he suggested instead sending out rebate checks to low- and moderate-income households. In response Bush, against his better judgment, instructed the White House staff to replace the corporate rate cut with Gephardt’s rebates. For more, see Karl Rove’s Courage and Consequence, chapter 19.)

At comparable points in their presidency, then, George W. Bush was much more of a “network conservative” than Obama has been a “network liberal.”

Second, David — in contrasting Obama favorably this week with “cluster liberals” — writes:

Cluster liberals in the House and the commentariat are angry. They have no strategy for how Obama could have better played his weak hand — with a coming Republican majority, an expiring tax law and several Democratic senators from red states insisting on extending all the cuts. They just sense the waning of their moment and are howling in protest.

They believe nonliberals are blackmailers or hostage-takers or the concentrated repositories of human evil, so, of course, they see coalition-building as collaboration. They are also convinced that Democrats should never start a negotiation because they will always end up losing in the end. (Perhaps psychologists can explain the interesting combination: intellectual self-confidence alongside a political inferiority complex.)

Some of this analysis I agree with. I would point out, however, that (a) during his press conference, Obama was as visibly angry as many people can recall seeing him, and (b) the term “hostage takers” was used by Obama against Republicans.

Finally, I disagree with David’s verdict that Obama had “a very good week.” Brooks’s argument is that Obama has put himself in a position to govern again, and I understand and have some sympathy with the point he’s making: Obama is distancing himself from his liberal base and, in so doing, embracing a policy that is both fairly popular and wise.

What’s going to damage Obama, though, is the manner in which the distancing was done. The president’s base is enraged at him; what we’re seeing looks very much like a political revolt within his own ranks. It’s stating the obvious to say that having members of your own congressional caucus cursing at you is not a very good thing. And as President George H.W. Bush found out with his violation of his “no new taxes” pledge, creating fury within your base in order to tack to the center can hurt one rather than help one.

Nor is it clear yet that Nancy Pelosi will even bring the legislation Obama has blessed to the floor for a vote without changes. I assume she will — but if the speaker decides not to, and if as a result Obama fails to get this deal signed into law, it will be a terrifically damaging blow to his prestige and his presidency. And even if Obama does succeed, he has created enormous unhappiness and mistrust among his base. This won’t be forgotten any time soon. Presidents, while needing to distance themselves from their base at times, don’t usually succeed when they are at war with it.

Democratic tempers will cool over time; new political battles will reconnect Obama to his party. And the key variable remains the economy. If in 2012 unemployment is going down, if the economy is growing at a brisk pace, and if people are confident about the trajectory the country is on, Obama will be in good shape with both his base and with independents. For now, though, the president is in a precarious position, having (for the moment at least) lost his base without having won over the rest of the country. It may be that the former is necessary to achieve the latter — but the way these things are done matters quite a lot. And this has been ugly all the way around.

If David Brooks is right and this week signaled the beginning of a fundamental change in Obama’s governing philosophy, then the president has helped himself. If, on the other hand, what Obama did this week was simply an anomaly, a tactical shift without a fundamental rethinking, then he has complicated his life and damaged his presidency.

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