Reading David Brooks this morning, I had the odd feeling that I had read numerous, virtually identical op-eds for the last six months, except that their subject was Obama’s alleged weakness in the face of foreign “challenges.” For example, take this paragraph:
Machiavelli said a leader should be feared as well as loved. Obama is loved by the Democratic chairmen, but he is not feared. On health care, Obama has emphasized cost control. The chairmen flouted his priorities because they don’t fear him. On cap and trade, Obama campaigned against giving away pollution offsets. The chairmen wrote their bill to do precisely that because they don’t fear him. On taxes, Obama promised that top tax rates would not go above Clinton-era levels. The chairmen flouted that promise because they don’t fear him.
We have heard much the same litany from domestic critics of Obama regarding his efforts at improving relations with Iran and Russia (“he is emboldening them! he is projecting weakness!”), and even most of the criticism from the right on his handling of the deposition of Zelaya has been framed as part of Obama’s supposed servility to Chavez. The constant in all of these arguments is the claim that Obama is too conciliatory, yields too much, and invites challenges. In other words, we are supposed to believe that the rest of the world does not fear him. This has been a completely unpersuasive argument, in no small part because there is no evidence to support it. Brooks is applying the kind of critique hawks normally use to indict the administration’s foreign policy agenda, as if he took Jonathan Chait’s unified Obama theory and turned it on its head. Chait defined “the Obama method” this way:
Obama’s method begins with attempts to find common ground, expressions of respect for the adversary’s core beliefs, and profuse hope for cooperation. In his iconic 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, Obama famously announced that Democrats, too, “worship an awesome God.” In his Cairo speech, Obama pointed to the contributions and freedoms of American Muslims. In both speeches, Obama signaled cultural respect by adapting the other side’s own rhetorical formulations–invoking “a belief in things not seen” (2004) or calling the Middle East the region where Islam “was first revealed” (Cairo).
This rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict– red state versus blue state, Islam versus America–and puts it onto specific questions–Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified?– where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherents of the opposing camp.
Naturally, Obama’s pacific expressions tend to alarm the more hawkish elements of his own camp, who interpret his idealistic rhetoric as naivete or weakness.
The method Chait described is one that I recognized a bit earlier when I wrote:
The approach that conservatives find infuriating when directed at them is the same one he was using on Thursday in Cairo: define the limits of the debate, establish one’s own views as the balanced, reasonable center of the debate, invite people from either side to join the ostensibly reasonable center, and thereby marginalize those who continue to ignore or oppose you.
At this point someone might object that the method Chait identifies would not apply to adversaries within his own party, but there seems to be no reason to think that he copes with intra-party opposition any differently than he does with opposition from other quarters. It could be that Obama is drawing out his opponents among the chairmen in Congress in order to triangulate against them and present himself to the public as the “responsible” and “reasonable” check on liberal Democrats. I think he is banking on identifying the excesses of the domestic agenda with Congressional leaders and posing as the voice of restraint, because doing so serves him best. He can afford to do this, and one key reason why is the substance of the stimulus bill.
As most of its critics have emphasized, the stimulus was largely a giveaway to Democratic constituencies, which means that the administration has bought a lot of goodwill with activists already, and it did so while risking relatively little with the broader electorate. If Roubini is right and the recession ends by the close of the year, few will remember that the stimulus was wasteful, laden with giveaways to interest groups and costly. Most will remember that it passed, and then later that year the recession ended. More important, all that most voters will remember is simply that the recession began on Bush’s watch and ended under Obama. If the relationship of the Congressional majority and party activists with the White House in the last administration is any indication, that one giveaway earlier this year will satisfy enough people inside the party that Obama will be able to disappoint and resist Congressional leaders for years afterwards.
On the other hand, the lockstep support of the Congressional GOP for almost everything Bush tried to do burned them badly, so creating the impression that there are significant disagreements between a “radical” Congress and Obama might be quite useful for both Congressional Democrats and Obama: the members can tell the activists and voters back home that they are pursuing their agenda as intensely as possible, and Obama can use Congress as a foil and tell moderates and independents that he is the only one who can halt their excesses and eventually get them to craft “responsible” legislation. Of course, all of this takes for granted that the chairmen are actually Obama’s opponents and that Obama’s statements on all of these things in the past reflect the agenda that he really wants and cannot get, and that may not be true.
The difference between Brooks’ critique of the “suicide march” and the typical hawkish attack on Obama’s foreign policy is that Brooks seems to think that there are ways to pursue the agenda Obama has laid out on health care and cap-and-trade that would not lead to cost inflation and giving away pollution offsets. Obama also campaigned against mandates, and the health care legislation has those, too, but this is not an example of Congress’ defiance. It is instead a reminder that Obama was trying to have things both ways during the campaign, which in that case meant support for health care legislation with none of the drawbacks. Foreign policy critics start with the assumption that conciliatory moves and diplomatic outreach are wastes of time and dangerous signals of weakness, so for them Obama has already failed simply by making an attempt they already regard as doomed. The chairmen are not exactly defying Obama when they are crafting legislation that will more or less inevitably lead to these things by the very nature of the legislation. It’s as if someone had written in 2001 that the GOP Congress was “defying” Bush by passing tax cuts with no concern that this would increase the deficit. After all, Bush had promised fiscal responsibility! Perhaps someone somewhere believed that Bush’s “priority” in this matter was fiscal responsibility, but no one believed that for very long. We do not discern the priorities of politicians in what they say they want, but rather in how they act.
Whenever people have started praising Obama for his “pragmatism,” what they are referring to is his willingness to ditch positions that are no longer useful and to accommodate himself to new centers of power. Meanwhile, the only people who are likely to be surprised by the reckless progressivism of the domestic agenda are those who conned themselves and others into believing that Obama was something else all along. The only people who are likely to see a significant conflict between Obama and Congressional Democrats on these items are those who think that the government can do these things without the negative consequences Brooks mentions.
There have been several occasions over the last two and a half years when it became quite common to say that Obama wasn’t ruthless or tough or wily enough to defeat his opponents, but in every confrontation so far he has come out ahead. If the chairmen really are defying him because they don’t fear him, perhaps it is they who are overconfident and are heading for a fall. It is quite possible that liberals in Congress will drive the Democrats off an electoral cliff with their domestic agenda, and it seems clear that the proposed health care legislation will exacerbate the key problem it is supposed to be solving, but if this happens it will not be because Obama failed to instill fear in committee chairmen. It will happen because the substance of the legislation is flawed.
In the end, members of Congress in the President’s party who want an even more aggressive approach to a given policy usually also tend to be the most ideological and the most loyal partisans, which means that their dissent and defiance, to the extent that any exists, are the least dangerous to the President and his agenda.