(Alternate Title: “Trolling the Republicans: Obama’s Elephant Gambit”)
It’s 2013, just days before a presidential reinauguration. Do you know who your president is?
The blogosphere contains myriad cottage industries inspired by Barack Obama’s supposed inscrutability. To some—birthers and their ilk—he’s nefariously mysterious. To others—often fired by 2012 campaign rhetoric—Obama’s only confusing because he’s an “overmatched” bungler short on leadership skills. To many radicals, Obama’s a conviction-free pol who is insufficiently left or right or statist or liberty-loving or some other such thing. Still others think he’s inexplicable because he’s a misanthrope. There are many thousands of posts, essays, and op-eds that slot into each of those categories (and that’s hardly an exhaustive list of the “we don’t get this guy” crowd).
What if it’s really not that complicated? What if Barack Obama 2.0 is just the left’s version of Mitch McConnell? I’m increasingly convinced that Obama’s decided that Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are right—Republican ideological rigidity is today’s biggest cause of political gridlock—and he’s dedicating his second term to doing something about it.
To alter McConnell’s well-worn phrase just a bit: The single most important thing Obama wants to achieve is to destroy the Republican Party’s far-right fringe. If his moves seem confusing, that may be because they’re not necessarily calibrated to maximize anything (progressive policy victories, Democratic Party positioning, et al) in the short term. They’re calculated to—over the long haul—force Republicans to surrender their ideological purity as often as possible and on as many issues as possible. His governing strategy from now on has more to do with maneuvering his opponents than any other concern. And hey, that might be a good thing.
A year ago yesterday, Andrew Sullivan argued that President Obama’s first term was best understood as the foundation for his “long game.” When it comes to politics (and governance), Obama “eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage,” a strategy which can look pretty odd when framed to fit Potomac-area attention spans.
[T]he president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider. This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself, or willing to let others to define him, or simply weak.
This is about right—at least as far as his approach to discrete fights goes. The problem comes right after Obama identifies his opponents as “the source of the problem.” If nothing else, his first term showed that Obama’s long game hadn’t prevented him from being “tarred as an ideologue or a divider.” It’s true that McConnell (et al) didn’t apply these labels “effectively” enough to make him a one-term president, but their scorched earth rhetoric made a mess of the last year (and change) of his first term.
Lesson learned. Obama’s come out much tougher in the months since the election, and it’s a specific sort of tough. He’s not insisting on huge progressive policy shifts—he’s insisting that the Republicans play ball or take the blame. Period.
Look carefully and you’ll see that it’s the same strategy that Sullivan identified last January—but now it’s been amended to respond to GOP extremism. He’s still inviting their wildest rhetoric, but now it’s part of a coordinated effort to emphasize the fact that “they are the problem.” From now on, each fight will be designed to make the Republicans choose to govern or confirm their reputation as intransigent extremists.
That’s why additional revenue for the fiscal cliff deal had to come from increased tax rates. Whatever the deal’s immediate policy merits, it broke the GOP’s Norquistian orthodoxy on rate hikes. The fact that they worked up such a prodigious, Thrasymachean sweat on the way to compromise only compounded the damage to their reputation. Even more importantly, the next time Republicans put on their sacred Trickle-Down Temple robes, they’ll see a stain.
That’s also why Chuck Hagel is such a perfect nominee for Secretary of Defense. Is he a progressive? Is he the only man for the job? No and no. But he’s a Republican that Republicans love to hate. They’re thinking seriously of tying up the nomination of one of their own. Stipulate for a minute that there are other reasons that they’d block Hagel’s confirmation—that’s not how it’s going to look to Joe and Jane Voter. Very few of these folks have time to be interested in cabinet nominations for long, but they’ll notice an obvious storyline that confirms the going narrative about the GOP: “Capitol Hill Republicans block President Obama’s Republican Secretary of Defense nominee.” In a gridlock-weary country, a party that won’t accept bipartisan inclusion of its own members in a governing coalition is going to shoulder the blame for the resulting mess.
Mark my words: Obama’s going to troll the GOP for the rest of his term. He’s going to refuse to take the blame for their intransigence. Watch the coming immigration reform fight. There will be several moves (at least) that are designed to give Republicans a choice between 1) pure self-marginalization, and 2) stepping back from their radicalism. Best of all, perhaps, is the built-in “ratchet” effect. Each time the Republicans threaten Beltway paralysis over compromise proposals, they make it even harder to appear mature, moderate, and trustworthy.
This is a strategy that, as Sullivan notes, isn’t always going to play well with Obama’s base. It’s not likely to bring a host of progressive policy victories. It’s not necessarily conducive to short-term political successes. Depending on the degree of GOP fervency, the strategy may lead to serious economic turmoil.
But it may well be the only progressive strategy suited to our times. As good as the demographics look for the Democrats, Republican radicalism remains a serious hindrance to the American government’s continuing function. Call it the last, plaintive gasps of the Reagan Era. Call it Machiavellian. Call it whatever you’d like. The GOP has left itself very little ability to strike back. Either they placate their base (to their long-term political detriment) or they start demonstrating to the country that they aren’t as uniformly partisan as perceived. It’s a terrible choice for a party to face—upward pressure from their mobilized grassroots vs. the danger of national marginalization—but it’s the GOP’s just desserts. After refusing to work with Obama during his first term in order to deny him the appearance of bipartisan victories, it’s only right that they’ll spend his second term forced to do business his way.
 Worth noting: this is also why Obama was relatively unwilling to go over the fiscal cliff. While it’s likely that Republicans (esp. in the House) would have taken a disproportionate amount of the blame for the ensuing economic troubles, it would have encouraged the “pox on both their houses” narrative that fuels so much political coverage today. Even if he could have gotten a better (on substance) deal post-cliff, it would have cost him the leverage of being perceived as more reasonable than Eric Cantor and Co.
Also: compromises are only “stains” for those forced to loathe compromise “by the momentum of their own ideology.” In the mature adult world of political governance, a slight increase in tax rates on the very wealthy is a small policy—hardly something that warrants holding the global economy hostage.