Interpreting Obama’s Motives and Behavior

Many people believe Obama’s Second Inaugural and more combative stance signals an ambitious second term.  Progressives regard his first term as something of a failure, from which he has “learned his lessons” about Republican depravity. 

In reality, his important legacy was his first term, and further efforts are mostly designed to entrench that legacy.  Yet in the Progressive imagination, Obama came to office horribly naïve and was constantly stomped on by Republicans, while he has now learned to win and win and win.  Symbolically important recent events such as a reelection victory, an in-your-face Inaugural, and “victories” on the Fiscal Cliff and debt ceilings make more of an impression on them than substantive things like the stimulus and ObamaCare, and for that matter erase the sting of Obama’s substantive cave-ins to the 2010 GOP Congress.


Progressives tend to fluctuate between believing Obama is a heroic champion and that he is a naïve punching bag, really much too good for much of the country he governs.  In the glory days of 2008, they believed Obama had, through rhetorical genius, made evident to the country the rightness of attitudes long held by the more articulate and educated segment of the public.  Why shouldn’t the more intelligent sort of people be better at politics if they put their minds to it?  The Bush years had shown such people the danger of complacency or cynicism, and of willingness to leave politics to the stupid.  The idea that Bush’s stupidity was responsible for the failures of our political system gave such people greater optimism about what politics could achieve than anyone had held in many decades.

Obama’s rhetoric tapped into that optimism and spread it throughout the country.  This optimism was based on the idea that cynical, narrow partisanship of the Clinton and Bush years could come to an end.  Partisan battles during those years tended to center around matters of little significance.  When there is substantive consensus about broad questions, people turn to minor things (should the top marginal tax rate be 39% or 35%?  Should John Ashcroft be confirmed as Attorney General?  Should Bill Clinton be impeached?  Should the Department of Homeland Security be unionized, or not?) as outlets for their political energies.  But Obama meant to be a transformational President, directing our energies toward grand purposes, calling on us to put away childish things.

Once Obama and his policies lost their popular appeal, progressives tacitly returned to cynicism.  After first believing Obama represented the superior intelligence would allow them to sweep away their backward enemies and transform politics, they came to the conclusion that he represented the superior but naïve morality that made them no match for their more ruthless opponents.  Obama’s optimism was nothing but a failure to understand the true depths of the abyss of Republican nihilism.*

In 2012, as it began to appear Obama would win reelection, and especially after he did so, progressives’ attitude changed again.  Once again, Obama stood in for people of superior intelligence, assuming their dominant place.  This time, however, the narrative was not that BHO’s rhetorical superiority swept away traditional politics.  It was, rather, that Obama and his campaign used superior analytic ability to dominate traditional politics (and Nate Silver, their latest icon, used his to predict correctly), while Republicans’ anti-science narrow-mindedness prevented them from realizing their situation and sealed their doom. 

Progressives took further delight in Obama’s ideologically combative Second Inaugural, and his superficially victorious negotiating posture on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling.  But without realizing it, they had given up their hopes that Obama could transcend ideology through rhetoric and transform politics rather than merely playing the game well.  Obama was at last, they believed, learning to understand and match GOP ruthlessness**; but in doing so, he was silently lowering his sights.


Even the supposedly bold, new, proudly progressive Obama dare not actually mention ObamaCare; but he’s taking his game outside the Beltway to defend his vision of government which he believes he failed to adequately defend in his first term, being too busy getting things done inside the Beltway.  It’s certainly an unusual approach, getting an agenda enacted, getting reelected, and then selling said agenda. 

On top of the rhetorical offensive in the Inaugural, Obama has staged a series of petty battles with Republicans that make him look good but achieve little of substance for his side, similar to Clinton’s approach after losing Congress.  This is certainly better for Obama than looking like a loser, as he did in battles with Congress between 2010 midterms and 2012 reelection. 

But the point is he’s pursuing public perception over actual results.  The one area where Republicans might be willing give Democrats something they theoretically want is immigration, and he seems to be trying to polarize the issue so that they don’t do so.  Immigration reform would threaten the Permanent Democratic Majority, and the goal of the second term is to entrench that majority and to entrench the first-term legacy, not to build a further legacy.


The reason why Obama’s first term didn’t feel successful to progressives is because, although ObamaCare passed, it wasn’t popular and was repudiated at the polls in 2010.  Relatedly, although Big Government theoretically looks like it’s here to stay (you wouldn’t win elections by promising seriously to get rid of it), the “new, bold Obama” hasn’t even tried to raise the middle class taxes that would be necessary to fund it.  What we are left with is a health law that struggles to find popular legitimacy needed to make it work, and a state as a whole that struggles to raise revenue to pay for the programs that attach people to it.

There are three ways for a President to get something substantive done: have a united Party in complete control of government (as Obama had during his filibuster-proof majority); compromise with the opposing Party; and use a rhetorical offensive or otherwise force the issue to get the other Party to relent. 

Obama must know he is unlikely to have the first method available.  He has probably given up on getting Boehner to willingly reach a Grand Bargain agreement.  This seems to leave a rhetorical approach, but Republicans were able to give him small victories over the Fiscal Cliff and debt ceiling without seeing any need to strike a Grand Bargain and bail him out with middle class tax revenue; and it would take more rhetorical skill than anyone possesses to get the median voter to pressure the median Congressman to raise middle class taxes.

It is true that Obama has stopped caving as thoroughly as he did to the 2010 Congress.  Yet negotiating results have had more to do with actual leverage than the kind of test-of-will some political writers like to imagine.  The progressive/mainstream media story in which Obama used to be naïve and let Republicans walk all over him, and now he’s learned that all you have to do is stand up to a bully and the bully will run away crying, just doesn’t fit the facts.

Obama won the fiscal cliff battle because he simply had all the cards- and even here, the supposedly badass new Obama only got tax increases on 450k+ earners, not 250k+ as he wanted.  When Obama had leverage in the past, he was able to get things like financial regulation and DADT repeal by moving at least some Republicans in his direction.  His approach of trying to deal with Congress actually worked in getting the START treaty with Russia ratified.  And in situations where he doesn’t have leverage, he still shows he’s more than capable of caving.  Remember Susan Rice? 


* “Yes,” they thought they heard Karl Rove cackling, after the 2010 elections, “I’m afraid the death star is…fully operational.”  “At last,” they discerned John Boehner saying after the debt ceiling battle “young fool…only now, at the end, do you understand.  Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side.”

** “Your hate has made you powerful.  Now, fulfill your destiny.”


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