Barack Obama is back.
The firebrand populism of his 2008 presidential campaign, the podium-pounding speeches, the “Yes We Can” rallies calling for a grassroots uprising of the people against special interests, unregulated corporations and under-taxed millionaires all returned in recent weeks as Obama traveled through battleground states demanding tax increases on the rich, pitching his American Jobs Act to the public, and calling on Republicans to “Pass this bill!”
For the countless liberals who felt abandoned by the president, and who abandoned him in return, Obama’s renewed vigor on the campaign trail is a welcomed sign that the candidate of “change” might actually fight for the “Change We Can Believe In.”
But questions remain: What happened to the old Obama? Why did he wait until the 2012 campaign season to finally “pick a fight” with the GOP? Why did he spend the last two and a half years compromising with the Republicans and capitulating to their demands for spending cuts? Why did he back down in the face of government shutdowns and federal debt defaults? Why did he chase down this pipedream that his opponents in Congress would suddenly abandon their obstructionist tactics and start working together for the American people? Why, after failing to unite the Congress and the country, did he continue his conquest for “hope” and “change” even though the opposition obviously had no intention of giving an inch?
Understanding the president’s recent “populist tone” requires understanding the strategy behind the past two and a half years of “capitulations.” It requires understanding that there was a strategy in the first place.
There are several explanations worth noting.
(F)or the past two and half years, President Obama has, often quietly, fed (Republicans) lengths of rope. A concession here. A backtrack there. Compromise after compromise with hostage-taking conservatives bent on making sure he doesn't succeed in anything that he does, even if it harms the country. …Nobody who is paying any attention at all can continue to believe that Republicans are acting responsibly. When they defend to their last gasp the massive tax breaks given to wealthy individuals and large corporations or the federal tax monies given as subsidies to the most profitable companies in the history of civilization, their motives become crystal clear.
Now, with the impeccable sense of timing and strategic purpose and action that Barack Obama is known for, he is reeling that rope back in.
President Obama has been slowly and quietly moving the conversation of America to his framing. He has done all of the things he had to do to get his initiatives passed, but he has also given the Republicans a broad stage on which to act out their true intent in full view of the American voters. President Obama didn’t move left. He isn't finally doing what progressives have told him to do all along. He is executing perfect timing in a much broader strategy – a strategy which brings America to his position, which is far to the left of today’s Republicans; a divide which is only growing deeper and wider with every utterance of Michele Bachmanns, Rick Perrys, Rick Santorums, John Boehners, Eric Cantors, Mitch McConnells and every other blathering tea partier in our country.
I have been telling the political pundits for months that President Obama’s strategy has been, since the Republican takeover of the House (thank you, Professional Left) to expose the Right wing insanity, back the Republicans into a corner and make them cry uncle. For this, the president first needed to be seen as – and actually be – the adult in the room who is willing to compromise for the good of the country and expose the Republicans as the burn-down-the-village-to-save-it party. … You do not win strategic battles by getting into a screaming match with your opponent. Nor do you win it by any of the various favored red-meat tactics. You win a strategic battle by deliberate planning and methodical execution.
From Steve Kornacki of Salon:
It seems logical to conclude that President Obama’s sudden eagerness to pick fights with Republicans means that he’s realized the folly of his “reasonable man” strategy and junked it. But a better way to understand the president’s new confrontational posture is as an extension of that strategy.
The “reasonable” approach, remember, grew out of the GOP’s midterm landslide last fall, with a chastened Obama seeking to win back voters by showing a desire to compromise with Republicans on Capitol Hill. If Republicans reciprocated, the thinking went, Obama would benefit from a surprisingly productive legislative year. And if they rebuffed him, he'd also benefit, since it would expose the GOP as a band of obstructionists bent on advancing a narrow agenda and scoring political points.
This strategy, Kornacki argues, “was most prominently on display this summer,” when Obama offered Republicans a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction by offering “steep cuts” to Medicare and Social Security. Republicans walked away from the deal, but Obama offered it nonetheless, much to the chagrin of his liberal base.
“According to its design, this should have been a triumphant moment for the ‘reasonable man’ approach. And in a way, it was,” Kornacki states. “When the debt ceiling crisis was finally resolved, polls showed that Americans were much angrier with Republicans over it than they were with Obama. One survey found that just 33 percent of voters viewed the Republican Party favorably – the worst score ever recorded for either major party.”
It wasn’t a solid victory for Obama because it didn’t do much to boost his approval rating, but “he succeeded in making his opponents look very unreasonable.”
“The debt ceiling experience is a perfect setup for what Obama is now doing,” according to Kornacki.
Each of these insights points to a grand strategy, a conscious effort by the president to give the American people a framework by which they can compare and contrast the Republican Party’s vision of the future with his own.
Each provides context to the battle now unraveling over tax cuts for the rich and a jobs bill that will improve the economy and lower the unemployment rate, but which Republicans oppose nonetheless.
Recall that after the 2010 “shellacking” Democrats took at the voting booth, the American public was suddenly enraged by the growing national debt. Republicans were railing Obama and his party for being typical big-government loving tax-and-spend liberals. It was fear-mongering at its best, but it worked nonetheless. The public was terrified at the size of our national debt.
That fear hasn’t disappeared. The public still supports reducing the debt. The difference now is the contrast between what Republicans want and what Obama is pushing for. It’s a difference between massive budget cuts that hit middle and low-income families, and a balanced approach that calls on millionaires to carry some of the burden.
Obama couldn’t make this pitch without having shown a willingness to negotiate with Republicans. So he cut spending, demonstrating both his concern for America’s long-term fiscal solvency and his ability to be reasonable when dealing with the staunch ideologues on the right.
The budget battles revealed to the American people that Republicans cared more about “starving the beast” than anything else. This was most evident in the April budget negotiations, during which Republicans threatened to shut down the government if Democrats didn’t agree to defund Planned Parenthood, public broadcasting and the EPA. It was billed as a way of cutting the deficit, but eliminating these programs, as I said at the time, was “akin to trying to drain the Atlantic by sticking a Slurpee straw into the Potomac.”
But had Obama allowed these things to happen, had he ignored the demands for debt reduction, let the government shutdown, allowed the United States to default on its loans, and continued pushing for costly stimulus bills, there would have been no contrast between him and the Republicans. Both would have been seen as fighting for their individual agendas, and both would have been despised by the public.
Instead, he played the part of “reasonable man” for an American electorate that overwhelmingly supports the notion that politicians should compromise rather than blindly stick to their principles. He cut spending and eased the fears over our monstrous debt. He negotiated, offered solutions and compromised in order to keep the government operating.
And now he can be viewed not as a left-wing ideologue fighting against the right-wing ideologues, but as a sane advocate of fairness and shared sacrifice.
Obama froze salaries for federal employees, whereas Republicans continue to fight for tax cuts for the rich. Obama agreed to cut spending by trillions of dollars over the next decade, whereas Republicans refuse to balance spending cuts with new revenue. Obama kept the government from shutting down, whereas Republicans seemed not to care about seniors foregoing their Social Security checks and veterans losing their benefits. Obama kept the government from defaulting on its loans, whereas the “fiscally responsible” Republicans voted against paying our debts.
In the era of the permanent campaign, Obama defied the rules and sat back as Republicans controlled the debates, scored points with the Tea Party base and won the small battles over budget cuts. But by doing so, he created a framework that is now permanently fixed in the minds of the American people.
Mainly, he made it through the last two and a half years of anemic economic growth, high unemployment and historically high disapproval of Congress without having to share the blame for a government shutdown, a federal default, and an unaddressed national debt.
The “old Obama” didn’t go anywhere. He was plotting the “shellacking” of Republicans in 2012.
[Cross-posted from MuddyPolitics.com]