Pundits like David Brooks are saying that President Barack Obama's political brand is that of a "post-partisan uniter," in the mold of George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism and Bill Clinton's triangulation. Broadly speaking, I think that's right. I just call Obama's political brand "integral."
Broadly speaking, that is. I don't think anyone really knows the political philosophers who have been most influential to Obama's thinking, or if he's read Ken Wilber's
books as Al Gore and Bill Clinton did. When I say that Obama is integral, I am talking about his sensibility and style, not necessarily his theory of governance.
Starting with liberal Ezra Klein of The Washington Post and conservative David Brooks of The New York Times, the pundits are now declaring the death of Obama's identity as a post-partisan, "uniter not a divider" president. I have to ask, is integral politics dead?
"The [Obama] administration was initially pleased to see press reports detailing their willingness to compromise and surveys showing the American people thought the GOP far more intransigent. In their theory of politics, that meant they were winning. But they soon learned that voters aren't interested in compromises that don't lead to results. Obama looked like a nice guy, and that kept him personally popular. But he looked like an ineffectual leader, and that led his job approval to dip below 40 percent in some polls."
Perhaps the final and most conclusive evidence that the strategy had failed came recently, when Democrats lost special elections in Nevada and New York...
That isn't how the White House would prefer to govern. It's not how they would prefer to campaign. It is, let's admit it, politics-as-usual. It's the triumph of the old way of doing things, an admission that Washington proved too hard to change. But it's also the only option they have left.
"Yes, I'm a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around."
But remember, I'm a sap. The White House has clearly decided that in a town of intransigent Republicans and mean ideologues, it has to be mean and intransigent too. The president was stung by the liberal charge that he was outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling fight. So the White House has moved away from the Reasonable Man approach or the centrist Clinton approach.
It has gone back, as an appreciative Ezra Klein of The Washington Post
conceded, to politics as usual. The president is sounding like the Al Gore for President campaign, but without the earth tones. Tax increases for the rich! Protect entitlements! People versus the powerful! I was hoping the president would give a cynical nation something unconventional, but, as you know, I'm a sap.
Klein and Brooks are both talented analysts, and they are some of the first pundits to focus on a critical shift in the administration's tactics. Something is changed in Obama Land, and they think they know what it is: a retreat to the old politics of left v. right. Politics as usual. But they're both wrong.
Obama is not retreating to "politics as usual"
Greg Sargent of The Plum Line blog makes a most indispensable contribution to the discussion by highlighting that Obama is not merely playing politics as usual. He's actually making a new play for the political center.
While summarizing the results of six distinct opinion polls on the subject of American attitudes towards taxing the rich, Sargent writes
"[S]trong majorities of moderates and independents support tax hikes on the wealthy as the best way to close the deficit...."
Now, Republicans tend to think such polling isn't that meaningful. Even if it shows public support for high-end tax hikes, Republicans are happy to target Democrats on the issue, because they can continue to make the general charge that Dems are tax-hikers, furthering the narrative of profligate Big Government liberals running off the spending rails. Republicans believe this narrative is very potent with moderates and independents. And there very well may be something to this.
But Obama and his advisers look at the same polling and they bet that they can overcome this hurdle. They are betting they can persuade moderates and independents -- who are willing to tell pollsters that they want higher taxes on the rich -- that they should turn on Republicans for blocking their balanced approach to deficit reduction. Even if Republicans have had past success tarring them as tax and spend liberals, they are betting they can win the argument with middle of the road voters -- and that those voters' instincts suggest they will come to embrace Obama's balanced vision.
In other words, Obama is still a coach reading out of the "trans-partisan uniter" playbook. He's just betting that he can convert a lot of new fans at the center of the field to root for the Democratic team. His play, on this reading, is to take the fight to Republicans on their core issue of taxation, and show that middle-of-the-road Americans are willing to vote for a "balanced" approach that creates jobs and lowers deficits.
It's yet another face of an integral politics. Republicans have shown that no matter how reasonable and compromising a Democratic president they have to work with, they prefer to wage war along old ideological fault lines (attacking "class warfare," "Big government," "Liberal elitists," etc.) rather than adapt. They've created the most hostile, divisive, and ineffectual federal political environment in decades, maybe even the most hostile ever.
In this situation, "politics as usual" would be for the Democratic president to run for re-election on equally divisive populist themes. Obama could still do so, if he begins attacking Republicans' motives in the way that liberal bloggers routinely do, accusing them of wanting the economy to tank and grandma to be tossed out of nursing home so that Exxon-Mobil can get a tax break for buying a tenth corporate jet.
But it seems Obama is cooking up a more integral strategy than that. He intends to run for reelection offering middle-of-the-road policy prescriptions of deficit reduction, tax increases, and targeted investments in infrastructure and education. And he will probably promote this tonic (consisting in Democratic and Republican ideas) as the true center of American politics, while painting his opponents as ideological extremists who would return Washington to "politics as usual."
The new Obama sounds an awful lot like the old Obama to me. And I'm not complaining.