The President and His Base

Like his predecessors, in particular his Democratic predecessors, Obama doesn’t see himself as automatically beholden to his base — either in principle or in the pragmatic exercise of his presidency. In a parliamentary system, the leader and his base are closely aligned; since there is no separation of powers or possibility of a divided government, the leader of the government, who is also leader of the parliamentary majority, has simply to put forth his program, confident that his party will prevail. If there are compromises that have to be made, the party leader has only his party to worry about and, of course, public opinion. In a democratic presidential system like our own, compromise (an unmerited dirty political word) is essential to the successful functioning of the system. Even if the president’s party is the majority party in both Houses of Congress, the President is not the leader in either house. He is president of all the people, including those who voted against him. The leaders are members of the houses of Congress elected by their colleagues, whose main responsibility is to their constituencies. Moreover, in order to enact major legislative initiatives in our system, having a majority is not enough. The Senate requires a super majority of 60 votes to enact most legislation. So the minority party can prevail in blocking legislation. That is why presidents with rare exception (that is, when the president has had overwhelming majorities in both houses) have necessarily with more or less success been compromisers. It means that a president may find himself at odds with the significant portion of his base that eschews compromise.

Clinton and Carter, Obama’s Democratic predecessors in the last four decades, perfectly illustrate, in varying degrees of success and failure, the on and off base, relationship of a president to his own party. Carter had to contend with Ted Kennedy, who embodied the liberal wing of the party, Clinton with those on the left of his party, who became disaffected when he bought into the Republican call for welfare reform. In another context, we can debate the virtues or vices of the positions that Clinton or Carter took. Here my focus is on what seems to me a feature of our political system. The view that it is a desirable feature depends on an assumption that within a particular party it is better to have more than one view of what has to be done; indeed, the multiplicity of views works against the excesses of the party spirit. It also assumes that the president, the leader of the party, has a larger understanding of what needs to be done than the rank and file representatives. These are assumptions that do not always have their basis in reality. The leader above the fray may become isolated in the bubble of his leadership and out of touch with the diverse constituencies that compose the electorate. The vitality and rationality of democratic governance may require pressure from below—as, for instance, in the ending of a destructive and unwinable war or insuring the preservation and strengthening of a safety net in a time of economic crisis. Pressure from below is not always salutary: see, for instance, the Tea Party’s obliviousness, among other obliviousnesses, to the disastrous consequences of a government default in the event that the debt ceiling is not raised.

We adversely judge a compromise when it has prematurely given away too much to the other side, endangering what is essential to one’s own side: that has been the complaint about Obama. In the view of critics on the left, he begins too often in the center, the place where the compromise might legitimately wind up and as a consequence moves further to the right than he has to. Is this true of his signature legislation, health care reform? Some critics on the left fault him for not beginning as an advocate of a single payer. During his campaign for president, he spoke of his preference for a single payer, but saw it as politically impossible. He viewed its implementation, even if its realization was possible, which it was not and is not, as extremely disruptive to the economy at a time when so much else was falling apart in the system. Even his critics on the left like Robert Reich viewed the single payer as a non-starter. Should Obama then have drawn a line in the sand on the public option, a less radical reform of the health care system? Perhaps, if he had his own party united behind it. That was not the case; he could only with the greatest difficulty bring his own party to endorse a universal mandate (which did become his bottom line) without a single vote from the opposing party. He confronted a similar problem in his advocacy of a stimulus package, receiving with difficulty only three votes from Republican senators, which were indispensable for its passage. There have been instances when Obama has prematurely compromised to the legitimate dismay of his base. In The Promise President Obama, Year One, Jonathan Alter writes of Obama’s “playing bad poker on the stimulus” in having “offered more than $300 billion in tax cuts at the front end of the process, nearly three weeks before taking office.” The idea that Obama simply and always caves into his adversaries, however, is not borne out by the facts, at least in Alter’s detailed account of the first year of his presidency. (Drew Weston’s invidious contrast between Obama’s conflict-averse compromises and FDR’s bold liberalism in his article, “What Happened to Obama” [the Sunday Times, August 7] simply ignores the checkered history of Roosevelt’s presidency as well as the facts of Obama’s presidency.)

In the recent debt ceiling showdown, Obama has been faulted for not standing his ground and for not threatening the use of the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling by executive authority. Obama had good reason to believe that the 14th Amendment does not give him the right to ignore the debt ceiling. His teacher at Harvard, the great liberal Constitutional scholar, Lawrence Tribe, has made a compelling legal argument that the 14th Amendment does not give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling. Imagine the mess we would be in if Obama ignored Tribe’s advice and that of other legal advisors: not only a time and money consuming and distracting legal battle that would be decided in the Supreme Court in which the majority (conservative as well as liberal) would almost certainly take Tribe’s side, but also a strong possibility that impeachment proceedings against Obama would be initiated in the House of Representatives.

It may in fact be the case that Obama’s reputation suffers from a misunderstanding of how he negotiates with others. He is not a compromiser in the traditional political sense, someone who begins from a hard left or hard right position and works toward the middle. In characterizing him as professor-in-chief, admirers and critics view him as a lecturer, instructing the public on the subject of his policies. As it turns out, he is not particularly successful as an explainer or arouser of public support for his policies. The preeminent explainer is Bill Clinton. Superb speechmaker and experienced teacher, Obama has surprisingly to many not found a consistently persuasive voice in making his case for his policies to the public. His skill lies not in the lecture hall, but rather in the seminar room, which means that he is always open to all views before committing himself to a strong view on a subject at which point he is decisive in taking a position. The seminar discussion is a learning experience for him as well as his students, in this instance his political colleagues (allies and adversaries). Such is the picture of him that emerges in Alter’s account of his conduct of cabinet meetings. It was the way he engaged Republican members of Congress in televised sessions with them, winning him high praise. The trouble is that the political arena is a not a seminar room, a place where rational and open-minded participants congregate. Politics is hardball in which hard-edged assertion and counter assertion, impervious to the view of the other, prevails. Much as one may admire (I do) Obama’s civility and analytical open mindedness, they are not sufficient in the rough and tumble of American politics. A successful leader must be continuously forceful and persuasive in his advocacy of policies, particularly in a time of crisis. Between the two models of presidential leadership, Roosevelt’s welcoming of the hatred of bankers and Lincoln’s “malice toward none,” Obama’s preference is clearly for that of Lincoln. What is lacking, however, in Obama in recent speeches is the resonance of deeply felt conviction that Lincoln displayed and that Obama showed as a candidate and only occasionally as president.

The seminar analogy, I believe, provides an insight into what some critics view as an enigmatic presidency. What does he stand for? Does he know his own mind in addressing the problems that confront the nation? The seminar leader may enter the room with a view of a subject, an idea of what has to be done, but he is not absolutely committed to it. If he were, there would be no point in conducting the seminar. One of his gifts is that of a listener (it is Obama’s gift), responsive to the thoughtful ideas of others, ideas that may reshape the view he had when he entered the room, indeed, that may even convert him to a view that he did not originally hold. This may explain positions that Obama has taken that seem to his critics on the left as betrayals, let alone compromises. The starkest example is Obama’s apparent conversion to significant deficit reduction and his advocacy of “the grand bargain” in which he proposed a “balanced” package of large deficit reductions (4 trillion dollars) and increased revenues or taxes (a hardly balanced ratio of 3 to 1 in cuts and taxes). The Republican victory in the election of 2010 supplanted the Democratic agenda of spending to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment with the Republican agenda of deficit reduction. Whether Obama liked it or not, he was forced on to Republican terrain. But that does not account for his advocacy of “the grand bargain.” His proposal is very much in the spirit of the “balanced” proposal of spending cuts and increased revenue of the bipartisan Bowles/Simpson Commission that Obama created as well as the proposal of the bipartisan group of senators, including the very conservative Tom Coburn and Saxby Chambliss. It would seem that he now shares a view similar to that of David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, who argues for spending cuts and tax increases for the wealthy and the middle class in order to avert economic catastrophe down the road. Obama, the compromiser, is on display in his insistence against the intransigence of House Republicans that tax increases be included in any deficit reduction plan, but the “grand bargain” he proposes is not that of a compromiser. He seems to have arrived at a version of the conservative position by thinking his way to it. He has not explained to the public, which includes his liberal base, the how and why of his arrival. (For what it is worth, the Republican refusal to consider tax cuts in cutting the deficit exposes their lack of seriousness about deficit reduction. What they are serious about is defeating Obama in 2012.) Those on the Left, who think focusing on deficit reduction now is a bad idea, are legitimately upset. In any event, this is not the action of an excessively cautious and timid leader.

This episode in Obama’s presidency has crystallized a view most forcefully expressed by Bruce Bartlett, a disillusioned Republican, who has severely criticized the presidency of George W. Bush. Bartlett views Obama as a “Richard Nixon Democrat,” whose “basic conservatism,” which will be perceived perhaps 20 years from now. That is, just as Nixon was able to camouflage his liberalism in a conservative party, Obama is a camouflaged conservative in a liberal party. Bartlett offers the following examples of his “effective conservatism.”

* His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary
* He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary.
* He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals.
* He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever.
* And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions far beyond those offered by Republicans.

This is a highly selective and misleading account of Obama’s policies and achievements. On the stimulus bill, Obama’s historically unprecedented 800 billion, insufficient as it was, was twice the size of the sum proposed by McCain. He was barely able to get it through Congress, requiring the support of three Republicans. FDR’s stimulus package also proved insufficient and, according his critics on the left, caused the recession of 1937. Does that qualify FDR as a conservative? On war and national security, Obama officially ended water boarding. He supported Bush’s policy of withdrawing troops from Iraq by 2012. How does this qualify as conservatism? Retaining Gates as Defense Secretary has nothing to do with conservatism. Presidents in the past have appointed members from the opposing party to cabinet positions. FDR’s Secretary of War was the Republican Henry Stimson. Gates, as it turned out, was an admirable appointment. On healthcare, during the presidential campaign, Obama said in principle he favored single payer, but he did not see it as politically viable. He advocated a public option (not in the Romney plan), but could not get sufficient numbers of his own party behind it. The plan that resulted, however, was an extraordinary historic achievement that is only diminished by calling it conservative. Bartlett has left out of his list other notable achievements such as tobacco regulation, executive orders protecting labor rights, stopping pay discrimination against women through the Lily Ledbetter and equal pay laws, passing hate crimes protections for gays and lesbians, major liberal changes in environmental policy under the guidance of the EPA and much more. The spirit and most, though not all, of his policies are liberal. Bartlett’s persuasive point in his review of the performances of past presidents (Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan) is whether from the left or the right they tend to move to the center, because (Bartlett doesn’t say this) a president is not simply the leader of his base. His constituency is the entire nation. It is a valuable point and shows up the absurd view of the Republican right that Obama is a radical socialist bent on destroying the country.

As a non-economist, I have no way of knowing the tipping point for taking on the long-term problem of debt reduction that everyone on the political spectrum agrees exists. I trust economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz when they assert that our massive unemployment problem requires government investment, but they have little to say about when or how the debt should be handled, a political as well as an economic question. The unemployment problem (is it only short term?) and the debt problem (is it only long term?) are conflicting demands. It is almost a taboo on the left to address the debt problem now for fear that to do so would distract attention from the urgency of reducing unemployment. Given political reality, I don’t see how the president can avoid the debt problem and its possible solutions. What he needs to do is to explain what has to be done on two fronts (“growing” the economy/reducing unemployment and deficit/debt) in a way that the public can understand. Obama has until now failed to formulate coherent policies that address these conflicting demands.

The most cogent effort made in that direction that I have found is in the writing of the excellent Times columnist, David Leonhardt. He notes, “Germany has succeeded in important ways that the US has not.” The unemployment rate in Germany is 6 ½ percent with a strong safety net in contrast to 9 ½ percent in the United States with a relatively weak safety net. “The lessons [to be drawn] are not simply liberal or conservative. They are both…The brief story is that despite its reputation for austerity, Germany has been more willing than the US to use the power of government to help its economy. Yet it has also been more ruthless about cutting wasteful parts of government.” Leonhardt goes on to challenge the claim that increasing consumer demand is the solution to our economic woes. “The notion that the US needs to begin moving away from its consumer economy—toward more of an investment and production economy with rising exports, expanding factories and more good paying service jobs—has become a commonplace that it’s practically a cliché. It’s also true. And the consumer bust shows why the old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back” (“Posts Tagged David Leonhardt,” the blog The Erstwhile Conservative). This should not mean that Krugman and Stiglitz are wrong to argue for the importance of government spending to reduce unemployment and increase consumer demand. It does mean that such action, necessary as it is at the present time, may not be sufficient in making needed structural changes in the economy. It would be good to hear from Krugman and Stiglitz how they understand the economy beyond its immediate need for stimulus. We might learn from the German model, which combines government intervention and fiscal discipline. Given our nativist American exceptionalism, however, any appeal to a European model provokes vehement resistance. There is nothing reprehensible, no “surrender” in Krugman’s tendentious characterization, in Obama’s taking seriously a good faith conservative view of what needs to be done about deficits and debt. The creative challenge for him is to formulate, to forcefully explain to the public and to help enact the kind of balanced approach of short-term government investment and long-term fiscal discipline, at once liberal and conservative, in an idiom that appeals to the American public. His job creation speech Sept 8 was a strong start in that direction. Whether our currently dysfunctional political system and politically polarized culture are up to the task of solving problems is the as yet unanswered question. Right now, Obama needs all the support he can get.

From September, 2011