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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Compromises: ‘Tolerable Exceptions’ or Sell-Out?

The pragmatic flexibility of President Obama’s decision-making strategy is nicely-limned in a May 16th L.A. Times article by Janet Hook and Christi Parsons.

Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, who styled himself as “the Decider” and took pride in sticking with decisions come what might, Obama is emerging as a leader so committed to pragmatism that he will move to a new position with barely a shrug.
Whether it’s a long-standing campaign promise or a recent Oval Office decision, Obama has shown a willingness to reverse himself and even anger his most liberal supporters if he can advance a higher-priority goal or avoid what he sees as a distracting controversy.

The article goes on to discuss Obama’s changed positions on releasing torture photos, using military tribunals, “extraordinary rendition” and dispersement of fees for exceeding carbon emissions caps. The list could be extended to inlcude changed positions regarding economic policy, Iraq withdrawall, stem cell and a range of other issues just 4 months into his term. The authors quote TDS Co-editor William Galston, who puts Obama’s reversals in context of “the basic optic”:

This is the story of an ambitious new administration running up against reality at home and abroad…The realities on the defense and foreign policy fronts are both more intractable and quicker to show themselves for what they are…If he’s basically faithful to the agenda he ran on, the reversals — such as they are — are going to be seen as tolerable exceptions rather than as leading indicators…If you are a single-issue person, what the president says in regard to your issue may be a bitter disappointment.

Not surprisingly, a growing number of progressives are displeased by the overall tilt of Obama’s reversals. And it does seem as if the flexibility Obama demonstrates rarely, if ever, bends toward the left. There is always a feeling that, as MLK, once put it “Ultimately a genuine leader is not of consensus but a molder of consensus,” a sense that a President ought to be more willing to fight for principles, and be a little less eager to compromise them. Of course MLK was a moral leader, whose job was more to awaken dormant consciences, rather than secure gradual reforms.
Some corroboration that Obama’s policy compromises are within the range of being “tolerable exceptions” and “basically faithful” to his campaign agenda, as Galston put it, comes from testimony in the conservative press. As Peter Berkowitz put it in an elegantly-written, if politically-wrong-headed piece in The Weekly Standard earlier this month:

…Obama’s pragmatism…appears to be another name for achieving progressive ends; flexibility is confined to the means. This helps explain the sometimes glaring gap between Obama’s glistening postpartisan promises and his aggressively partisan policies. Judging by his conduct–as pragmatism officially instructs–Obama appears to have concluded that the best way to maintain public support for progressive programs is to divert attention from the full range of their consequences and, where possible, to refrain from making progressive principles too explicit.
…A truly postpartisan pragmatist–or a pragmatist in the ordinary, everyday sense–would pay attention to the long-term economic consequences of massive government costs and expansion. He would also show interest in the full range of moral consequences of his policies, in particular the practical impact on citizens’ incentives for responsibly managing their lives of a great enlargement of government responsibilities for managing their lives for them. But a pragmatist for whom it is second nature to measure all policy by how well it promotes a progressive agenda might well ignore or deflect consideration of these awkward consequences…The problem is not partisanship, but a deceptive form of pragmatism, where pretending to be nonpartisan is a pragmatic strategy for imposing far-reaching progressive policies on an unwary public…

it seems reasonable to measure the left critique of Obama’s position reversals against the more blistering critiques of the conservatives to get a fair measure of his fidelity to the progressive agenda. I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more of the bold consensus-molding Dr. King referred to, of the sort Obama displayed at Notre Dame, as Ed notes today. What is indisputable is that what doesn”t bend will eventually break, and Bush’s rigid policies left him with a legacy of zero positive accomplishments. Although politics is the art of compromise, principled compromise is even better.

2 comments on “Obama’s Compromises: ‘Tolerable Exceptions’ or Sell-Out?

  1. janinsanfran on

    Something has to be sacred (worth fighting over) to our political leaders or they are just ambitous hacks. Various ones of us locate what justifies taking a stand in different places. Personally, I put defending the rule of law under the Constitution as the highest value, enabling all others. By that standard, Obama is looking hackish.
    There are other standards, of course.

  2. James Vega on

    When a military commander leading an army encounters stiff resistance along one road and less along another, he does not insist on fighting equally on both roads “as a matter of principle”. He adjusts his strategy to the degree of difficulty different objectives present.
    The same principle holds on the defense. As one military historian put it “In military history, the slogan “not one step backward” is genrally the motto of the surrounded, the defeated and the dead”


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