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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Obama Shouldn’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Jonathan Bernstein has a good post up at Salon.com, “GOP antics will not damage Obama one bit,” urging President Obama to take a step back and shrug off the never-ending teapot tempests that come his way, secure in the knowledge that the sane majority is mostly with him on the important issues — that’s why he got re-elected. It’s sound advice. No chief executive should get bogged down in every controversy that clamors for attention.
McCain, Graham and other yammering Liliputians are always going to be there, griping about every little thing that comes up in hopes of damaging the president’s leverage. They really can’t do much, so why engage with them? As Bernstein puts it:

There’s plenty of things that capture the attention of people who are intensely interested in politics, which everyone else ignores unless they have a particular interest in it. Personnel flaps similar to the Hagel nomination are likely suspects. Think, if you remember them, of similar controversies around Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod or Peter Diamond. Each of these was all the talk of Washington for a while, and then it wasn’t. Most people, however, hardly noticed any of them.
Moreover, we know that the more people pay attention to politics, the more partisan they are likely to be. That’s important, because it means that those people who did pay attention to the Chuck Hagel nomination fight are the most likely to interpret it through their strongly held partisan biases: Democrats will support the president, Republicans will oppose him.
What all that means is that these kinds of controversies, even fairly large ones, are very unlikely to matter at all. Most people ignore them; everyone else merely sticks to their previous opinions.

As a result, Bernstein opines in his key insight, “presidents are a lot more free to take risks than they realize…Barack Obama should realize, then, that he has quite a bit of latitude to make “mistakes” that cause media flaps as long as they don’t produce serious policy disasters.” it’s a liberating insight if it empowers the president to focus more effectively on a grand strategy for securing reforms that matter most. This is more true for presidents in their second term for obvious reasons.
Let the minions respond to the small stuff. Obama was elected to fix the economy and move America forward toward greater shared prosperity. All else is unworthy of too much presidential attention. As Bernstein concludes, “What really does matter is getting the policy right; do that, and the politics will usually follow.”
Obama is a president who seems temperamentally suited for such a Taoist perspective. He picks his fights carefully, and lets congress do most of the rat-a-tat-tat and then acts. Several writers have noted the “Tao of Obama.” As the Tao puts it, “It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.” Perhaps it’s not a bad strategy, especially for the president tasked with dealing with the most wholly obstructionist opposition in U.S. history. To paraphrase another Taoist saying, the water that goes around the rock reaches its destination before that which fights the rock.

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