i may owe President Obama an apology

 

Protestors in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol spell out "SHAME" with wooden letters (Image from photoblog.msnbc.msn.com, Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

 

To this point in his presidency, there are many issues on which I have felt that Obama has taken too conciliatory a stand. I wanted to see him take a harder line on the public option in the health care debate, I wanted to see him push harder for the DADT repeal, things like that. If you had asked me to name my primary complaint about Obama a few months ago, I think I would have said his tendency to seek compromise too often and too easily.

Recent events in Wisconsin have made me rethink this. As the two major parties become increasingly polarized and ideologically separated (I would argue this is due to a dramatic rightward shift in the Republican party), I expect that we will see more conflicts like that we’ve seen the last few weeks in Madison. This conflict escalated over Governor Walker’s absolute unwillingness to negotiate in good faith (or even in bad faith, really) with the Democratic senators. It’s exactly the kind of hard-headed, stick-to-your-guns approach that I had thought I wanted out of Obama for so long.

But where does this get us? Public opinion has turned pretty sharply against Walker, with 42% strongly opposing the plan and 9% somewhat opposed in a poll taken before the shenanigans Wednesday night, compared to 32% strongly in favor and 14% somewhat in favor. More notably, the Wisconsinites polled were in favor of Walker’s pursuing a compromise solution by a margin of 65% to 33%.

Now that the original bill has been railroaded through in such a questionable manner, I would be surprised if those numbers don’t turn even more sharply against Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans. This could have electoral implications as soon as April 5, when JoAnn Kloppenburg (D) challenges incumbent David Prosser (R) for the swing seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Recall petitions are already circling, and the events of the past month will certainly play a role in the next gubernatorial election (if Walker makes it that far without being recalled himself).

It would be tempting, were Democrats to regain control of the legislature or Governor’s office in Wisconsin, to attempt to reverse the damage wrought by Walker’s bill if it remains in effect. It would also be tempting for Wisconsin Democrats to give as good as they got, and pass bills that are only popular among the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.* This overreach would likely result in just another swing back to Republican control, and the cycle would start anew.

This is a recipe for utter disaster. Nothing would ever get done, and anything that might would be repealed when the next wave came through.

So maybe Obama is right to be more conciliatory than I would have liked over the past two years. I may take issue with his messaging, and his inability to show the American people how damaging the Republicans’ refusal to work with Democrats has been (remember when Democrats loaded the stimulus with tax cuts and received not a single Republican vote for it?), but I’m beginning to see that my initial reaction of “the Republicans did it to us for years, it’s our turn now” is not a viable long-term strategy. It may be good politically in the short run, but there are more important things at stake here.

This does not mean that I will stop arguing (vehemently) for those policies in which I truly believe, and trying to convince people to share my beliefs. But if our political system is going to be fixed (because I think it’s pretty clear at this point that something isn’t right with it…), it’s going to require compromise. I think Obama realizes that.

——–

* Given the way that Democrats usually behave, I don’t really expect this to happen. But it would certainly be tempting, and I would expect there to be people calling for this in the spirit of retribution.

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12 Responses to i may owe President Obama an apology

  1. marty says:

    Excellent commentary – thanks!

    Maybe you could publish on DailyKos? (hint, hint)

  2. tjphantom says:

    agreed. nice post.

  3. Doug –

    Totally disagree – you make a classic straw man argument. As if the only possible choices are Democrats “compromising” with Republicans or “railroading” “their agenda” through. The problem here is that the entire system is broken. We need a realignment that is not based on the two existing political parties – something like that advocated by http://comehomeamerica.us/ . You’re still playing their “us” vs. “them” game as if either the Democrats or Republicans represent our interests.

    You wrote: “But if our political system is going to be fixed (because I think it’s pretty clear at this point that something isn’t right with it…), it’s going to require compromise.” Tell me you don’t actually think like that. Compromise between what? Which political party can more loudly declare the immediate need to bomb Libya? Which political party can fall over itself the quickest in protecting the interests of corporations and Wall Street? Compromise between two horrible positions (most of which are on the same extreme side of a horrible spectrum) leads to – wait for it – yet another horrible position!

    • For a similar (but less rant-y) argument, read this excellent post by the author of The Story of Stuff: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/annie-leonard/why-democracy-only-works-_b_829454.html

      You have to read that book by the way – I just started the book you recommended and am liking it.

    • frouglas says:

      Nicholas – You are confusing a desire to see constructive policies passed in the short term with being content with the status quo. My call for more compromise among our political leaders does not at all imply that I would like to see the American government remain on what you call “the extreme side of a horrible spectrum” that we are at right now. I will continue to work to shift the alignment to a place where we are not sending our troops to die in endless foreign wars and where corporations have decidedly less influence on our political culture.

      But we face a wide variety of real problems right now. People want well-paying jobs, we need to improve our healthcare system, we are polluting the earth at an alarming rate, etc. I believe that if we are going to get anything constructive done to address these issues, we need to avoid swinging back and forth between unilateral implementations of each party’s policies while they are in office.

      The fact that we have two political parties is not an accident. They exist because they embody a broad general consensus about the issues that Americans think are important, or at the very least because American voters think they do. It’s certainly my opinion that there is undue influence from a wide variety of pernicious self-serving actors in our government, but whose fault is that? Unless you subscribe to the idea hat every election contains widespread electoral fraud (which I do not), the responsibility lies with the voters who allow themselves to be influenced by said actors and continue to vote the same irresponsible politicians back into office again and again. So I’m very much in agreement with Ms. Leonard, it is important to remove the influences of those actors. But that’s not going to happen by fiat or revolution, it’s going to happen when the American people chose to remove that influence themselves, by electing responsible politicians who will enact policies that achieve that.

      I’m just unwilling to say that we should give up on accomplishing anything until that happens.

      ——–

      On a different note (and apologies it took me so long to acknowledge this), congratulations on getting your post up on antiwar.com. Happy to see you writing.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful response! Here’s one back at ya!:

        You originally wrote: “I wanted to see him take a harder line on the public option in the health care debate, I wanted to see him push harder for the DADT repeal, things like that… Recent events in Wisconsin have made me rethink this.” So apparently, your strategy of working toward “seeing constructive policies passed in the short term” would have been for Obama to NOT push harder for a public option (much less a single-payer system or something else)… NOT to push harder for the DADT repeal… and whatever other “compromise” you now seem to advocate.

        Going back to our original argument about the relative value of incremental improvements – I don’t see how you spending your valuable resources (your time, your intellect, your platform, your energy, etc.) writing about how Obama really should NOT push for x, y, and z, is the optimal utilization of those resources. How exactly is this strategy going to address the problems you identified in anything resembling the “short term” (people needing well-paying jobs, improving our healthcare system, and addressing the alarming rate of pollution to the earth)? I refer back to my earlier point that your solution of “compromise” means agreeing on a middle ground between the positions of the Republicans and the Democrats on these issues… so I guess if you think these problems are being addressed in a sufficient manner, then all is well.

        I think a lot of our disagreement comes back to a fundamental point that you mentioned about exerting change on the system: “… it’s going to happen when the American people chose to remove that influence themselves, by electing responsible politicians who will enact policies that achieve that.” I am under no illusions that ‘if only we just elect the right people’ everything will change – this is why I never bought into the Obama craze. Many people did, which is why they are so disappointed – for me, he is performing pretty much exactly as expected. It doesn’t matter if we elected 535 of the greatest Americans ever to the Congress, and a fantastic president to top it off – we would still have pretty much the same results. The functional design of the American political and governmental system as it currently exists guarantees the kind of policies and politics that we have – a system that is dominated by special interests and that implements policies that are often at odds with themselves. I spent two years working in the Senate studying these structural issues, as well as much of my personal life outside of that experience – and while I don’t know the solution, I do know many of the problems. We should discuss them sometime – but the main point is that the system itself is broken. One example is that government bureaucracies and the laws that govern them are based on functional topics as if they are completely self-contained and unrelated (such as “Defense” and “Environmental Protection,” and “Interior,” and “Education”) – this worked fine in a less complex world but all of the problems we currently face are extremely complex and inter-related, and cannot be addressed in isolation. More to the point, the design of our electoral system ensures certain results and rewards certain types of people at the expense of others. These are the kind of systemic problems I am talking about. Until we address these problems, those “constructive policies” you keep talking about in the “short term” are just going to get worse, and worse, and worse.

      • Also to your point that “[Our two political parties] exist because they embody a broad general consensus about the issues that Americans think are important, or at the very least because American voters think they do.”…

        I didn’t bother looking for a more recent poll, but this 2010 gallup poll shows the typical finding that the US Congress is often the least respected institution in the United States. In this poll, 65% of respondents disagreed that most members of Congress deserve re-election. I haven’t seen the latest poll on this either, but I remember seeing that a greater and greater majority of Americans are “unhappy” with the direction America is going. Your assumption that the status quo is representative of what we want is baseless.

        http://www.gallup.com/poll/127241/Voters-Issue-Strong-Rebuke-Incumbents-Congress.aspx#1

      • frouglas says:

        As I said above, allowing for compromise does not mean that I will stop arguing for those policies that I find desirable. I would not have argued for compromise on any of the issues that you mention, but previously I had felt slighted that Obama had compromised. Events in Wisconsin make me reconsider that feeling, not my positions on what I believe to be the best policy. Through my writing and efforts, I want to effect a shift in the result of a process that involves compromise, recognizing that given the diversity of opinions in our country, I will very seldom be fully satisfied.

        But let’s stop and take a look at what you’re actually saying above when you say that we need to fix the system, but at the same time “[t]he functional design of the American political and governmental system as it currently exists guarantees the kind of policies and politics that we have.” If you really mean that, then you are calling for the overthrow of our democracy. There’s no other way about it. If you don’t think that it is possible to elect officials that will fix the system themselves, then you are calling for a revolution. I wholeheartedly disagree with that.

        My “assumption that the status quo is representative of what we want” is distinctly not baseless. It is in fact based on the revealed preferences of voters, who though they may hate the politicians we have, continue to elect them. If we wanted something else, really wanted it, we could get it. The fact is that people are too disengaged and apathetic to actually go out and get it. As I said before, unless you believe that there is massive voter fraud and that the results of the elections we hold are completely separated from the votes cast, the responsibility lies with the electorate.

      • I see what you’re saying now re: Obama – still kind of silly in my view, as well as in the views of folks you admire such as Glen Greenwald to my knowledge. But I’ll take your point on that.

        Regarding revolution, I would quote Thomas Jefferson’s views on the necessity of revolution now and then, but that’s not even my point. I do agree with your point that if “we the people” really wanted any particular change in policy – we could get it (I’m just now working on a new piece for antiwar.com on this subject). Case in point, if politicians had any reason to think their support of any particular war would cost them the next election, that war would stop very quickly.

        What I am calling for is not outright revolution, but definitely significant reform (perhaps through a new Constitutional convention or other democratic process) to the structure of government. So I guess I wasn’t being completely literal when I wrote “[t]he functional design of the American political and governmental system as it currently exists guarantees the kind of policies and politics that we have.” My real point is that, without an overwhelming outpouring of action from an informed citizenry on any particular issue, things will stay mostly the same. It is possible that “the people” will rise up on any given issue (let’s say US intervention abroad to take my pet issue) – and get that one issue changed. But all of the rest of the systemic problems will remain. And yes, theoretically, “the people” could rise up and get all of the problems “fixed”. But in reality, even hoping for one major uprising like this on a fundamental issue requiring a major change in ingrained policy is a stretch – it is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, such as the uprising in Egypt. As such, the best hope for us all if that one uprising is focused on reforming the system itself – so that all of the rest of the changes afterward would not be so difficult.

  4. OK, I know I said I’d let it go, but I just can’t. I’ll try for this to be my last thought though, and let you have the last word (difficult for me as I know it is for you!). Feeling anything but complete and total outrage at not just Obama but of the majority of politicians of both major parties is to fall into the apathy and complacency that you seem to despise.

    There’s no need for you feel personally slighted by Obama’s compromises, because as I think we agree the socio-political system as it exists now demands it and it should be expected… but you should still be outraged! Otherwise what is the point of holding views which I know are vastly different than the status quo? If you (and others) don’t remain outraged (especially at the politicians you tend to support), what chance is there that they will ever change?

    • frouglas says:

      I’ll take your offer of the last word, but only to say that I think that we actually agree on a lot here, with the main difference being what we each think needs to happen to induce this change and the period of time over which the change can happen.

  5. Steph says:

    Though he approaches it a little differently, Tim Egan seems to agree with you today: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/in-defense-of-dithering/?nl=opinion&emc=tya2.

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