Time to Take the Gloves Off

Barack Obama's modus operandi has long been to find consensus, to tack toward the middle - and to bring as many people with him in this process as he can. His idea has always been to engorge the middle and, in so doing, to cut off the blood-supply of the extremes.

Throughout his career, Obama has made a point of going the extra mile to bridge ideological divides. We saw this with his visit to conservative evangelist Rick Warren's Saddleback Church during the election campaign, and his attempt during this and subsequent moments to have a foot in both camps on the abortion issue; we saw it with his decision to invite Warren to give the invocation prayer at the inauguration last January. In a more inspiring way, we saw it in the way in which Obama worked tirelessly to build a broad consensus for death penalty reform while a state senator, and again with his extraordinary make-or-break speech on race in Philadelphia in March 2008 - and his ability to reach out to, and incorporate the hopes and fears of, so many different parts of the American population all in one speech.

As I researched my book Inside Obama's Brain in the first months of Obama's presidency, I came to believe that this need for consensus wasn't just a small part of his character; it was, in fact, a signature personality trait. Yes, he was, and is, instinctually fairly radical on a lot of policy issues; and his actions, career decisions, and policy choices over the years suggests that his moral compass is good - in a way I've never been entirely convinced Bill Clinton's, for example, was. But, at the end of the day he's more in his comfort zone when he successfully builds coalitions than when he scores a strictly partisan victory.

Generally, over the time I've written on, and commented on, Obama, I've viewed this trait as a positive: when it works, it serves to file down the harsh edges of contemporary politics, to create a more civil dialogue and a smarter, less knee jerk, approach to complex policy reforms. It allows for nuance in an age all-too-often suspicious of gray zones, too willing to divide people and policies into absolute categories of good and evil.

But it only works if the other participants at the policy table are willing to engage in smart, compromise-based politics as well. Absent that, there's a real risk that it comes to be seen as weak; and weakness, as the great political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli knew all too well, is the fatal flaw in leadership. Yes, you want your friends and allies, your supporters and your foot soldiers to love you; but you want your political enemies to fear your clout. You want them to know you see through their games, and, in a democracy, that you'll do your absolute best make sure the electorate does too.

As soon as the Republican leadership in Congress made it clear that they saw health care reform as Obama's "Waterloo," the gloves should have come off. Yes, Obama was right to seek compromise within the Democratic caucus so as to patiently build up legislation that the disparate wings of the Democratic Party could coalesce around. And, I believe, he was right to go the extra mile on this, even if it meant that the eventual reform was less radical and less inclusive than many progressives hoped. But he was wrong to continually move the goalposts to try to bring Republicans aboard, once they had made it clear they would never, as a matter of tactical politics, support any of his health care agenda. It took too many months, with, as we now see, calamitous electoral consequences. It confused the public, because it denuded the debate of moral clarity. And it emboldened an increasingly right-wing Republican Party, which has a leadership track record over the past decade rife with scandal, disastrous economic priorities, and cronyism, to position itself, however implausibly, as the party of "change," as the defender of the little man.

What's worse, it created an implicit public assumption that nothing shy of sixty out of one hundred senate votes would legitimize action on health care and other broad issues - from climate change legislation to systemic banking reform.

Now, with Tuesday's vote, the Republicans have 41 seats in the Senate, and suddenly, with stunning quiescence, the idea of universal health care is being taken off the table - or, at the very least, diluted beyond all recognition. That's a scandal; there's nothing in the constitution that talks about major policy reforms only being legitimate if a super-majority of senators supports them. Had previous reformist administrations been so absolutely limited by the fear of filibuster, social security would never have been implemented, the civil rights and voting rights acts would likely not have passed, Medicare would have struggled to see the light of day, quite likely women's suffrage would never have become a reality.

The fear of filibuster becomes self-fulfilling; it gives the minority party confidence and it renders the majority party impotent. It emboldens conservatives to batten down the hatches and fight to preserve the status quo, using the specter of governmental stalemate as its ultimate weapon.

That Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have been so entirely unable over the past few days to keep their caucuses focused on the goal of rapid passage of universal health care legislation - despite a 78 member House majority and a sixteen-to-eighteen seat majority (depending on whether one includes Joe Lieberman and Bernie Saunders) in the Senate is a damning indictment of their leadership skills.

In my book I argued that Obama-the-idealist was so successful politically because he was also a highly skilled operator - because, despite his talk about "changing" the system he was actually a first rate player within that system, that he was a devastatingly effective, pragmatic, politician. I have compared him, previously, to Mohammad Ali - an elegant counter-puncher, who, when the chips were down, knew exactly how to shift the momentum in his favor.

Now, more than ever, Obama needs to show he's capable of the political counter-attack. The more starry-eyed part of the Obama coalition long ago decided - wrongly in my opinion - that they'd been hoodwinked by the forty-fourth president's stirring oratory; opining that he was a sell-out and a conservative. In 2012, it's extremely unlikely this part of his base will be motivated in the way they were in 2008. They won't be fired up to campaign in the same numbers, and many likely won't come out to vote on Election Day. For Obama to get re-elected, therefore, he has to prove not that he is an idealist but that he is an effective leader. That is the only way to regain the support of the vital middle-ground voters who have started peeling away from him and his party in recent months.

That doesn't mean he has to kowtow to Republican priorities. To the contrary: it means he has to both define his agenda better and then show the mettle to make sure it is implemented.

Yes, the Massachusetts vote was a devastating set-back to Obama. But he is still in the luxurious position of being a President whose party controls by huge majorities both houses of Congress. If the Republicans want to filibuster health care reform in the Senate, Obama should publicly urge Harry Reid to call their bluff. The Democrats have far, far more to lose by backing away from this fight and abandoning the most critical domestic policy reform of the past several decades than they do by getting down and dirty and forcing the GOP to play their hand.

In Springfield, Obama played poker regularly with a group of his state senate colleagues. He was, recalled his friend Denny Jacobs, a good player, someone who himself almost never bluffed and who would always call out his opponents when they were bluffing.

It's time for Obama to show some of those poker skills again. It was an effective strategy in Springfield; it's a strategy worth trying in D.C.