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In Which I Question Obama’s “Long-Game” Strategy

At least on the left, by far the oldest and most energetically-debated question about Obama is whether his bipartisanship is naïve or shrewdly strategic (in addition to being sincere, which almost everyone concedes it is). Since at least 2007, battle-scarred liberals like Paul Krugman—and for that matter Hillary Clinton—have derided his bipartisan musings as gauzy blather at best and, at worst, dangerously provocative, since Republicans would exploit them. And, since almost as far back, some liberals have embraced a counter-narrative: Obama’s insistence on engaging with his opponents would actually make him a more effective leader, since it would rally the public to his side. As Mark Schmitt, then of The American Prospect, put it:

[P]erhaps we are being too literal in believing that “hope” and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic…
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith [conservative] opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. 

Suffice it to say, the debate is still raging three-plus years into Obama’s term. My forthcoming book on the Obama administration and the economy—and my recent excerpt in particular—argue that Obama was overly-credulous in his dealings with Republicans, and that this was costly for the country. (Though I think Obama has done a lot more good than bad on balance.) 

My former TNR colleagues Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sullivan have argued that, if you take a few deep breaths and focus on the end result, Obama’s bipartisanship has been somewhere between reasonably effective (Chait) and nearly-masterful (Sullivan). “What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics,” Andrew wrote in a recent Newsweek cover story. “What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.”

No one disputes that Obama has looked much stronger politically over the past six to eight months, and so some amount of vindication is clearly in order. The relevant question is really twofold:  First, how deliberate was Obama’s strategy? And second, how much should we weigh political success when we evaluate his performance in office?

The reason the first question matters is because deliberate strategies tend to be reproducible, accidents less so. On this point, Jon argues that the recent turnaround was “in part an accident of trial and error, but in part the successful application of [Obama’s] characteristic style.” Andrew more or less believes the turnaround was foreseen from the get-go—that even when Obama appeared weak and ineffectual he was actually in the process of “outsmarting” his opponents. “This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself,” he writes. 

I tend to fall on the more skeptical end of the spectrum. I concede that, at some level, the president was laying the groundwork for his 2012 endgame. He’s been banking bipartisan cred since the transition days, after all, so it’s not surprising that he’s in a position to make a few withdrawals. But my suspicion is that this only occurred at the highest altitude: Obama’s general thrust toward bipartisanship was a bet that being seen as relentlessly reasonable would eventually pay off, but the plan was no more detailed than that. To the contrary, when it came to specific strategic decisions, I think the White House has been consistently surprised by the way events unfolded. 

That dates all the way back to the stimulus in 2009, when top White House aides expected to get 70-80 votes in the Senate right up until the week they had to twist arms just to pass the bill by the tiniest margin. It ran through the health care debate, when the president was painfully slow to recognize that Senate Republicans like Chuck Grassley were negotiating in bad faith. (I reported in this piece that Obama balked when Rahm Emanuel wanted to shut down the bipartisan negotiations and move a more partisan bill through the Senate.) And it continued through 2011. As I describe in my book-excerpt and at greater length in the book itself, the White House sought a deficit deal because they thought it was achievable and desirable on its own terms. In each case, Team Obama actually wanted the bipartisan agreement it was chasing and was, to varying degrees, wrong-footed and disappointed when it didn’t happen. 

Now it’s also true that the administration had other, more strategic reasons for pursuing these goals. But the strategic benefits they anticipated were generally not the strategic benefits they reaped. In 2011, for example, the White House believed focusing on the deficit would help restore Obama’s credibility with independents concerned about runaway spending. They did not predict that a prolonged, tortured negotiation would demolish the GOP’s public standing and make Republicans a perfect foil for the president’s eventual shift leftward. In fact, the shift toward a tougher, more populist stance is as much a repudiation of Obama’s high-minded strategy as its logical endpoint. 

But, for the sake of argument, let’s give Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume the past three years were intended to build toward a moment like this one. That still leaves the second question: Was the strategy good enough? Which is to say, not just good politically, but also good for the country?

I’m not so sure. Yes, as Andrew points out, if you would have told the average liberal four years ago that their president would pass health care reform, repeal don’t ask/don’t tell, end the war in Iraq, and start downsizing the Pentagon—and that, after all that, Obama would still be in a strong position to win re-election—they would probably have taken the deal. The process was messy and endlessly frustrating, but it got to the right place. 

But this logic breaks down as it relates to the economy. When it comes to the economy, you can’t simply tell people not to worry about three years of punishingly high unemployment because it worked out in the end. Those were still three years of punishingly high unemployment, and they were absolutely miserable for the large number of people who couldn’t provide for their families, or who worried they wouldn’t be able to. 

Worse, if you buy Andrew’s long-game argument, some otherwise avoidable amount of pain was actually necessary. In order for the rope-a-dope strategy to work, after all, you have to patiently absorb a lot of blows—blows you otherwise would have countered—before you make your move and reclaim the initiative. As a practical matter, those blows came when the administration was either too preoccupied with deficit-reduction, not focused enough on getting more stimulus, or both. (Obviously, the hundreds of billions in stimulus Obama did procure was enormously helpful. But he missed opportunities for more, both in the original Recovery Act and later on. I elaborate on this in the book.)

So, yes, Obama’s long-game appears to have worked politically, to the extent that it was a conscious strategy. But substantively, it left something to be desired. And, in the end, a president has to be judged on both counts. 

Follow me on Twitter: @noamscheiber