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David Brooks’s Awful Advice to Obama

In his continuing, illusive quest for the Grand Bargain, New York Times columnist David Brooks has now offered some free campaign advice to President Obama: Drop the angry and divisive populist talk; link your reelection to the Congressional supercommittee to tackle the deficit; lower the ideological temperature. Political independents now recoil from big government, Brooks argues, so Obama should be blurring, not highlighting, the differences between the two parties over the role of government.

Obama should say thanks, but no thanks for the advice. Based as it is on a series of tired and false assumptions, this strategy would doom whatever chance Obama has of winning reelection.

In making his case, Brooks frames the 2012 elections almost entirely in terms of the ideological proximity of independents and swing voters to the two parties. But he fails to mention that the shifts in ideological placement that polls have measured since 2008 have primarily been on account of the financial meltdown and Great Recession: The voting public might now say that it is more conservative and desirous of a more limited role for government, but that’s more an expression of their general frustration with the state of the economy and the seeming failure of ambitious government initiatives to produce tangible results than their true convictions. Move beyond these labels to ascertain public views on specific policy options and you quickly realize that a conservative swing in public opinion is a chimera. 

Second, true Independents and swing voters aren’t best captured through clever centrist political positioning. They have almost no ideological frameworks with which to judge the candidates and parties; they are quintessentially referendum voters, with low levels of information and focusing almost exclusively on performance. Their greatest concern now, quite naturally, is jobs and economic growth, and they are therefore unlikely candidates for recruitment into a radical center supporting a Grand Bargain on the national deficit.

Finally, the ideological imbalance in American politics today has nothing to do with Obama abandoning his post-partisan promises and picking up the mantle of big government. Instead, it’s almost entirely a consequence of the rightward shift of the Republican Party. One cannot watch the Republican presidential candidate debates or listen to Republican leaders in Congress without concluding they are an insurgent party set on undoing many decades of policy that once enjoyed bipartisan support. 

Maneuvering tirelessly to stake out some elusive political center, in other words, won’t help Obama win over swing voters. It’ll just set him up for another year of looking weak and ineffectual. As even Brooks acknowledges, this is the approach Obama has followed most of his time in the White House—the one that Republicans turned into a political liability for the president through a disciplined campaign to oppose, obstruct, discredit, and nullify everything he has tried to do. It was perfectly understandable for Obama to try to deliver on his promise of a post-partisan Washington, even if he was naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. But by doing so he paid a tremendous political price, among his supporters, but also with swing voters, who were not much taken with his effort to work with Republicans to stave off a totally unnecessary threat of default—and who viewed him as weak when the process looked so dysfunctional in the end that the U.S got downgraded by Standard and Poor’s.

Obama should likewise know by now that working with a supercommittee whose Republican members are under orders from their House and Senate leaders to oppose all revenue increases is a fool’s errand. And imagining that a substantial center in the American public will respond positively to such an approach is pure fantasy. What sense does it make for Obama embrace an agenda without any support on the other side of the aisle, and make nice to a party whose sole objective is to deny him reelection? One should note the reaction, documented by Politico, of a key Republican Senate leadership staffer to Obama’s endorsement of the Gang of Six deficit-reduction framework in July—if Obama is for it, we have to be against it.

Moreover, if there is any hope of achieving bipartisan policy success, it will come from Republicans believing that blocking the president’s initiatives or offers will cause them political harm. Mitch McConnell admitted as much when he acceded to a deal on the debt limit—not because it would avert economic chaos, not because a conciliatory president offered it to him, but because, in his own words, the failure to do so would damage “the Republican brand.” In other words, Obama’s new approach of turning up the heat—by calling out Republicans for their obstruction and their opposition even to ideas they have previously embraced, like a continuing payroll tax cut—actually has more chance of achieving the policy outcomes Brooks wants than his conciliatory approach.

Obama, at the center of today’s political spectrum, should therefore be explicit and forceful in communicating the stark differences between the parties and the source of inaction and gridlock in Washington. To do anything less would be a disservice to the public, his party, and his hopes for a constructive and consequential presidency.

Thomas Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are together completing a book on America’s dysfunctional politics.