Why the Obama Strategy May Work

When a President is caught in a damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t vise – as President Obama was during the debt ceiling crisis – it’s tempting not to let him go. The right wing certainly feels that way, but the discourse on the left seems to be on the same track. Maybe it’s possible to raise the level of the discussion. One way is to see that the level of the solution isn’t found on the same as the level of the problem. Obama has taken that view as his long-term strategy. His position is that acrimonious divisions in government, which is the problem, can’t be solved by being even more acrimonious. His call for compromise, balance, and a reasoned approach to our difficult challenges is a sane adult’s way of rising above the level of the problem.

His adversaries on the right love this strategy because they have succeeded with distortion and demagoguery for a long time. In their view, acting like an adult is the same as showing weakness and in essence throwing away the game. By contrast, the left resents his strategy because they want to pound back at the right wing, getting in their licks while they have the chance. It seems to be the conventional wisdom, at this particularly volatile moment, to believe that the only person who is blind to his mistakes is the President himself.

In many ways the facts are on his side but emotions aren’t. We were saved from a second Great Depression; the auto industry was put back on its feet; progressive policies were implemented on many fronts that steadily began the grueling work of undoing thirty years of reactionary indoctrination. Yet there’s no doubt that many cherished expectations were dashed. The rich still have their unjust tax cuts; the public option in health care wasn’t enacted. The President’s men argue that no one could have done any better, given the harsh political climate. I think the real question isn’t who’s right, the President or his critics, but whether adult reason is the course to follow. Let’s look at this question with an abbreviated pro and con, since we all know the particulars from following the news.

Pro: Obama’s strategy is viable because the opposition would win in any contest based on fear, greed, and anger. Bad guys are always willing to sink lower than good guys ever will. Intolerance is never defeated by equal intolerance on the other side. Anger at the right wing is just as irrational as the right’s hatred of progressivism. The future is unknown, and second-guessing past decisions disregards how tough it was to make those decisions (e.g., no debt ceiling deal, however blessed on the left, would have been assured to avert the present meltdown on Wall Street). Bridging divisions is ultimately the only way forward, and if now isn’t the right time to attempt that, then there never will be a right time.

Con: An intolerant faction like the Tea Party cannot be tolerated. They must be stopped with harsh, combative measures. A crazy minority is running rough shod over the executive branch and shows no sign of relenting. Fighting for your principles is more honorable than compromise with immorality and injustice. Reason is a foolish, impotent guide when you are under constant attack. The bad guys should be named in public and opposed with all necessary force. Compromise is a nice word for lack of leadership, and lack of leadership will sink us all.

I’m well aware that the reader can pile more items on, probably weighing the con position more easily than buoying up the pro position. But the fallacy among the editorial writers and pundits crying havoc is that they assume that they possess answers better than what the White House is considering. I strongly doubt it. Even in a climate of unprecedented hostility, the White House, the Fed, and the Treasury Department enacted every Keynesian-progressive economic solution available to it. Total success wasn’t achieved. Anger and despair still have their desolate way all over the country. What’s bitter about this situation is that the current global downturn cannot be fixed with a wave of the hand, either by our government, European governments, central banks here and abroad, fiscal and monetary policy, or the free market. Each country has faced the post-2008 financial crisis with its own solutions, and however different those solutions were, the results were distressingly short of success.

The New York Times ran a widely circulated and admired piece by a professor of psychology that deemed Obama a failure for not telling the American people a “story” that included villains and heroes, the kind of story our brains are constructed by evolution to understand. Leaders do lead by promoting a narrative that helps guide a group or nation. But in and of itself, a story won’t change U.S. indebtedness, reverse the foreclosure rate, get legislation passed, or revalue the Chinese currency. While branding the Tea Party as villains may provide some emotional satisfaction to the Left, it is not clear it would lead to a better functioning Congress, without which we are well and truly sunk. The villains of the piece are part of our social fabric, and the right course is to try and make no one a villain, I think. Even if its edges are frayed, “we are all in this together” is the right story.

You and I have no power to alter the counsels of despair. Nor is it clear that when weighed in the balance, the pros of a rational economic policy will be sufficient. Sometimes you do have to stop tolerating the intolerant. All I’m asking for is a sane consideration of how answers are reached when doing more of the same stops working. Asking for Obama to stride forth with a flaming sword and a mythic tale strikes me as short-sighted. The way out of a burning building isn’t to call for more kerosene. The reason that the Obama strategy may work is the same reason that democracy has worked for many generations. Every other way is worse, and at times catastrophic.

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle