The Tough New Obama Isn't So Tough—and That's Why He's Winning

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One thing puzzles me about the prevailing line of analysis on the new Obama. The Republicans are in full retreat, according to this view, and it goes to prove that Obama was right to get tough and refuse to compromise. So long as the president grows enough of a spine to confront the GOP, he'll win and keep winning.

Even commentators who think Obama might overreach if he adopts this strategy too carelessly agree that the new-look Obama is all about being tough. Take David Gergen, for instance.

It is clear that he is consciously changing his leadership style heading into the next four years. Weeks before the November elections, his top advisers were signaling that he intended to be a different kind of president in his second term.

"Just watch," they said to me, in effect, "he will win re-election decisively and then he will throw down the gauntlet to the Republicans, insisting they raise taxes on the wealthy. Right on the edge of the fiscal cliff, he thinks Republicans will cave."

What's your Plan B, I asked. "We don't need a Plan B," they answered. "After the president hangs tough -- no more Mr. Nice Guy -- the other side will buckle." Sure enough, Republicans caved on taxes. Encouraged, Obama has since made clear he won't compromise with Republicans on the debt ceiling, either.

Or John Dickerson.

How should the president proceed then, if he wants to be bold? The Barack Obama of the first administration might have approached the task by finding some Republicans to deal with and then start agreeing to some of their demands in hope that he would win some of their votes. It's the traditional approach. Perhaps he could add a good deal more schmoozing with lawmakers, too.

That's the old way. He has abandoned that...

Obama's only remaining option is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents. Through a series of clarifying fights over controversial issues, he can force Republicans to either side with their coalition's most extreme elements or cause a rift in the party that will leave it, at least temporarily, in disarray.

What am I failing to understand here? Obama compromised during the fiscal-cliff fight, and the GOP didn't -- and that's why he's emerged with the upper hand. Instead of insisting on an income threshold of $250,000 for raising top marginal tax rates, he accepted a threshold of $450,000. Instead of going over the cliff rather than yield on anything, he behaved reasonably. Republicans refused to give an inch on their own hardline position and then allowed a sufficient number of their votes in the House to defect. Thus the GOP disowned the very compromise it had been forced to accept--defining itself as the loser (even though the deal entrenched almost all of the Bush tax cuts). This is a good kind of opponent to have.

Republicans seem to know they screwed up and are reluctantly retreating from use of the debt ceiling as a way to advance their aims. For the economy's sake, that's very good news. But let's be clear that the winner in the fight for public opinion was the team that showed flexibility and made the concession, not the team that refused to budge. Obama did what Dickerson says won't work. He gave ground to a Republican demand then finessed the GOP votes he needed--not through schmoozing, admittedly, but through pressure of public opinion.

(I note in passing that the White House is already signaling that it doesn't expect to get all of its supposedly ambitious gun-control legislation through Congress. Guess what. It's open to compromise--and I'm betting it's hoping that the GOP isn't. This would improve its chances of winning that fight too.)

What's new here, it seems to me, is mostly cosmetics--though I'm not saying that's unimportant. Obama has toughened up his presentation, but he still preferred the deal to going over the cliff. Crucially, most of the country felt exactly the same way. What's comical to me is how easily many Democrats have taken up the tough-new-Obama line. They might have decided to care about that tax threshold. They could have said, "Obama promised not to give way on taxes, then he did. He had the winning hand, and folded. Another climbdown, another needless compromise." Instead, they went with, "See what happens when you refuse to deal? You win!"

I urge the president to follow the same approach going forward. Be more pragmatic. Make tactical concessions on inessentials. Show the GOP, in contrast, to be rigid and dogmatic. That will get the public on your side and help you win. But just remember to keep saying how tough you've become, how it's new rules, you've learned from your first term, and the days of trying to compromise with extremists are over. The party will lap that up.

Why didn't we think of this before?

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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