The Great Mystery of the Obama Presidency

Walter Russell Mead argues that the Obama presidency needs a reset. He argues that Obama's instinct to split the difference keeps getting him the worst of both worlds: his allies feel let down, and his opponents are unappeased and press for more.

This repeated lunge for the sour spot -- the place where costs are high and benefits are low -- now seems to be a trademark of the President's decision-making style. On the left it is earning him Carter comparisons from people like Eric Alterman; on the right it means that despite his compromises and yielding of significant ground he continues to feed the incandescent hostility of his bitterest foes. Worst of all, it suggests to people abroad and at home that the way to manipulate this "split the difference", consensus-seeking President is to raise your demands. If you are going to get something like 50 percent of what you ask for, ask for twice as much as you really want. And with this Presidential style, the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Not surprisingly, all the wheels have begun to squeak.

Here is the paradox we face: The President is a consensus-seeker whose decision making style rewards polarization and a conciliator who loses friends without winning over enemies.

I agree with most of what Mead says in his long and thoughtful post, and I have been arguing along similar lines myself, but still I think his summing up is not quite right and there is a simpler way of putting it. Obama has not really been a consensus-seeker. Rather, he has acquiesced in compromise when he had to. Think the stimulus, health-care reform, the post-midterm tax deal, the new posture on the budget. The difference between leading the country to compromise and putting up with compromise when he has to is crucial. Obama has consistently failed to champion, before the fact and often even after the fact, the kind of agreements that he should have known at the outset were bound to be necessary. He stands aside, which diminishes him. And he gets no credit for the outcome, even when the outcome (as in those four cases) is nothing to be ashamed of.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

The problem (as Mead in fact agrees) is not that Obama splits the difference. Presidents have no choice but to do that. And it is not (contra Mead) that Obama's particular compromises have in some way been systematically malformed. The problem is that basically good outcomes have lacked an early authoritative champion. Instead they have just emerged from an ugly political process that leaves the public thinking, "What a mess, what a failure, can't somebody take charge?" This was Clinton's strength, by the way. At critical points, he saw which way things were moving--the form of the compromise that would eventually have to be struck--and got in front of it.

Obama's consistent failure to do this not only leaves him looking weak and at the mercy of larger political forces. Sometimes, it also means that valuable opportunities are missed. Budget policy is the clearest instance. Bowles-Simpson, acting on the president's instructions, mapped out an intelligent course of action on long term deficit control. Obama failed to embrace it, and instead (maybe) is now being backed into it. If he had pressed early and hard for long term deficit reduction, he would not only have looked in command, he could also have advocated a bigger and bolder stimulus in the short term, which the economy could use.

What about the view that if Obama proposed compromise up-front, the Republicans would shift him just as far regardless--so he has to start well to the left of where he expects to end up? I see the logic, of course, but I don't buy it. I think it underestimates the power of Obama's advocacy, if he actually chose to deploy it in defense of sound, centrist positions. Obama's power of persuasion is no figment of the imagination. It got him elected and inspired the country when it needed a little inspiration. Now the country needs a little leadership. Why set the value of his talent at zero when it comes to governing, as opposed to campaigning? Yet this is what he has done. It is the great mystery of the Obama presidency.