Andrew Sullivan wrote a spectacular cover-story for Newsweek about the president’s achievements (both liberal and conservative). Mainly, Sullivan underscores something I’ve been trying to outline here for some time now. President Obama’s strategic planning and, specifically, the roll-out of his agenda, is a long term process that requires us to not miss “the screen for the pixels.”
Briefly, the essay outlines the following premise: the president isn’t the pre-apocalyptic end of all things, as many far-right conservatives contend, and he’s not a traitor to liberal values or a continuation of the Bush presidency (Sullivan calls Bush “a tongue-tied dauphin”), as many liberal critics contend. Instead, he’s a long-term planner who understands how to get things done despite unprecedented divisiveness.
What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for. And so I railed against him for the better part of two years for dragging his feet on gay issues. But what he was doing was getting his Republican defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to move before he did. The man who made the case for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was, in the end, Adm. Mike Mullen. This took time—as did his painstaking change in the rule barring HIV-positive immigrants and tourists—but the slow and deliberate and unprovocative manner in which it was accomplished made the changes more durable. Not for the first time, I realized that to understand Obama, you have to take the long view. Because he does.
The strategy is both complicated and, if you recall how achievements have unfolded, obvious. And here it is:
To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider. This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself, or willing to let others to define him, or simply weak. I remember those stretches during the campaign against Hillary Clinton. I also remember whose strategy won out in the end.
This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game. He did this with his own party over health-care reform. He has done it with the Republicans over the debt. He has done it with the Israeli government over stopping the settlements on the West Bank—and with the Iranian regime, by not playing into their hands during the Green Revolution, even as they gunned innocents down in the streets. Nothing in his first term—including the complicated multiyear rollout of universal health care—can be understood if you do not realize that Obama was always planning for eight years, not four. And if he is reelected, he will have won a battle more important than 2008: for it will be a mandate for an eight-year shift away from the excesses of inequality, overreach abroad, and reckless deficit spending of the last three decades. It will recapitalize him to entrench what he has done already and make it irreversible.
Even his conservative-leaning spending cuts, which I have loudly opposed here, will allow future spending on liberal goals, according to the president himself, like infrastructure and continued advancement of green energy.
If I sound biased, that’s because I am. Biased toward the actual record, not the spin; biased toward a president who has conducted himself with grace and calm under incredible pressure, who has had to manage crises not seen since the Second World War and the Depression, and who as yet has not had a single significant scandal to his name.
Of course Sullivan continues to repeat the myth that the NDAA authorizes indefinite detention of U.S. citizens when, in fact, it simply does not ban it. There’s a difference, and, as I’ve written before, if we want an explicit ban on indefinite detention of citizens, as I do, contact your member of Congress or make a rational case for such a ban to the White House. I assure you, a liberal president will listen to a reasonable argument from liberals (on the other hand, a paleoconservative who’s locked into a fictitious ideology, like Ron Paul, will not). The president has done so before, and he will act. Steve Benen, for example, wrote a measured and rational memorandum to the White House during the healthcare reform debate and some of Benen’s strategic advice was adopted by the administration. Often overlooked, the White House website has a petition system and they’ve acted according to the results. SOPA was abandoned as part of this process.
We can convince him to do some of the things we want by taking a long-view approach as well. Convince your neighbors door-to-door, lobby your member of Congress and write to the president (on your blog, on your Facebook, or start a petition). Make him do it in a way that doesn’t sound like the ravings of a screeching contrarian.