Obama vs. Boehner: Point Guard and Linebacker

obama playing basketballObama dribbles across mid-court, fakes left, moves right, deftly avoids Boehner’s attempted steal, and goes in for a lay-up.  Boehner cuts him off at the knees, grabs the loose ball and runs it back for a touchdown.

There have been many recent attempts to figure out why Obama has done so poorly in negotiating with the Republicans in Congress.  Some see it as a strategy: if he willingly gives up his major priorities (like increasing taxes on the rich), he will be able to make the case in the campaign that he, and not the GOP, is willing to compromise for the good of the country, thereby appealing to the moderates.

Others see it as fulfilling one of his two contradictory campaign promises: he promised to restore bipartisan cooperation, even as he also pledged radical change.  The Affordable Care Act, watered down as it is, represents the high water mark of the latter pledge.  The debt ceiling deal showed Obama continually moving toward Republican positions, only to have the GOP pull back and up the ante.

A third current of thought sees Obama as a psychological cripple, unable to cope with intense conflict, always driven to seek compromise, even when the other side refuses to match his concessions.  From this perspective, Obama is just ill-suited by personality to operate in the present, hyper-polarized political environment.

There are elements of truth to all three hypotheses.  Clearly, the Obama White House took the 2010 election’s devastating results as a call to move to the center, a strategy that in conventional terms would seem to make sense, in light of the Republican stampede to the right.  Public opinion polls show that Obama’s policy positions consistently have more support than the GOP positions, while the Tea Party and the Republican Party come out of the debt ceiling debate in very poor shape.  Obama is not in good shape, but it hasn’t gotten much worse.

Obama really has succeeded in defining himself as a compromiser, at least in the eyes of independents and Democrats; Republicans still see him as a socialist, communist, radical totalitarian.  His Democratic base is deeply disillusioned with his compromises, but that’s because they heard his promises of radical change and thought the talk of compromise was just to get elected.  The liberal base thought he was one of them; they were wrong.

It really is striking how Obama’s first response to any opposition is to publicly offer to compromise.  He invested much time and effort in cultivating John Boehner, especially on the golf course.  Is there indeed some personality trait that drives him to accommodate and conciliate, even when the opposition won’t reciprocate?

john peelerThe parable with which I started may shed some light on this.  Obama may like golf, but his first athletic passion was basketball, a sport that is played with finesse, and that seeks to avoid physical contact.  Although in the modern game there is contact, in principle physical contact is a foul.  Suppose that he likes the sport in part because the emphasis on finesse and avoiding contact is congenial to his personality.  If so, basketball is a metaphor for his way of life.

The problem is that his opponents aren’t playing his game.  They’re playing football—and playing rough.  Good tactics would suggest that if they won’t play his game, he’d better beat them at theirs.  But it may not be in him.

John Peeler


  1. Joe Weinstein says

    This article, and comments to date, are the best kind: succinct and packed with valid points all. What we do with these points and comments is now the question, and can be discussed. Here is my take. (Likely some will agree and more will disagree.)

    In the short term, let’s try to keep the Senate Democratic and win back the House. For the White House let’s support a real Dem in primaries if such a candidate emerges. Let’s mightily encourage such a candidate to emerge: maybe some reader will dare to be such a candidate. I personally do not expect to vote for Obama in 2012 no matter what the Goppies do. If need be I will abstain or vote for an independent.

    For the longer term we must insist that this country move beyond the obsolete 18-th century republican concept (maybe progressive for its time, but hardly now) that adequate and even best-possible citizenship and government consists of voting in expensive but ephemeral mass popularity contests and otherwise delegating all public decisions to elites of long-term officers. Our present public decision-making (on law and policy) is neither democratic nor reasoned. It disregards two centuries of huge scientific advances, of huge advances in the standard of mass knowledge and education, and of huge population growth.

  2. Craig says

    If we were better organized, we could force him to the left but we have a candidate centered system where organized money trumps organized people. We should also have an issues based democratic discourse but our media system would not be serving their advertizers if it were an issue based media. We have a “no party” system , plenty of smart people but a low grade candidate centered democracy by many standards.

    • Gary Hundertmark says

      I agree with Craig.
      I’ve been attending so called progressive Democratic Clubs in the valley now for about 8 years. There are no issues committees. All the emphasis is on electing more Democrats. Considering how poorly the Democrats were on progressive issues even when they had a majority in both houses I find myself no wondering (now not secretly!), what for! My registration is still Democrat but I’ve now joined the Greens which makes me a dues paying member of 2 Democratic Party Clubs and the SFV Green Party. I’m keeping my options open.
      And! as another article on LAProgressive.com points out. Obama didn’t even campaign for Democrats in Wisconsin. Not a word. Even Bill Clinton campaigned for Democrats. Nearly every indication seems a sign that Obama is more interested in teaming up with the Republicans. The last 3 1/2 years have been a HUGE missed opportunity. It’s time to support left progressives of any party, Democrat, Green, Peace and Freedom or what ever. – Gary

  3. Gary Hundertmark says

    There is a 4th option about Pres. Obama’s political character, one that is obvious but like the elephant in the room is avoided in public discourse. Pres. Obama has very possibly been a Manchurian or stealth candidate all along. He is a right winger, managed and packaged from even before he was a senator to become the fascists mole in the White House. It’s a great cover, a beleaguered liberal President trying to negotiate with unwavering right wing Republicans, and failing. I don’t buy it. I think Pres. Obama is willfully advancing the goals of the financial markets industry and the right wing while trying to appear to be a compromiser. We are witnessing the removal of his mask. – Gary

    • U.S. Citizen says

      I tend to agree. FDR was called a traitor to his class and so is Obama; then, he changed classes. He may have been “of the people” but he is not “for the people”. Most of his economic positions are on the right so a move to a center would be a good thing. He is a Clinton corporatist who is contributing to the further corporatization of America and The Second Gilded Age. We need democracy, not corporatocracy.

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