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For those of us who backed President Obama’s reelection, we can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief. But now comes the hard part. Given the continuing Republican control of the House of Representatives and the leading role of John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Paul Ryan, how does the president move the country forward? By principled compromise and exercising abundant political craftsmanship! That would be my answer. And President Obama has it within him to deliver this combination.

president obama

In past articles I have written of the president’s values, pragmatism, and political wisdom, but also recognized some of his failings. Although he correctly perceives that the proper aim of politics is furthering the common good and possesses many of the virtues and values of a politically wise leader, political wisdom also necessitates exercising skills and craftsmanship.

And it has been in this realm of action that Obama has sometimes failed. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has written that in the first Obama-Romney debate, the president was guilty of “indulging in flashes of petulance, self-pity and passivity at a treacherous moment for himself.” She believed that during the next month “he still didn’t have a vision” and “in some ways, the two rivals are alike: cold, deliberative fish, self-regarding elitists with upbringings out of the norm and trouble connecting at times.” I think she went too far, especially at a time when some Americans were still deciding for whom to vote. But she was not alone in complaining that Obama was sometimes without a vision and too cold, aloof, and passionless.

Dowd’s fellow New York Times columnist, conservative David Brooks, also wrote a pre-election op-ed about political craftsmanship that spoke indirectly to Obama’s need to exercise better leadership skills. He asked, “What sort of leader it would take to break through the partisan dysfunction and make Washington work?” Some of the points he made were pertinent here.

“First, it doesn’t take moderation. It’s important to distinguish between moderation and pragmatism. Ted Kennedy was nobody’s definition of a moderate, yet he had the ability to craft large and effective compromises on issues ranging from immigration to education and health care.” This is an important point: President Obama can be as liberal in his convictions as was Ted Kennedy and still engage in principled compromise. In his Profiles in Courage, Ted’s brother, JFK, while still a senator, wrote: “Some of my colleagues who are criticized today for lack of forthright principles—or who are looked upon with scornful eyes as compromising “politicians”—are simply engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion, an art essential to keeping our nation united and enabling our Government to function.” Obama has already given every indication he understands this lesson from the Kennedys. Whether all of his liberal supporters will accept the compromises necessary in the days ahead is another question.

Brooks also writes that the political “craftsman has to distinguish between existential issues and business issues” —or between principles and party politics—and that “98 percent of legislative conflicts are business issues.” The poet W. H. Auden once made a similar distinction when he wrote: “In a party issue, all parties are agreed as to the nature and justice of the social goal to be reached, but differ in their policies for reaching it. . . . On a party issue it is essential that passions be kept at a low temperature. . . . Rival deputies should be able to dine in each other’s houses; fanatics have no place in party politics.” Auden thought that what was “so terrifying and immeasurably depressing about most contemporary politics” was the failure to admit that most issues were party issues, “to be settled by appeal to facts and reason.”

Another Brooks’ view is that “the craftsman has to be socially promiscuous. Deal-making is about friendship. The craftsman has to work on relationships all day every day. It’s not enough to talk to your adversaries in negotiations. You have to talk to them when nothing is happening. You have to talk to them when they are up, when they are down. You have to celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays.” Obama has often been faulted for not being more of a back-slapping and baby-kissing politician, a schmoozer like Bill Clinton, and for associating mainly with only a close circle of friends. There is some truth in this charge, but it fails to make allowances for the differences in personalities. The president is cooler than hot, more cerebral than emotional, more an introvert than an extrovert, but not every good president has to be a natural-born schmoozer. And Obama has made efforts to reach out to Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner, with whom he played golf, attempting to build a better relationship. It would be good if he continues to push himself to reach out to Republicans.

Brooks believes that “Obama really wanted to move beyond stale battle lines. But he offered a conventional Democratic agenda. If you want to break the partisan stagnation, you have to come up with an unexpected policy agenda that will scramble the categories. You have to mix proposals from columns A and B.” I’m not so sure about the president only offering “a conventional Democratic agenda,” but it’s true that political craftsmanship involves coming up with creative compromise solutions, and that to be successful the president will need to do so.

Ignoring a few other skills that Brooks mentions, there is one more that it is important to consider. He states that “the craftsman has to betray his side. It is relatively easy to cut a deal with the leader of the other party. It is really hard to sell that deal to the rigid people in your own party. Therefore, the craftsman has to enter into a conspiracy with the other party’s leader in order to manipulate the party bases. The leaders have to invent stories so that each base thinks it has won.” While I understand Brooks’ point, “betray” is too strong a word, and it was not “relatively easy to cut a deal with the leader of the other party” when the president and Speaker Boehner came close to a “grand-bargain” debt deal in the summer of 2011 (see here for Matt Bai’s excellent article on it). But it is true that for Boehner it was “really hard to sell that deal to the rigid people” in his own party, which is the main reason the grand bargain died a quick death.

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One of the most pressing issues now facing the president is the approaching “fiscal cliff.” At the start of 2013 automatic tax increases (as Bush-era tax cuts expire) and spending cuts are scheduled to begin unless the president and Congress agree on a new compromise. And not only will ideologues on the Right reject some compromises that might have to be made, so too will some on the Left. In advocating principled compromise, I realize how difficult it is and that many of us on the Left will disagree about which compromises are necessary. But some certainly are, and some political compromise is what the vast majority of Americans want.

In one of his pre-election speeches in Ohio the president said he wanted to see more cooperation in Washington. But “if the price of peace in Washington is cutting deals” to reduce student financial aid, slashing federal dollars for Planned Parenthood or eliminating Medicaid coverage for millions of poor and disabled people, then, he added, “that’s not a price I’ll pay.”

The president understands principled compromise, and we can only hope that Republican legislators, now more sobered by the election, understand it also. Like many on the Left, I blame the Washington gridlock of recent years mainly on Republican ideologues. But I also believe that during his remaining years in office, the president can display better political craftsmanship than he has to date, and thus increase the chances for meaningful and legitimate compromise.

Since it takes two sides to achieve this, however, there are still other political skills the president can demonstrate. He can articulate better than he has heretofore a compelling vision of the future that will energize more Americans, including many who did not vote for him. He must become more than ever the “persuader-in-chief.” It is scandalous, for example, that so many people in our country still deny human-caused climate change and global warming. He must do more to change minds. The passion he sometimes displays, but often does not, must become more consistent in behalf of noble causes, not only in regard to the environment, but also in such battles as lessening poverty, human rights violations, nuclear proliferation, and the disproportionate incarceration of so many black men for minor drug offenses. The more he can persuade people of the justice and wisdom of his views, the more pressure it will be possible to place on Congress. He has demonstrated that he can organize a masterful political campaign; perhaps he can now also foster more citizens’ groups that will help him pressure Congress to work more for the common good, as opposed to just special interests.

As desirable as Congressional cooperation is, there is still much the president can do, even in the face of an obstructionist Republican-led House of Representatives. In regard to foreign and military policy, he has great powers, and we will need his wisdom in dealing with such issues as Iran’s developing nuclear capability. But even regarding domestic policies, he can accomplish much by the creative and imaginative use of the clout he possesses. One example was his announcement in mid-June 2012 that the government would no longer deport certain illegal immigrants who came to the USA as children, but that they could instead apply for temporary relief (“deferred action”).

In March 2012, James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic that “Obama has shown the main trait we can hope for in a president—an ability to grow and adapt.” I agree and it sustains my hope that the president’s political and leadership skills will continue to develop, that he will become an even better second-term president than he was during his first term.

walter moss

Walter Moss

During his election-night victory speech, the president said “I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.” He spoke of the need for “courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.” Good advice for all of us. But the president himself also needs to exercise these qualities in abundance during the next four years.

Walter Moss

Posted: Thursday, 8 November 2012