Does he cave in to Republicans? Is Obama too bipartisan? He does offer compromise and avoid divisive rhetoric, but there are two possibilities.
- He sincerely tries to make peace and compromise but stands his ground.
- He just has no backbone and needlessly caves in.
Progressives try to figure out which describes the real Obama by listening to his words. And, those don’t sound tough, so they think he has no backbone. But what did Teddy say? “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” There are two reasons to speak softly, (1) strategy and (2) weakness. Let’s look beyond the surface to tell which is at play.
I say, there’s a damn good chance—not a certainty—that Obama’s bipartisanship is strategic, not weak.[F[I’m not saying his strategy always works, or is the right strategy. But there’s a big difference between saying your teammate has a bad strategy and saying he’s really playing for the other team. No one makes this mistake in sports, business or the military, but in politics and religion people often accuse others on their side of being traitors. This is a terrible mistake.]F] This doesn’t mean he’s deceptive. He really does think extremism is a bad thing, and he knows most Americans agree. So sincerely trying for bipartisanship is good strategy—most Americans are sick of extremism. It’s also what Obama believes. But he knows that when the extreme right blocks all progress, his bipartisan stance (his strategy) pays off.[F[Ezra Klein reports data showing that take a public position generally reduces a president’s chances of getting his way]F]
I say that’s Obama’s strategy (more or less), but how can I prove that? Strategies aren’t public. It’s simple. Compare Obama to Roosevelt, who progressives agree had a backbone and was not too bipartisan.
Who Caved In, Roosevelt or Obama?
Both have a signature piece of legislation: Social Security for Roosevelt, and Affordable Health Care for Obama. Who caved in? How do we tell? If you leave a lot of money on the table? You didn’t bargain hard—you caved in.[F[The actual votes are available here. Republicans voted for the bill 81 to 15 in the House and 16 to 5 in the Senate. Now, that’s bipartisan.]F]
In this case, money is votes. So let’s check who left more votes on the table. If you passed the most progressive bill you could, that means that had you pushed any further, you would not have had the votes to pass it. But, if what you care about is bipartisan support, then you’ll water down the bill to get as much support as possible from both parties. If you go for weak-kneed bipartisanship, we’ll find lots of votes left on the table. But not if you’ve got backbone.
So here’s how the two laws went down in Congress:
|Money Votes Left on the Table|
In other words Roosevelt could have had 16 Republicans and 9 Democrats defect in the Senate and still passed Social Security. In other words, Obama left nothing on the table, and Roosevelt left behind a record-breaking number of votes. The House passed it 365 to 30, and the Senate, 76 to 6.
So what didn’t Roosevelt have the backbone to fight for? What did he give up by going for all-out bipartisan passage? Most women and minorities were not covered because agricultural, domestic, and government workers, many teachers, and nurses, and hospital, library, and social workers were not covered. On top of that, benefits were paltry (this was later fixed), they were long-delayed in the middle of the depression, and it was financed with a regressive tax.
Obama fought hard and strategically for health care, because he cares about the poor. The conservatives understand this perfectly. Why progressives can’t see it is a mystery. But saying Obama has no spine (as my progressive friends say) and holding up Roosevelt for comparison is more than a little unkind. It’s delusional. In spite of this, I won’t make the mistake they make. Their intentions are are good; they’re not closet Republicans, and they haven’t gone over to the dark side. They just suffer from that age-old liberal depression which has dogged Roosevelt and every other Democratic president.
“The greatest fraud this country has ever known. An amusing and charming fellow but a man entirely without a conscience…. Roosevelt was the perfect politician.” —H.L. Mencken, The New York Sun, 5 June 1946.