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Why Obama Needs to Change to Win

Playing chess isn’t enough. He has to tell us what he’s fighting for


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Last week I wrote about four major magazine articles evaluating Barack Obama’s success and future prospects as president. “How He Fumbled, Why He’s Recovering,” we called it, and the stories all narrated Obama’s typically serpentine ideological course: First he strikes positions designed to be conciliatory toward Republicans, then finds them utterly uninterested in conciliation – at which point, as Andrew Sullivan puts it, he swings to a “position of moderate liberalism and fights for it.” The four pieces divided mainly in how they assessed Obama’s strategic acumen. Sullivan thinks the president has charted a deliberate course that’s achieved staggering change. James Fallows, Noam Scheiber, and Ryan Lizza explain Obama’s achievements as the accidental product of executive inexperience – with Scheiber describing the president’s approach as fraught with danger: “Sooner or later,” he writes, “Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour.”

Jim Fallows calls this debate over whether Obama is a chess master or a chess pawn the “central mystery of his performance as a candidate and a president.” Let’s say today, for the sake of this argument, that Obama has been a master; let’s grant, per Andrew Sullivan, that the president has played his opponents for fools, over and over again, and in so doing has bent the world to his will as much as any president can.

Let’s also allow, with Sullivan, that the Republican Party has gone ’round the bend with extremism, that their turn in power during the first years of the milennium harmed our nation grievously, and that their vision for the country must be opposed and rejected if America is to get back on course.

Here’s the problem: Even if Obamaism works on its own terms – that is, if Sullivan is right that Obama’s presidency is precisely on course – it can’t stop Republicans from wrecking the country. Instead, it may end up abetting them.

To understand why, let’s look at Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama has famously cited him as a role model for how transformative a president can be. Well, what did he transform, and how did he do it? Here’s how: He planted an ideological flag. From the start, he relentlessly identified America’s malaise with a villain, one that had a name, or two names – liberalism, the Democratic Party – and a face – that of James Earl Carter. Reagan’s argument was, on its face, absurd. For all Carter’s stumbles as president, the economic crisis he inherited had been incubated under two Republican presidents, Nixon and Ford (see this historical masterpiece for an account of Nixon’s role in wrecking the economy), and via a war in Vietnam that Reagan had supported and celebrated. What’s more, to arrest the economy’s slide, Jimmy Carter did something rather heroic and self-sacrificing, well summarized here: He appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chairman with a mandate to squeeze the money supply, which induced the recession that helped defeat Carter – as Carter knew it might – but which also slayed the inflation dragon and, by 1983-84, long after Carter had lost to Reagan, saved the economy.

In office, Reagan, on the level of policy, endorsed Carter’s economics by reappointing Volcker. But on the level of politics, in one of the greatest acts of broad-gauged mendacity in presidential history, he blamed Carter for the economic failure, tied that failure to liberal ideology and its supposed embrace of “big government” (Carter in fact took on big government), and gave conservatism credit for every success. Deregulation and supply-side tax-cuts brought us “morning in America,” he said. That was bullshit, but it won him a reelection landslide against Walter Mondale, Carter’s VP, whom he labeled  “Vice President Malaise.”

What’s the lesson? It’s not that you have to lie – Republicans had to do that to win, but Democrats don’t. No, Democrats, in 2009, could simply have told the truth, and called it hell. The truth was this: For the first few years of this new century, America had ventured upon a natural experiment not attempted since the 1920s – governing the country with conservatives in control of all three branches of government. The result, of course, was – smoking ruins. Everybody knew it. A majority of Americans was receptive to “liberal solutions,” and even conservatives knew it – which was why, after Obama delivered his February 24, 2009 speech defending the stimulus that, as I noted last week, got a 92 percent approval rating, and Bobby Jindal responded to it by excoriating the $140 million in stimulus spending “for something called ‘volcano’ monitoring,” David Brooks said his “stale, government-is-the-problem, you can’t trust the government” rhetoric was “a disaster for the Republican Party.”

Barack Obama knew it too. He just wouldn’t say it. He refused to criticize right-wing ideology. Or to make a full-throated case that Democrats offered an ideological alternative.

Instead, his favorite campaign line on the Republican record was a story about competence: The Republicans “drove the country into the ditch,” and “now they want the keys back.” But Republicans aren’t bad drivers; they drive exactly where they want to go, pedal to the metal. Sure, they sometimes compromise on tactics – certainly Reagan did. But he, and they, never waver on strategic aims. They plant their flag in an uncompromising position, and wait for the world to come around – which, quite often, it eventually does. This is because in a media environment based on the ideology of “balance,” in which anything one of the parties insists upon must be given equal weight to whatever the other party says back, the party that plants its ideological flag further from the center makes the center move. And that is how America changes. You set the stage for future changes by shifting the rhetoric of the present.

This pattern is widely misunderstood by analysts. Republicans striking conservative positions are interpreted as “pleasing the base.” But this isn’t the main thing they’re trying to do. Much more so, such moves are aimed at shifting the way even those who don’t pay attention to politics — actually, especially those who don’t pay attention to politics: “independents,” “swing voters,” etc. — understand the world. William Rusher, the National Review publisher and conservative movement activist who died last year, once said that the greatest power in politics is “the power to define reality.” Obama never attempts that. Instead, he ratifies his opponent’s reality, by folding it into his original negotiating position. And since the opponent’s preferred position is always further out than his own, even a “successful” compromise ends up with the reality looking more like the one the Republicans prefer. A compromise serves to legitimize.

The recent contraception fight is a perfect example. The Obama administration announces that religious employers can’t claim exemption from paying for their female employees’ contraception. Catholic bishops go berserk: it’s a violation, they say, of their church’s “religious liberty.” Two weeks later, Obama offers his compromise: these employees will still get their contraception, only now insurance companies would pay for it, which they would be glad to do, because contraception (as opposed to childbirth) saves them money.

Many progressives counted the outcome as a victory – and, by the logic Andrew Sullivan proposes, it was precisely that.  Obama had “punked” the GOP on contraception,  delivered a “knockout punch,” according to the outstanding and tough-minded feminist commentator Amanda Marcotte: “[Obama] drew this out for two weeks,” she wrote, “letting Republicans work themselves into a frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric,  all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty, and then created a compromise that addressed their purported concern but without actually reducing women’s access to contraception …. With the fig leaf of religious liberty removed, Republicans are in a bad situation. They can either drop this and slink away, knowing they’ve been punked, or they can double down. But in order to do so, they’ll have to be more blatantly anti-contraception, a politically toxic move in a country where [according to this study] 99% of women have used contraception.”

But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, given an inch, conservatives are taking a mile.

Yes, they’re doubling down. Professional buffoon and Catholic League head Bill Donahue called the compromise “the most serious infringement by the federal government on the rights of Catholics and others in 200 years.” Obama was “adding insult to injury. He must think the Catholics are stupid.” Catholic bishops backtracked from their original position that the compromise was a “first step in the right direction,” and now call for outright reversal. “I think that our First Amendment religious rights are far too precious to be entrusted to regulatory rules,” one bishop said. A hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the contraception coverage rule didn’t invite any women to testify because, after all, as Senator Mitch McConnell said, “This is about freedom of religion, it’s right there in the First Amendment. You can’t miss it – right there in the very first amendment to our Constitution.” They were not being rigid, President Obama was – “rigid in his view that he gets to decide what somebody else’s religion is.” Then came Rep. Roy Blunt’s plan to allow any employer, whether at a religious institution or not, to deny their employees contraception as part of their healthcare plan simply by stating a religious objection; Sen. Marco Rubio’s version of the proposal would take away family planning coverage from Medicaid.

Imagine, as a parallel, your Quaker boss being able to hold back the percentage of payroll taxes. You can’t imagine it – not least because it would take a left-winger to propose that, and what this fight is also ultimately about is a value only a right-winger can endorse – as the blogger Digby puts it, expanding the concept of “liberty” to one where “any elite property owner whether religious or simply wealthy [can] opt out of community responsibility whenever it threatens their hegemony in their ‘private’ sphere.”

Objectively, this stuff is insanely extreme. But it is not being reported as extreme. That’s the point. Instead, the media, doing what the media does, is merely reporting it as one pole in an ongoing, organic debate. Contraception is now “controversial.” It will remain so, forever and ever; these things never go back – any more than progressive gains like the desegregation of public accommodations, when they’re won by planting an ideological flag firmly and not budging, ever go back. This is how the country changes. The blogger Gaius Publicus is right: “What was just a few weeks ago was considered so mainstream as to [be] an afterthought (providing contraception) is now seen as some sort of controversial touchstone, even as ‘religious freedom’ has become a buzzword in the press.” Which was the religious right’s plan all along – ever since they crafted a “Manhattan Declaration” to recast the extreme moral strictures they want to impose on the rest of the nation as accommodation of their “religious liberty.”

The annals of right-wing strategizing are full of long-range documents plotting shifts in the common sense of once-settled issues. The Discovery Institute’s secret “Wedge Document” outlined a strategy to rebrand Biblical creationism as a “scientific” debate over “Intelligent Design,” with the hidden goal of “replac[ing] materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” The Cato Institute’s “Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy” (pdf) worked similar mojo for Social Security – plotting long-term rhetorical methods to, as the document put it, “cast doubt on the picture of reality [that the coalition supporting Social Security] presents to the general public.”

That’s the game: Conservatives recast the global perception of something they despise, and the rest of us take for granted as plain progress, as a bubbling cauldron of “controversy.” Which allows them, in the fullness of time, to get policy makers on board to take the risk to change the laws in the way they prefer.

This is precisely what has happened with abortion. American views on whether it should be illegal have held steady for 35 years – but that hasn’t kept states from passing a record number of abortion restrictions this year – 100, where the previous record was 35. Manifestly, Republicans have become more blatantly anti-abortion, and yet somehow, despite their defiance of public opinion, they still get elected. Such strategies rely on their presumption that their Democratic opponents won’t plant an ideological flag but instead, like good liberals who don’t know to take their own side in an argument, will seek accommodation.

Right-wing change relies on leadership like that – Democrats who don’t plant a flag, who refuse to render the bad guys “controversial,’ and who never stake their claim on apparently “insane” ideas of their own – like proposals to pass a federal law desegregating public accommodations.

And resolute sanity? It can help manage a country just fine. It just cannot change it much. For that, Obama can’t just try to play chess. He has to tell us the direction he wants the country to go.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

Also by Rick Perlstein
Romney and Son: What Mitt Learned from his Dad
Why Newt Gingrich’s Greatest Triumph Was Founded on a Scam
• Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Doesn’t Matter
Ronald Reagan: Welfare Queen of Montana (or: Tax Tips for Mitt Romney)”
Obama at Halftime: How He Fumbled, Why He’s Recovering


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