Obama vs. Boehner:
Point Guard and Linebacker
Obama 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.
Maybe we can make sense of Obama’s failures as a negotiator by looking at the problem though the lens of sports, since it is well known that the President is an avid sportsman.
Serious people have made some seriously unsuccessful attempts to get a grip on this. 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. 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. But he still comes out looking pathetic, so if it’s a strategy, it has failed.
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. 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. But he can’t really walk away from his base and expect to win, so it’s hard to see how he would have done this intentionally.
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. 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?
The 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.