Is Obama Deluded About the GOP? A Response to Rick Perlstein

Even if the President thinks his opposition is insane, he's understandably reluctant to say so out loud.

By Nathan Pippenger

Yesterday, I argued that Rick Perlstein’s reading advice for President Obama was off the mark. (To be more specific, actually, I said the reasoning behind it was off the mark. The suggestion itself was quite good.) Pace Perlstein, I don’t see Obama as an optimistic naif whose tragic flaw is an undue faith in the power of his own reason. Perlstein gamely takes to the comments section to rebut me:

The fact that you’re right about how he views global politics–acknowledging its irrationality–makes it all the more tragic he doesn’t grasp it on the level of domestic politics.

I appreciate this response—first, because I think it’s an issue that deserves more discussion, and second, because replying to it allows me to expand on something I mostly left out of yesterday’s post. I do think the story is more straightforward when it comes to global politics, but to give Perlstein’s theory its due, I want to consider two possible ways of narrating Obama’s behavior in the context of domestic politics.

The first is that Obama genuinely sees Republicans as not only having equally good claims to democratic legitimacy, but also deserving (on that basis) a say in governance. Now, the Congressional GOP has more than its share of cretins, but that’s not constitutionally disqualifying. In his Times interview, Perlstein claimed Obama’s “tragic flaw” is that he “still seems to stubbornly believe that if he just explains clearly and calmly enough to his friends across the aisle why his ideas will bring the greatest good to the greatest number, there’ll finally be no more Red America and no more Blue America.”

Now, Obama likely believes one of two things about the “Red America-Blue America” divide against which he launched his career in national politics: either it’s an incorrect way of describing the country (in which case it can simply be proven wrong), or it’s a sad, but fixable, state of affairs (in which case it can be overcome). In either case, a good-faith outreach to the opposition is a necessary, if not sufficient, step in either transcending the red-blue divide or demonstrating its phoniness. Another way of seeing this is that Obama (rightly) imagines himself as the occupant of an office that’s accountable to all Americans, and the least he can do is make an effort to be reasonable to his opponents.

That said: good-faith outreach must be responded to in kind, and no norms of democratic politics require the President to persist in naïve outreach while the opposition indulges in nihilism and bad faith. The egregious Republican abuse of the filibuster amounted to procedural sabotage, and their terrifying bargaining over the debt ceiling came close to outright economic sabotage. The second way of narrating Obama’s behavior, then, imposes a timeline on the first narrative: sometime after the disastrous summer of 2011, when Obama foolishly legitimized Republican brinksmanship by agreeing to negotiate over the debt ceiling, he came to his senses and resolved not to do so again. Perhaps realizing that this was the nadir of his presidency—and the limits of acceptable accommodation of his loony, nihilistic opponents—Obama entered a new phase.

The crucial element of this new phase is simple: how much of its remaining agenda can the Administration achieve without being stymied by Congress? The Administration’s major initiatives to bypass the Congressional GOP have noticeably proliferated after the summer of 2011: in June 2012, an executive action granting relief to DREAMers; in autumn 2013, a weakening of filibuster rules that has allowed Obama to fill many judicial vacancies; in June 2014, aggressive new EPA rules on power plant emissions; in August, an attempt to make an international climate deal without passing a new treaty.

Whatever their other shortcomings, these new steps on immigration, the judiciary, and climate—three areas in which the GOP had consistently blocked the president’s path—at least suggest that Obama is no longer seduced by the power of his own reasonableness. Actually, given the legislative accomplishments of his first term (the stimulus, the ACA, Dodd-Frank), I think there’s a good case to be made that Obama has never been held back (at least not tragically so) by delusions about the rationality of his opposition. Either way, events since 2011—the GOP takeover of the House and the subsequent debt ceiling fiasco—clearly mark a new period in this Administration, one in which Obama has been comfortable to advance his agenda without being hamstrung by any illusions about reaching chummy agreement with the opposition. If Obama ever believed in the power of his own reason to sway Republicans, he’s certainly given up on it now.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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