What We Talk About When We Talk About Obama

In The Audacity of Hope, the book Barack Obama penned in advance of his presidential campaign (as all good candidates do these days), he was rather candid about his political image. "I'm new enough on the national political scene," he wrote, "that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them." As Obama takes the oath of office, he can no longer benefit from people simply assuming he agrees with them. Instead of talking about what he might do with power, as of today he will actually wield it.

In the months since he won the Democratic nomination, a series of images of Obama have been constructed by his admirers and foes, assembled out of bits and pieces of reality. Out of an offhand statement here, a policy proposal there, and mostly the observer's own hunches, hopes, and fears, they offer radically different interpretations of the man whom as of today we can finally stop calling "president-elect."

So will Obama be the president of your dreams? Will he betray you and leave you heartbroken? Or will it be somewhere in between? Let's look at some of the varying Obamas people have been excited or troubled by in recent months:

Obama the secret socialist.
This Obama is all feints to the center and unifying rhetoric, hiding a secret radical core. In this view, Obama has the heart of a European social democrat; he dreams of big-government solutions to problems and longs to turn America into another Sweden, where every kid gets government-sponsored day care, birth control is available to all, and the means of production are swiftly moved into government's hands. Sure, adherents to this version believe, he may say nice things about capitalism and "reach out" to conservatives, but he's only doing it so he can smooth the way for his radical remaking of America.

When you start looking for concrete evidence that this Obama is the true one, it's awfully hard to find. If during the campaign you waded through the pages and pages of policy proposals on his Web site, you would have found a candidate more progressive in some ways than his predecessors John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton, but more centrist in many ways than most of his primary opponents. In other words, Obama seems like a politician with progressive impulses, a keen understanding of the political opportunities a particular moment provides, and the discipline to balance the two.

Interestingly enough, the idea that Obama is secretly much further to the left than his public statements and positions would suggest is shared by both his most unhinged opponents on the right and some of his most starry-eyed supporters on the left. The conservatives can't stand him, so they conclude he must be as far from them ideologically as he could be. The liberals love everything about him -- his rhetorical skill, his intellect and thoughtfulness, the fact that he made them feel as if they are in the country's majority -- so they conclude that in his heart of hearts he must see the world exactly as they do. Try asking both a conservative evangelical and a liberal atheist whether each one thinks Obama is really a believing Christian, or whether he goes through the motions because he figured out a long time ago he'd never get anywhere in politics without seeming religious. You'll get the same answer from each one.

Obama the compulsive compromiser.
This is the Obama of liberals' fears, the one who not only believes everything he says about getting beyond partisanship but will actually turn his back on progressive ideals in order to win over conservatives. It's the one who appoints a Cabinet stocked with centrists. It's the one who goes to a dinner party at George Will's house with a bunch of conservative commentators, even going so far as to say nice things to the buffoonish Larry Kudlow.

Everyone realizes the political utility of massaging the massive egos of the talking heads who will probably spend the next eight years accusing Obama of foul thoughts and malevolent deeds. But the real question is not whether Obama will aim his considerable personal charm at his political opponents but whether he will make compromises on fundamental matters of substance, whether he will adopt the conservative perspective instead of challenging it.

Progressives have found some reasons to worry on this score. For instance, last week, Obama told the Washington Post that he would hold a "fiscal responsibility summit" to find ways to not spend so much on the big entitlements, i.e. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But prophesies of fiscal doom have long been a cover for conservative ideological opposition to the idea that government should be doing things like supporting the elderly and giving medical care to the poor. Furthermore, each of these programs face a different future. Ballooning Medicare costs are a real problem; the health of Social Security is not. (Without going into it too deeply, I will just say this: There is no Social Security crisis. The system is doing just fine. We'll discuss it another time.) Obama might seem to be accepting the conservative terms of debate on the entitlement issue.

The compulsive compromiser of liberal fears is the one who will go wobbly on the Employee Free Choice Act when it runs into opposition from big corporations, which will put off finally allowing gay Americans to serve in the military for who knows how long, who adds almost useless tax cuts to his economic stimulus, all because he would rather avoid a fight with the right than stand up for progressive values.

Is this the real Obama? That some of these things have happened is true (and whether the others will happen, we'll have to wait and see). But what is less certain is why Obama has done them. Which leads us to the final vision of our new president:

Obama the master strategist.
This Obama is deftly manipulating his opponents, making them believe he has given them something when he hasn't, positioning them as the opponents of bipartisanship and sensible, pragmatic reform if they object, beguiling them with dinners and consultations and the warm feeling that comes from being listened to, until real progressive change has happened and they barely knew what hit them. When he dines with George Will and Bill Kristol, he's co-opting them, muting their future criticisms with a friendly meal and some stimulating conversation – something that costs Obama nothing save a couple of hours of his time.

There are good reasons to believe that this is the real Obama. We have witnessed something odd in the last few weeks: Republicans praising an incoming Democratic president and his aides for the degree to which they are reaching out and respectfully listening to what the opposition has to say. "I've had Republican senators say they've had more conversations with Barack Obama in the past couple of weeks than they did with George Bush in a couple years," said conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. "So far the change in tone has been remarkable." It doesn't mean that these Republicans are going to start rethinking their opposition to the Democratic agenda. But it may just mean that at critical points in the future, obstructionism might be muted or a few votes might be peeled off here or there to pass important pieces of progressive legislation.

There's a theory at work here, one that has demonstrated success in similar situations. Journals of law and management are filled with studies demonstrating the importance of procedural fairness -- whether the system treated you fairly and respectfully in your lawsuit or workplace grievance. You might think that how people feel about their interaction with an institution like the courts is determined by whether they won or lost their case. But in fact, the perception of procedural fairness is often more important in determining whether people emerge resentful or reassured. Although the analogy may not be perfect, when Obama reaches out to Republicans, he's trying to create the perception of procedural fairness. They may not agree with him, but if they feel like he's treated them fairly and respectfully in the process, their opposition is far less likely to turn into the eight years of scorched-earth warfare we saw during the Clinton administration. And every day the Obama administration doesn't have to spend fending off absurd attacks is a day it can spend getting things accomplished.

Obama has understood this from early in his life. In fact, at every point of his career, beginning when he won the support of both conservatives and liberals to be elected to run the Harvard Law Review, he has vaulted ahead on his ability to make people on every side of a controversy believe he understood and appreciated their concerns and would deal with them fairly. So when Mitch McConnell comes before the cameras and praises Obama's inclusiveness, one of two things has just happened. Either Obama has given up the store, or he just played McConnell like a violin. And so far it doesn't look like he's given up the store.

A month ago, I wrote that Obama was likely to pursue policies as progressive as the moment will allow -- but that he will likely always present them as pragmatic and post-partisan. As I write this, Obama has yet to deliver his inaugural address. But let me go out on a limb and say that it will seek to foster unity among all Americans, paying homage to progressive values but in a way that seeks to convince conservatives that they too can be a part of the enterprise he now begins. I can also predict that for all its beckoning across the aisle, Obama's speech will make progressives wipe a tear of joy and inspiration from their eyes, as one of their own at last becomes the most powerful man on Earth. It is his desire to do both that seems like it will define his presidency. But it's only the first day. 

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