Winning Ugly

In a controversial interview with Newsweek as the 2008 presidential nominating fight heated up, historian Sean Wilentz dismissed Barack Obama with a memorable phrase: "beautiful loserdom." Like failed Democrats of the past, including high-minded reformers such as Adlai Stevenson and Bill Bradley, Obama wouldn't get his hands dirty. "You can't govern without politics," Wilentz warned. Pragmatic engagement and compromise were the only way to get things done.

How long ago that seems. Now Paul Krugman, like Wilentz an Obama skeptic of long standing, argues that the administration's political failures derive from an excess of pragmatism and compromise: "a strategy of playing it safe: never put forward proposals that might fail to pass, avoid highlighting the philosophical differences between the parties."

John Podesta, who headed the presidential transition, has said much the same thing: "By focusing on getting big legislative accomplishments ... they necessarily gave up a larger image of him as president." We've gone from losing beautifully to winning ugly -- victories that to many progressives seem inadequate to the problems at hand, but that also came at a considerable cost.

The interesting story here isn't some decision Obama got wrong. Rather, it's about what we got wrong -- and by "we," I mean, well, me and everyone else who had a more optimistic theory about how the first two years of the administration were likely to proceed. We expected that the post-partisan idealism that Wilentz derided could be coupled with a pragmatism that got the best of both. We expected that Obama's respectful relationship with this progressive-majority Congress would avoid the troubles that derailed other Democratic presidents, and that Obama's post-partisan stance would encourage just a few Republicans to break with the unyielding opposition the party displayed in 1993. More important, just as his presidential campaign had been based on a patient accumulation of small victories, Obama would gain strength through incremental legislative victories.

Needless to say, it hasn't quite turned out that way. Republican intransigence and Democratic fecklessness have been well chronicled. But the more troublesome error in the theory appeared only after those barriers were overcome. Obama's legislative victories, the most significant for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, began to seem like a burden rather than a source of future strength. The Obama presidency isn't over, but his theory of governing -- that change is possible by bridging partisan differences and enacting incremental policies that would pave the way for bigger proposals -- is defunct. What comes next?

Judged by its utility, Obama's bipartisan approach was not as naive as it now seems. It got him elected and was particularly important to younger voters who are notably put off by partisanship and incivility. Obama's good-faith effort to find common ground was also legislatively useful with wavering Democrats, especially those from red states, who wanted to be seen as moderates.

While the post-partisan posture had its uses, it also had a vulnerability. All it took to break Obama's brand was to deny his promise of changed politics. Once Republican obstruction began to have a political payoff, it was unstoppable. The public came to perceive health-care reform, which looked a lot like classic Republican proposals, as the fulfillment of a far-left wish list, and younger voters became disillusioned by the unchanging viciousness, narrowness, and corruption of congressional politics. While Obama struggled to keep that promise, it was not his promise to keep.

Being dragged into the mire of legislative governance -- endlessly compromising, explaining details, and making ugly deals -- taxes a presidency's transformative promise. But what's the alternative? Krugman's suggestion is to pick big ideological fights, draw sharp contrasts with opponents, and be unafraid to lose. All of that sounds satisfyingly tough-minded. Like any counterfactual history, it has the advantage of being untested. If Obama had insisted on an economic stimulus of $1.2 trillion or more, and lost, would he now be seen as the populist fighter who had the answer to the recession but got blocked by the evil Republicans? Or just as the hapless president who couldn't get a bill passed? There's a word for presidents who can't get legislation passed, and it's not "winner."

Many of the White House's political troubles can be entirely explained by the economy, of course, since they are exactly comparable to Ronald Reagan's unpopularity with similar levels of unemployment in 1982. But when the economy recovers, as it will, and his presidency regains its footing, Obama -- and we -- will need a whole new theory about how to make government work without losing the bigger vision.

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