Theory of Change at Year One

This month marks not just the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration but two years since those intense weeks of the Democratic nominating process in 2008, when Obama emerged as the likely nominee. What was Obama selling? How did he build his coalition? What did we expect when he took office? And how have those expectations worked out in practice?

Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the Prospect discuss Obama at year one.

Rick Perlstein:
I began the 2007-2008 campaign season with little faith that Barack Obama was the person to do reinvigorate the left. Coming to what I thought was political maturity over the last decade in and through the rise of the progressive sensibility known as the "netroots," and grounding so much of my sense of how America got to be the way it is through my study of the rise of the right, I thought I knew what a successful progressive president had to look like: John Edwards. He was, quite frankly, my guy.

Put aside for a moment what we now know about the man and his campaign; during the primaries, I thought he was telling the story that needed to be told, giving an accurate, clear picture of the forces wrecking the middle class; delivering a blunt message about what kind of fight -- fight! fight! fight! -- it would take to beat them. I watched his early-'08 defeats with disappointment, but not too much; both Obama and Hillary Clinton seemed to me honorable and able politicians and what's more, increasingly, ones telling Edwards' story: Malefactors of great wealth in the grip of an anti-social economic philosophy were stealing your American birthright.

Mark Schmitt:
In retrospect, for those of us who were steeped in the netroots sensibility on the left, as both of us were, it's kind of astonishing that the fulfillment of the four- or five-year project of progressive renascence would be a figure like Obama and his distinctive language of reconciliation. What we all learned from the Bush years -- and this includes those like myself who needed to unlearn the assumptions of a more genial era in politics and government, as well as the younger bloggers whose engagement began with the 2000 recount or the Iraq War -- was that there was no center in American politics, that the right wasn't looking for compromise but, as one writer on the blog said, "the final showdown with the Dems."

A figure like Edwards, who seems to have absorbed the insights that we all took from the "Off Center" period, would have made much more sense as the progressive standard-bearer. (We're talking about a hypothetical John Edwards here, the kind of pseudonymous character that pollsters sometimes create to quietly test a candidate's appeal, not the actual John Edwards, a moral monster who would have cost the Democrats everything had he won the nomination or his bargain for the vice presidency.) The netroots would be expected to produce a candidate like Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer or Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who, ironically, are not all that progressive in their policy positions but have the "fighting Dem" attitude and a dash of economic populism. And Clinton made sense as a figure from the more traditional Democratic world -- she was surely compromised but at least understood the fight ahead and that the mere magic of some nice speeches and a welcoming hand would not make it go away.

But instead, Obama appeared, and both those who were looking for the fight and those who weren't eventually joined a broad coalition. So Obama's "theory of change" I suggested in my December 2007 essay succeeded on the most basic level -- it attracted a breadth of coalition and changed the electoral map in a way that neither "John Edwards" nor Clinton would have been able to do. And the enthusiasm and engagement that Obama generated among young people was directly related to his open, bipartisan tone -- polls show consistently that young voters see partisanship as something that turns them off from politics and are looking for a more conciliatory, unifying attitude. A "fighting Dem" wasn't exactly what most of those hundreds of thousands gathered in Grant Park on election night were looking for.

I changed my mind about Obama on August 28, 2008. That day, at the stadium in Denver, the man who stole the show from every speaker but Obama was a working-class Midwesterner named Barney Smith, who brought the house down relating how he had switched from Republican to Democratic because he was sick of politicians who were only for "Smith Barney." Smith set the table marvelously for Obama's resounding rebuke of a failed conservatism: "America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this."

It felt to me -- dare I say it? -- a liberal speech.

And here was the best part: Patrick Buchanan's MSNBC review immediately afterward: "This came out of the heart of America. … It was beautiful. ... It wasn't a liberal speech." That put me in mind of my favorite rhetorical flourish of Ronald Reagan's: "There is no left or right. There is only up or down." If Obama can take liberalism and make it sound neither left nor right but merely the way up instead of the way down: Viva Obama.

Yes, that was the key: Recognizing that Obama's language of bipartisan reconciliation and collaboration, of finding common ground on national goals, was not, I argued, an indication that he was less progressive or naive about the reality of the opposition. Rather, the difference among Edwards, Clinton, and Obama was in their mostly implicit theories of how to achieve change. Obama's theory was at least as plausible as Edwards' "fight" or Clinton's "work." It was the community organizer's theory -- get everyone to the table, define the problem, and people will either defect or get to work. Obama was probably not naive about the reality that Republicans would reject that invitation or take it in bad faith, but there are many situations in which treating people as if they are operating in good faith is the best overall strategy. As you say, it echoes Reagan's "There is no left or right" (when he knew damn well there was), but also Jefferson's inaugural line, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists" -- it wasn't true, and he knew it, but it was useful.

But this didn't mean that it was all a trick any more than Reagan and Jefferson were tricksters. It's a means of governing effectively, defining one vision as a shared vision. The theory wasn't just about winning elections -- it was about managing power. I thought that a patient engagement, even involving Republicans, was likely to bear dividends. It would be a workable alternative to the view of political power as a sinking fund, exemplified by George W. Bush's 2005 declaration, "I have political capital and I intend to use it."

I'm pretty confident that was an accurate description of Obama's theory of political change, and what voters thought they were getting. But as prediction for what would happen in the first year of an Obama administration, I have to admit, it doesn't hold up as well.

What attracted me to your essays, in fact, was how they mooted the question of what we imagined Barack Obama to be and instead gave us a vocabulary to more clearly see what Barack Obama actually does, as a way to project what he might do -- specifically, how he might succeed. And I agree with your retrospective re-evaluation: The essays yielded great description but not-so-great prediction. I think I have some insights as to why.

Every president has a honeymoon. But Obama's really did seem qualitatively more intense than any other new presidency perhaps since Lyndon Johnson inherited the mantle from the martyred Kennedy. I began to think of the possibility of an Obama era, one as (to coin a phrase!) "game changing" as the Reagan era or the Roosevelt era. I conceptualized it in terms of fluid dynamics, a tipping-point strategy. Gently, by degrees, the median voter would see Obama's positions, rooted in traditional Democratic themes of economic solidarity, as the normal, consensual position (just like voters did before Reagan) and that voters would come to see Reagan's children as alien, jarring, and strange.

Conservatives eagerly played to type -- GOP congressional leaders called in Joe the Plumber for strategy sessions, and started advertising a 2009 "Hot Sarah Calendar." On my blog I labeled what Republicans had been reduced to as "Palinporn": "material to help lonely conservatives retreat within their own cocoon of fantasy rather than participate in the actual conversations taking place to govern the country." It was a very "Obama theory of change" insight: Obama could simply get on with governing. Republicans would conversely build ever more elaborate halls of mirrors that made it increasingly impossible for them to speak to America. In fact, around that time, I was exhilarated by the thought of Rush Limbaugh's ratings exploding through the roof, from 20 million to 30 million listeners -- 30 million Americans able only to speak to each other, sounding to the rest of the country like practitioners of esoteric Masonic rites.

Some Republican politicians, craving power, chasing the median voter, might feel they had no choice to defect, from the party of the strange -- the GOP -- to the party of the normal -- the Democrats. That, or surrender their relevance to the governing project, and join the nuts parsing Barack's mom's dissertation for "facts that could be useful in upcoming Supreme Court cases."

Even before Arlen Specter switched parties I became intrigued by the story of a Republican assemblyman in Tennessee named Kent Williams. Republicans had been preparing to assume control of the Tennessee House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years when Williams made a deal to become a Democrat in exchange for Democrats' votes to make him speaker. I read between the lines, presuming him a shrewd operator who had decided that smart money was in the Obamaite center. Then came Specter; I felt like a stampede might be beginning.

Foolish Perlstein. Turns out Tennessee was just a banal power-grabbing double cross, with little or nothing ideological to it at all. Specter was just a one-off.

I did expect that just enough of Republicans -- two or three senators -- would cave, as they began to feel that there were actual political consequences for opposing the Obama agenda. Or, to put it in more mundane terms, I thought Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter would vote for the health-reform bill. As it happens, the only way to get permission to vote for the health-reform bill, or any other element of Obama's agenda, was to abandon your old friends completely, as Specter did. Republican party-line discipline has been the one constant of the last 18 years, in opposition as well as in power.

But my appreciation for Obama's approach wasn't dependent on Snowe, Specter, and Collins (or maybe Senators Lugar or Voinovich) cooperating. Suppose you knew, or suspected, Republicans wouldn't cooperate? What strategy would have worked better?

For the public to tip toward a dominant perception of Obama as the normal, and the Republicans as the strange, some effort was required on Obama's part: some aggressive line-drawing. You were overwhelmingly right when you posited that Obama's rhetoric of trans-ideological bipartisanship can work brilliantly as a method of subverting and breaking the opposition to a social democratic agenda. But it cannot work unless the comforting leader affirmatively draws a marker defining at least a portion of his opposition as outside his governing consensus. As not common sense.

It's great that Obama doesn't criticize "conservatism." A plurality, even a majority, think of themselves as "conservative." But most, I would argue, consider the word "conservative" as a placeholder for a disposition. The most brilliant part of Obama's Inaugural Address was the words by which he described his imminent presidency: prudent, temperate, humility. In contrast with the era that just passed, it would be, a "new era of responsibility." He quoted Scripture: It was time, he said, for the nation to put aside childish things. That laid down a splendid potential point for an eventual pivot in the face of Republican obstructionism: Here's what you elected me to do. Here's why it's prudent, temperate, and responsible. Here are the Republicans who oppose us. They are people worthy of being stigmatized.

Bill Clinton was actually quite effective at this in his dealings with Newt Gingrich in 1995-1996; he spoke of the Republicans doing him the favor of affording him a "Gary Cooper moment." I liked the "Obama theory of change" because it grasps precisely how Obama's core qualities of deliberateness and evenhandedness -- what you call "the audacity of patience" -- can be resources to marshal when it's time for the sheriff to come to town.

But what makes Obama Obama is that he refuses to forcefully make that pivot. Or at the very least he has infinitely deferred it. It seems a bit of presidential magic thinking, that the alienation of the public from his opposition will happen of itself, of its own accord.

Liberals always believe that conservative bad faith will become obvious to the public of its own accord. Despite or even because of his centrism, Obama is here the paradigmatic American liberal. Bringing down the conservatives cannot happen without leadership -- without a leader willing and able to draw, at the appropriate moment, battle lines. He could have said any time in the last few months: "you and I" (Reagan's favorite phrase) to set the table for a moderate middle course: "We did so patiently and evenhandedly. Then Republicans flipped over the table. See how childish they are?"

He could have repeated that over and over again, as his administration's dominant message. But if he said that, people might think he were mean. And Obama doesn't do mean.

"Be mean," is a strategy that usually takes its inspiration from that amazing moment in 1936 when Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced "the forces of selfishness and of lust for power," affirming that "they are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred." (I'm doing you a favor here by substituting FDR for the hypothetical John Edwards character.) That's a strategy worth taking seriously, since "nice" obviously failed. And I don't accept that "Obama doesn't do mean" -- FDR was a pretty nice guy, too, and Obama, against all expectations, showed he could be as tough as he needed to be against some formidable opposition in the 2008 primaries and general election.

The advice to be mean wouldn't have delivered any immediate legislative rewards. It wouldn't have made Senators Nelson, Lieberman, or Lincoln any less obstructionist or any Republicans more cooperative. As a simple legislative strategy for getting things done, "mean" has no advantage over "nice."

But I argued in my follow-up to the "theory of change" essay that getting things done is not a 100-day or first-year project. The great achievements of the New Deal were not in that first flush of largely unconstitutional short-term legislation but in the years that followed. Just as the health-care legislation will require continuous refinement to create a truly universal health-insurance system, just as Social Security required decades to become an almost-universal old-age insurance system, the new progressive opportunity will require the same patience that Obama showed in winning the presidential nomination. There may be moments for being mean, but there's no "final showdown" to be had.

The case for mean, I think, is only that it would have more effectively fired up a subset of the grass-roots base of Obama supporters, who in turn would have put some pressure on wavering members of Congress. An FDR-style "I welcome their hatred" would certainly have cemented the allegiance of some portion of the Obama coalition. But drawing such a line is quite a daring move for any president, or anyone in a political situation -- it takes an enormous amount of confidence. Yes, George W. Bush enacted Pat Buchanan's proposal to "cut the country in half," because "we would have the larger half." That achieved some tax cuts, a couple of wars, and some costly delays on causes like health care and climate change. But it did not achieve anything that will last.

The way I have put it lets Obama off way too easy, I'll admit. The choice isn't between, on the one hand, an inside-D.C. game of waiting for Republicans and moderate Democrats to come around and on the other, an outside, grass-roots, "mean" strategy. There are choices that Obama has made that weren't forced by legislative strategy, such as the decision to build an economic team around Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and their relatively cautious views that still seem bound by the economic consensus of the 1990s. Smart as they are, that choice meant that Obama couldn't mobilize his grass-roots supporters around core economic issues, such as a bigger economic stimulus package or stricter financial regulation.

But at each point, Obama made the political choice that made sense at that moment. He was ambitious but not careless. And yet we are not satisfied with where we are -- health care may be stalled, the economic stimulus insufficient, much of the rest of the agenda delayed. The solution, I think, is not just for Obama to turn mean but to really focus aggressively on changing politics. This means challenging not just Republicans but his own party for their limited imagination, their entanglement with lobbyists and contributors, their fraidy-cat approach to electoral politics. Such an approach can draw on the strengths of Obama's theory of change -- which was inherently a theory of political reformation.

I'm afraid I didn't make myself precisely clear. Coming out blazing à la FDR in 1936 is not what I mean. It wouldn't be true to the man; it wouldn't work for our moment.

Let me try to explain it another way. During the primary, I had a heated debate with voting-fraud propagandist John Fund. I realized afterward that I would have been much, much more effective if I had bided my time and not jumped so quickly to interrupt him. I pledged to myself that next time I got into a fight with a conservative, I would "be like Barack" -- or at least how the Barack of my imagination would be. I would marshal my patience to build trust (or possibly complacency) in my adversaries, knocking them out only at the moment of maximum impact. "Never get mad (or mean) unless it's on purpose," as the old political saying goes.

But what I worry "being like Barack" truly means is that the knockout never comes. That the patience and the building of trust is, in fact, the end in itself. "Our Barack doesn't do mean," means, "Our Barack doesn't make the strategic choice to defeat a reactionary adversary even when that opportunity manifestly presents itself to him." This is Leadership 101, and, I fear, Obama is flunking.

FDR's latest biographer, Jean Edward Smith, emphasizes that as governor of New York, FDR quite deliberately pushed the boundaries of how far a state could go to respond to an economic crisis. Roosevelt showed calculation, even cynicism, in his 1932 claim to be running to balance the budget; it was a political ploy to get the delegates he needed to win the nomination. And, of course, his 1936 pledge that big business had met its match came after many years in which the New Deal was built in close cooperation with big business, and indeed would continue to be so built. What he did in that speech was lay down a gauntlet to those of great wealth: Cooperate with me and the people, the "you and I" who have a rendezvous with destiny; or oppose us, and cast yourself into the outer darkness.

The key to presidential leadership is that it is the president, through forceful and confident and sweeping rhetoric, who makes the argument about where the line must be drawn -- about what our destiny is, and who is for it, and who has chosen for whatever reasons to be against it. For the line must be drawn somewhere.

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