Obama in power (5): does he need to be bipartisan?

Obama’s approach to the challenges of government is fascinating. Not yet 100 days into power, he seems to retain that combination of the cerebral strategist and the practical politician that, combined with clearly enunciated principles, made him such an attractive looking candidate. Whatever else you’re going to say about him, however you’re going to characterise him, “Same old, same old” is not it.

The ideals and principles are there in his articulation of a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and a clear commitment to set about creating that world. The practical politician is there in the way he took people aside at the G-20 summit to get the communique nailed down. And the cerebral strategist is there in the way he continues to present a route from the grim today to a better tomorrow.

More than one thing at a time – all critical

Of course, it’s way too early to know if and in what sense he will be the transformative President that a large number of his supporters so fervently hope he will be. Much may yet happen to dull the ideals, blunt the effectiveness and confound the sense of direction. World politics has a way of being multi-dimensional, throwing up systemic challenges along with one-off and largely sui generis moments of crisis.

Though Obama successfully teased McCain with the remark that Presidents have to be able to handle more than one thing at a time, the truth is that governments have a limited carrying capacity. It is hard for even the most capable government to handle high octane multi-tasking and easy for a new one to lose its way early on and never get back on course. The Bush administration’s legacy – two wars, a deficiency of legitimacy, damaged or stalled relations with key world powers, and problems of trade negotiations and climate change that have been neglected or handled badly – has ensured the Obama administration faces more potentially derailing challenges than most incoming US governments, not to mention the global economic recession.

So, consensus? – reasons why not

In these circumstances, a broad political consensus would look like an important foundation-stone for effective policy. In many other countries, attempting to build cross-party consensus would seem like the appropriate first step in sorting out how to take on climate change, or war in Iraq, or war in Afghanistan and its reverberations in Pakistan, or an economic crisis that is the most serious in 70 years and is possibly world-changing – let alone for taking on all four at once.  

But that cross-party consensus is not an easy or obvious option in the US today. So hitherto, Obama has been trying to maintain a bipartisan appeal without a bipartisan operating mode. But there are several reasons why it is going to be difficult to keep that trick going.

Despite the bipartisan rhetoric, Obama and many of his closest advisers have heavy form as political partisans. His radical appeal included the very fact that he did not adopt centrist positions on a number of key issues but consistently voted and spoke towards the liberal/progressive end of the spectrum. What was exciting for his like-minded supporters was that his way of framing and connecting allowed him to persuade a much wider constituency than other advocates of similar positions.

Regardless of how he expressed things in the campaign, neither Obama nor his administration is hard-wired for bipartisanship. He is such a practical politician that I would bet he would make a success of it if he were to adopt it and (still the same bet) that he will adopt it if but only if he has to. So far, practical bipartisanship from Obama has been no more than superficial (and only got to be that deep because he kept Gates as Secretary for Defense).

Partly for that very reason and partly because of other factors including principled disagreement with Obama’s policies, the conservative critiques are coming thick, fast and contradictory – lambasted for doing nothing, lambasted for taking on too much too soon. This criticism may not have much traction in public opinion while the Republicans are still a wreck.

However, their very wreckage has the perhaps paradoxical effect of making a bipartisan consensus less likely. A party that is trying to figure out what it is, how and why, will spend a considerable amount of time on internal fractiousness, trying to settle its identity, and must also snarl at the government to ensure its identity is distinct from that of the dominant political force. The weaker, less unified and less clear of their direction that the Republicans are, the more that some of them will feel goaded into sharpening their criticisms of Obama and emphasising their distance. It might not make for effective politics in the short-term and may well do little more than emphasise Republicans’ disunity, but it is what will feel right on the right of the party.

When bipartisan consensus might be attractive

In politics, a lot depends on timing. If right and centre-right disarray persists into the 2010 Congressional election campaigning season, the Democrats will strengthen their position in Congress (or at least not be weakened), and Obama will probably be able to sell a version of consensus based on one-party dominance when re-election time comes round in 2012.

But if Republican disarray begins to clear up, say, after summer this year, then things start to get interesting. If as some commentators seem to think, Sarah Palin has a real prospect of becoming the Republican standard bearer, Obama can safely keep on with bipartisan talk without having to deliver because he will remain the favoured political option for centrist opinion. A more McCain-like figure, however, would test him much more severely among centre-ground opinion. Especially where policies are not working or are particularly controversial, Obama might well find himself needing some moderate support from the centre-right.

Under two conditions combined, Obama’s position could weaken: if the Republicans adopt a set of positions that are about the same distance from his as McCain’s were last year and if Obama’s own policies are consistently alienating for the centre-right, he could start to lose centre-centre and even some centre-left support. This might become an issue if any one of the heavyweight policy challenges facing Obama goes sour between now and early 2010 – slow or negligible economic recovery, nothing on global warming, deterioration in Iraq or in Afghanistan and the region – or in the face of a new challenge such as a worsening situation in Mexico.  

In other words, despite the strong position the Democrats now have in Congress, and the strong standing Obama still has in US opinion polls, as early as a year from now Obama could find himself reaching for a consensus position on one or another of his key policies.

Options for political strategy

OK – so how much of a strategist is Obama really? Certainly a much better one than I am, especially when it comes to American politics. If there is anything in my speculation, however, and if Obama and his team really do have as much strategic sense as I think they do, then I would expect them to act pre-emptively and meet growing Republican coherence later this year and early next with a series of pin-prick policy raids. These would adopt Republican ideas that work in the framework of the administration’s policy and over-claim bipartisan credentials on the strength of them.

This will have one of two effects. Either it will lay out the grounds for possible bipartisan cooperation so that if Republicans take the McCain route, they cannot tag the Obama team as unco-operative, narrowly political, etc. Indeed, the risk for Republicans is that a popular President cherry-picking their policies would leave them with nothing distinctive to say on big issues.

The alternative effect is that, by stealing Republican political resources, the administration gently shepherds the Republicans onto Palin’s social and family issues territory. This worked well for Republicans for a long time but there are many signs that its time is over. If they opt for it, Republicans will cut themselves off from the broader constituencies that Reagan and Bush were able to reach. And apart from anything else, that will leave the Republicans with nothing new to say, risking a dismissive shrug from the electorate in November 2010.

One response to “Obama in power (5): does he need to be bipartisan?

  1. Pingback: Obama in power (7): when disappointment gets plain silly « Dan Smith’s blog

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