Here’s the political thinking that informs this move:
Gas prices are rising and people are angry. Republicans and conservative Dems are blaming gas prices on Obama and bashing him for not drilling enough. Yet his left base hates drilling and oil companies. The answer? Engage in what a Politico reporter called the “triangle strategy” — more drilling to please his critics, reduced oil subsidies to please his base, and a signal of compromise and balance to please the vast pool of moderates in the middle.
This is classic Obama strategy. Paradigmatic, even. Problem is, it doesn’t work. The attempt to please everyone ends up pleasing no one, policy turns out worse than it would have been otherwise, and Obama gets zero political capital out of it. This kind of gambit has failed over and over and over again. Here’s how Robert Kuttner puts it in his fantastic essay today:
Obama’s reticence, his reluctance to lay blame, make sharp partisan distinctions, or practice a politics of class, reflects the interplay of his personality and his tacit theory of power — one that emphasizes building bridges to opponents, defying ideological categories, shying away from the kind of mass mobilization that swept him into office, and practicing a kind of Zen detachment. At moments in American history, that conception of the presidency has suited the times. This doesn’t seem to be one of those moments.
His weekend radio address is just the latest signal that Obama has fundamentally failed to understand or adapt to post-truth politics.
The downsides of the strategy are obvious:
- There will be more drilling, more spills, and more greenhouse gas emissions. In other words: bad policy.
- Drilling will not — can not — lower gas prices, so insofar as this is seen as an Obama promise, the promise will be broken. By ratifying his opponents’ lie, he becomes complicit in it.
- By adopting the right’s solution, Obama sacrifices the chance to present a clear alternative based on the truth: reducing demand is the only solution to oil addiction and high gas prices. You can’t be on the side of the good guys if you’re promoting a “what the bad guys said, only a little less” approach.
What are the purported upsides that are meant to offset these downsides?
- Republicans and conservative Dems, seeing that Obama is a reasonable guy willing to meet them halfway, will offer some concessions of their own in the name of a grand bargain.
- The American public will see that Obama is a reasonable guy, not one of these rigid partisans, and they will respond with approval.
The problem is that the downsides are real and the upsides are fantastical. They don’t happen. They are precisely what post-truth politics has left behind.
Politico calls the move a “preemptive strike” against more extreme plans from the right. Perhaps that’s the intent, but what’s the weapon here? How will this “strike” prevent the more extreme plans from arriving on schedule? In fact, whatever drilling Obama offers up, the right will say it’s not big enough, not fast enough, he’s not enthusiastic enough, and they will demand more. Without so much as pausing! There will be no interval, not even a tiny one, in which they stop to praise Obama’s flexibility. Their fury will be undiminished, as it has been from the moment he was elected.
The second purported upside is even more fascinating. The NYT says the move is intended to “signal flexibility.” But how is that signal supposed to reach the American people? What is the medium through which the signal is supposed to travel? Who are the referees who will award Obama flexibility points in such a way that they can be spent later? The answer is, there are no referees. The signal will not reach anyone who doesn’t already believe in what it signals. The truth of Obama’s flexibility is simply inert in a post-truth politics.
I have pretty much despaired that Obama is going to change. He is a compromiser, a conciliator, at heart. He believes deeply in the notion of public life as a good-faith coming together of disparate agendas. He simply won’t believe that politics has become a substance-free game, totally disconnected from policy. And he’s not alone on the left either. And so we all keep sending signals that get lost in the ether.