What it looks like when Obama’s passion spurs him to defy the political odds
Last week, I scolded greenies for indulging in the “cult of the presidency,” being unduly fixated on President Obama’s role in public life. Congress, the courts, state governments, cities, and citizen movements all deserve attention too. We need a reasonable sense of the limitations of the presidency.
On Sunday, The New Republic (newly redesigned!) published an interview with Obama that seems designed to feed me a little crow.
To see why, consider the issues of gun safety and climate change. A half-dozen months ago, both were considered political losers for Democrats. There was broad support for reform, but opposition was far more intense, outspoken, and well-funded.
Then came the Sandys: Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook Elementary. Both were traumatic, galvanizing events with the potential to shift politics (though of course it’s impossible to say in advance how much or how fast).
The Sandys did not have equal effects on the president, however. Obama was, by all accounts, crushed by the shootings:
… his aides described the massacre as having knocked his tightly held interior life into full view like no other event. “I had never seen him like that as long as I’ve known him,” his speechwriter Jon Favreau later told The New York Times, recalling the day of the killings, when Obama sat gob-smacked behind his desk.
If there are similar accounts of Obama being powerfully affected by Hurricane Sandy, I haven’t seen them.
Perhaps as a result of his searing and deeply personal experience of the shootings, Obama is taking a new tack on gun safety. He is not working behind the scenes to woo Republican lawmakers in the House. He knows he’ll never get enough of them (too many are gerrymandered into safe, hyper-conservative districts). In fact, it seems he has finally grasped the reality of asymmetrical polarization and become willing to discuss it openly. He says:
There’s no equivalence there [between parties]. In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, “A plague on both their houses.” On almost every issue, it’s, “Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree” — as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?
And I want to be very clear here that Democrats, we’ve got a lot of warts, and some of the bad habits here in Washington when it comes to lobbyists and money and access really goes to the political system generally. It’s not unique to one party. But when it comes to certain positions on issues, when it comes to trying to do what’s best for the country, when it comes to really trying to make decisions based on fact as opposed to ideology, when it comes to being willing to compromise, the Democrats, not just here in this White House, but I would say in Congress also, have shown themselves consistently to be willing to do tough things even when it’s not convenient, because it’s the right thing to do. And we haven’t seen that same kind of attitude on the other side.
Right. Opposition from the GOP is nihilistic and total. So gun control can’t get done via the “inside game.” How, then, will the president approach it? Here’s now TNR’s editors describe it:
On the day we visited the White House … the president had just finished presenting his robust slate of gun control proposals — so robust, in fact, that the next morning’s newspaper would declare it almost certainly doomed to failure in Congress. But that was the point. On gun control, the president never expected John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to join him on a surveying expedition in search of the mythic land of Common Ground. Compromise was a conversation for the distant future, one he would entertain only after making a muscular argument and creating the political space for his ideas. [my emphasis]
In other words, Obama is fully aware that the political landscape is unfavorable on guns. So he has set out to change that landscape. He intends to do it not by compromising in advance but by leading, putting forward an ambitious slate of policies and arguing passionately for them. “Creating political space.”
This is part and parcel of his broader second-term strategy. On the major issues of the day, he says, “the question is not, Do we have policies that might work? It is, Can we mobilize the political will to act?” He focused too much on the inside game in the first term, he says:
I always read a lot of Lincoln, and I’m reminded of his adage that, with public opinion, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish; without it, you’re not going to get very far. And spending a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington is an example of the kinds of change in orientation that I think we’ve undergone, not just me personally, but the entire White House.
Interesting! Climate hawks are no doubt thinking at this point, “Gee, I can think of another issue where a real leader could create political space and help mobilize political will by having a conversation with the American people.”
Are Obama’s second-term climate plans in a similar spirit? Not exactly. Politico compares them to a “covert action.” It says the administration will “dribble out executive actions and federal rules over the next four years — the same low-key, bureaucratic approach the administration has taken since 2009.”
In other words: the inside game. A “conversation” it ain’t.
Now. Am I a hypocrite because I’m sweating what Obama says? Perhaps, but only a little. I still maintain the obvious, which is that executive branch power is limited, especially, as Lincoln might remind us, in the absence of public opinion. And I still maintain that the president’s ability to shift the politics of the country via the “bully pulpit” is far more constrained than most journalists, pundits, and activists seem to think.
But Obama’s initiative on gun safety shows that he is willing to take on doomed causes when he feels strongly enough about them. He feels strongly about gun safety. He does not seem to share the same passion on climate. This is all he says about it in the interview:
The truth is that most of the big issues that are going to make a difference in the life of this country for the next thirty or forty years are complicated and require tough decisions, but are not rocket science. … On climate change, it’s a daunting task. But we know what releases carbon into the atmosphere, and we have tools right now that would start scaling that back, although we’d still need some big technological breakthrough.
It’s daunting, it mainly affects people in the future, and we need technological breakthroughs. That doesn’t sound like urgency to me.
So, to summarize: Yes, Obama’s power on climate change is limited and it doesn’t make sense to devote 95 percent of greens’ attention and energy to browbeating him to do more. It is nonetheless true, however, that he’s not doing all he could be doing, nor caring as much as he ought to care, nor talking about it as much as he ought to be talking about it.