When candidate Barack Obama emerged as a competitive presidential candidate early in 2008, he elicited two contrasting emotions—elation and apprehension. Both arose from the same perception: Obama was a lefty. The elated saw a candidate ready to press a progressive agenda, exactly what the apprehensive feared.

The debt-ceiling imbroglio that ended in the deficit-reduction agreement on August 2 has pretty much squelched that hope and eased that fear. The final bill veered so far toward Republican and Tea Party demands on cuts without new taxes that Obama was accused of abandoning every principle but the principle of accommodation. If that’s overstating the matter, it’s not by much. By now we know that neither the elated nor the apprehensive had an accurate reading of the candidate.

Was Obama ever the reformer-in-chief that Democrats longed for?

Back in 2008, I laughed at friends enthralled by the idea of his being a “radical.”  “Remember where he comes from—Chicago.” That’s where Obama honed his political skills, where he ran for office, and where he won and lost campaigns. And that’s where he perfected his ability to be accommodating—the quality that sits like sour milk in the mouths of former fans. Yet, if Obama hadn’t learned to compromise and be obliging, he never would have made it to the Illinois State Senate in 1997, the U.S. Senate in 2004, and the 2008 presidential nomination.

Chicago is a city that works, at least better than most. There’s a place for squeaky wheels in its well-oiled political machine. It listens to its enemies as well as its friends. What do they want? What can you give them? What do we get in return? Obama started out as a community organizer (a squeaky wheel), who finally grasped the fact that change depended on the blessings of Chicago’s political machine. After Harvard Law School, he went back to Chicago, made himself known, and began climbing the political ladder.

His biography shows he didn’t have to bend too far to accommodate himself to the machine. As James Kloppenberg amply demonstrates in his study, Reading Obama, this system did not go against the grain of Obama’s experience, temperament, or character, though it did teach him “first-hand that politics is a contact sport.... He learned...how to cut a deal.”

Firmly ensconced in the liberal camp at Harvard Law School, Obama made it his business to pay attention to the views of conservatives—faculty and students alike. His diligence in cultivating conversations with all factions (from Charles Fried to Lawrence Tribe, Roberto Mungabeira Unger, and Mary Ann Glendon), helped him win the prestigious editorship of the Harvard Law Review. Later, teaching at the University of Chicago Law School, he deployed a pedagogy that required students to assay an array of viewpoints in preparing team discussions on hot-button constitutional issues.

In the late 1990s, Obama participated in the Saguaro Seminar, organized by Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, an account of the decline in American community and associational life. The seminars gathered participants from a variety of occupations and political viewpoints. Obama functioned in the group, according to Kloppenberg, “as goad, peacekeeper, and conciliator.” From those meetings grew his “commitments...to philosophical pragmatism and deliberative democracy—to building support slowly, gradually, through compromise and painstaking consensus building.”

Was Washington ready for “painstaking consensus building”? Was the “goad, peacekeeper, and conciliator” prepared for Washington?

Taking office in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, Obama was dealt a difficult hand. He extracted a stimulus bill from a reluctant Congress, but the money turned out to be too little and and so was gone too quickly. He worked for a comprehensive health-care bill that conservatives hate and liberals deride. There have been tactical errors—giving the Bush tax cuts an extension (a form of stimulus) without getting real concessions from the Republicans (for example, an early debt-ceiling vote in Congress).

The 2010 Tea Party victors came to office in January, and Obama’s skill as “goad, peacekeeper, and conciliator” has not moderated their single-minded insistence on cutting costs and shrinking government. The Republicans have convinced the punditry and enough Americans that the federal deficit is the major looming crisis while obscuring the larger problem, the loss of American jobs. Job creation would go some way toward easing the deficit. But the Republicans’ relentless pursuit of cuts seems to have overwhelmed the accommodating Obama. Weeks of wrangling over raising the debt limit even made him a pawn in the rivalry between Republican Speaker John Boehner and his second-in-command, Eric Cantor. With so little willingness among Republicans to compromise, Obama steadily acceded to their agenda. Would a more aggressive strategy—for example, threatening to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment and raise the debt limit by executive order—have reset the balance between president and Congress? We’ll never know.

Kloppenberg concludes that Obama’s commitment to “compromise and painstaking consensus building…represent a calculated risk as political strategy,” and admits “it is a gamble he may lose.”  The president has fourteen months to demonstrate that he has not lost the gamble, or to come up with a better, less-accommodating strategy.

Related: Over the Brink, by the Editors
Commander-in-Chief of Nuance, by Nathan Pippenger

Published in the 2011-09-23 issue: View Contents

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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