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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Rationalizing Obama's Rope a Dope Tactics with Knockout Punch in Doubt

By David Corn, 8/2/11 in Mother Jones

Though critics deride his soft-on-Republican-extremism approach for letting the opposition set the terms of debate, White House officials maintain that it has worked for Obama on key fronts. He passed a stimulus bill (though not as large as many economists believed necessary), health care reform (though without a public option), and financial reform (though it may not have gone far enough)—all through inch-by-inch legislative warfare without major public confrontation. "He's always in search of a Republican friend," a past Obama aide notes. This never-ending outreach, his aides believe, is also vital for drawing fickle independent voters back in 2012. And clearly, Obama's bend-over-backward-and-then-some effort to reach a compromise on the debt deal was propelled by the White House's calculation that indies relish compromise over almost anything—whether or not it's a bad deal.

Obama's hesitation to pummel may dishearten some Democrats, but his aides—who challenge the media narrative that the president has alienated his base—contend that come 2012, when the choice is between the president and a tea partyized GOP, his supporters will be fully juiced. They point to polling data showing that Obama remains highly popular among self-identified liberals; unease, they insist, is mostly among what former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs once derided as the "professional left," a small number of bloggers and vocal activists. After the debt ceiling denouement—which has enraged liberals—these calculations may have to be revisited.

Yet, aside from appeasing put-up-your-dukes progressives, there can be immense value in a fight. A well-managed slugfest can be instructive, alerting voters to key facts and ideas. Had Obama gone after the GOPers early and often in the debt-ceiling showdown, perhaps the president could have shifted the overall political context and placed himself in a stronger negotiating position as he sought his much-cherished consensus. Instead, even as the country careened toward default in July, Obama praised House Speaker John Boehner's "good-faith efforts." ("He's a good man who wants to do right by the country.")

It's easy to second-guess a president. And this week is producing a flood of second-guessing. Obama and his aides are disdainful of the snap-judgment cable chatter. They know that while it's natural for progressives to crave a more confrontational approach, there's no way to prove consistent fisticuffs would yield better outcomes. And they believe that making what progress they can on the economy and other policy matters—rather than scoring points in pugilism—will probably help Obama most in 2012 (as well as serve the nation).

The debt-ceiling showdown has put Obama's operating assumptions to a serious test. "Sometimes, he can appear as weak and indecisive," a past aide says. "But he is a pragmatist. He believes you can't achieve universal health coverage, green energy, a clean environment, rebuild America—his fundamental beliefs—if the country isn't behind you. But in a profoundly polarized world, can this work?"


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