When is a Victory Not a Victory? — 13 December 2010

I sometimes wonder if President Obama is not enjoying his job.

This past week, he stood at the podium and announced a historic negotiating success: a deal that, for nearly the first time in his administration, brought Republicans on board in enthusiastic support for a major piece of domestic legislation.  Here at last was the Obama that was promised – able to transcend right-left, to cross the aisle and leave partisanship aside to make policy that provided solutions for the American people.  I’m referring, of course, to the deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts that is now before Congress.

And the President looked like he had been gargling with broken glass.

He did not have the look of someone who had just pocketed a big victory.  And he didn’t sound like it either – he used the now-famous “hostage-taker” line, and as much as admitted he had been forced to agree to something he hated.  That’s at least consistent with his campaign rhetoric about this issue, in which he described extending the tax cuts for the top earners as something he found “offends the conscience.”

Now, of course, he’s put himself in the awkward position of having to push for approval of a legislative “framework” he would rather disown.  And he’s not alone in disliking it – his left flank is up in arms, and there was a very acrimonious meeting of House Democrats debating this agreement where calls of “no, we can’t” and even “f— the President” were heard.

This is truly remarkable.  As Peggy Noonan said this weekend, this President spent his first year alienating the nation’s independents, and the second year infuriating his base.  This move may ultimately result in that kiss of death – a primary challenge to a sitting President.  Every incumbent since LBJ who sought re-election but failed faced a primary challenge from his own party.

What strikes me as so noteworthy in this is that, even while Obama was cutting this deal with the Republicans, he wasn’t bringing the warring parties together to make a truce.  The complaints from the Democratic caucus were that they had not been consulted, and were being presented with a fait accompli: take it or leave it.

Gosh – that sounds exactly like what the GOP has been saying for two years.  Obama looks someone who caroms from one caucus to another, depending on which side has the leverage, and turns his back on those who aren’t on board.

That’s probably too harsh a critique of Obama.  After all, the leadership in Congress is still made up of the left-leaning clique whose legislative record led to the Republican surge last November.  And that clique has been made stronger by the defeat of so many of the moderates in the midterms.

But the President has only encouraged their obstinacy with his rhetoric that up until the end insisted we “could not afford” to extend the Bush-era tax rates for all taxpayers, which he maintained right up until the time he agreed to it.  With head-snapping reversals like that, it’s no wonder so many of his partisans were still zigging long after the President had zagged.

But now that he needs, ex-post, to assemble enough of his Democratic majority to follow their President and pass legislation that neither they nor he favors, he finds himself in the unflattering position of criticizing his own partisans.  At the same time he was denouncing Republican hostage-takers, he was dunning liberals in Congress for being “sanctimonious” and “purist”.

This sounds like an increasingly familiar Obama.  He has a curious style of leadership: criticizing your followers when they don’t fall into line.  We heard it in the mid-term campaign, when he bellowed, “There better not be any enthusiasm gap, people!”  We heard it too, when he painted his grass-roots opponents as people who didn’t quite understand, who were hard-wired to make bad decisions in hard times.

Belittling your followers might work if you’re a Bobby Knight, whose players would swallow razor blades for their irascible coach, and whose methods lead to triumph upon triumph.  But this guy does not inspire such fanatical devotion among his partisans, and his angry exhortations are just as likely to turn people away from him.

And in the cruelest irony of all, Obama has the perfect example of a leader who claims the most compromised achievement as a victory, and he was standing next to him in the White House briefing room.   Bill Clinton has the knack of being in front of events, and of cheerfully taking whatever sausage the political factory will give him.

Not only was that difference evident at their joint press conference; it was painful to see.  Clinton looked so much in his element, fielding questions and defending Obama’s tax deal, and Obama looked so uncomfortable, standing arms folded to the side while the ex-President held forth.  When Obama ultimately yielded the press room to him and vanished, the inevitable thought occurred: this is the President of the United States, and he has just been upstaged.

I wonder what Obama muttered under his breath as he headed down the hall.

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