One of the more constant critiques of this Presidency is that Barack Obama has failed to teach a generation of willing listeners a story about his beliefs and his values, something that will outlast his term in office and provide a blueprint for the future. This isn’t true. He’s teaching a fundamental lesson. It just may not be one that progressives value.
In March, Obama spoke to college students of a range of political beliefs – Democrats, Republicans and independents – after a speech in the Boston area. In this video, released by the White House this weekend and given prominent treatment, including a blast of the video to supporters by David Plouffe, Obama explains what I have to assume is his core belief about politics in America. It is that compromise is necessary in our democracy, even virtuous. You cannot get 100% of what you want at any time, no matter if you’re in the majority or the minority, Obama says, and all that we can expect is to move forward incrementally, believing that others will pick up the ball down the road and carry on.
This is Obama’s last lecture. It’s what he wants to impart to the next generation. He outright says that:
One of the challenges of this generation is I think to understand that the nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don’t get 100% of what you want. You don’t get it if you’re in the majority, you don’t get it if you’re in the minority.
You can be honorable in politics understanding you don’t always get what you want.
While there’s talk of marrying principle to compromise, in this clip Obama does not define that principle. In the whole of his public life, actually, he has not fully defined that principle. He has, however, defined compromise as the necessary element of the most important thing a politician can do, which is to get something done. To “do big things,” as he has been saying throughout the debt limit fight. And you cannot separate the appearance of this last lecture, produced four months ago, on the heels of his efforts to engineer a grand bargain, a compromise that would include major cuts to the social safety net.
Obama gives the example of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to underline his belief in compromise:
Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a guy who didn’t believe in slavery, but his first priority was keeping the union. I’ve got a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in my office, and if you read through it, most of the document is those states and areas where emancipation doesn’t apply because those folks are allied with the union so they can keep their slaves.
Here’s a wartime President making a compromise around the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced, because he understood that his job was to win the war and maintain the union. Can you imagine how the Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. “Lincoln Sells Out Slaves.” There would be protests, and we’re going to run a third party guy.
This is the second time the Huffington Post, obviously a thorn in the side of the President, is mentioned in this video. The first time, he says that “if you read the Huffington Post, you’d think that I was some right-wing tool of Wall Street.” He is not the biggest fan of their business and political coverage, I gather.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that Obama deeply believes this in his core. The man who came to power on a message of hope is saying that there’s no real hope in implementing the full governing agenda in the American system. That’s true, apparently, even if you have a large majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, which Obama had for several months of his first term. That’s true, apparently, even if we’re talking about issues and policies where the President has full authority on his own, with HAMP being the best example.
There are obstacles, checks and balances in the American system. You can say it produces worse results than a Parliamentary system with less obstacles, where the party swept into power can implement their agenda virtually uninhibited by procedure, and then can be held accountable for that agenda. The fact that, when America invades a foreign country and deposes its leader, like in Iraq, they install a Parliamentary democracy, is fairly revealing on this point.
But there’s also a difference between the person who views those procedural blockages for what they are, and sees opportunities for pressuring those blockages through the court of public opinion, for making it difficult on those holding up progress to sustain themselves, for using elections as a lever to enable progress, and even for changing the fundamental structures to bring our democracy up to date to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and… Barack Obama. Because here he doesn’t just acknowledge the need for compromise. He glories in it. He sees it as “part of the process of growing up.” It’s juvenile to act on your own beliefs, to draw bright lines that cannot be crossed, to express core convictions. “Don’t set up a situation where you’re guaranteed to be disappointed,” Obama says. That’s the worst thing that could ever happen. He makes an enemy out of disappointment, when it can just as easily be a rallying point, an opportunity to show a better path next time.
This fetish of bipartisanship and compromise would have been the elements of a very good President circa 1954, or maybe 1975. In 2011, with one party that has swore to never compromise on any principle ever again, it’s just a recipe for failure to hear this from the head of the other party. It guarantees bad outcomes. And with an economy in tatters and urgency (the fierce urgency of now, I would say) the order of the day, it has enormous consequences.
Now, some would say that Obama is just reflecting the belief system prevalent in America, where Democrats and independents favor compromise, but Republicans don’t. Is he reflecting that, or is he teaching it? This is his last lecture. A President has an enormous capacity to sway the opinions of the constituents in the party he leads. If we’re talking about which came first, the chicken or the egg, I’d say Obama has been trying to teach this for many, many years. It was evident in his 2004 DNC keynote. It was a feature of his only engagement at Daily Kos in 2005. He’s been telling this story for many years. It’s not a surprise that people predisposed to him are getting that message.