Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Obama’s diplomacy. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
If September 11 reset the George W. Bush presidency, the passage of health-care legislation has reset the Barack Obama presidency. After an entire year in which health-care reform dominated the agenda of the Obama White House, the President has now been presented – now that perhaps the most divisive issue on the Obama agenda has been temporarily settled – with an opportunity to reset the emerging narrative and priorities of his administration, and the tone of political debate in Washington.
Obama’s emerging blueprint for the next couple of months indicates a chastened president aware that he spent more political capital than he had expected to spend on an issue that was never at the top of his list of campaign promises of 2008, only to end up with a compromise health-care bill that repulsed Republicans and failed to amuse not a few liberal Democrats.
Obama now intends to find compromise between issues, not within them. The game plan now is to give some to the Republicans on some issues, like off-shore drilling, and some to the Democratic base on some issues, like nuclear disarmament. But to give to both sides on the same issue, Obama will likely no longer do. One thing the President has learned is that compromise on the same issue leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth; patronage is most rewarding when it is distributed at different times to all parties, not simultaneously shared.
So this Thursday, the President meets with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague to sign a nuclear arms control agreement for both countries to reduce their arsenals by 30 percent. Later this month, Obama will host a Summit for world leaders on nuclear security. And Obama has installed union counsel Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board, much to the chagrin of business leaders.
Similarly, Obama is making overtures to the Republicans, though in smaller quantities. He has thrown in his support for oil drilling in parts of the Atlantic and Alaskan coasts as part of his “comprehensive energy policy.” And the administration looks set to reverse its position that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his henchmen be tried by a civilian court in New York and not in a military tribunal.
Whether or not Republicans appreciate the bone Obama has thrown to them, Obama appears to have learned a deeper lesson about politics and bipartisanship in Washington. American presidents typically do not thrive on single-issue politics, in part because bipartisanship is very difficult to achieve on the same issue because the best outcome that could be achieved is that no one gets what they want. When presidents put all their eggs in one basket, they appear parochial are unable to dodge blame when they fail to deliver on their signature issues, or claim credit for other accomplishments which may exonerate their failure to deliver on their major priority. Politics is a fluid game which rewards multi-tasking presidents. Obama will not (again) take on one massive political challenge, but many medium-sized ones in the year ahead to rebuild his political capital. He has now learned that several badges look better than one medal, and that he needs to be ale to deliver more than one applause line when he parades his accomplishments in the State of the Union address of 2012.