Politics & Policy

The Cynical Politics of Compromise

It’s only in his desperation and diminishment that Obama has retreated to compromise.

It’s easy to pinpoint the moment when Pres. Barack Obama became a tireless advocate of compromise — when he no longer had the power to force whatever he wanted through Congress.

Then, he suddenly switched his pitch from “Hope and Change” to “Gee, I Hope We Can Work Something Out.” 

Obama the Compromiser depends on short memories. The Jefferson-Jackson Day speech that fueled his rise in the 2008 Iowa caucuses was a ringing statement of principle and implicit rejection of compromise. He condemned “triangulation,” the dastardly word associated with Pres. Bill Clinton’s work with a Republican Congress in the 1990s. 

Many of the same commentators who hailed Obama’s voice of righteous purity in 2008 now praise his call for splitting differences in 2011. To them, he’s equally thoughtful and brave whether he’s passionately extolling “principle” and “conviction,” or doggedly insisting that progress is possible only through “common ground and compromise.” By definition, whatever is Obama’s current tack deserves the support of all right-minded people.

But surely his ecstatic fans from 2008 would have fainted less often had they known that three years into his presidency, Obama would be dragging himself around the Midwest, pleading with Republicans to agree with him on creating an infrastructure bank. 

President Obama doesn’t bring much credibility to his new position as the nation’s lecturer in Compromise 101. One of his signature phrases upon taking office was his killer rejoinder to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor in an early White House meeting: “Elections have consequences and, Eric, I won.” Cantor had occasioned this rebuke by passing around copies of the Republican economic plan. Clearly, compromise wasn’t the order of the day.

A clutch of Obama’s supporters still believes he compromised his way through his first two years because he didn’t nationalize the banks, institute a single-payer health-care system or pass a stimulus package north of $1 trillion. None of this represented bending to the will of Republicans, but to the dictates of economic and political reality. The president got the leftmost plausible program he could through Congress. On his own terms, it was a transformational agenda, not a middle ground worked out between Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner.

Without the country’s reaction against the high-handed methods used to pass this highly ideological program, Obama wouldn’t even bother to hector Republicans. His pivot to compromise is a confession of weakness, both of reduced power in Washington and a highly tenuous standing with the public. It is nothing but a lifeline.

How far Obama has fallen. In that long ago Jefferson-Jackson Day speech, Obama spoke in favor of fearlessly “telling the American people what they need to hear,” and blasted “poll-driven positions.” Did he ever think he’d be reduced to the cowardly and clever partisan games that now characterize his performance from the bully pulpit of the nation’s highest office?

The president doesn’t need John Boehner or any other Republican’s approval to propose a budget plan with significant savings in entitlements. Heaven knows he didn’t wait to push for Obamacare or any version of it until he had the sign-off of his opposition. But he fears the reaction of his own party if he puts himself on the record in favor of specific entitlement cuts without forcing Republicans to agree to new taxes.

And bipartisan compromise always polls well. With President Obama’s job-approval rating sinking to 40 percent, one can imagine David Axelrod running into the Oval Office waving the latest nightly numbers showing that salvation can be found in compromise. So, the president will come up with some economic proposals that poll well and dare Republicans to reject them. It’s bipartisanship as a partisan weapon.

This is all rather tinny. As small-ball politics, it’s clever, but inadequate to the moment. It’s only in his desperation and diminishment that President Obama has retreated to compromise. The Obama of 2008 would hold the current iteration of himself in lofty contempt.

— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry(at sign)nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.

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