Does Obama Lose Poorly, or Think He’s Not Losing?

While I don’t agree with Mike Konczal that Obama’s greatest disappointment is his inability to lose well, for me, it’s probably the second greatest disappointment (the greatest being the inability to focus on the employment deficit). At least, I did agree, but now I’m pretty certain I don’t.

A while ago, I wrote about the strategic importance of losing:

This is something that the too-smart-for-their-own-good Democratic political operatives and their progressive apologists always fail to understand: you have to create your own opportunities for good politics. If you think a policy is a good one, that many people will like the outcome, then fight for it. If the policy is truly needed and you lose, don’t worry, circumstances will eventually come around to support your position. And now you’ve laid the groundwork and established a good narrative (TEH EVUL OBSTRUKSHUNITZ!!), both of which are needed to successfully pass the legislation.

So I was tempted to agree when Konczal wrote this:

I expected Obama to be a better loser, specifically to be better at losing. There were a lot of items on the table, a lot of them weren’t going to happen, but it was important for the new future of liberalism that the Obama team lost them well. And that hasn’t happened.

By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.

As Konczal notes, on most issues, Obama attempts to ‘buy credibility’ with Republicans, who then oppose him anyway.
But I think the real problem is that, while Obama might be disappointed with some outcomes, he hasn’t felt that he has actually lost. Sure, he didn’t get what he wanted, but he got something. He might not be entirely pleased with the outcome, but he doesn’t feel as if he’s lost. There’s a difference. That’s because he is a Rockefeller Republican*, so many outcomes just don’t appear so bad. To put this another way, the policies he gives up to ‘buy credibility’ don’t mean very much to him.

The one issue where Obama would have perceived a loss would have been the failure of the START treaty. For whatever reason, this seems to be an issue he cares deeply about, and had START failed, he would have thought he had lost.
The sooner Democrats, moderates and liberals both, realize that the White House is controlled by an opposition party (albeit not the batshit lunatic Republicans), the better off we’ll be.

*To put it bluntly, if a white president were to call for slashing Social Security, cutting taxes on the wealthy, Romneycare, gave massive subsidies to banks while screwing homeowners, and had “evolving views” on gay rights, would there be any doubt about his political affiliation? He would either be a Blue Dog Democrat–which is the modern name for Rockefeller Republicans–or a ‘moderate’ Republican.

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2 Responses to Does Obama Lose Poorly, or Think He’s Not Losing?

  1. Pierce R. Butler says:

    … the START treaty. For whatever reason, this seems to be an issue he cares deeply about…
    START was, according to the reports I saw at the time, the primary reason Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Letting that go down the drain would have cost him immeasurably in global diplomatic circles, which I’m starting to suspect he takes more seriously than US public opinion.
    My personal hypothesis is that much of Obama’s continuing domestic failure is a matter of old-fashioned personal ego. He seems to see himself as a master negotiator, having made his name in the Illinois Senate by bringing together various factions in grand compromises, and in that mode lots of give-&-take is necessary.
    Applying the same strategy in DC, he’s doing a lot more giving than taking. While much of this is due to the weakness of his team (see: Dogs, Blue; Emanuel, Rahm) and the incompetence of Pelosi and (particularly!) Reid, Obama seems to be fooling himself that eventually his concessions will be repaid and he will once again emerge with a win-win package. This delusion may well have been reinforced by the lame-duck victories of START and DADT repeal, which owe more to Pentagon pressure and gay rights grassroots/lobbying pressure respectively.
    What amazes me most about this pattern is what it implies about the Illinois state legislature during BHO’s tenure there: pragmatic deal-making, good-faith negotiations, personal integrity strong enough to make a difference. This is so out of character for modern US politics to be the weakest part of my hypothesis, much more so than the well-concealed Presidential blind egotism component.

  2. scathew says:

    I think your initial premise that Obama should be viewed as the “opposition” is correct. Frankly in the end I don’t think it matters if our leaders are the way they are by intention or by folly.
    Does it matter in retrospect that George Bush did what he did because he believed in it or because he was the puppet of Rove and Cheney? Does the fact that he was heartfelt somehow make it better? Does the fact that he was good with children and the kind of guy you’d like to share a beer with make his use of torture somehow ok?
    Does the victim of a gang rape really care if the guy on top is the leader or a follower?
    In the end we should probably judge current leaders the way we judge past ones – by their actions, not their personalities. That Obama intends (or not) otherwise is ultimately inconsequential and frankly a distraction. To misquote another past enigma, “It’s the policy stupid.”
    In short, I’d rather have a lying Gandhi than an honest Hitler (and sadly, if there’s anything one can be sure about Hitler, is that he actually believed in what he was doing). To view people at these levels in the same terms as regular human beings is probably just folly in itself. Most I suspect (though I hope not Gandhi!) are strange “sociopaths”, not subject to the same psychological rules as you and me.
    In the end the question is: is what Obama is doing good for us?
    The answer I think is largely “no”. All other details are really, again, a distraction.

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