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Which Obama will emerge as Republicans take charge in the House?

The president tends toward a centrist, pragmatic approach to politics, but he also was schooled by the hard-knuckled pols of Chicago. So which Obama will come foward as he deals with the newly victorious Tea Party insurgents?

Author James Kloppenberg expects we'll see more of Obama's pragmatic side.

Author James Kloppenberg expects we'll see more of Obama's pragmatic side. Harvard University


Republican leaders in the upcoming Congress made it clear on last Sunday's talk shows that they will stand firm to retain tax breaks for the rich when it comes time to examine the expiring Bush tax cuts, either in the lame duck session this year or in the regular session next year. Rep. Eric Kantor of Virginia, the probable incoming House majority leader, was particularly firm: no compromise. At the same time, President Barack Obama is already floating compromise ideas, calling for a “conversation”  on taxes and other controversial legislation.

It has been a very long time since anyone described the 2008 election as ushering in a new era of post-partisanship; indeed, with the advance of the Tea Party, national politics looks more polarized, more angry, than at any time in many years.

The ball is clearly in Obama’s court, and we may wonder which Obama will come to play: the Chicago pol who was mentored by hard-knuckled veterans of that city’s famous political machine, or the “Kumbaya” healer who caused so many to believe he could use intelligence and compassion to transcend partisan nastiness and usher in a 21st Century New Frontier.

In some manner, much the same expectations and contrasts accompanied John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960; his mentors in Boston were every bit as tough as Obama’s, and he also brought the hope of a new generation, what we later called “The Best and the Brightest,” to mark their strengths and their flaws. Kennedy was able to straddle both expectations, but he failed in three years to accomplish what Obama has in two.

Kennedy also faced conservative Republican opposition, but Barry Goldwater would not be comfortable in the Tea Party, although he was an early precursor for that movement. Obama is in a tighter spot politically, and much will depend on the style as well as the substance of his approach to the ascendant Republican insurgents. Which Obama will emerge?

An interesting guide is James T. Kloppenberg, chairman of the history department at Harvard University, and author of an important new book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition, published this year by Princeton University Press.

Kloppenberg, in contrast to most readers, looks not to Dreams from My Father as Obama's most important book — at least not for this purpose — but rather to the less-successful Audacity of Hope, a book many political observers (including myself) felt read too much like a political platform and was not as insightful as Dreams. But Kloppenberg, in his book and excerpts in Harvard Magazine, finds in Audacity of Hope evidence of Obama's pragmatic approach to politics. The approach is deeply rooted in American political tradition — from James Madison, through the philosophers William James and John Dewey, and to the present day.

In one magazine excerpt, Kloppenberg writes, "Obama realizes that Americans have always sought a variety of goals consistent with their very different ideals and aspirations. Democracy means squabbling about differences, reaching tentative agreements, then immediately resuming debate. He understands that disagreement is more American than apple pie. Obama also sees something many of his most enthusiastic supporters on the left have trouble accepting: the willingness to endure acceptable compromises instead of demanding decisive victory over one's opponents has been a recurring feature of American democratic culture."

If Kloppenberg is correct, we are likely to see Obama's pragmatic side on display as he attempts some form of "conversation" with Congress and the American electorate. Kloppenberg points to health-care reform as an example; he points out that Obama let Congress do most of the drafting of the package, accepting many compromises along the way. Expect more of that in months ahead; Republicans cannot repeal the law but they can cast roadblocks on funding, and compromise will be needed — or at least sought. Energy policy is another area where Obama will seek compromise; cap-and-trade is probably dead on arrival, but there is a large constituency for green building and alternative energy.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Nov 10, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Your premise seems a bit odd as Obama was already a very practical politician. What gives you the idea that Obama has acted as anything but pragmatic?

My take is that if he caves to the Republic party then he will lose re-election.

Btw, try "Cantor," not "Kantor."

Posted Wed, Nov 10, 2:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Or try "KKKantor"?

Perhaps he can just fold his hands in prayer when he's privy to such rich theater as Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) at a House Energy and Environment subcommittee hearing, making the case that we shouldn’t worry about climate change because God promised Noah that he’d never destroy the world again.

Sorta like the drunk tank, except the drunks are now running the jail.

Posted Wed, Nov 10, 3:31 p.m. Inappropriate

If the man doesn't grow a spine and learn to use the bully pulpit, he's going to be a one term president with a historical note equivalent to Millard Filmore. "Served just before the second Great Depression."

He has it in him. Question is will he use it? We saw that the man is capable of giving the speech that the country needs to hear, he did it on race. Can he give that same speech about the fraud in the banking system? Will he put some of the worst offenders in jail? Will he repute the torture done in the name of the USA on enemies of the state? Will he tell the truth about the cost to the country to burn all that fossil fuel?

We need a combination Teddy Roosevelt who busted the trusts, and a Theodore Roosevelt who put the country back to work in part with the WPA and the CCC. And spoke out about the abuse of power by the bankers of his day.

He could do it. If I were him, I'd sic the Justice dept on the banks for fraud. That would nullify their money as it would bankrupt them. Put the banks into receivership to stabilize the markets. That would keep a lot of people busy for a long time.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Nov 10, 3:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Another viewpoint of Obama's dilemma.

http://www.alternet.org/news/148582/lawrence_goodwyn%3A_the_great_predicament_facing_obama

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 11, 1:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with the above commenters, particularly David Sucher. I'm mystified by the near-cultish belief of intelligent observers like Floyd McKay in the possibility of compromise with Republicans who have made it crystal clear that they have no intention of compromising. The deficit commission report will be an early test. Will Republicans accept recommendations such as raising the Social Security taxable pay cap and cutting military spending and corporate tax breaks in a quid pro quo for reductions in SS and Medicare benefits and discretionary government spending and staffing? We'll see, but I severely doubt it.

Posted Thu, Nov 11, 1:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Obama has already caved to the Republican party and doomed himself to be a one-term president presiding over W's third term. I hope and pray that a large number of Dems run against him in the 2012 primary.

Mud Baby

Posted Sat, Nov 13, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate


"Will Republicans accept recommendations such as raising the Social Security taxable pay cap and cutting military spending and corporate tax breaks in a quid pro quo for reductions in SS and Medicare benefits and discretionary government spending and staffing? We'll see, but I severely doubt it."

Probably not. But, I severely doubt the progressive Democrats will agree either. I sincerely hope Obama will have the courage to embrace the commission co-chair's recommendations, at least in general terms, and challenge both Republicans and Democrats to compromise and agree to cutting military spending, raise taxes, cut SS and Medicare benefits, and all the other things needed to save our country from strangling on debt that both parties are responsible for. That will be a true test of leadership.

SteveC

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