I'm sorry to have to disagree with Thomas Frank, because I admire a lot of his work. But I'm wondering about his purpose in offering a harsh critique of Obama's presidency several months before the election. (Here is an interview with Frank in Salon outlining some of the points in his article. The article itself I haven't read because Harper's only makes it available to subscribers. Note to Harper's: I pay money to subscribe to the print editions of magazines like the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review, and they put their content online for free. I do not subscribe to Harper's.) Anyway, it seems to me that this sort of thing in the middle of election campaign season mainly serves the purpose of spreading negativity and encouraging the president's supporters (and Frank has to be counted as a supporter, since he admits that he will "almost for sure" vote for Obama) to argue among themselves. Nevertheless, I will take the bait, and explain why Frank is wrong.
The thrust of Frank's critique seems to be that Obama gave away too much to the right in his first term, because he stressed the importance of bi-partisanship, when he should have been fighting harder on substantive issues, such as punishing Wall Street bankers, or achieving more economic stimulus. Frank seems to think bi-partisanship is not a worthwhile goal because he conceives of politics as a battleground, and he prefers to see politicians fight for the policies they advocate rather than try to reach agreement with those of opposing views. That part of Frank's critique suggests that we should be more concerned with substance, and less with how we get there. I don't agree with that, but that might be because I just happen to be more interested in procedure than in substance. I think if we can design a more workable and fairer system we are more likely to get results that reflect what people want, whereas if we all just fight for the conflicting results we want in the confines of a dysfunctional system, we are less likely to achieve fair or satisfying results. Obama's promise in 2008 of a new politics, and his continued emphasis on fixing a broken system even in the face of more divisiveness and obstructionism than he started with, are what made me a strong supporter. Critics like Frank apparently never bought into these ideas. But that is something of a philosophical disagreement that has existed since the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Obama in 2008, and we can probably never resolve that.
The second part of Frank's critique is that Obama's emphasis on bi-partisanship makes him a bad negotiator. The idea is that announcing to your opponents in advance that you are interested in working out an agreement with them in a cooperative way supposedly makes the other side even more intransigent, and forces the Obama team to move closer and closer to the other side in order to get the deals they supposedly so desperately want. I have some expertise in responding to this part of Frank's analysis because I spend a lot of time studying and thinking about negotiation and mediation, and it's an important part of my law practice.
I will concede that the other side has become more intransigent than ever. That was an attitude they deliberately adopted on Obama's election, as has been recently documented. Did they become more intransigent because candidate and then President Obama announced in advance that he was a conciliator, or would they have been equally intransigent if the president had announced that he was going to fight them tooth and nail every step of the way? My guess is the latter, but it's still a valid question to ask how best to deal with an intransigent adversary. Should you continue acting as a conciliator, or should you adopt a take no prisoners approach?
My experience in negotiation tells me that it is never a sign of weakness to let the other side know in advance that you are interested in reaching a cooperative resolution of a dispute. It is a sign of strength. The time you are showing weakness as a negotiator is when you let the other side know that you have no alternative to making a deal. In other words, there is no harm in expressing a willingness to remain at the bargaining table as long as it takes, but there might be some cost if your side is unwilling ever to walk from the table if you can't obtain a deal that is acceptable. During Obama's first term, the weaknesses in the Democratic side's bargaining power did not come from the Democratic side's expressions of willingness to make a deal. They came from the Democrats' inability to walk from the table. It is crucial to understand this distinction. There were things the Obama administration decided they HAD to achieve, and on all of those things, they made more compromises than their side wanted: the stimulus, health care reform, raising the debt ceiling, introducing new financial regulations. They made those compromises because the alternative would probably have been no deal at all, and that was unacceptable to the Obama team side.
Notice that in the second half of the Obama administration's first term, there have been fewer compromises, and that has made supporters like Frank happier. (He also says he likes the feisty tone of the re-election campaign.) But note also that basically nothing has gotten done during this Congress, as compared with the first two years. That's because the Obama administration worked hard to get as much of its agenda enacted as possible during the first two years, and there now remain hardly any issues on which the Democrats HAVE to make a deal. Once the debt ceiling deal was in place, for example, the Democrats can take an uncompromising stand on their view that tax increases must be part of any deficit solution. They don't have to give anything on this point, because if they don't the Bush tax cuts automatically expire and automatic spending cuts take effect that are much less to the Republicans' liking than the Democrats. So there should be more pressure on Republicans to make a deal this fall. And that pressure exists regardless of how much sabre-rattling the Republicans engage in now. In fact, it appears to me that Republican bluster on the upcoming budget negotiations is a sign of weakness, whereas Democratic expressions of reasonableness are a sign of strength right now.
It's also useful I think to compare the Obama approach to that of Bill Clinton. Frank doesn't seem happy that Clinton was a big compromiser either, even though he seems to fault Obama more than Clinton, perhaps because he had hopes that Obama was going to bring more transformative policy changes. But here's the difference between Clinton and Obama: Clinton actually adopted the positions of his adversaries as the new Democratic positions. He actually moved the whole Democratic party platform to the right. So on issues like welfare or crime, suddenly it was Democrats who were in favor of cutting off welfare recipients and locking up criminals for longer terms. That was not a compromise. It was a policy shift. The Obama administration, on the other hand, did not sacrifice its principles. President Obama remained in favor of a public option in the health reform bill, though he gave it up in negotiations. He wanted to let the Bush tax cuts expire for those in the highest tax brackets, though he gave that up also to make a deal. Critics like Frank think the end result is the same, so there is no real difference. But the latter approach does allow you to hang on to your principles, unless you believe that you can never recognize that the other side has some power and in a democracy, is also entitled to achieve some part of their aims. Also, any fair-minded person who compares the accomplishments of Clinton's first term with the landmark achievements of the Obama administration would have to agree that Obama just plain got a whole lot more progressive legislation accomplished. So who's the better negotiator?