"The President's game plan: The philosophy and strategy behind Barack Obama's decisions": A discussion on public radio's "Radio Times," at WHYY, 12/16/10
Intro: President Barack Obama has increasingly come under fire from liberal Democrats, who say he is hardly the "change president" they thought they were electing, and that he is moving to the center and abandoning his base. Most recently, his critics point to his compromise tax deal which, they say, betrayed middle-class taxpayers. The President's supporters on the left, on the other hand, contend that he has a clear and consistent, effective governing philosophy and style. In this hour of Radio Times we talk to Harvard history professor JAMES KLOPPENBERG and Salon.com news editor STEVE KORNACKI, who agree that the President's vision is taking the country in the right direction. Host and moderator: Marty Moss Coane.
Marty Moss Coane: Yesterday the US Senate overwhelmingly an $858 billion tax package that was negotiation between President Obama and GOP leaders. Now it goes to the House of Representatives where Democrats are seething over the contents of the bill and the compomises used to write it. President Obama has been criticized by the right for years. Now he faces some criticism from the left. In fact, some liberals in the Democratic party believe that the president was bamboozled by the Republicans and sold them out. There are, though, those who still support the president and his vision for the country. Today we want to talk about the philosophy and strategy behind President Obama's decision making. Joining us is James Kloppenberg. He's chairman of the history department at Harvard University where he's a professor of American history. He's the author of a book called "Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition." Jim Kloppenberg, nice to have you with us on Radio Times!
James Kloppenberg: Pleasure to be with you!
MMC: So how different, from your perspective, is President Obama from candidate Obama?
JK: Well, I think it's more a question of continuity than of change. What struck me in reading his books was how clear he was about the need to compromise in order to make progress. As a law student and later as a professor of law, he talked about American law as a nation arguing with its conscience. He's aware that Americans have always disagreed deeply on fundamental principles. When you have that kind of disagreement the only way you can make any progress is to compromise with those with whom you disagree.
MMC: In fact, your book is about the two books he has written, both about this life and his political philosophy. Reading those books, what do you come away with when trying to understand President Obama's political philosophy?
JK: I think he has an unusually acute understanding of the ways in which the nation has developed. His analysis of the Constitution is really quite remarkable, though perhaps for someone who taught Constitutional law that shouldn't surprise us as much. He emphasizes the necessity of people changing their minds at the Constitutional Convention in order to get the final document. If everyone had simply dug in his heels in Philadelphia, there never would have been agreement. James Madison, who's often credited with having been the architect of the Constitution, admitted afterwards that he didn't get the Constitution he wanted and he didn't think anybody else did! But they agreed to leave the document open-ended -- open to amendment --which was really a first in human history. I think that was an indication of their awareness that the Constitution would have to change, would have to adapt over time. In his discussions of American history and politics in "The Audacity of Hope," Obama examines again and again the ways in which America has changed over time.
MMC: So he's a philosophical pragmatist, as you write in your book?
JK: Well, I think that's one way to make sense of him. He's a complicated man. I think labeling him in any way shortchanges him. But I think he was influenced by the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism in the writings of people like William James and John Dewey around the turn of the 20th century. They were opposed to the idea that you could find in dogmatic statements of principles answers to the problems we face as humans. Most philosophical problems are better approached through an experimental approach -- see what the consequences of a particular hypothesis, a particular experiment, might be. I think that's the sensibility Obama has brought with him to politics, rather than feeling that there are certain principles that absolutely, necessarily translate into Policy X or Policy Y. He can hold firm principles but be willing to talk with others about the best strategies for getting closer to those principles in compromise with people who disagree with him -- if he thinks the compromise can advance the cause even a little bit. I think that's what we've seen throughout his presidency -- in health care, in financial reform, and now on this tax package. As he said in his last press conference on December 7th, it's not the package he would have wanted. He would have wanted to bring to an end the tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest Americans. But, given the situation he faces, that wasn't in the cards.
MMC: In fact, let me play a little clip from the press conference when he was talking about the tax deal that he worked out with the GOP. This is section where he talks about compromising with Republican leaders:
President Obama: ...This notion that somehow we are going to compromise too much reminds me of the debate we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again! So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for a hundred years. But because there was a provision in there that they didn't get -- that would have affected maybe a couple of million people -- and even though we got health insurance for thirty million people and the potential for lower premiums for a hundred million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness. And compromise. If that's the standard by which are measure success or core principles, then let's face it -- we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist's conviction and no victories for the American people. And we'll be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are. And in the meantime the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out. That can't be the measure of how we think about our public service.
MMC: Jim Kloppenberg, that was the sentence that really riled up a lot of liberals in the Democratic party.
JK: Exactly. I think there are indeed purists out there, people with whom I share particular principles -- I think of myself as a person on the left -- but I think we have to realize that Barack Obama has been, from the beginning, someone who sees a path forward more through compromise and moderation than through strident proclamation of his own principles. He is someone who, throughout his life, has been a mediator. He's been someone who was able to bring people together who thought they had nothing in common. It seems to me as though he's very much trying to do that as president of the US. He's up against a very well-funded opposition on the right and also people on the left who are, at times, almost equally impatient with him because he is moving in a direction that is out-of-tune with the prevailing rhythms of American politics these days. Most of what we hear is stridently partisan. When someone speaks about the need to break down that partisanship, it tends to rile the people at both ends of the spectrum. But I think in addition to being mediator by nature, he also understands that opinion polls indicate that most Americans are with him. There may be 15 or 20% at each end of the political spectrum, but the vast majority of Americans on most issues -- even the most hot-button issues of the culture wars -- tend to cluster more toward the middle. I think what the president is trying to do is to shift the center of political debate toward more moderation, toward more civility, and toward a greater concern with his core principle of equity. I think we've see that pretty consistently during the first two years of his presidency.
MMC: You wrote recently in Newsweek -- and this was looking at Obama's critics on the left and on the right -- "He doesn't not share their self-righteous certainty." Ouch.
JK: Exactly. That's where I think the legacy of philosophical pragmatism comes in. If you view yourself as someone who is less than certain on many issues but willing to experiment with alternatives, then you are likelier to be willing to compromise than if you are someone who believes you have privileged access to The Truth. What's striking to me, what interested me the first time I read "Dream of My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope" is that Obama is, himself, a skeptic. He's a Christian -- I believe that's fairly clear. He is a believe in the truth of Christianity. But he's the inheritor of a tradition of Christian skepticism that goes all the way back to the early church. This is a distinguished tradition. It hasn't received very much attention in America in recent years. But I think it is possible both to have particular and very deeply held convictions as he does and to be doubtful about how exactly you translate those convictions into political policy.
MMC: Let me go back to the campaign. The mantra of the Obama campaign was "hope and change." Do you think by choosing that kind of vision for politics in the country that Obama overly raised expectations of his supporters? Or do you think we live in a kind of fantasy world?
JK: I don't think it would have raised expectations of those who knew him well or who had read his books. That is what was so striking to me. When I put down "The Audacity of Hope" after paying close attention to it, it seemed to me that he had spoken very clearly in that book about the extent of his moderation. When he wrote about health care in "The Audacity of Hope," he conceded that it was unlikely that America was going to have a plan such as the programs in most northern European countries because, he said, too many Americans are too happy with the health care they have. They're happy with their insurance and with their doctors. What we would need would be some sort of hybrid plan. At that point he was envisioning a series of experiments in the different states to take advantage of our federal structure. What we got, by the time he was elected president, was only one such experiment. That was the one here in Massachusetts. And that pretty much ended up being the template for what we ended up with. So I think he is very much someone committed to experimentation. The hope is -- the hope he was talking about in his campaign -- that we can get away from the strident partisanship and get back to a willingness to experiment with the very serious, real problems we have instead of getting locked in these soundbites, these debates, that don't cut into the problems but simply continue to make the purists on the left and the purists on the right feel good about their own self-righteousness.
MMC: I don't want to make you a stand-in for President Obama today, but I was reading recently in the New York Times Frank Rich writing critically of the president, essentially asking, "Who is Obama? What does this president believe in? I wonder -- by being a pragmatist, has he created a kind of Zelig problem for himself?
JK: I think not. I think Mr. Rich and other critics really ought to go back and read the books. It is quite clear when you read "Dreams of My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope" that he's been as explicit about who he is as any person we've had elected president in the last century. And that's really quite remarkable. Both of those books are well worth reading even now! At the time he wrote "The Audacity of Hope" I think it would have been a reach to imagine that he was going to be sitting in the White House as soon as he was. I think he wasn't trying to be coy in those books. I think he lays out his uncertainties, he lays out the challenges he's faced as an individual and the challenges he thinks the nation faces. He's quite explicit about saying we're not going to be able to solve these problems on the models of other nations or moving lock-step along with an ideology that we've inherited. We need to experiment; we need to find a road forward that will satisfy those who share the views of people on the left, people in the Democratic party such as Obama, but also people who have deeply held convictions that are quite different. And finding new solutions to those problems, such as health care, such as the financial reform package. It is destined to leave people at both ends of the political spectrum dissatisfied -- because they are compromising. They are plans that offer something to people who are more conservative and people who are more progressive.
MMC: ...Joining us now is Steve Kornacki. He's news editor for Salon. Steve, nice to have you back with us on Radio Times
Steve Kornacki: Happy to be here!
MMC: Let me talk with you bit about the tax package that was passed yesterday [12/16/10] by the House. In fact it passed pretty overwhelmingly, 81-19. Now it goes to the House of Representatives. We know that there's a lot of criticism coming from the House. How do you think it's going to fare?
Steve Kornacki: I think the reality is it's going to pass in the exact same form it passed the Senate and it will probably be on the president's desk at the end of the day. [He was right.] I think what's going to happen in the House today is there will be two votes. The Democrats are going to take one vote that's essentially going to be symbolic. It will be to pass the package that the Senate passed with one exception: doing away with the estate tax provision which liberals tend to see as a giveaway to the extremely wealthy. But nobody believes that that version is actually going to pass. So when that fails on the floor, they will go to "Plan B" which is to vote on the exact same bill that passed the Senate. The expectation is that will pass pretty handily and will be on its way to Obama's desk.
MMC: So do you see this as Obama and the Republicans vs. the Democrats?
SK: No, I don't. I think when you look at the vote total in the Senate yesterday, that doesn't really bear out. My suspicion is that when you look at the final tally in the House today, that won't be the case either. It's true that the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts for everybody, including the top -- the absolute upper-income earners in the country -- that's something that really violates some of the core progressive and liberal principles. At the same time, when you look at the stimulus that's also included in this -- measures that are intended to help the economy, whether its extending unemployment insurance for the next 16 months or cutting the payroll tax and the effects they will have on the deficit -- there's a lot in here that sort of violates what conservatives call their "core principles." So when you get down to it, if you look at the Senate vote, there were conservatives who were upset with this and voting against it. Looking at the House, the story this week was whether there was going to be a revolt by Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney and tea party very conservative members of the House against this. Because there was too much spending in it.
MMC: Let me go back to you, Jim Kloppenberg. Even looking at this tax package, how do you read what President Obama did? It looks like it's going to get passed.
JK: I think Steve is exactly right. When you look at the bill, it's very much a compromise measure that gives the left something it can hang onto, and something the right can hang onto. Both sides have something they like and and other features they dislike very much! At the very beginning of his press conference last week, Obama announced in no uncertain terms just how much he continued to oppose the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. So in the introductory comments, when you said he was being criticized for caving on the Bush era tax cuts, there's no reason to think that he did anything other than what he was required to do by the reality he faces in the Congress. I think what some people who are critical of him from the left are forgetting is that if all of these tax cuts come to an end at the end of this year, the consequences for the poorest Americans are going to be catastrophic. The likelihood that the new and more conservative Congress would reinstate those unemployment benefits seems to me negligible. So I think this actually is a plan that offers some of what he was hoping to achieve -- a sort of stealth stimulus -- as well as providing the extension of unemployment benefits. So I think, again, as with a number of other pieces of legislation, it was the best he could do in a difficult situation.
MMC: One of the complaints against the president from his own party -- from liberals in his own party -- was that he didn't fight hard enough for the issues that they cared about. Is that a fair critique?
JK: Well, that a line of reasoning I've had a very hard time understanding from the very beginning of his presidency. What good would it have done to pound the table and wave the flag and then get the same result? I think he is a man who is results oriented. I see that as a sign of maturity in a politician. But some of my friends, I think, see it as a sign of weakness and sign of paying too little attention to them, frankly. And I just don't share that view. I really think politics is about getting things done. I think he showed during the campaign that he is capable of inspiring a great deal of enthusiasm from his supporters, and I suspect we're going to see that from Obama against in 2012. The timing of this measure makes it very easy to predict that the shape and nature of the tax code is going to be front and center in the summer and fall of 2012. I think he welcomes that debate. I think he knows he has the American people on his side, when that debate comes. In the short term it was more important to get the unemployment benefits extended, to get more money into the economy, to continue to the recovery. But long term, I don't think he's abandoned his goal of making both the tax system and American culture in general more equitable that it is now.
MMC: Steve, he has angered the world of liberal punditry world -- MSNBC and others -- as well.
SK: Yeah. And I think what's interesting there and what I've been writing about a little this week -- and this, I think, has been consistent throughout this presidency -- there really is a disconnect between the attitude of (for lack of a better term) "elite liberal opinion shapers" and commentators and rank and file Democrats and rank and file liberal Democrats when you look at the polling. There was a poll released just yesterday (12/15/10) by ABC News and the Washington Post which found that Obama's approval rating among liberal Democrats is 87%. This poll was taken [the second weekend of December 2010] at the height of the supposed backlash against the deal he had just cut with Republicans, a deal that every commentator on MSNBC, it seemed, and in many other places was saying represented this colossal cave on his part. And yet, after all that, after bearing all those attacks, his approval rating was nearly 90% among liberal Democrats. And when you look closer, to the extent he has a problem among Democratic voters in polling, it's among Democrats who called themselves "moderate" Democrats or Democrats who call themselves "conservative" Democrats. His overall approval among Democrats is about 80%. When you get down to just conservative Democrats, you're looking at about 60% to 65%. So I really think it's understandable why commentators are upset with the deal. But when you look at the rank and file of the party, I'm sure a lot of them are not really excited about this but at the same time I think they're willing give, they've been willing to give and I think they'll continue to be willing to give Obama benefit of the doubt. He was their candidate in the first place! A couple of years ago he was the candidate of the base. I think they see this not so much as a cave but as a president who still shares their fundamental goals and values and who's making decisions he thinks represent the best chance of making progress in those goals and values.
MMC: How would you describe the relationship between the press and the White House?
SK: The press in general or the liberal press?
MMC: Well, let's do the press in general!
SK: Well, I think, like every White House, it was probably a lot healthier two years ago when things were starting out than it is right now. But there's nothing particularly unusual about the relationship between this White House and the press corps. There are the usual noises, the usual frustrations. But I don't think there's anything that significant there.
MMC: Jim, we do have a president that looks like a cool cucumber in pretty hot partisan times.
JK: Exactly. And I think what Steve said is exactly right. If 13% of Democrats find him insufficiently hot-blooded, then I think the 87% are correct. He has continued working for the principles he believes in and the principles they associate with him and he still looks as though he's got a good chance to continue making gains on the progressive agenda. So I think, as Steve put it, the base sees the president as sharing their values and that's exactly right. It may be that there are critics, but I think there are going to be many more supporters than there are critics going forward -- if he continues working step-by-step in the direction he's taken in the first two years. At the end of that press conference -- again -- he reminded his fellow Democrats that he's moved towards accomplishing every one of the goals that he laid out in his campaign. And the ones he hasn't addressed yet, he intends to address in the next two years. We'll see how much more progress he's able to make in light of a less friendly House of Representatives. But, on the other hand, that makes it incumbent on the Republicans to advance some issues of their own. So this political equation doesn't necessarily work to the detriment of a sitting president. It didn't to Ronald Reagan in 1982 or Bill Clinton after 1994. So I think it's very difficult for us to project on the basis of the very short term debate what's likely to be true in a few years.
MMC: ...Chris is calling in from Ambler, Pennsylvania.
Chris: This is a very worthwhile discussion. My experience of the give and take is that Obama is thinking chess and many of his righteous liberal critics are thinking checkers in the whole process. How this is going to play out he has the capacity to see the long run and has much more patience that his liberal critics.
MMC: Chris, I've heard that description before. Let me get a response from Jim Kloppenberg. Do you agree?
JK: Yes, I think that's exactly the right image, one I've used myself. I think, as he reminded us in that press conference, it is a long game. And I think he's thinking very much about the fall of 2012 already. I'd like to thinking about 2016 and where we'll be at that point. So I welcome that reminder. I think you're absolutely right, Chris.
MMC: And Steve, the president may be thinking a long game, but we live in such a reactive world. Every blip in a poll, every reaction gets, in many ways, amplified by (frankly) the press!
SK: I think that's true, but I think there's a recognition that if you look at what just happened in the 2010 midterms with the Democrats losing so many seats and having such a terrible fall, there are a lot of factors that went into that. But I think the White House recognizes what most of us recognize: the overwhelming reason this was such an awful election for Democrats was that the economy just seems stalled. Unemployment seems stuck near 10%. Economic anxiety is so high and so widespread. As long as that condition persists, politically Democrats aren't going to be winning any arguments. The electorate is just in the mood to blame the party that's in charge of the White House. That's just the way politics works. It's the way it worked when Ronald Reagan was president and he had a terrible midterm election, as James just mentioned. You talk about the long view, then the imperative for the White House to get the economy to a point where it's stronger -- first of all because that's good for the country but second of all because when the economy is stronger that's when you can start winning the message wars. You can start winning debates over tax policy and debates over the Bush tax cuts, for instance. If you can pass an agreement right now that contains a couple of hundred billion dollars in stimulus, that's rather amazing when you consider that at no point this year did anybody think the Republican party at the end of 2010 in the House and Senate would be voting for a couple hundred billion dollars of additional stimulus. So he's got Republicans to the point where they're willing to vote for that because they've gotten this compromise on the Bush tax cuts. If you add that stimulus to the economy over the next year or maybe two years, if you can get this payroll tax cut extended at the end of next year when it will expire -- if you can add that kind of simulus to the economy bringing the unemployment rate down and if you can lower the level of economic anxiety that's out there -- then what's been true for past presidents will be true for Obama: the approval rating will go up. The willingness of the public to listen to their arguments and [inaudible] the other party, will make all of that increase. If you talk about a long game, that's what they have in mind. Let's get to the point where it's 2012 and the unemployment rate is down, the country is rallying around Obama again, and then these tax cuts expire again, maybe that's a climate where Obama can actually win that fight. I think the calculation was correct. In this climate right not, this is just a fight you can win. People don't want to side with the president right now.
MMC: I wonder too, Jim, whether the president who, of course, got such high marks for his oratorial skills when he was a candidate... We have learned that many Americans don't know what's in the health care bill. They don't know that they got a tax break from the first stimulus package. Do you think the president has a "messaging problem" in terms of telling the American people what he's actually been doing?
JK: He can explain it. That doesn't mean people are going to hear it. He has to deal with a very loud filter on the right that impedes people's hearing of the message he's actually sending out. That's a serious problem for him. In every other situation in which he has exercised his skills as a mediator, he's been able to actually deal with people face-to-face, one-on-one, and work his magic finding common group where people thought there was no common ground. Now he finds himself in a situation in which that's not as easy to do because there are people whose livelihoods depend on preventing him from doing that. That's a first. And that, I think, is something about the shape of partisanship in the 21st century that does distinguish it from the earlier hyperpartisan moments in American history. We now have a very wealthy and very self-interested segment of the American population devoted to fueling this hyperpartisanship. I think Steve is exactly right that the principle issue is going to be economic recovery. So getting through this passage that does include a serious injection of money into the economy may be the best they could have done, given the kinds of obstacles they face in moving the economy forward. If that happens -- and I think the way Steve framed it is exactly right -- then the message that Obama offered in 2008 and the message he's likely to offer again in 2012 is much likelier to resonate with the American people. But he's not going to be able to do it in a way he would like. I think he is going to have to find more equations between now and 2012 in which he can make clear to the American people both what he has done and what intends to do. I expect the coming State of the Union address going to be one occasion in which he's able to do that loud and clear.
MMC: ...Harrison is calling from Society Hill.
Harrison: I have two quick points to make. One: I strongly disagree with your guests about polls showing that Obama's approval ratings from Democrats is in the 80% range. I would love to see how that question was phrased because I think how a question is phrased gets the answer you want. Every Democrat that I know -- and I've been involved in Democratic politics since the mid-'60's -- is deeply, deeply disappointed at the compromise on tax cuts and the leadership that he and the Democratic party have shown in not being able to get across the very simple message about those cuts and who they affected and how that floor or ceiling of 250,000 or 500,000 or a million would not have affected the vast majority of people in this country. I think he is, right now, the lesser of two evils. There will always be Democrats choosing him over a Republican. But it is not because we adore him as we used to.
MMC: I'll toss that to you, Steve, because you were talking about the most recent poll.
SK: And it's not just the most recent poll, it's a collection of basically every major public opinion poll that's been taken throughout his presidency. The dynamic has been consistent from the moment when he took office until right now. He's very popular among Democrats when you ask, "Do you approve his actions as president?" and "Are you satisfied with his actions as president?" Questions like that. He scores very high among Democrats. When you compare his score among Democrats right now to the scores of past presidents at this same point in their term among members of their own party, Obama rates the second highest of any modern president. The only one who eclipses him, in terms of standing within his own party at this point in his presidency was George W. Bush. If you remember, at this point in the Bush presidency we were still very close to 9/11. It had only been a year. So George W. Bush's approval with Republicans was about 95%. Ronald Reagan scored worse with Republicans at this point in his term than Obama is doing with Democrats right now. Jimmy Carter scored substantially worse with Democrats at this point in his term. Bill Clinton scored worse with Democrats than Barack Obama does right now. The divide within the party has been what I said earlier. Self-identified liberal Democrats right now approve of Obama at about 85% -- 87% in the most recent poll -- but about 85% rate. 80% among all Democrats. What's interesting, of course, is if you look back through 2010 and late 2009, there have been a number of eruptions where "elite liberal commentators," for lack of a better term, have really turned their guns on Obama. I can remember in late '09 it was the issue of the public option in the health care plan. This was going to be the make-or-break issue for the left, right? Was there going to be a public option in health care and was Obama going to fight for this? "And if he doesn't there's going to be hell to pay with the base" -- that's what we were told. Well, there wasn't a public option in the final health care bill, Obama didn't fight for it, Obama signed the plan that didn't have it. And there were no notable defections in the polls. There was a lot of noise about Democrats turning on Obama. But if you actually looked at the polls, they didn't. I think we're seeing the same thing now.
MMC: And to you, Jim -- just picking up on Harrison's other point, saying that the president didn't argue when it came to extending the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy and also the estate tax. We know that in the last couple of decades wealthy people in this country have done very well. Middle class people are struggling. And people at the lower economic end are really struggling. It seems that could have been an argument the president could have made about the wealthy helping out the rest of the country.
JK: He's made that argument consistently. One of the things that I would recomment to Harrison and others who feel so disappointed is that they take a look at the discussion of the growing inequality in American in "The Audacity of Hope." Obama shares their commitment to addressing that problem. The point, as Steve has made, is that this is simply not the time, either in terms of the economy or in terms of where the political sentiment appears to be after the recent elections, to continue to advance that cause right now. I think in the next two years that time will come again if the economy continues to recover. But at the moment there is simply nothing that he could do. The only alternative was to let all the tax cuts expire -- which would have had a catastrophic effect, as I said before on not only the poorest Americans but on those who are depending on unemployment insurance. They, too, are getting a tax cut going forward and that affects more people, frankly, than the very small number of top earners. Many of us on the left are deeply disappointed that nothing has been done about that. But I would be inclined to say that at this moment there's nothing that could be done. But as far as whether Obama shares Harrison's convictions, I have no doubt that he does. In fact -- again -- he opened that press conference by saying just how disappointed he was himself, that this was the best he could do, that this was the only step that could be taken at this time. I don't think there's any reason to think that he's abandoned the objective of changing the situation we have with the tax code. In fact, he's begun talking in the last couple of days about beginning to address the situation with a major overhaul of the entire tax system. We haven't had that happen since 1986. It is high time to address not only the shape of the curve from the wealthiest to the poorest Americans, but also to address the question of the loopholes and the deductions. I think in the next two years we're going to see a major initiative coming out of the White House addressing the problems in the tax code. I would say, "Keep faith, Harrison! I don't think he's abandoned you. It's just not the moment when he could make progress."
MMC: I wonder, Steve. There's a new Congress coming in and a Republican majority in the House. How do you think President Obama is going to deal with a changed US Congress?
SK: It's a good question because there's some talk that what we've seen in the lasat week or two is sort of a preview of coming attractions. We'll see more compromises like this on more big issues. I'm a little skeptical about that. If you look at the composition of the new Congress, I think we going to see something that's been a long time coming when you look at political trends. But it's also something we haven't seen before. It's going to be the most polarized Congress ever. It's also going to be -- finally, after decades! -- that ideology and political identity within Congress are going to sync up. Which is to say that the Republicans are going to be purely and totally a conservative party and the Democrats are going to be a purely liberal and progressive party. There's not going to be many so-called "centrists" left. People have sort of figured out which side they're on and individual House districts have sort of figured out which side they're on. When you look at the Republican side, the implications of that are pretty interesting. Republicans right now, if there's one sort of prevailing concern that the average Republican member of Congress has, it's not that they're going to be voted out of office in the general election, it's that they're going to be challenged by even more conservative Republicans in the party primaries. The idea of reaching a compromise with the president is going to be inherently risky for Republican members of Congress to go along with that kind of thing. There's always going to be an incentive for some other Republican to come along when a compromise is made, and say "Look, these guys are selling you out! They're selling out your conservative principles." We saw in 2010 all of these tea party candidates knocking off establishment Republican figures in primaries. You think of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware; you think of Sharron Angle in Nevada. When you go through a year in which something like that happens, that's going to be in the minds of every one of these conservative Republican members of Congress in the next two years. "I don't want to cast the vote that makes me the next Mike Castle. Better to oppose the president than to work with him on anything!"
MMC: Though we know Christine O'Donnell did lost in the final analysis... But Jim, it does then leave the president, as you describe him a pragmatic politician, kind of alone in the center, doesn't it?
JK: Well, alone in the center for the moment. But he has with him something like 65% of the American people. I think that at some level the White House must be rubbing its hands with glee in the hope that the tea party can continue to kick up as much of a ruckus as it has, and that Sarah Palin will continue to attract as much attention as she does. She, in particular, is a very polarizing figure. She is widely loved by 15% of the American people, and distrusted, even disliked by many more. The point that Steve just made is exactly right: the pressure from the right for Republicans in Congress is going to be every bit as serious as the pressure that Barack Obama faces from his left. As the Republicans look toward nominating a candidate in 2012, it's going to be very interesting to see how this deeply polarized Republican party deals with that issue. Will they be able to come together around a moderate, as the Democrats did in 2008, or are we going to see Barry Goldwater-in-1964 again? I think the question is very difficult to answer at this point. The dynamics within the Republican party are very volatile now. It'll be interesting to see how people in Congress deal with that volatility.
MMC: ...Andy is calling in from Maple Glen.
Andy: My problem with Obama is that he hasn't used his oratorical skill to get in front of a story. Just for example: If he had gotten in front of the American people early in his first summer and made a strong case that the health care issue was a grave moral issue, that having 35 or so million people without access to health care was an immoral situation -- and done so in a very profoundingly affecting way -- that he may have prevented or forestalled or diminished many of the attacks that were made on him and his health care program that summer -- with the death panels and so on. He finally made that statement, but it was so late in the argument that it was almost not noticed. I think the same can be said for his approach to reforming the effect of big business agendas on the American public. I think the public would have welcomed a strong attack on what had happened in the American economy. But it never really happened.
MMC: Jim talked about this earlier, but Steve, let me give you a change to respond.
SK: Yes. I think it takes sort of the cold-blooded political science approach to this. But I really am skeptical. I think we put far too much emphasis on political analysis, on "messaging," on communication strategy, on the idea that public opinion can be turned around and that a turnaround can be sustained on the strength of a speech or a couple of speeches or different messaging techniques. If you look at modern political history during the media age and especially during the 24-hour news age, it's uncanny how public opinion of presidents stracks with the economy. And when the country feels the economy is going in the right direction, when the country feels economically secure, when there isn't economic anxiety, it tends to like its president, it tends to like what he's saying. And when the economy is not in good shape, the country doesn't really like its president and doesn't want to hear what the president has to say. I really think the story of the health debate and the tax-cut debate -- the story of the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency --has been that he's been saddled with an unemployment rate at or near 10% and in that climate no "messaging" strategy is really going to work. When you look at health care, too, the other thing that sticks out ... there is a compelling moral argument that can be made -- obviously! -- for universal health care. At the same time, it's very easy to scare away middle class and working class voters with the idea that in the process of going to universal health care you're going to have to give something up that you like, that you have. Anybody who had health insurance through their employers was susceptible to those scare tactics particularly because of the economic conditions. There was so much anxiety out there. People who already had health insurance I think were especially prone to arguments that they were going to have to give up something that they, on the whole, didn't want to give up.
MMC: Jim, I'm looking at part of the subtitle to your book "...American political tradition..." and the kind of sausage-making we're seeing in Congress -- is this what we do in this country when it comes to legislation and negotiation?
JK: Well, it's what we have done in the past. I think the point Steve made about this being an unusually polarized Congress is a good one. We'll see whether we can continue to do it or not. I think I also agree with him about the decisive role that economic recovery or recession plays in American politics. But I think the interesting point coming from Andy's question, in my mind, has to do with the ways in which one frames the issues in American politics. What looks to Andy and to me as if it's a can't-miss argument about the grave moral issue and the attractiveness of universal health care would antagonize just as much people on the right side of the political spectrum. I think that's what's so hard for those of us on the left to understand. There are just as many people out there who feel just as passionately about these issues from the other side as we do. Obama -- to his credit, I think -- from the time he was a young man in law school understood that you can't simply stand on a soapbox and preach at the people who disagree with you. You're only going to antagonize them. The challenge, instead, is to find common ground. That's what I think he's tried to do in the first two years -- with mixed results. But he does have real accomplishments to point to, and I suspect that's what we're going to see him continuing to try to do in this increasingly polarized political environment.