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Obama’s “Theory of Change” Revisited

By / 1.26.2010

If you are interested in a deeper interpretation of what’s been happening in and to the Obama administration–deeper, that is, than conservative allegations of “radicalism” and “sociialism” and progressive complaints about “spinelessness” or “corporate influence”–then I highly recommend a colloquoy on The American Prospect site between TAP’s Mark Schmitt and historian Rick Perlstein. It’s in essence a lookback at the simmering debate among progressive observers that ran all through the 2008 election cycle about Barack Obama’s “theory of change,” and especially the tension between his progressive goals and his rhetoric of bipartisanship.

As it happens, Schmitt (along with Michael Tomasky and yours truly) was highly identified with the argument that Obama’s “theory of change” was aimed at offering the political opposition a choice between cooperation on progressive policy initiatives or self-isolation through obstruction and extremism. In other words, in a country unhappy with partisan gridlock, Republicans would either go along with key elements of a progressive agenda, or shrink themselves into an ever-more-extreme ideological rump that was irrelevant to the direction of the country.

Rick Perlstein was more of an Obama-skeptic, but he, too, began to feel that Obama might be luring Republicans into a big trap. As he recalls now, during the stretch drive in 2008:

Conservatives eagerly played to type — GOP congressional leaders called in Joe the Plumber for strategy sessions, and Newsmax.com started advertising a 2009 “Hot Sarah Calendar.” On my blog I labeled what Republicans had been reduced to as “Palinporn”: “material to help lonely conservatives retreat within their own cocoon of fantasy rather than participate in the actual conversations taking place to govern the country.” It was a very “Obama theory of change” insight: Obama could simply get on with governing. Republicans would conversely build ever more elaborate halls of mirrors that made it increasingly impossible for them to speak to America. In fact, around that time, I was exhilarated by the thought of Rush Limbaugh’s ratings exploding through the roof, from 20 million to 30 million listeners — 30 million Americans able only to speak to each other, sounding to the rest of the country like practitioners of esoteric Masonic rites.

Today, of course, Republicans haven’t gotten any less extreme–au contraire in fact–but their political prospects, for 2010 at least, look pretty good. What went wrong? Was Obama’s “theory of change” fundamentally flawed, making him look weak and unprincipled when talking about “bipartisanship?” Would Democrats have done better under the leadership of someone whose theory of change was based on “fighting” or constituency-tending?

You can read the whole piece, but both Schmitt and Perlstein agree that Obama underestimated the ability of Republicans to achieve almost total solidarity against the new administration, and overestimated his own ability to maintain the strong and excited coalition he put together in 2008, given the excrutiatingly difficult circumstances he face upon taking office. Moreover, they agree that going forward, Obama must find ways to “draw lines” with the Republican opposition without trying to abandon his natural style and tone. To put it another way, they suggest that Obama’s “theory of change” required, in practice, a more aggressive approach than trap-setting and jiu-jitsu. The strategy isn’t just falling into place naturally.

What I would add to their analysis is that this “line-drawing” should focus more on the present and future than the past. Yes, George W. Bush is responsible for a lot of the country’s current problems and even many of the policies that Obama was more or less forced to continue. Yes, Obama inherited two wars, vast long-term budget deficits, and an economic nightmare, and he should remind people of that now and then. But inevitably, fairly or not, with every day that passes more Americans will hold the current administration responsible for current conditions in the country. Moreover, what the “blame Bush” narrative misses is that Republicans have in no small part insulated themselves from responsibility for his record by moving harshly to the Right, implicitly criticizing Bush for not being a “true conservative,” and in particular, attacking the steps he took to head off a global economic collapse, which are deeply unpopular. And focusing on Bush distracts attention from the extremism, craziness and emptiness (depending on the issue) or the post-Bush Republican Party, which ought to be the source of comparison for voters this year and in 2012. Without an aggressive, presidentially-led effort to expose that extremism, you can’t really expect political independents to look past the mainstream media’s inveterate tendency to assume the political “center” is half-way between wherever the two parties happen to be at any moment, and to blame both parties equally for the climate of “partisanship” (or maybe blame Obama even more, since he was supposed to be “post-partisan”).

Presenting a choice not just to Republicans, but to voters, of two distinct courses in American politics and policy is the best chance the president and the Democratic Party has of negotiating the current climate, re-energizing the 2012 coalition, and eventually, getting a clear mandate for progressive governance that will include public support for overcoming Republican obstruction, especially in the Senate.

Obama’s “theory of change” hasn’t been refuted, just immensely complicated, and there’s no compelling evidence that a different strategy of dealing with a public wanting conflicting things, an opposition party that’s gone nihilistic, and the built-in obstructions to change in our system, would have worked better. But at some point, the theory has to be adjusted to current realities and past mistakes, and get visible results. Otherwise, the spectacle of the post-partisan president getting attacked for “socialism” while trimming his own policy sails and begging the opposition for cooperation really will look just feckless.

This item is cross-posted at The Democratic Strategist.