Obama: Triangulation 2.0?

Even Morris doubts that his strategy is applicable today. A New York Post column after the election was titled "This Time, Triangulation's Not an Option." Morris and his co-author, Eileen McGann, pointed out that Republicans have little desire to work with Obama. "If they compromise to suit Obama's big-government objectives, they'll muddy the waters, antagonize their energetic base and provide no clear alternative to his socialism," he wrote. According to Morris, Obama's "socialism" can only be defeated, not appeased. Despite calls for a more civil dialogue in the wake of the Arizona shootings, Republicans are unlikely to abandon their oppositional strategy. "The concept of the third way or triangulation is that reasonable people from both sides can come together and strike a deal," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network and a veteran of Clinton's war room in 1992. "And I think what we've learned in the last few years is that formula requires both sides to be reasonable. And we've discovered the Republicans are not."

Not only is the political context between now and 1994 different; so too are the backgrounds of Clinton and Obama. Clinton viewed himself as a liberal in a conservative era and governed accordingly. Obama was elected at the very moment when conservative governance — in the form of George W. Bush — was being widely repudiated. Clinton hailed from the center/center-right of the Democratic Party and consciously tried to shed the "big government, tax and spend" stigma of the McGovern/Mondale years by associating himself with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and New Democrat movement. Obama represented a new day for his party and appeared less bound by the ideological baggage and fights of the boomer generation. In part because of his early opposition to war in Iraq and his progressive record as a state and US senator, he was more enthusiastically embraced by liberal Democrats and linked to a younger, diverse, more grassroots constituency. As a state senator, Obama had found Clinton's maneuvering on welfare reform "disturbing," identified himself as a member of the "liberal wing of the Democratic Party" in 1999 and, in a signature speech in Iowa during the 2008 primaries, promised an end to "triangulating and poll-driven positions." Obama has already accomplished some major things Clinton did not, such as the stimulus bill, healthcare reform and financial regulatory reform, and he will not be able to fast-forward the agenda of new House Speaker John Boehner without disowning his signature achievements.

Triangulation, to the extent that he pursued it, was a political strategy for Clinton — he believed in policies like welfare reform and balancing the budget, but he deliberately highlighted the issues that brought him the largest gain among the center of the electorate. Obama, on the other hand, has disparaged the bite-sized politics of the Clinton era and has said that he'd rather be a transformational president in one term than a middle-of-the-roader for eight years. When his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, another Clinton alum, urged him not to pursue healthcare reform in 2009, Obama responded, "I wasn't sent here to do school uniforms," according to Jonathan Alter's book The Promise: President Obama, Year One. Yet here's the rub: compromise, for Obama, appears to be even more of a core value than it was for Clinton — he believes instinctively, from his days as a community organizer onward, in getting what he can out of a deal, even if it's less than he wanted, and moving on. What he considers the purism of the left bothers him as much as the ideological extremity of the right, and as president he has often lumped both poles together, even as the center continues to drift to the right. "I don't believe that either party has cornered the market on good ideas," Obama said when he signed the tax cut compromise. "And I want to draw on the best thinking from both sides." Yet the president has often gone too far in adopting the other side's arguments, watering down his own agenda in an attempt to lure GOP votes that never materialize. "In the spirit of trying to find common ground, the president sometimes gave too much ground," says Rosenberg.

Washington Post blogger Adam Serwer has persuasively argued that "what in the past the administration has referred to as 'pragmatism' is merely triangulating by another name." The difference is rhetorical, not substantive. "Obama makes it clear that he agrees with liberals on substance, before arguing that the political situation necessitates some kind of compromise," Serwer writes. Obama may profess not to like the compromise he's agreeing to — abandoning the public option on healthcare, loading up the stimulus with tax cuts, agreeing to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest — but he compromises all the same. This impulse will likely become more dominant as he negotiates with Republicans over the next two years.

Obama said he wanted to be like Reagan, not Clinton, but he has yet to make a sustained case for his corresponding ideology or vision for the country, as Reagan successfully did. Reagan attacked liberalism throughout his presidency — big government was the problem, and lower taxes and fewer regulations were the solution. No matter the deals he eventually struck, whether it be with Tip O'Neill or Soviet Russia, capitalism was the hero and government the villain. Reaganism became an ideology, and the GOP is still following that script today. One can scarcely say the same about Obamaism — whatever that may be. "Just where Mr. Obama actually lives on the ideological continuum," wrote Matt Bai of the New York Times, "is the most vexing question of his presidency." Obama has been quite clear about his allergy to ideological thinking. "I don't think in ideological terms," he told The Nation in 2005. "I never have." But the president's relentless attachment to "pragmatism," which has become an ideology unto itself, has allowed the GOP's dominant narrative about the economic crisis — that big government, once again, is to blame — to go unchallenged, especially when Obama sides with Republicans thematically on issues like deficit reduction and freezes on discretionary spending and federal pay. "In the absence of an alternative narrative the Republican story is the only one the public hears," Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary and a onetime Obama economic adviser, noted on his blog. Hence the rise of the Tea Party and the potency of antigovernment right-wing populism nowadays.

Over the past two years Obama has won a number of legislative battles, but he has lost the broader philosophical war — as Democrats passed bill after bill, the electorate drifted further away. "Reagan often gave ground on policy substance — most notably, he ended up enacting multiple tax increases," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently noted. "But he never wavered on ideas, never backed down from the position that his ideology was right and his opponents were wrong." Reagan had what Obama needs most — a master narrative and rationale for his presidency. "Reagan took his case to the people and sold his program," says Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, whose book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime Obama read on his latest vacation. During his first two years in office, "Reagan really stuck to his guns during the recession," Cannon says, defending his massive tax cuts and increase in military spending while backing Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker's controversial management of monetary policy. By the time the 1984 election rolled around, the economy was growing rapidly and unemployment had eased from 10.8 percent in 1982 to 7.2 percent. Reagan could legitimately claim it was "morning again in America." Obama, according to Cannon, needs to look less like a legislator and more like a president; to focus on communicating with the American people and not become preoccupied by negotiations with Congress. "Obama is inspirational, but he's not a salesman," Cannon says.

Tags: barack obama, bill clinton, center, centrism, clinton, clinton presidency, ideology, liberal, obama, presidency, reagan, reagan presidency, triangulation

    • Ari Berman
    • Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneE...

    • Ari Berman's full bio »