Obama Returns to being a Network Liberal

Obama Returns to being a Network Liberal December 10, 2010

From David Brooks:

Do you think Obama is a network liberal or a cluster liberal?

Barack Obama ran for president as a network liberal, and entranced a Facebook nation. But in office, Obama, like George W. Bush before him, narrowed his networks. To get things done quickly, he governed like a cluster liberal, relying on partisan leaders.

The results were predictable: insularity, alienation and defeat. So now we are headed toward divided government. But there is a whiff of coalition-building in the air. Dick Durbin and Tom Coburn boldly embraced the bipartisan fiscal commission process. Obama opened up a comprehensive set of negotiations with Republican leaders to handle the Bush tax cuts.

The big story of the week is that Obama is returning to first principles, re-establishing himself as a network liberal. This isn’t a move to the center or triangulation. It’s not the Clinton model or the Truman model or any of the other stale categories people are trying to impose on him. It’s standing at one spot in the political universe and trying to build temporarily alliances with people at other spots in the political universe.

You don’t have to abandon your principles to cut a deal. You just have to acknowledge that there are other people in the world and even a president doesn’t get to stamp his foot and have his way.

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  • You don’t have to abandon your principles to cut a deal.

    I’ve already seen more than a few people accuse Obama of having done just that, but I’m glad that at least some people seem to “get it” (and Brooks tends to be right-of-center, at that, which makes me appreciate this observation all the more).

  • I think Obama, like most politicians, is reading the election results and trying to position himself for reelection in 2012. If he wants to survive politically, he’s going to have to come back toward the center a bit and work with the conservatives. There’s no way he’ll get another term without shifting the trajectory of his first two years in office.

  • As per is the case more than it is not, David Brooks pontificates in misguided fashion and/or displays ignorance on a matter. Or garbles history to cast something which was not.

    In this instance, the evidence is quite clear that in 2008 Obama ran a “progressive” (though, certainly not to the complete suiting of many on the “left”), with appeals to CHANGE. Yet, since taking office, 90%+ of his policy has been more or less a continuity of the previous administration’s policies. Even to the point of overtly torching campaign pledges (i.e., gay marriage, torture, jobs, health care, etc.…).

    And the crack about “partisan leaders” couldn’t be further from the truth if one objectively looks at his cabinet composition and close advisers. Those of the grass roots that comprised his base were kicked to the curb not long after taking seat.

    Some, no doubt, will take issue with this assessment and question the example of “health care”, but health insurance “reform” precisely makes the point — Obama rallied and passed a Republican (a Heritage Foundation blueprint and first enacted by a Republican governor) plan that many on the left find derisive as the 21st century edition of Republican party that’s expressed its entire goal as simply opposing Obama.

  • I don’t know about the whole “network” vs “cluster” framing but no two term president governs gets to a second term by being an ideologue. Conservative Bush, Jr., passes an expensive prescription drug program. He cuts taxes for all brackets but at at greater percentages for the lower incomes, resulting in a more progressive tax structure with the wealthy paying a higher percentage of federal taxes. Bill Clinton passes NAFTA and (somewhat grudgingly) passes major welfare reform. Ronald Reagan, after making significant tax cuts in 1982 increased taxes several times thereafter, including $420 bil in corporate taxes in 1986. He also granted “amnesty” to illegal aliens. All effective presidents govern from more pragmatic principles when in office. Obama has to do more of that if he is to survive one term.

    The issue with healthcare is a major problem for him from this standpoint. Typically, when major landmark legislation has passed, it has passed with broad bi-partisan support … 40%, 50%, 60% or more of the minority party signs on. Single payer healthcare has been an objective of liberals going back to at least the 60’s. Johnson’s disastrous presidency wiped stopped it from happening. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination was seen as a major setback. Then came hopes with Carter, but his presidency faltered. Finally, with Bill Clinton, hopes reached a new high. But the controversial process and the use of the first lady to develop this type policy derailed it. After fifty years of pent-up frustration, liberals finally got their chance with Obama.

    By this point, for many liberals the health care initiative had become a holy quest that had little to do with analysis of current realities or economics. I have the sense that for many, passing a health care bill (Obama included) was “a hill to (politically) die on” if necessary. Martyrdom was to be embraced. To fail in passing this bill would have meant the failure to achieve a generational legacy.

    But I think the fall-out is this. Conservatives are intensely unhappy because key elements of the bill violate their sensibilities and they were thoroughly excluded from the bill’s design (and we are now learning from Rahm Emanuel that there was never the slightest intention of developing a bi-partisan bill despite all the public rhetoric to the contrary.) Liberals are unhappy because even though it moved the ball well down the field toward their goal, it didn’t achieve the legacy like feel, and even what the did achieve is likely to get pushed back. Independents are unhappy about the whole process and believe it is fiscally unsound and poorly designed. This differs from some past achievements like Medicare where the far left and right were not happy but most everyone else felt a productive process had been engaged and there was broad public support for the reform had materialized.

    I don’t know that Obama can overcome this. I think the deal he got with tax proposal is a reasonable one. But I do wonder if his failure to get the end the “tax cuts for the wealthy” is going to be like Bush senior’s “Read my lips: No new taxes” with his base. Unlike other presidents who disappointed some of their base and ticked off some of their opponents to get broad support, Obama has managed to disappoint, if not antagonize just about every group.

  • Mich

    Brooks; “You don’t have to abandon your principles to cut a deal.”

    Obama: Extending the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of the country is non-negotiable.

    Insipid NYT op-ed analysis: Priceless.

  • DRT

    There are two sides to this. First is the reality that Obama has become more of a network liberal to the repub cluster. In that sense I see it as good.

    The second side is that most people are not aware of the wins Obama got by networking with the cluster repubs so the public perception is that the repubs are driving the country and the agenda.

    In addition to networking, Obama needs to do a much better job of selling what he is getting done if he wants to be re-elected. Must build awareness….

  • Robin

    I don’t think his status as a network or cluster liberal has anything to do with it. He wanted to get several things accomplished such as preserving tax rates for 80% of Americans, increasing the EITC, etc. In order for him to get those things done, he had to have the cooperation of both the house and senate. The Senate Republicans have shown time and again that they can maintain party discipline and defeat things unless you give them a reason to support you. There was no reason for them to give into Obama’s demands unless they got something in return. He had to give it to them.

    So, where do things stand now. The house democrats can keep the tax compromise tabled until 1/20/2011, but that only ensures more gridlock. The Senate Republicans (including Snowe and Collins) have publicly said that nothing will get a vote in the Senate (including the DADT repeal which Snowe, Collins, Brown, Kirk, and Murkowski plan to vote for) until the tax bill is voted through.

    So, no vote on the Dream Act, no vote on DADT Repeal, and no votes on anything else until House democrats quit holding the tqax bil hostage. If they decide it is worth forfeiting votes on all that to keep rich people from getting a tax cut…well Republicans inherit the keys to the House on 1/20/2011 and I am sure they will move the tax bill, or a version of it that includes even more things they like, very quickly, the Senate will pass it too, and maybe throw on a couple of more perks, and the President will have to sign a law that gives more to the Republicans than the current agreement.

    So the choice isn’t between giving the Republicans what they want or not. It is (1) giving the Republicans some of what they want right now (2) giving them much more if it passes in 2011 (3) Settling for nothing by voting down their 2011 compromise.