Post-Partisan Presidency – When Good Governance is Good Politics

A good friend of mine and I who normally discuss and solve the problems of the world regularly had a conversation the day after the Nov. 6 election. I am slightly less suspicious of his claims of being a liberal than he is of my being a non-partisan.

“Are you happy today?” he inquired, without knowing who I had voted for.

“Not yet” I said, “I will be happy if Obama governs as a post-partisan.”

Right through the campaign, in our conversations I have tried to be be non-partisan, preferring to understand the dynamics of the race and campaign. I am less impressed by the case that president Obama is a hero or a zero than many of his admirers or detractors will have us believe. To my mind, President Obama is a regular pol, one who cares about issues and likes power. Like most regular pols he makes calculated decisions to strike a balance between the principled and the public good, and, pragmatism and personal ambition.

I fall into the camp which believes that the President fell far short of his potential in his first term both with regard to process and product. Easy for a mediocre college professor to judge the President on the way he balanced the different interests he faced with an obstructionist opposition (as opposed to a loyal and constructive opposition). But still, a compelling case can be made (in fact, has been made) that the President fell short of promise and possibility – and the constraints that he faced and the quality of the critic in no way dilutes the criticism.

However, now is not the time to deconstruct past failures. As the President’s campaign said, “FORWARD.” And the way to move forward is to be post-partisan or non-partisan. To get here it is worth seeing what’s different now from four years ago.

What’s Different Between Now and Four Years Ago?

The President will begin his second term with a new deck of cards. For starters he has captured all the black president presidential awards that history will award – Elected First Black President, and, Re-elected First Black President, and for a long time to come Youngest Black President, and…. Put simply, posterity will praise President Obama and he will be spoken of in the same breath as his home state fellow President Lincoln for a long time to come. (It is also worth noting that that the only other President from Illinois Ulysses S. Grant was also a giant in promoting the civil rights of African Americans.) So President Obama need not act to impress posterity.

Second, thanks  to the 22nd Amendment, President Obama doesn’t have to worry about re-election. Combine this with not having to impress posterity, and personal ambition should play little to no role in determining the President’s actions. Put slightly differently, now that he has achieved all he could for himself, he is free to not think about himself.

Third, the Left sees him as a Rightist, the Right sees him as a Socialist, and those who love him don’t give a damn whether he is right or wrong. Very little is going to happen that will change any of this. Feelings and perceptions about President Obama are by and large not based on reason. He isn’t going to sway people to his perspective by way of compromise and accommodaton – at least not enough people to make it worth trying to fashion political compromises.

Fourth, the President has been remarkably selfish in not throwing his weight behind candidates for the Senate or the House. My guess is the Senate races didn’t matter to him unless he could have 60 pliable Senators – an impossible task. And redistricting clearly makes House races far from swingable, even if the President is the swinger. Part of this aloofness is because the President is quite apolitical with a Democratic tilt, and the rest is because in races that were contestable the President and the candidates felt that the President came with as many cons as he did with pros. Strategically speaking the President has not helped the legislative wing of the Democratic Party. However he can hurt them, and this is useful.

Taken together, three and four point to the possibility of reshaping the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. This President did not put this Congress together – the crazies on the Republican right can either not be influenced or will be punished if they are unreasonable. The Democrats in Congress need the President much more than he needs them. They will not wander far off. These are ideal conditions for the President to minimize pragmatism, and focus on principle as he guides the executive branch in its deliberations with Congress

So, what is different now from four years ago, when the President was elected for the first time? Today the President need not worry about personal ambition, can minimize pragmatism, stand on principle, and pursue the public good as he perceives it for the next four years. Put simply the President should be post-partisan or non-partisan..

The Post-Partisan/Non-Partisan Path

What does it mean to govern as a post-partisan or non-partisan? It simply means shedding the burden of political parties when governing. It is about applying in policy the phrase that made the President rocket into political space – “Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. “ (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19751-2004Jul27.html) It starts with not limiting yourself to what you think can be  done, but by striving for what needs to be done. It measures success by not what you get done, but by what you work to get done.  It is abandoning pragmatism at the altar of public good and optimal policy. It is putting into practice the belief that Obama espoused in his 2004 keynote address – “We have a righteous wind at our backs, and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices and meet the challenges that face us.” It is abandoning interest groups and their agendas at the altar of public good and optimal policy. It is rejecting rent seekers, compromises, and petty interests for good ideas and worthy outcomes.

A call to abandon pragmatism, and reject compromise does not mean that there is no room for discussion, dialogue, and give and take. The very nature of life is that to get something you must give up something – that there are trade-offs. But it matters what the basis of the discussion and dialogue are. Negotiations should be based on getting to an outcome; the outcome should not be based on the negotiation.

What about the argument that half a loaf is better than no loaf? While this may be true in some cases, signaling apriori that you will be willing to accept half a loaf instead of no loaf may direct the opposition’s negotiating strategy to making sure that you only get half a loaf. My sense is that the Obama administration signaled rather early on in the health care bill negotiations that they were so desperate for any deal, that the President (and the nation) got quite a raw one. This is more or less the point that Krugman makes in his recent New York Times piece, when he advises the President that “standing up to hostage-taking is the right thing to do for the health of America’s political system,” and advises him to stand his ground, because, “No deal is better than a bad deal.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/09/opinion/krugman-lets-not-make-a-deal.html?)

Strategically and Tactically How Will this Work?

The campaign is just over. Policies were debated, ideas were discussed, and promises were made. Based on the record it shouldn’t be difficult for the President to lay out a legislative agenda. The agenda should clearly lay out what the President would like to see happen, and what he will veto. That defines the boundaries of his dos and don’ts.

The President then adopts an Introduce (Bills – needs a helpful legislator), Negotiate, Legislate, Veto, and Communicate strategy.

To negotiate means that the President is willing to have open communication on the fundamental issues of policy, and let analysis and logic trump rhetoric and bumper sticker politics. Obstructionists should be called out. It also means that the President should be willing to give up what his supporters may want if they do not stand up to the principles he outlines. To legislate means that Congress should go on the record on all issues. Even if the President’s position will lose, votes should be registered. The threat of filibuster must be met with the challenge to filibuster. The President should use his Veto pen. No longer should the President be allowed to criticize tax cuts as immoral, while agreeing to them. That may have been a wise thing to do to increase his chances of reelection. But now it should be different. Most important of all, the President should communicate. The President should give weight to the notion that the government gets its power from the plebian, and that elected politicians are servants employed by the American people. At regular intervals the President should be willing to tell the American people why he supports  the things he is pursuing and why he rejects other advocated positions. If you can communicate and plaster people with ads and information when you were asking for the job, you can inform them about what you are doing and not doing once they give you the job. And the President should be willing to debate his political and policy opponents to highlight the basis and virtue of the policies and positions he is pushing.

Note I haven’t spoken about what the President should pursue. He is President, and what he pursues is his prerogative. If whatever he chooses to pursue is not based on a post-partisan basis, then partisan bickering is all that we should expect.