Jonathan Chait

The Obama Method And the Health Care Summit

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I still find it strange how little understood President Obama's political method is. The first person I know who identified it is Mark Schmitt, over two years ago. At the time, many liberals viewed Obama's inclusive rhetoric as a sign that he intended to capitulate the liberal agenda for the sake of winning Republican agreement. Schmitt disagreed. Obama's language is highly conciliatory, he wrote, but the method isn't:

One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put ‘em on a committee.

Last year I wrote a column making a similar point. Obama uses a similar approach toward Republicans as foreign enemies like the Iranian regime: take them up on their claim to some shared goal (nuclear disarmament, health care reform), elide their preferred red herrings, engage them seriously, and then expose their disingenuousness:

This apparent paradox is one reason Obama's political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it's all the same thing. Obama's defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.

Obama health care summit is a classic example of the Obama method. Once again, skeptics are viewing it as a plot that depends on securing Republican cooperation. Here, for example, is the New York Times analysis:

One big question about President Obama’s bipartisan health care summit, scheduled for Feb. 25, is whether American voters will really get a full and open competition of ideas and emerge with a clearer sense of whether they support or oppose the various proposals put forward by Republicans and Democrats.

Skeptics around Washington are already warning that the summit will be nothing more than Kabuki theater, allowing each side to grandstand on television while providing little in the way of substantive debate or additional understanding for the folks watching back home.

That's not the point. Obama knows perfectly well that the Republicans have no serious proposals to address the main problems of the health care system and have no interest (or political room, given their crazy base) in handing him a victory of any substance. Obama is bringing them in to discuss health care so he can expose this reality.

I'm not saying this is some kind of genius maneuver. I'm not even saying it will work. (I wouldn't bet against it, though.) I'm just saying that this -- not starting over, and not pleading for bipartisan cover -- is what Obama is trying to accomplish.

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