Sunday 18 October 2009
Obama plays the waiting game
Most interesting column by Andrew Sullivan in today's London Sunday Times:
President Obama may seem to dither, but he is ready to strike
There is a strange quality to Barack Obama’s pragmatism. It can look like dilly-dallying, weakness, indecisiveness. But although he may seem weak at times, one of the words most applicable to him is something else entirely: ruthless. Beneath the crisp suit and easy smile there is a core of strategic steel.
In this respect, Obama’s domestic strategy is rather like his foreign one — not so much weakness but the occasional appearance of weakness as a kind of strategy. The pattern is now almost trademarked. He carefully lays out the structural message he is trying to convey. At home, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. Abroad, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. And then ... not much.
The agenda may be clear. He wants an engaged Iran without nuclear weapons. He wants to be the first American president to enact universal health insurance coverage. He wants a sane two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. He wants to leave Iraq without having it blow up on him. He wants to find a way to solve the AfPak Rubik’s Cube. He wants to allow gays to serve openly in the military. But on all these things, it’s mid-October and still ... nothing substantive. So obviously, he’s a total fraud and failure, right?
Wrong. When Obama moves, he moves with chilling swiftness. The stimulus package went through Congress like a speeding bullet. The appointment of Hispanic judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was as clean as these things can be. But these were matters over which he had almost complete control. When he doesn’t have such control, he takes another tack.
He sets out a goal and then he waits. He waits for the other players to show their hand. He starts a process that itself reveals that certain options are unfeasible, until he is revealed by events to have no other choice but ... well, the least worst practical way forward. He always knows that things can change, and waits for the optimal moment to seize the initiative.
On Iran, for example, he has done not much more on the surface than open up direct talks. Beneath, you see deeper shifts. His election itself and his Cairo speech laid some important groundwork for June’s Green revolution.
He managed to inspire the opposition without throwing his lot in with them (playing the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, with finesse). In America, he has slowly defused the debate away from the polarising “Are you a patriot?” or “Are you with those scary Muslims?” to the more realistic: “If we want to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon, what’s the least worst way of trying — or is it impossible after all?”
By waiting, we learn. We now know, for example, that Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, is more sympathetic to sanctions against Iran than Vladimir Putin. We learn more about divisions within the Tehran leadership. We may also discover that even with a transparent, good-faith engagement from Obama, the Chinese and Russians have no intention of shifting. That will leave him with a clearer, if narrower, set of policy options. The president can afford to do this because he has more power than anyone else. But he doesn’t have total control, especially as America’s global power is balanced by China, India and Russia. He’ll act when he knows what the options really are. And not until.
On health insurance reform, you see the same cunning. Universal insurance is now all but certain in some form, but how to restrain costs remains a difficult challenge. One way would be the dreaded public option, or rather a compromise in which a public option would be available, but only if individual states approve it for their own populations. Obama knows the public option, insofar as most Americans understand it, is popular. So why not get his opponents to fight it in their states where they can be hurt, rather than nationally, where they can tar Obama as a “socialist”. Sneaky.
It may not happen, of course. But what’s important to note is that it’s still possible even at this late stage. After months of wrangling, his near-ideal solution is still viable. (Compare that with how Hillary Clinton’s fared in 1993.) He has fudged without cornering himself with a commitment he will be unable to fulfil, while leaving open the best practical option in the near future. That way, whatever happens, he will get the credit.
And he has framed the debate so that the Republicans find themselves as their own worst enemies. Support for Obama’s health reform was sliding until August’s right-wing temper tantrum. Since then, his approval ratings on the issue have steadily climbed, and Democrats are increasing their lead in congressional polling.
Now look ahead to next year. The impact of health reform will be initially all positive: more and more people able to get insurance, without the full costs being felt. The stimulus package has been so steered towards spending in 2010 (sneaky again) that it will doubtless boost the recovery as the mid-term congressional elections approach. And, with health reform under his belt, Obama could easily pivot from his liberal base towards an emphasis on fiscal responsibility — which puts the Republicans on the spot and appeals to independents.
In other words, he has kept most of his options open. He is thinking further ahead than the Republicans. If he gets real universal coverage, he will be an icon on the left and thereby get more breathing space to tilt to the right. That’s why he may well not make a big move or decision on Afghanistan any time soon. It would be nuts to either alienate or please his liberal base until he gets healthcare passed.
But if healthcare passes, and the economy revives, Obama will have dodged several premature traps. And he will then be in a very strong domestic position from which to deal with Iran and Afghanistan and Israel. My sense is that on the really divisive issues — accountability for torture, and gay rights, for example — he intends to wait for a second term. If that enrages his base — as it has — they have few other places to go. And he looks bipartisan by resisting them. At the same time, he has not explicitly ruled out bringing justice to the torturers or rights for the gays. He’s able to balance a commitment to the right thing with an almost chilling ability to restrain himself from doing it.
As a long-term political strategy, you can see the method in his apparent meandering. Yes, there are vast risks. It may still fail. And yet, when you look at it closely, you see that in all this, he has both maintained his vast ambitions and yet shrewdly minimised the political risks to himself. This is cunning, not weakness. And one day, his opponents will realise it.