fresh voices from the front lines of change







Glenn Thrush has an interesting analysis of President Obama’s strategy on gun control and it’s one with which I agree. This truly does seem to be a different approach than anything we saw from him in the first term:

Over the years, Democrats have jokingly referred to what they call the “Obama rule,” enshrining the president’s practice of not forcing legislative action on anything, no matter how noble, that can’t pass both houses.

But the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month — and Obama’s pledge Wednesday to force Congress to act on an assault weapons ban, limits on high-capacity gun magazines and enhanced gun-tracking measures — is forcing the innately cautious Obama to break that rule. For one of the few instances in his presidency, he now appears willing to burn political capital by pressuring Senate Democrats to vote for a measure that is likely to die in the House, a symbolic victory that sets the stage, he hopes, for more meaningful ones.

Along with his tough stances on the debt ceiling, it’s part of a second-term strategy of calculated confrontation: Republicans won’t negotiate with him, so he plans to marshal popular opinion to force them into action.
In his first term, the Obama rule prevailed. The White House, in tandem with a Democrat-controlled House until the 2010 midterm elections, cut complex, much-criticized deals on health care, financial regulation and the stimulus that liberals viewed as too small and too laden with tax cuts to combat the deepening recession.

The complaint by Democrats at the time: Obama was too focused on the mechanics of compromise to maximize the persuasive power of his office.

The push to regulate gun violence seems to be following a different script, more piecemeal on the policy but more consistent on messaging. In general, it augurs a more Reaganesque use of the office, a platform for Obama to shape the process through public opinion — employing the presidency’s unrivaled “power to persuade,” laid out by Richard Neustadt, the political scientist whose views shaped Bill Clinton’s approach to governing.

I assume this will be met with much eye-rolling on the part of those who believe that this is a big waste of time and that the presidency’s power is limited to its majority in the congress. But there is a method to the madness, even if it ends up not being enacted. The fight itself changes the way the party sees certain issues and moves the debate over the long term.

This is a new form of triangulation and one we haven’t seen in a very long time: he’s using his popularity to triangulate against the center and the right instead of the left and the right. (Of course, when it comes to the country, the left is the center on this issue.) And this is a strategy a lot of us had hoped he would use:

Obama’s liberal allies have often counseled a more confrontational approach, urging him to force up-or-down votes to emphasize the contrast with Republicans and marshal public opinion on his behalf.

“Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular?” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked in mid-2011 after a particularly fruitless encounter with Obama in the Oval Office.

But times and minds have changed. Obama aides credit his introduction of a going-nowhere-fast jobs bill in 2011 to clarifying the president’s agenda and creating a concrete proposal to unite Democrats. More important, Obama’s big 2012 win has convinced him, once and for all, that persuading and compromising with GOP leaders is pointless. The only way to force their hand is through public opinion — and his approval rating stands in the mid-50s following the fiscal cliff deal.

If he regarded Capitol Hill as the main arena in 2009, he sees it as a sideshow to the larger arena of public opinion in 2013.

This should be interesting.

It’s highly likely that he will suffer a legislative defeat on gun control. As sick as it is, even a school full of dead children is probably not enough to shake loose the gun lobby just yet. But it’s well worth while for the president to take this stance and give Democrats permission to put this issue back on the agenda.

I’ve been writing about this idea of “losing well” and “winning by losing” for a long time. It’s a valuable tool for making progress and it’s been too long since the Democrats even tried to use it. The Republicans have been doing it for years and it’s served them very well. It would be nice if the Obama Administration finally understood that sometimes it’s not about winning the fight, it’s about waging it. Legacies are not made by legislation alone.

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