The liberal indictment against Barack Obama is well-known by now: He is too passive as the Republicans set the terms of debate, and when he weighs in, he cuts a deal that is much too close to the conservative side of the spectrum.
In short, many of the left think their president is getting rolled.
But the view at the White House is very different, as a conversation with communications director Dan Pfeiffer made clear.
He described the period leading up to the budget deal—the one that saved $38 billion, or 38 cents, according to the CBO—this way: “One option is to go out there and score political points against Republicans every single day. Certainly that would have made the pundits on cable TV feel better about themselves and better about us. But it would have reduced the chances of getting a deal.”
This is very much in keeping with the president’s view of himself as a reasonable man who is willing to lead by consensus, if only the other side will abandon the extremism and engage in good-faith discussion. Pfeiffer goes a step further:
“When people in Washington say the president's not engaged, what they mean is he's not out there beating up Republicans. He will not give in to partisan blood lust for blood lust's sake.”
Not that Obama is completely opposed to beating up Republicans, of course; he just likes to do it in a high-minded way, as when he said Paul Ryan’s budget (now adopted by the House GOP) was horribly unfair to people with no political clout while lavishing tax breaks on millionaires and billionaires.
The administration’s split with some of the lefty pundits reminds me of the campaign, when Obama was trailing Hillary for many months and liberals kept insisting that he whack her, or at least bloody her nose. He doggedly refused, and his discipline eventually paid off.
But you can overlearn the lessons of a campaign. There is something to the argument that Obama watches from the sidelines as the game develops, coming off the bench in the final two minutes. Pfeiffer insists that his aides are fully engaged, adding: “For some there's an expectation I've never seen put on a president before, that his role is to be legislator-in-chief. It's not what the American people expect of him.”
I spoke to Pfeiffer for this Newsweek story on the president’s negotiating style. He offered a final point in the wake of the deal that avoided a government shutdown. Such criticism of Obama's style, he said, is “a 4th-inning analysis of a 9-inning game. People say 'he screwed up the negotiations,' but the deal ends up being a very good deal given the political reality we're living with.”
Not everyone thinks it’s a very good deal, of course, including many Hill Democrats who are fuming (and that would have to include Nancy Pelosi, who voted against the compromise). But it’s a window on how the White House views the political landscape heading into 2012.
Barbara Lee was probably the most prescient person in post-9/11 Washington, says Michael Tomasky.