By firing off so many big projects at once, Obama's showcasing a brilliant new strategy. His goal isn't new legislation—it's to drive his enemies nuts. And it's working.
If you clicked on The New York Times “Politics” link at 5 or so Thursday, you would have found links to stories about Barack Obama's plans to take on the immigration issue this year; his plans to push Israel toward the creation of a Palestinian state; and his plans to join talks with Iran regarding its nuclear program. These came just days after ones about the president’s new nuclear-nonproliferation policy along with his blueprint for a completely restructured defense budget, which themselves followed his announcement of a timed-withdrawal from Iraq, increases in our fighting forces in Afghanistan, and, of course, massive budgetary adjustments regarding health-care spending, energy spending, environmental investments, and tax policy. Oh, and yeah, the auto industry is on the verge of collapse and we may have to nationalize our banking system to stave off economic collapse. There’s that, too.
What we are witnessing is not a legislative strategy, but a political one; and a brilliant one at that.
What’s the deal? How in the world can Obama expect to make progress in all of these areas simultaneously? Aren’t presidents supposed to pick one or two items on their agendas and focus on trying to ram them through the system one at a time? As the congressional sage Norm Ornstein observed nearly a month ago, when Obama’s announced agenda contained barely a fraction of what it does today, “If the president's agenda were relegated only to fixing a demolished banking and credit system while ensuring that vital industries like the automobile and steel ones don't disappear, it would be overwhelming.” And indeed, the wise and patient pundit E.J. Dionne noticed more than two weeks ago—with a still relatively truncated “can-do” list available at the time—“a deep narrative is taking root in the political class, and it goes something like this: Obama is biting off way more than he can chew, ‘overloading’ the system and dealing with all sorts of ‘side issues,’ when he should be focusing solely on the broken economy. He is said to be asking Congress to do too much."
The logic is all but undeniable. It is barely possible to imagine any Congress—much less one as stubbornly recalcitrant as this one—going along for so many difficult rides to so many different places at once. For Obama to accomplish merely a fraction of the above would constitute a presidency that would make the New Deal and Great Society look uneventful by comparison.
So what’s going on? After all, Barack Obama is nobody’s fool. It’s not as if you get elected president of the United States as a half-black, half-white, half-African, half-American, with a middle name of “Hussein,” a last name that rhymes with “Osama”—to say nothing of the weirdness of “Barack”—a negligible record in national politics by being dumber than say, you or me. Clearly the dude has a plan. But what is it? He knows the road to legislative Hell is paved with too many good intentions….
Here’s my guess: What we are witnessing is not a legislative strategy, but a political one; and a brilliant one at that. Obama may be a raving liberal in his heart of hearts—I like to believe he is—but he governs as moderate. There’s not one plan or program announced above that would not strike most Americans—indeed, most nonideologically driven or self-interested observers—as entirely sensible and reasonable. But almost all of them will inspire opposition that cannot fail to polarize the public, most likely in Obama’s corner, and thereby increase his political popularity, capital, and the likelihood that he will, over time, be able to pass more and more legislation.
Take the most controversial of the above announcements: immigration. Julia Preston reported in Thursday’s Times that “Obama will frame the new effort—likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue—as ‘policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system,’ said the official, Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House.” Sounds pretty sensible, doesn’t it? Here’s the president at a recent town-hall meeting not far from the Mexican border: “I know this is an emotional issue; I know it’s a controversial issue... I know that the people get real riled up politically about this."
And Preston happily obliges the president’s analysis, observing, “But with the economy seriously ailing, advocates on different sides of the debate said that immigration could become a polarizing issue for Mr. Obama in a year when he has many other major battles to fight.” But think about it. What kind of response is Obama likely to engender with his immigration reform? Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh will bang the table and make barely veiled racist appeals. Glenn Beck will undoubtedly cry. Sean Hannity will call the president a “fascist” or a “socialist” depending on the time of day. There will be marches, rallies, burned Mexican flags, bullied and beaten-up recent immigrants and, undoubtedly terrific Daily Show and Colbert segments featuring various nutcases spouting off all manner of nonsense that they themselves, if my prediction holds, will not realize are actually quite funny.
Does this mean immigration reform of the kind that blew up in George W. Bush and John McCain’s respective faces will actually pass? Who knows? But what will undoubtedly happen is that Obama’s opponents will continue to look angry, unreasonable, unfriendly, and generally distasteful in more ways than one can comfortably count. The president meanwhile, will float above the fray. Americans will come to like and appreciate their popular president when they compare him to his alternative. (Obama’s approval ratings are already more than double those of Republicans in Congress.) This is the secret to getting re-elected president of these United States. Force your opponents to join with the unreasonable and irresponsible. It worked for Richard Nixon, crook that he was, who managed to run for re-election not against George McGovern, but against “acid, amnesty and abortion.” It worked for Bill Clinton, who ran his campaign against Newt Gingirch and the black-helicopter crowd. (One could even argue that it worked for George W. Bush, though in his case, he deserved it.)
Make the crazies hate you and America will love you; works every time.
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.