The Politics of Niceness

Obama promised to end the partisan warfare in Washington. He has, in a very sneaky way.

Ron Edmonds / AP Photo

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Marjorie Connelly, writing in The New York Times about the new NYT/CBS poll, see a presidential paradox. On the one hand, “Americans seem to have high hopes for the president; 72 percent said they were optimistic about the next four years. By and large, Americans expect him to make significant progress in health care, energy, and immigration policy, issues central to his ambitious domestic agenda” But on the other, “Fewer than half of those surveyed, 48 percent, said Mr. Obama had begun to make progress on one of his major campaign promises: changing the way business is conducted in Washington.”

Let me see if I can help. During the campaign, when Hillary Clinton supporters were complaining that Obama was insufficiently partisan to take advantage of the widespread Bush hatred stalking the land, this Bush-hater was cool with it. I had this theory about Obama, and 100 days into his presidency, I’m sticking to it.

Here’s the thing. All this Rodney King, “Why can’t we all get along” stuff is just for show. Obama doesn’t believe it; he’s too smart for that. He knows there’s no “getting along” with a political party as recalcitrant and buried in fear, resentment, and various forms of bigotry as the Limbaugh-led, Fox News-driven modern Republican Party. (Hell, Newt Gingrich is a moderate in this crowd.) But he also knows that people are tired of all the haggling and want him to try. So that’s just what he pretends to do. He kept the Defense secretary, rewrote the stimulus bill, gave them the Transportation portfolio, and tried to give them the Department of Commerce (where the ever-important Census is undertaken). He’s avoiding the torture-prosecution debate and has made “moving on” his mantra. None of it worked with the Republicans but it sure is working for America. After all, he tried to be a nice guy….

Many Americans turned away from Hillary Clinton because they couldn’t stand the idea of another four to eight years of the kind of partisan wrangling that is apparently unavoidable around all things Clintonian. Now they support a presidency which, according to Jonathan Alter on the domestic agenda, and the folks at the National Security Network on the foreign agenda, has been as action-packed and politically transformative as any since FDR’s. And yet he’s still winning plaudits from die-hard conservatives like The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes and The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan.

Odd as it may appear, in American politics today, nice guys really do finish first…so far.

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.

Xtra Insight: Read other takes on the first 100 days from The Daily Beast's all-star team of analysts.