Entry from September 21, 2011

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post is just one of many on the left who has welcomed what they see as a new assertiveness, not to say aggressiveness, on the part of President Obama, a new willingness to stand and fight instead of making deals on Republican terms, as they imagine he did during the confrontation over the debt-ceiling last summer. But Mr Milbank is the only one of the President’s cheerleaders to date, so far as I am aware, also to acknowledge that his brave words about taxing the rich and standing firm against benefit cuts amount to nothing but fantasy. “Let us begin by stipulating that President Obama’s new budget plan is unrealistic, highly partisan and a non-starter on Capitol Hill,” he wrote. “That’s what’s so good about it.”

Those who delight in paradox, however, are in for something of a disappointment. Really what’s so good about it is merely that his waving these liberal wish-fulfilment fantasies in the faces of the Republicans shows that the President is “learning to negotiate.”

At last, the president hasn’t conceded the race before the starter’s gun, hasn’t opened the bidding with his bottom line, hasn’t begun a game of strip poker in his boxer shorts. Whichever metaphor you choose, it was refreshing to see the president in the Rose Garden on Monday morning delivering a speech that, for once, appealed to the heart rather than the cerebrum. . .Whether his plan to tax the wealthy ever could — or should — become law is not really the point. Obama finally gave his side something to stand for after too much uncertainty. He also showed that he is finally learning to negotiate. Had he called for a single-payer health-care system, he might have been able to win Republican support for the reform that was actually enacted. Had he held his ground earlier on tax increases for millionaires, he might have won more concessions from the GOP in the debt fights of the past year.

This I doubt. The GOP position on both issues was stronger and more in line with public opinion than that of the President and both parties knew it: which is why the one stayed firm and the other didn’t. Mr Milbank’s own fantasy, however, is a variation on the one that so many of his less self-aware fellow Democrats treasure about “communication” — namely that if only the President (or anyone else) were better able to communicate to the people the benefits of his liberal policies, public opinion would eagerly back them. For Dana Milbank the fantasy of communication is replaced by the fantasy of negotiation, but it is essentially the same fantasy. Either way, we are asked to believe that some sort of skillful political jiggery-pokery will make palatable to the public policies that experience shows are not palatable to the public.

He goes on to quote approvingly the President’s description of Speaker Boehner’s own negotiating technique: “The speaker says we can’t have it ‘my way or the highway,’. . . and then basically says my way — or the highway.” We can take this in one of two ways. Either Mr Obama is also saying, “my way or the highway,” which is presumably what Mr Milbank thinks he is saying, even if he doesn’t mean it, or, by disparaging such an aggressive negotiating technique, he is advertising in advance that he doesn’t mean it, and that his own hitherto boldly-stated position is negotiable. Either way it doesn’t bode well for the eventual fate of the liberal fantasy of higher taxes and uncut benefits. By beginning with an admission that the President’s proposal is “a non- starter on Capitol Hill,” Mr Milbank shows that he must be aware of the fact — and that his fantasy of a bravely defiant but doomed President going down with the liberal ship is more potent than his wish to effect any substantive change. That is much more likely to be true in a romantic journalist’s case than it is in Mr Obama’s, but I begin to wonder if the latter isn’t beginning to indulge himself in a bit of the same self-pitying romance.

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