Has Slate’s John Dickerson been replaced with a pod person? If not, the CBS Political Director is exuding signs of schizophrenia – or sheer forgetfulness. While in January Dickerson counseled the president to "go for the throat" of the Republican Party, in today's piece at the online opinion journal he's calling for Obama to court Republicans on a "grand bargain" to avert the looming debt crisis.
Today, Mr. Dickinson used anecdotes and Sun Tzu axioms to convey the point that Obama should not be such an agitator if he wants a deal to solve our fiscal woes.
The premise of the president's recent outreach to Republicans is that he might be able to build connections that would lead to a grand budget bargain. This relationship relies on trust. Republicans must trust that if they take a political risk to support changes in the tax code that would bring in revenue for deficit reduction—which will hurt them with their supporters—the president won't undermine them further with their voters by making them look like chumps.
This relationship needs to do more than just win their agreement. It needs to be flexible and durable enough to help Republicans build support on their own side. The president’s Republican partners have to make the case for this bargain (still a near-fantasy long shot) to their voters and colleagues who don't trust the president and who only form their opinions about him by watching television.
Resisting the urge to strike back is the hard part of schmoozing with the opposition, and that is where LBJ's talents—which are so often misapplied to the current context—might be instructive. Johnson was a brute and a bully, and he fought like hell for what he wanted. He was also incredibly arrogant. (Why check the Bible, his press secretary Bill Moyers once joked on the LBJ campaign plane, "when we have Himself here with us.") But when LBJ wanted something as much as Obama wants us to believe he wants a deal, Johnson flattered, sublimated, and diminished himself before whomever he hoped to woo. Sometimes he even gave those senators pointers on how they should boast in public about how they'd bested him.
Perhaps President Obama has done all of this in those private phone calls. He's definitely endured a lot of lectures from men he would like to tell to get stuffed. But what he does in private only creates some of the room he needs for a deal.
What’s odd is that Dickerson wrote a piece on January 18, which said that Obama should “declare war” on Republicans in order to become the transformative political figure everyone on the left wants him to be. This could be seen as the beginning of the end of the vicious gloating liberals dished out to conservatives after Obama was re-elected, but it was nasty all the same.
Heck, even some Slate writers were telling their colleagues to cool it. Is this a tale of two Dickersons?
On Jan. 18, Dickerson wrote (emphasis mine):
The challenge for President Obama’s speech is the challenge of his second term: how to be great when the environment stinks. Enhancing the president’s legacy requires something more than simply the clever application of predictable stratagems. Washington’s partisan rancor, the size of the problems facing government, and the limited amount of time before Obama is a lame duck all point to a single conclusion: The president who came into office speaking in lofty terms about bipartisanship and cooperation can only cement his legacy if he destroys the GOP. If he wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat.
Obama’s only remaining option is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents. Through a series of clarifying fights over controversial issues, he can force Republicans to either side with their coalition's most extreme elements or cause a rift in the party that will leave it, at least temporarily, in disarray.
What happened in the interim? First, the president and the Democrats lost the sequester battle. Second, polling shows Americans tend to support the substance of Republican economic policies, even as the party label itself is, at present, not popular.
This, coupled with the hyperbolic scenarios related to the sequestration cuts, have allowed Republicans to highlight the real pork, such as the studying of duck genitalia, to slam the president lamenting over the closure of White House tours. Indeed, even self-described lefties are starting to lose confidence in Obama. In a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, the president saw liberals lose confidence in him over handling the economy over Republicans by fourteen points! Women’s support of his economic agenda slipped an equally bad twelve points since December.
Perhaps Dickerson was part of the liberal crowd that felt the president, fresh off his reelection, has a mandate, but was wholly illusory.
Don't look for Dickerson's colleagues in the liberal media to examine this stunning reversal. Doing so would highlight that Obama fatigue is slowly but surely setting in, not just in Washington but in the hinterland. The president won a second term, but he lacks the political capital to set the agenda on his terms. He cannot negotiate from a position of strength because he has none. Dickerson now sees it, and surely others in the media do as well. The question is when will the media start to note openly that the emperor has no clothes.