The Right Opinion

There's No 'I' in 'Kumbaya'

Obama doesn't seem to have it in him to make a deal.

By Peggy Noonan · Jan. 5, 2013

We’re all talking about Republicans on the Hill and their manifold failures. So here are some things President Obama didn’t do during the fiscal cliff impasse and some conjecture as to why.

He won but he did not triumph. His victory didn’t resolve or ease anything and heralds nothing but more congressional war to come.

He did not unveil, argue for or put on the table the outlines of a grand bargain. That is, he put no force behind solutions to the actual crisis facing our country, which is the hemorrhagic spending that threatens our future. Progress there – even just a little – would have heartened almost everyone. The president won on tax hikes, but that was an emotional, symbolic and ideological victory, not a substantive one. The higher rates will do almost nothing to ease the debt or deficits.

He didn’t try to exercise dominance over his party. This is a largely forgotten part of past presidential negotiations: You not only have to bring in the idiots on the other side, you have to corral and control your own idiots.

He didn’t deepen any relationships or begin any potential alliances with Republicans, who still, actually, hold the House. The old animosity was aggravated. Some Republicans were mildly hopeful a second term might moderate those presidential attitudes that didn’t quite work the first time, such as holding himself aloof from the position and predicaments of those who oppose him, while betraying an air of disdain for their arguments. He is not quick to assume good faith. Some thought his election victory might liberate him, make his approach more expansive. That didn’t happen.

The president didn’t allow his victory to go unsullied. Right up to the end he taunted the Republicans in Congress: They have a problem saying yes to him, normal folks try to sit down and work it out, not everyone gets everything they want. But he got what he wanted, as surely he knew he would, and Republicans got almost nothing they wanted, which was also in the cards. At Mr. Obama’s campfire, he gets to sing “Kumbaya” solo while others nod to the beat.

Serious men don’t taunt. And they don’t farm the job of negotiating out to the vice president because no one can get anything done with the president. Some Republican said, “He couldn’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag.” But – isn’t this clear by now? – not negotiating is his way of negotiating. And it kind of worked. So expect more.

Mr. Obama’s supporters always give him an out by saying, “But the president can’t work with them, they made it clear from the beginning their agenda was to do him in.” That’s true enough. But it’s true with every American president now – the other side is always trying to do him in, or at least the other side’s big mouths are always braying they’ll take him down. They tried to capsize Bill Clinton, they tried to do in Reagan, they called him an amiable dunce and vowed to defeat his wicked ideology.

We live in a polarized age. We have for a while. One of the odd things about the Obama White House is that they are traumatized by the normal.

A lot of the president’s staffers were new to national politics when they came in, and they seem to have concluded that the partisan bitterness they faced was unique to him, and uniquely sinister. It’s just politics, or the ugly way we do politics now.

After the past week it seems clear Mr Obama doesn’t really want to work well with the other side. He doesn’t want big bipartisan victories that let everyone crow a little and move forward and make progress. He wants his opponents in disarray, fighting without and within. He wants them incapable. He wants them confused.

I worried the other day that amid all the rancor the president would poison his future relations with Congress, which in turn would poison the chances of progress in, say, immigration reform. But I doubt now he has any intention of working with them on big reforms, of battling out a compromise at a conference table, of having long walks and long talks and making offers that are serious, that won’t be changed overnight to something else. The president intends to consistently beat his opponents and leave them looking bad, or, failing that, to lose to them sometimes and then make them look bad. That’s how he does politics.

Why?

Here’s my conjecture: In part it’s because he seems to like the tension. He likes cliffs, which is why it’s always a cliff with him and never a deal. He likes the high-stakes, tottering air of crisis. Maybe it makes him feel his mastery and reminds him how cool he is, unrattled while he rattles others. He can take it. Can they?

He is a uniquely polarizing figure. A moderate U.S. senator said the other day: “One thing not said enough is he is the most divisive president in modern history. He doesn’t just divide the Congress, he divides the country.” The senator thinks Mr. Obama has “two whisperers in his head.” “The political whisperer says ‘Don’t compromise a bit, make Republicans look weak and bad.’ Another whisperer is not political, it’s, ‘Let’s do the right thing, work together and begin to right the ship.’” The president doesn’t listen much to the second whisperer.

Maybe he thinks bipartisan progress raises the Republicans almost to his level, and he doesn’t want to do that. They’re partisan hacks, they’re not big like him. Let them flail.

This, however, is true: The great presidents are always in the end uniters, not dividers. They keep it together and keep it going. And people remember them fondly for that.

In the short term, Mr. Obama has won. The Republicans look bad. John Boehner looks bad, though to many in Washington he’s a sympathetic figure because they know how much he wanted a historic agreement on the great issue of his time. Some say he would have been happy to crown his career with it, and if that meant losing a job, well, a short-term loss is worth a long-term crown. Mr. Obama couldn’t even make a deal with a man like that, even when it would have made the president look good.

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We take political pleasure where we can these days, so we’ll end with the fact that 20 women were sworn into the U.S. Senate Thursday, up from the previous record of 17. In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, they spoke of the difference they feel they make. Susan Collins (R., Maine) said that “with all due deference to our male colleagues … women’s styles tend to be more collaborative.” Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) said women in politics are “less confrontational.” Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) said they are more supportive of each other. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) suggested women have less “ego.” Diane Feinstein (D., Calif.) said they’re effective because “we’re less on testosterone.”

It was refreshing to see so much agreement. It was clear they saw their presence as to some degree an antidote to the roughness and pointless ego of the Senate. To me they seemed an antidote to the current White House.