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.

* * *

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.

14 Comments

Capt. Call in New Mexico said:

Enough with the praise of liberal and RINO women! Enough already!
We get it! We know you really love them, OK? But these same women, at least the ones whose names I recognize, want to kill babies born or unborn. And that is enough for me to oppose them! They want to take away my Christian freedom, steal my money and give it away to illegal immigrants. Instead of lauding them you should be explaining why their ideas are wrong, and calling for their defeat.

Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 1:40 AM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Peggy---Pride cometh before the fall, and I'm praying that progressive hubris will be their downfall! smelly rats are pagan reprobates!!!

Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 7:20 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

After the past week it seems clear Mr Obama doesn't really want to work well with the other side.

It took you four years and a week to diccover that Obamao the traitor wants to kill the Constitution and America? What an idiot, and to prove it, you praise Feinstein. Noonan, you are an idiot.

Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 10:53 AM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri replied:

wjm; this simplistic bimbo is worse than an idiot. I would tell you exactly what she is, but I don`t know of a description that could possibly explain it. Her posts are all way too long, and they end up reading like some tome from an stuffed shirt, windbag college professor.

Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 11:20 AM

Cal in SoCal said:

Pegs: Enough with the compromise blaw, blaw, already! On some issues it is perfectly fine to - meet in the middle. Others demand a stand: Good/Bad. i.e. Killing babies is bad! No compromise there! Poor folks need help; help them with public money, certainly. Make millions dependent on freebies forever? No! The able need to work like others.
Hot and cold are clear. Lukewarm on ideals? Vomit them out of thy mouth! The Ten Commandments are not SUGGESTIONS! They are COMMANDMENTS! Get it?

Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 2:36 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Correct Cal, and evil SOCIALISM- breaks at least two of God's commandments; "thou shall not covet, and thou shall not steal!"

Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 10:12 AM

Eleanor in AK said:

Didn't the President promise Hispanics that he would bring up immigration reform as the "first thing" on his agenda? Is that "first" after "Fast and Furious", Benghazi, 500+ executive orders, the debt ceiling, the 2014 elections, Affordable Care Act, Dodd Frank, etc.? So grateful for their support. Anyone want to bet that interest caps on student loans will expire? All the goodies for his interest groups are going to disappear. Political expediency is like a one night stand.

Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 7:57 PM

Honest Abe in North Carolina said:

History warns us of the power of tyrants to gradually numb the morals of the populace. First come the slaughter of unwanted babies, then the unwanted aged, then the infirm and sick, all in the name of a better world. Once the people's morals are coerced to his will, the tyrant turns against you, those who oppose him in his quest for more power. Fight him now while we still have the ability, not later when he has all the power!

Monday, January 7, 2013 at 11:11 AM

rab in jo,mo said:

Praising female Senators just because they are female? Just how sexist can you be Peggy? Feinstein and McKaskill are two of the worst Senators currently in Congress and you are proud that they are in this position just because they're women? Incredible!

Women may have less "ego" as asserted by Sen. Murkowski, but they also tend to react to situations much more emotionally than men and tend to hold grudges longer. Detached logic and reasoning are much preferred traits in a Senator. I, for one would love to see a repeal of the 17th Amendment.

Monday, January 7, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas replied:

I'll see your 17th and raise you the 16th. Then the 19th came along and assured that the problems they caused would never be corrected and would eventually bury the Republic.

Monday, January 7, 2013 at 12:39 PM

rab in jo,mo replied:

I'll go for that raise!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 11:19 AM

WayneO in Brooklyn, NY said:

"Mr. Obama's supporters..."

YOU Peggy are one of his supporters. I have read your fawning columns in which you have effusively praised the UNsubstantive STYLE of Obama and how "cool" he is, which you do again in this column. In the process, you have abdicated your credibility. You come across as a former player who yearns to maintain your access to the Beltway and your invites to cocktail parties where self-important 'movers and shakers' harumph about their relevance. Fact is, these cretins couldn't properly manage a lemonade stand, nor could they "lead" a Cub Scout troop on a bathroom break.

You Peggy, the author of "When Character Was King", have become a huge disappointment.

My Mom always used to say "what good does it do for a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul" in the process.

This government that you write so glowingly about is an abomination that will one day soon render America into a bankrupt, divided 3rd World country.

True Conservatives like myself wonder why you cannot see this and why you don't write about where the country is going while the Narcissist in Chief spends us into a black hole, while trying to remove our Constitutionally guaranteed rights from us?

Monday, January 7, 2013 at 5:20 PM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri replied:

WaynO; basically Miss Piggy is an overeducated ass. I would say she`s a lot like Obama`s momma who couldn`t keep her knees together when dark meat was around. It`s pretty evident Peg`s panties get wet when she thinks of Obama. I wish to hell she would move over to the Huffington Post where she would be right at home.

Monday, January 7, 2013 at 7:57 PM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas replied:

WayneO,

Not to be a nit-picker, but the phrase, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" predates your mother's use of that phrase by nearly 2000 years. It comes from the Bible - specifically the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 8, verse 36.

Your mother sounds like a wise woman, unlike the once-erudite Peggy Noonan: who ought to stop writing and take up knitting.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 11:54 AM