The art of not making enemies

One of the anomalies, if you will, of the Obama presidency is that the president has had to deal with a Congress that has been so hard-line obstinate, including at critical junctures since he took office, in spite of his having telegraphed at the outset a strong willingness to work across party lines. The image of a hopelessly gridlocked Washington as the norm during Obama’s term so jarringly controverts the president setting an early bipartisanship tone, when he named an unprecedented three Republicans to his cabinet. Skill at fence-mending is obviously an important asset for any president. And Obama showcased his abilities on that front not only with players across the aisle but, tellingly, with a Democratic Party frontliner whose presence is being credited for a lot of the positive vibe the president’s re-election campaign is generating.

At the earliest hints that Bill Clinton would play a prominent role at the Democratic Convention, speculation was rife about how workable that idea was, given a much rumored frosty relationship between Clinton and Obama. It wasn’t hearsay one dismissed in cavalier fashion, knowing the separate paths the two men had walked four years ago. Clinton, cheerleader in chief for his wife’s bid for the Democratic nomination, used the line, “He can’t win” along the campaign trail in trying to steer support away from Obama and toward Hillary. And prior to some fast-moving developments as the campaign got into the latter stages – the Wall Street collapse and housing bubble and John McCain’s demonstrated inability to comprehend and address these and the other dominoes that would decimate the economy – it wasn’t at all clear that Clinton’s assertion wasn’t correct.

What transpired in the intervening years between Clinton and Obama, history will presumably reveal down the road. Our intelligence of the day points us to one certainty: either on Obama’s initiative or some other political calculus hatched within the camp, it was thought prudent to have Clinton deliver the nominating speech for the president’s re-election. It worked like a charm. The explainer in chief, as some media observers have dubbed Clinton, with the “creds” of an Oval Office occupant who faced up to and got the better of an economy gone awry, a guy who could make the rare boast of having left the federal budget with a surplus, such a one could dare speak to a national audience in “Here’s the real deal” terms. And he could add with unassailable authority, in commending Obama, that, “Not me nor any of my predecessors” could have cleaned up the mess he inherited in just four years.

Consummate politician Clinton of course wouldn’t dream of sidestepping the much ballyhooed “hostility” thing between himself and Obama, and doing so by making light of it. The president should be given his props, he said, for bringing into his cabinet folks “who were supporters of Hillary. Heck, he even appointed Hillary.”

Pre and post-convention, a Clinton-featured ad making the case for the road to economic stability being pursued by the administration, as opposed to the Republicans’ vaunted trickle-down theory, has been one of the more persistently visible Democratic message bearers.

None of this ubiquitous Clinton presence in the campaign would have been possible, of course, hadn’t Obama embraced the idea that it was the politically savvy thing to do. This year’s tableau strikingly contrasts with the Democratic campaign of 2000 when Al Gore inexplicably chose to sideline the Clinton name and image from his ill-fated run against George Bush. Better informed heads have prevailed for this go-round.

Obama, even if he wins re-election, will probably face a Congress with at least one chamber not under Democratic control, the necessary pickup of seats for Democrats in the House, after the 2010 debacle, looking much too formidable a challenge at this stage. Obama, in a second term, would have to again try to plough that rough terrain on the other side to see if deal-making remains dead on arrival in the Congress, the other side, chock-full of hardliners, being notoriously wedded to a regressive policy of indiscriminately cutting services without accompanying tax increases, particularly on the wealthiest Americans. The president, on the Letterman show, surmised that since a number of Republicans had publicly stated their number one priority was to make him a one-termer, perhaps his winning a second term might open up possibilities for greater cooperation, his opponents’ “one term” obsession now gone by the board. Based on what we’ve seen of the implacable ways of Republican/Tea Party players, particularly in the House, that hoped-for sea change might prove very elusive.

In a second term, one doesn’t know if President Obama’s first-term instincts about sending that much of a signal of affable interface with Republicans remains in play. Going out on a limb and surpassing the actions of all of his predecessors to rope three Republicans into his cabinet didn’t seem to deliver much in the way of reciprocal comity. That initial act of reaching out would tend to fly in the face of latter-day attempts to paint him as unyielding. And on his own side of the fence, that dividend-paying Clinton re-connect was as good an indication as any of Obama’s willingness to be flexible as he navigates the tricky turf that is the presidency…never mind that in that instance smart politics superseded all else.