President Obama, Cave-Man Or Co-opter

Obama on energy security March 10 2010

President Obama at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. announcing he would expand offshore energy exploration, March 31, 2010.  Alex Brandon/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Brandon/AP Photo

Does President Obama cave too easily to his Republican opponents?

That's the view of many a liberal, a theme that's been alive since virtually the start of his administration.

The president, goes the criticism, doesn't use his willingness to compromise as a bargaining chip. Instead, he gives up the farm before the hard negotiating even starts, critics insist.

NPR's Ari Shapiro took a look at this fascinating question in a Morning Edition piece.

An excerpt:

But to the dismay of liberal activists such as Justin Ruben, executive director of the group MoveOn, Obama has developed a different reputation.

"Looking right now at the tax cuts — the White House [is] signaling willingness to pre-emptively cave on what is effectively a tax bailout to millionaires," Ruben says. "I think it's profoundly upsetting to people."

This view of Obama has led at least one liberal group — Progressive Change Campaign Committee — to launch an ad calling for the president not to fold on his promise to not extend tax cuts for those with more than $250,000 in income.

As Ari notes, it's not just liberals who hold the view that Obama caves too soon but some Republicans as well. Another excerpt:

Even some Republicans share this view of the president as a poor negotiator.

"It's sort of like telegraphing your passes in basketball. It's easy to steal a pass," says Jim Walsh, a former congressman from upstate New York, now with the lobbying firm K&L Gates.

He says this kind of politicking just is not in Obama's blood.

"He's never been in the leadership position in either body," Walsh says, "so he didn't have to do the negotiating, the horse-trading, that a Mitch McConnell would have grown up on, or a Harry Reid would have grown up on, or a John Boehner would have grown up on. The president has not had to do this."

But there's another way of viewing the president's actions. It may be that he's attempting to co-opt the opposition by openly staking out a position before they get there. Instead of a pre-emptive cave-in, it could be pre-emptive co-opting.

The advantage of this approach is that by publicly co-opting Republican positions, the president can underscore the message that he's not an unalloyed liberal but something quite different.

He also robs his opponents of the opportunity to claim that they've scored a win by forcing him to see the error of his ways.

If he publicly only took the doctrinaire liberal position, then bargained that away behind closed doors, he conceivably would look weaker, not stronger.

If Obama is engaging in a co-opting and not a cave-in strategy, he would be following in the line of recent presidents.

President George W. Bush, for instance, made the traditionally liberal issue of education a major focus with No Child Left Behind, initially even drawing super liberals like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller to his initiatives.

Even more to the point, he supported the largest expansion of Medicare since it was created in 1965 with the passage of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. That was co-opting the opponents' position on a grand scale.

President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, co-opted Republicans with landmark welfare reform legislation.

Co-opting the opposition is what presidents do. And that may be what Obama is up to.

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