Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

How can President Obama lead if he can’t persuade?

Ramesh Ponnuru makes an interesting argument that President Obama is not as good at politics as he believes in part because "Obama never had to fight for and win the votes of people who don’t agree with him." Ponnuru goes on to observe that most of Obama’s base believes that the president has sincerely compromised, ...

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ramesh Ponnuru makes an interesting argument that President Obama is not as good at politics as he believes in part because "Obama never had to fight for and win the votes of people who don't agree with him."

Ponnuru goes on to observe that most of Obama's base believes that the president has sincerely compromised, or at least sincerely offered to compromise -- and in response Republicans have cynically pocketed every compromise and demanded more. Thoughtful Obama supporters have said essentially that to me numerous times over the last year. When I reply that thoughtful Republicans believe the opposite -- that Obama has cynically exploited them at every turn - the Obamaites shake their head in disbelief. By their words and body language, they are telling me that they simply cannot understand how Republicans could believe that Obama has failed to take Republican concerns adequately to heart.

As one might imagine, when I talk to my Republican friends, they express a similar disbelief: How can people not see that Obama has cynically politicked for partisan gain on issue after issue?

Ramesh Ponnuru makes an interesting argument that President Obama is not as good at politics as he believes in part because "Obama never had to fight for and win the votes of people who don’t agree with him."

Ponnuru goes on to observe that most of Obama’s base believes that the president has sincerely compromised, or at least sincerely offered to compromise — and in response Republicans have cynically pocketed every compromise and demanded more. Thoughtful Obama supporters have said essentially that to me numerous times over the last year. When I reply that thoughtful Republicans believe the opposite — that Obama has cynically exploited them at every turn – the Obamaites shake their head in disbelief. By their words and body language, they are telling me that they simply cannot understand how Republicans could believe that Obama has failed to take Republican concerns adequately to heart.

As one might imagine, when I talk to my Republican friends, they express a similar disbelief: How can people not see that Obama has cynically politicked for partisan gain on issue after issue?

So what’s going on here? I think there are two related things. First, contrary to the views of purists in either wing (Tea Partiers on the right and Wall Street Occupiers on the left), our system suffers from a paucity of cross-party friendships. There is too little coziness among intellectual combatants, not too much.

I work in one of the most monolithically partisan professions in America (the academy) yet I had the opportunity to serve in both Democrat (the Clinton) and Republican (the Bush) White Houses. As a result, I have close friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. I’ve had to cooperate regularly with partisans from almost every spot on the American political spectrum, from those far to the left of the Democratic Party to those to the right of the Republican Party. I can also think of people I respect at every spot on the spectrum. That’s not true of everyone I’ve met, of course, but I have learned important things about politics and policy from many them. I even regularly break bread with people whose life work seeks to undo things that I have tried to build — which helps increase both mutual understanding and my heartburn.

The result of this is sometimes to moderate my own views, which is what purists fear. But it’s just as often to sharpen the content while softening the edges. That is, having friends on the opposite sides of issues does not mean I have to change my mind about certain policy convictions. But it does make it harder to demonize them.

That, I believe, is essential for fruitful democratic politics — and that is what’s largely missing today. It’s often said, but it happens to be true: When I talk to long-time Members of Congress, they sometimes wax nostalgic about a time when the Members did not rush back home to raise money in their district but hung around Washington to socialize with their fellow political leaders, including those from across the aisle. There were plenty of partisan fights and deep ideological divides in those days, but they were laid on top of an underlying foundation of personal connections and personal trust that was more substantial than it is today.

Second, a consequence of living in such a bipartisan world is that many (in my case most) policy discussions happen with people who fundamentally disagree with you. If you are going to make any intellectual headway in those discussions, you have to be able to understand their position before you can hope to change their mind. This is what is supposed to be (but rarely is) the hallmark of scholarly persuasion: describing the other side’s position fairly enough that an objective observer cannot detect what your position is. None of us, myself included, live up to that ideal — but it is possible to get a good deal closer to it than what we see today.

For professional politicians, one worthwhile goal may be to describe the policy arguments of your opponents in a manner that they would recognize the arguments as (more or less) their own. This is a rare thing to witness; the best example in the Bush administration can be found in President Bush’s 2001 speech on stem cell research. It is, I would argue, the closest thing we’ve seen in recent times to a model of responsible and civil debate, whatever you think of the merits of his decision.

So I would ask: When was the last time President Obama described the views of his opponents in such a fashion? You’ll be hard pressed to think of a single example. And until he can do this more consistently, his capacity to persuade the undecided, let alone those who disagree with him, will be quite limited. And if he cannot effectively persuade people who aren’t already Obama cheerleaders, it’s hard to see how he can lead effectively.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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