If you don’t hope for anything, you won’t be disappointed

David Dayen really throws down the moral gauntlet with this piece titled “The Last Lecture,” in which he identifies Obama’s core principle as compromise. It’s really good, I hope everyone reads the whole thing:

In March, Obama spoke to college students of a range of political beliefs – Democrats, Republicans and independents – after a speech in the Boston area. In this video, released by the White House this weekend and given prominent treatment, including a blast of the video to supporters by David Plouffe, Obama explains what I have to assume is his core belief about politics in America. It is that compromise is necessary in our democracy, even virtuous. You cannot get 100% of what you want at any time, no matter if you’re in the majority or the minority, Obama says, and all that we can expect is to move forward incrementally, believing that others will pick up the ball down the road and carry on.This is Obama’s last lecture. It’s what he wants to impart to the next generation. He outright says that:

One of the challenges of this generation is I think to understand that the nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don’t get 100% of what you want. You don’t get it if you’re in the majority, you don’t get it if you’re in the minority.

You can be honorable in politics understanding you don’t always get what you want.

While there’s talk of marrying principle to compromise, in this clip Obama does not define that principle. In the whole of his public life, actually, he has not fully defined that principle. He has, however, defined compromise as the necessary element of the most important thing a politician can do, which is to get something done. To “do big things,” as he has been saying throughout the debt limit fight. And you cannot separate the appearance of this last lecture, produced four months ago, on the heels of his efforts to engineer a grand bargain, a compromise that would include major cuts to the social safety net.

[…] I don’t think anyone would disagree that Obama deeply believes this in his core. The man who came to power on a message of hope is saying that there’s no real hope in implementing the full governing agenda in the American system. That’s true, apparently, even if you have a large majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, which Obama had for several months of his first term. That’s true, apparently, even if we’re talking about issues and policies where the President has full authority on his own, with HAMP being the best example.

There are obstacles, checks and balances in the American system. You can say it produces worse results than a Parliamentary system with less obstacles, where the party swept into power can implement their agenda virtually uninhibited by procedure, and then can be held accountable for that agenda. The fact that, when America invades a foreign country and deposes its leader, like in Iraq, they install a Parliamentary democracy, is fairly revealing on this point.

But there’s also a difference between the person who views those procedural blockages for what they are, and sees opportunities for pressuring those blockages through the court of public opinion, for making it difficult on those holding up progress to sustain themselves, for using elections as a lever to enable progress, and even for changing the fundamental structures to bring our democracy up to date to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and… Barack Obama. Because here he doesn’t just acknowledge the need for compromise. He glories in it. He sees it as “part of the process of growing up.” It’s juvenile to act on your own beliefs, to draw bright lines that cannot be crossed, to express core convictions. “Don’t set up a situation where you’re guaranteed to be disappointed,” Obama says. That’s the worst thing that could ever happen. He makes an enemy out of disappointment, when it can just as easily be a rallying point, an opportunity to show a better path next time.

This fetish of bipartisanship and compromise would have been the elements of a very good President circa 1954, or maybe 1975. In 2011, with one party that has swore to never compromise on any principle ever again, it’s just a recipe for failure to hear this from the head of the other party. It guarantees bad outcomes. And with an economy in tatters and urgency (the fierce urgency of now, I would say) the order of the day, it has enormous consequences.

5 thoughts on “If you don’t hope for anything, you won’t be disappointed

  1. He says, “I’ve got a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in my office, and if you read through it, most of the document is those states and areas where emancipation doesn’t apply because those folks are allied with the union so they can keep their slaves. Here’s a wartime President making a compromise around the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced, because he understood that his job was to win the war and maintain the union.”

    If the first black president thinks that it was admirablle to compromise on slavery, he would compromise on anything.

  2. “even if we’re talking about issues and policies where the President has full authority on his own, with HAMP being the best example.”

    I think a better example of his authority would be his assertion of the right to order anyone in the world to be murdered or snatched off the street and put in prison forever on his word that this person is a threat to the Homeland. Another example is ability to defy the “deadline” of the War Powers Act with total impunity and continue to spend money without appropriation on a war in which we have no national interest. Another example of his authority would be his decision not to pursue justice in letting criminal fraud go unpunished for Wall Street banks and brokers. On these things he gets his way, and gets everything he wants, no compromise.

    When he says that you can’t insist on getting “everything you want”, he has in fact gotten everything he wants, and so have his friends. It is just the rest of us who have to compromise and make do with less, because he didn’t bother to try harder. Is this what he teaches his children: “Don’t try because you might not succeed”?

  3. I swear, just about the time this post appeared, I was on the phone with the Stephanie Miller show, expounding roughly this very same theory. And I took it one step further, that this makes the Republican’ts dig in even harder, just because if compromise is perceived as the thing he values most, his “brand” if you will, then that means that for them to compromise with him is to give him what he really wants, which means they have to deny it to him because they can’t let him win on any level. That’s how meta this has all become.

    On the eleven-dimensional chess level, however, it’s too bad he doesn’t seem to know the story of Br’er Rabbit and the briar patch.

  4. Uh, where was David Dayen in 2007-08, when all of this was manifest to anyone who hadn’t fainted from swooning over The Speeches? If one actually listened to Obama’s words and studied his slight legislative record, he was quite clear about the value of compromise and his vision of his role as President as a Great Compromiser.

    Why are people making these discoveries now as though no one ever called bull$hit on this 3-4 years ago?

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