Jonathan Chait describes “The Obama Method” in a not-yet posted piece on The New Republic. He tries to explain the eerie similarity between how Obama has reached out to moderate Republicans and independents at home while marginalizing right-wingers and how Obama reached out to the majority of Muslims while isolating the extremists in his foreign policy (and specifically the Cairo speech.) Chait also tries to tie this in to different critiques of Obama:
Democratic partisans think the enemy is vicious and must be met with uncompromising force. That’s exactly how conservative foreign policy hawks feel about the world. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing foreign policy critique of Obama today sounds eerily like the partisan Democratic critique of Obama during the primary.
Let’s call this method in foreign policy – which assumes every foreign rival is a reincarnation of Nazi Germany – the Bush doctrine; and in domestic policy, in domestic politics – assuming that all Republicans lie about their goals and probably hate the poor and downtrodden and merely want to aid the rich in getting richer – we can call this the Krugman doctrine. (On the Republican side of this, it would be the Rove doctrine, but that’s not relevant here.) The Bush/Krugman doctrine – in assuming that all opponents are acting in bad faith – is rather simple.
- Identify your opponents.
- Tell everyone what you believe and call your opponents names (your skill at name-calling is the only way to demonstrate your moral clarity).
- Everyone will see how right you are.
This isn’t that bad of an approach for a newspaper column – it can be downright entertaining and sometimes even enlightening. As a basis for foreign policy or domestic political agenda though, it is poisonous – and though it may work for a time, the results diminish rapidly. Obama’s method operates differently:
- Demonstrate one’s respect for one’s opponent.
- Start with the assumption they are acting in good faith.
- Invite them to a conversation about what needs to be done to solve the problem(s) on which they are opponents.
- If they are acting in good faith, they can be worked with.
- If they are not, “by demonstrating [one's] own goodwill and interest in accord, [one] can win over a portion of [one's] adversaries’ constituents as well as third parties.”
I disagree with Chait that Obama’s method “entails small acts of intellectual dishonesty in the pursuit of common ground,” though. Chait, for example, cites the line I criticized in Obama’s Cairo speech in which he called the Middle East the region where Islam “was first revealed.” In this case, I think Chait is right – that this line is intellectually dishonest. But his appreciation for Reagan which Chait also cites seems perhaps a bit exaggerated, but consistent with the rest of Obama’s beliefs – which tend to find a balance between Reaganesque individual responsibility and Kennedyesque calls for national responsibility.
Chait traces this method back to a Obama’s training as a community organizer. He cites a Mark Schmitt piece in The American Prospect which describes the community organizer method of dealing with opponents acting in bad faith:
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists – it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It’s how you deal with people with intractable demands – put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee’s mission your way.
Chait explains why Obama’s approach is so successful:
The rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict – red state versus blue state, Islam versus America – and puts it onto specific questions – Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified? – where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherent of the opposing camp.
Obama’s method seems designed to short-circuit the dynamics of moral outrage that lead to polarization, extremism, and even violence. He illustrated this in his campaign – as he tried to calm his supporters down, defending pro-life demonstraters and on the eve of the election, as his crowd booed McCain, chiding them: “You don’t need to boo. You just need to vote.” And now, in reaching out to the Muslim world he is demonstrating this same grasp of how to defuse the escalating cycle of moral outrage – by treating his opponents with respect and as “people of goodwill.”
A little bit of civility will not remake the world – but it can go a long way in calming tensions.
[Image from the White House at Flickr.]