Obama, Bill Clinton And Triangulation

Reading through some other reviews of Obama's speech last night, I was struck by the reactions of Nate Silver and Tom Schaller at 538:

Nate Silver: [. . .] Obama needed to appeal to liberals -- both the 60 or so members of the House who have threatened to vote against a watered-down bill, and the much broader, activist community who has grown wary of what they perceive as a Clintonian president who is too willing to compromise. . . .

Tom Schaller: This was classic Obama, both from a policy conceit and rhetorical framing. Anyone who read The Audacity of Hope knows how Obama works through issues—he sets up how one side conceives it and how the other side does and then, after admitting he is inclined toward progressive/Democratic side of the ledger, he humbly suggests the best solution is probably somewhere in between.

(Emphasis supplied.) Schaller cites Obama's set up with single payer advocates as one extreme and free marketers as the other. I noted that as well and thought it was a good set up for a vigorous defense of the public option. And that is where Obama failed imo - he dd not provide a vigorous defense of a public option. But what really gets me is that what Schaller calls "classic Obama," and it was, did not strike anyone else as "classic Bill Clinton." What is pejoratively called "triangulation." More . . .

I object to Obama's use of "classic triangulation" for 2 reasons. First, it is not 1995, or even 1993. This year started like 1933. This was not an era that required triangulation, but progressive leadership. Obama had that opportunity and frankly, has blown it.

My second objection is that Obama's use of triangulation was to no specific end. And here is where Bill Clinton was his superior in the use of triangulation - when Clinton triangulated, he had a specific goal in mind. He drew a line at what he wanted.

Obama did not do that. Can anyone today really say what Obama's bottom line on health care reform is? I am adopting the Sherrod Brown approach of WORM-ing what Obama said to be what I want him to say. But I know better. He really said he will not fight for a public option, and wants progressives to give it up.

If a public option survives, hell if anything worthwhile survives in a health care reform bill, it will not be much due to Obama fighting for it.

On the other hand, because Obama is "fighting" for the amorphous concept of health care reform, whatever deal the Progressive Block can get becomes Obama's plan. The problem with that is whatever deal President Snowe and Max Baucus can get will also be Obama's plan.

In short, when Clinton triangulated, it was to LEAD to a place where he wanted to go. When Obama triangulates, it leads to nowhere that is related to where Obama wants to go, because he never indicates where he actually wants to go.

Speaking for me only

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    Good points. (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by andgarden on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:15:05 AM EST

    Obama appears to value (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:18:54 AM EST
    triangulation for its own sake.  He appears to believe that partisan incivility is the core major ill of our society.

    Reminds of me of the cat that drops to the floor, rolls onto its back and exposes its belly to defuse the agression of another, more dominant cat.  It usually does do that, but it certainly doesn't change the dominance structure.

    It all goes back (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by andgarden on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:24:38 AM EST
    to his theory of political change and how freakin' wrong it is. Cue Barney Frank again.

    At times like this (5.00 / 4) (#20)
    by SGITR on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:33:15 AM EST
    I can't help to think about why this guy was elected. I am reminded of all those who claimed his post partisanship was only an election ploy and once elected he would be a real champion of the left and take on the Republicans.

    Amazing, isn't it? (5.00 / 6) (#27)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:18:19 PM EST
    As many have said here repeatedly, it's not like he didn't tell us what his governing style and his priorities would be during the campaign.

    Those of us who opposed him did so largely because we took him at his word.  His supporters preferred to think he was a complete liar.  Interesting, isn't it.


    Triangulation is a navigation technique (5.00 / 2) (#5)
    by ruffian on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:25:44 AM EST
    to get to a destination. Note that the sides of the triangle do not have to be equal. Obama just splits the difference on a straight line continuum.

    Glad to see someone else citing

    The Audacity of Hope
    . I get the feeling that most people, if they bothered to read it at all, dismissed it as just what he was saying to get elected. Wrongly, IMO. I admit I have not gotten through the whole thing because the first 150 pages or so told me all I needed to know about his political philosophy and inclination to fight for things I value.

    Forget Triangulation (4.00 / 3) (#23)
    by SGITR on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:49:51 AM EST
    to write-off his actions as that is just giving him an out. The real bottom-line here is Obama is consciously and purposely going to allow the insurance companies to continue to prey on peoples fears. He is going to allow naked capitalism in it's worse form win out over community. And he of community organizing fame. He has not only lost his roots, he has lost his soul.

    he never had a soul (2.00 / 1) (#31)
    by Bornagaindem on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:54:22 PM EST
    he never had any intention of doing anything real about healthcare,  he knows where his contributions come from. were you guys not paying attention?

    That's a little harsh (5.00 / 1) (#35)
    by Pacific John on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 01:06:00 PM EST
    but I would say he's more cool and detached than I'd like him to be. He has to be the first Dem politician ever who does not have a posse of friends from high school and college, so he's not the typical extrovert.

    Oh he is not (5.00 / 1) (#39)
    by SGITR on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 02:31:49 PM EST
    cool and detached at all. His teeth showed during the primaries.

    He has to be the first Dem politician ever who does not have a posse of friends from high school and college...

    No old time posse? Maybe there is a reason for that and we are now experiencing it first hand.


    First of all (5.00 / 5) (#6)
    by lilburro on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:30:09 AM EST
    it's quite clear Bill Clinton would've given a better speech.  The feel your pain/details details details approach is good for healthcare.  And is the reason we support reform at all - when you look at the details, it is obvious that you need a big picture fix.  And as you pointed out before, the man knew how to use reconciliation.  And although I briefly had a hope that he meant the public option when he said "I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice" that could mean anything.  Co-ops, trigger, public option?  

    As Booman of all people said, "If he has to move much at all to the right, the whole thing won't work to bring down costs, won't provide an affordable option, and will be a political albatross if combined with a mandate."

    Now what kind of position is that?  Snowe is still unhappy.  And negotiations aren't over.

    Yes, I wanted details, details, details, (5.00 / 5) (#28)
    by Cream City on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:31:47 PM EST
    too.  Notice that point in the speech at which Obama said that, well, the details still had to be worked out?  It got quite a laugh, and justly so . . . and I got the impression that Obama had not expected that reaction.  But on he went with more speechifying without details, details, details.

    Well, other than details of Medicare cuts, etc.


    So, is it fair to say, then, (5.00 / 5) (#7)
    by Anne on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:34:41 AM EST
    that it was Clinton who was a master of multi-dimensional chess, and Clinton who could see multiple moves ahead?

    What Obama seems to do is less about leading and more about constantly throwing issues back into the hands of others like some kind of hot potato - is this the way community organizing works?  It just appears that he wants to facilitate the process of others figuring out what they want, and only weighs in when he senses that the process is stuck - I mean, just read through the threads here and elsewhere: there is very little consensus on what Obama meant by what he said - for a speech that was billed as being about details and clarity, there was perhaps even more confusion after the speech than there was before it.

    I realize that a lot of politics is head games, but I don't recall ever feeling as mind-f**ked as I have over the last eight months.

    I've always greatly admired (5.00 / 5) (#8)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:36:12 AM EST
    the political acumen of Bill Clinton.

    I have always said so.


    That's exactly, precisely how (5.00 / 4) (#12)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:05:50 AM EST
    community organizing works.  The community organizer  is supposed to be a facilitator.  He/she doesn't lead in the sense of taking positions, he/she helps a group of powerless people figure out what they want and how to go about getting it.

    In classic, Alinsky-style community organizing, "charismatic leaders" are anathema because then you end up with followers of a leader, not a self-empowered community.

    Obama has apparently decided that since he likes being a charismatic leader, he will community organize the country, and particularly the congress, by being a charismatic leader who doesn't actually do much leading.

    I'd agree with Alinsky that with that split model, you end up with the worst of both worlds.


    I would think the big problem (none / 0) (#13)
    by dk on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:12:24 AM EST
    is that, structurally, the office of the President of the United States is a leadership position, not an "organizing" position.

    I guess we should have elected a leader then (none / 0) (#14)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:16:14 AM EST
    He did organize some good fighters for himself though, just so he could win and then not fight for himself some more.

    "The President proposes, (5.00 / 2) (#16)
    by jeffinalabama on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:23:35 AM EST
    the Congress disposes..."
    What ever happened to that old adage?

    He's fighting for himself just fine. (5.00 / 3) (#22)
    by dk on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:40:10 AM EST
    The media and big insurance/pharma still loves him, and barring real economic disaster in 2012, that's likely what he needs to win re-election.

    Clinton risked being perceived a failure (5.00 / 2) (#15)
    by The Last Whimzy on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:18:24 AM EST
    Obama will not.

    This is the fundamental and underlying dynamic at work and it explains what is so eloquently written above.

    Why won't Obama set a line in the sand and triangulate with that as a stated goal or end point of the process?  simply because he does not want to be perceived as a failure.

    another example.  Clinton drew a line in the sand with respect to DADT, he made a goal.  he failed on that issue.  but at least he didn't setup the entire issue from the get go giving himself a built in reason to fail.

    Obama won't make goals for himself. it's obvious why.

    not to be a total kiss ass but.... (5.00 / 2) (#24)
    by nycvoter on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:50:08 AM EST
    I love you Big Tent!  I began reading this blog during the primary and you were the only Obama supporter I could tolerate reading and learn from!  I have come to rely on your insights and truly appreciate your thought provoking analysis.  I love the other writers too and have learned from them as well, but being a Hillary supporter, who is still a democrat and will support positive moves in the administration but want to hold them accountable, you help me sort through the issues objectively, or as objectively as I can!

    I also appreciate most of the commentary (5.00 / 2) (#25)
    by nycvoter on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:50:58 AM EST
    so thanks to all the blog fans who challenge the writers here on this sight.  I love this community.

    As Anglachel opines (5.00 / 3) (#29)
    by Pacific John on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:42:35 PM EST
    Clintonites triangulate to achieve specific goals. Obama does what he does, not for the sake of getting particular outcomes, but for the sake of an admirable process.

    This explains why he still hasn't articulated a healthcare plan for the public, and why he hasn't been plain about the economic goals of reform.

    Every moderately savvy liberal understands that we pay twice what our international competitors do, and don't have outcomes to justify it. We also know that any sane reform would save money and pay for itself by constricting insurance overhead and profit so that overall prices fall, quality improves and everyone is covered.

    It's not hard to understand - If I could buy into Medicare today, my entire staff would be covered without fear of insurance company games for about 3/4 of what we now scramble to pay.

    The other thing is, who are they working for? (5.00 / 1) (#30)
    by Pacific John on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:54:15 PM EST
    Clinton, with working class ties and clear emotional investment in people, measured his success by the well being of Americans, and is proud of lowering poverty rates to historic lows. (We is also exceptionally proud of helping Bosnians and Kosovars when he got little domestic credit for it). Reagan's Dem rival in Sacramento had a pithy saying I can't quite recall that said something like, a good Democrat takes corporate cash and then says eff you to the would-be briber. You saw this sentiment with WJC, that cash is a necessary evil, but it is an evil.

    Obama's string of actions show he is working for telcos (FISA), Goldman Sachs, and PhRMA. You simply can't point to an issue where he has broken with his funders.

    I chalk it up to cold calculation, that as Greenwald says, he means to deprive the GOP of its 2012 funding sources, but I also think Obama has a degree of emotional detachment from human suffering that's not typical of Democratic politicians.


    I'm pretty sure that was my opinion (none / 0) (#36)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 01:20:17 PM EST
    expressed here.

    Glad to see Anglachel shares it.


    Great analyis. (none / 0) (#3)
    by KeysDan on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:19:58 AM EST

    1933 (none / 0) (#9)
    by Jlvngstn on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:38:25 AM EST
    congress granted every request the president made in the first 100 days with bipartisanship support.  

    I don't know that I can agree that this year started like 1933....

    You ever wonder why that was? (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:39:25 AM EST
    thats because congress is always willing to give (none / 0) (#34)
    by Bornagaindem on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:59:07 PM EST
    money to the people who bought them - bankers, big insurance, auto makers (except we have to hate them because they actually paid a decent wage to workers)

    i get it (none / 0) (#17)
    by The Last Whimzy on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:24:00 AM EST
    2008 isn't 1933.

    but 2008 has more in common with 1933 than it does with 1993, i'll make that case, for sure.


    Or does it have to do with (5.00 / 3) (#19)
    by jeffinalabama on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:26:08 AM EST

    Not leadership style, but willingness and/or ability to take the point position?


    sigh (5.00 / 2) (#21)
    by The Last Whimzy on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:39:43 AM EST
    you know.  FDR was great.  my praise for him is almost anti-climactic.  i actually rate him better if not equal to lincoln in terms of history.

    but you know.  it is fair to point out, the desparation of the american people had reached a point, such a degree of maximum density, that his policies were not just perceived as reforms, but as life saving measures.  i think he had a blank check of sort.

    2008 smells a lot like that in the middle class right now.  a lot moreso than 1993.

    but it's still a quality of life issue.  not a "save the american way of life" issue as far as how it resonates in the mind of your average american for a lot of different reasons.

    it's why i started getting very radical about the health care issue and suggesting some pretty far out things.  a malcolm x of the health care issue.

    because getting health care really is like a bread line for some.

    but for some reason people are being able to block that out and selfishly protect and enjoy their own quality of life as long as they aren't confronted with the obvious guilt they should be experiencing when it is made more clear to them that the health care they receive comes at the expense of somebody else not getting health care, and ... well.... dying.

    i keep in mind a "degree of desparation" quotient.

    and again.  2008 is more like 1933 than 1993, but 2008 still isn't exactly like 1933.  not yet.

    if that all makes sense.


    It makes perfect sense. (5.00 / 4) (#26)
    by jeffinalabama on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:52:17 AM EST
    And 2009-10 could become a lot more like 1933 if the housing foreclosure rates increase.

    In quality of life terms, unemployment is about 2/3 (real unemployment, not the government rate) of 1933. forclosures are at a similar rate, I think, but rates don't tell the whole story. More housing ownership now than in 1933.

    Loss of wealth from housing value declines and from retirement fund declines has created both acute and chronic economic anomie. I remember in the 80's losing a boatload on land. I wasn't speculating, but in alabama, saw the value of farmland drop from $800/acre to $150/acre in three months, irrespective of production.  

    The recovery is jobless. Interest rates are low. Opportunities don't seem to be there right now.

    I'm with you on health care. Time to radically change.

    I am getting doom-and-gloom here, but I think the way of life is threatened. Even though I have landed on my feet (heck, I should say that I fell into a manure vat and came out with diamonds, given all that's happened in my life this year),
    I worry that things will get worse, that property values will continue to decline, and health care costs to the end consumer, through increases in insurance costs, will continue to increase.

    I'm grimly examining these data, but I don't like the trend lines.


    FDR (5.00 / 1) (#32)
    by Steve M on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:55:18 PM EST
    didn't really have an opposition party during the first 100 days.  Maybe it's because he was just a magician, but I tend to think it was more about the political climate.  There was no equivalent to today's Republicans voting en masse against a stimulus package.

    I can't find the votes on the 1st 100 days (none / 0) (#37)
    by jeffinalabama on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 01:31:49 PM EST
    of the 73rd Congress, but 63 percent of the senate was democratic and 71 percent of the house.

    Hmmm. Big majorities. And in the Senate at the time it would have taken  65 votes (66 percent) to stop a filibuster, so no supermajority.

    I don't know whether the oppositiontried to stop anything or not. I'll be waiting for the congressional record copies I ordered!


    Golly, I'll Say It (none / 0) (#11)
    by kaleidescope on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 10:47:04 AM EST
    Classic Obama IS classic Bill Clinton.  As anyone serious about protecting the environment will tell you.  The difference is that Obama is even better at snowing Democrats than Clinton was.

    Nope (5.00 / 1) (#33)
    by Pacific John on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 12:59:02 PM EST
    The environment is lower on the list of priorities for the Dem populists than it is for the reform wing.

    Clinton was mediocre on the environment because he chose to work on other things like the economy and foreign affairs.

    Obama does not have that excuse, his base, such as it is, emphasizes green issues, it's just that he's screwing them.


    Your analysis is perceptive (none / 0) (#18)
    by Coral on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 11:25:08 AM EST
    I am curious about where Obama thinks he's heading with this, also what kind of legislation, if any, will eventually come about.

    The comparison between Obama and Bill Clinton is fascinating, exactly because of the triangulation strategy. Right now, Obama seems to be fighting to capture the middle -- people identifying as Independents and moderate Republicans who are put off by the coarse rhetoric and extremism of the current GOP. That wasn't as available to Bill Clinton, because the extreme wing of the GOP wasn't fully developed (or as obvious) at that time.

    The country and Obama are facing daunting challenges, consequences primarily of the Bush II years. Just thinking about it all--Afghanistan, Iraq, huge deficits from those wars, torture, Supreme Court, the ongoing financial & housing crises, and the economic stress of the working and middle class--makes my head hurt. One more crisis could bring us to a breaking point.

    It's going to be a very interesting 4 years. I would like to see a successful presidency for Obama, because I don't think the country can weather another failed presidency. Carter's is the one that sometimes comes to mind.

    Two words for you . . . (none / 0) (#38)
    by Doc Rock on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 01:33:25 PM EST
    . . . Howard Dean.

    but Clinton did actually let the real progressives (none / 0) (#40)
    by Bornagaindem on Thu Sep 10, 2009 at 06:44:48 PM EST
    put forward the plan. Then when you negotiate you actually started to the left of center. That was his brilliance. Unfortunately that made the far left really mad at him. Of course now we have a so called democrat that starts to the right of center and still finds the need to triangulate. We are so screwed.

    I would rather not see anything pass than to pass an individual mandate with no real affordable choices and no employer mandate. That is what you are going to get if you let this pass so called reform.