Kerry Eleveld, a freelance writer and former White House correspondent for the Advocate, argues in the The Atlantic that President Obama “will be a more effective liberal in his second term.” Kerry is a good writer, and thinker. Her argument merits some discussion.
It wasn’t until Republicans took over the House in 2011, Grunwald asserts, that Obama embraced an outsider strategy, using his bully pulpit to highlight GOP obstructionism on legislation like the American Jobs Act.
But Obama’s newly aggressive use of executive authority and efforts to persuade were not merely tactical measures of last resort. As the president repeatedly deployed his power over the last two years, he simultaneously developed a growing comfort with the fact that progressive policy turned out to be good politics. And as the president evolved, the White House evolved with him. The more centrist of his top advisers — such as Rahm Emanuel — became external allies, while Valerie Jarrett and first lady Michelle Obama grew in influence on the inside.
Today, there’s a strong case to be made that Obama’s second term will feature a chief executive who uses both an inside and an outside game to advance progressive ideals.
I don’t know. The President did take a more outsider strategy as two things happened: 1) As Kerry notes, progressives on the outside, especially gay and immigration activists, pushed him, publicly and loudly; and 2) The Republicans showed the President their true nature and he was sincerely surprised by what he saw.
I’ll come back to that in a moment. More from Kerry:
In response to their initial disappointment with the president’s early performance, many progressives speculated that Obama was just waiting for a second term to be more liberal.
A more likely explanation is that Obama was still finding his groove, figuring out which levers worked best for him in the context of governing the nation. And in some ways, he was still developing the courage of his convictions.
I think naive progressives thought the President was putting off the “good liberal stuff” for a second term. The rest of us felt, worried, that he simply wasn’t a fighter, even for things he claimed to believe in. And I think that changed in the last two years, as Kerry notes. The President was willing to take bold stands, on gay rights and immigration especially, at first because of pressure from key electoral constituencies, but also, again as Kerry notes, because he started to realize that the issues were political winners in and of themselves.
Now, those two issues were winners because both gays and Latinos have the money and the PR savvy (us), and the votes (them), to make elections quite painful for those who cross us. And we finally made that clear by being willing to wield our power. To some degree, the President put his future neck out for present gains – win gay and latino support now for a possible headache later when the American people say “WTF?”
But then a funny thing happened. Not only did the President win the gay and latino vote, but the rest of the country didn’t seem to mind (including African-American voters with specific regard to the President’s stance on gay marriage) that he’d embraced two supposedly “third rail” issues that in the end didn’t have all that much juice after all.
The question remains as to what lessons the President took away from both experiences.
On one hand, it’s possible for the President and his advisers to argue that he had no choice but to act on both issues, because both constituencies were ticked and their ire was endangering his re-election prospects. And it’s also possible for them to compartmentalize both gay rights and immigration in the “we got lucky” category – lucky that Americans didn’t get ticked at the President’s liberal advocacy on those issues.
But one hopes, as Kerry writes, that something else happened too. That the President experienced the power of the presidency first-hand, liked it, and saw the good that that such power can accomplish when: A) wielded; and B) wielded well. And he also learned exactly who his opponents really are, and what they’re capable of doing.
So I do think the President will more effectively wield power in the second term. Whether he’ll be more liberal/progressive, and fight any innate urges to move to the middle (or the middle of the right), depends not just on how effective he is, it also depends on who he is. Who he really is, and what he truly believes.