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The Fighting Bipartisan: Has Obama Found a Solution for Republican Obstructionism?

Barack Obama’s jobs speech last night was not the speech his critics from the left had been asking for. It didn’t call out the “malefactors of great wealth” or “the forces of selfishness and of lust for power.” It didn’t adopt the language of FDR’s 1936 speech in Madison Square Garden—that gripping outlier even among Roosevelt’s own rhetoric, much less the mainstream of presidential speeches—so frequently invoked as a model in recent months: “They are unanimous in their hatred for me, and I welcome their hatred.” Contrary to all recommendations from Paul Krugman, The American Prospect or DailyKos, this non-populist, not-very-partisan president again refused to don the cloak of partisanship or populism.

And they loved it anyway, the critics from the left, in tone as well as content. That’s because, at least for the moment, Obama solved a persistent, deadly problem in his basic theory of politics: There was no Plan B.

The original theory of Obama was supposed to be a kind of win-win. With a conciliatory, open tone, and by putting process—deliberation, collaboration, good faith—at the center of his politics, he could maneuver with or without Republican cooperation. Either he would capture enough Republican assent (he didn’t need much) to move some of his agenda, or he would be able to call out the Republicans for their obstructionism and claim the higher, less partisan ground. This wasn’t crazy—all evidence from the 2008 election suggested that both the enthusiasm of younger voters, and the hesitant shift of older independents and moderate Republicans to Obama, had everything to do with that promise to tone down and change the process of politics. That change, not a vehement progressive agenda, was what the voters who made his majority expected.

The problem was that it was all too easy for a disciplined Republican congressional faction to entirely deny Obama the option of enacting his agenda. The Republican discipline of the Bush era became useless after the 2004 Bush reelection, and the party seemed totally at sea in moments such as the 2008 Wall Street crisis—but that’s because it was always a machine designed for opposition, not governance. Obama gave it the oppositional purpose that the partisan machine had lacked, and the Tea Party just helped kick the engines into gear.

And the idea of “calling them out” on partisanship didn’t work, because it was about process, not any particular thing. Republicans may have been “obstructionist,” but that was just an abstraction—there wasn’t any real thing they were blocking, some knowable alternative that would have changed the economic conditions of Americans. Or, if there was an alternative, it was everything: Republicans were blocking health care reform, and cap and trade, and appropriations bills, and nominations, and labor protections and environmental regulations—everything, and yet nothing that people could put their hands around and appreciate that it could have made a difference.

After two years of this, and the 2010 election, Obama was backed into a corner in which he was no longer even trying to set an agenda, but pleading for cooperation on ideas that weren’t even his own agenda, such as long-term deficit reduction. He needed a way out. The only choices seemed to be a strong partisan attack, exemplified by his April 13 speech on the budget, or being pulled deeper into the abyss of negotiating around someone else’s priorities. And his choice was to do both: Deliver a tough speech, then turn around and try to negotiate with John Boehner on John Boehner’s agenda, or the agenda of the people who were trying to unseat John Boehner for the very fact of negotiating with Obama. Nothing about that was going to end well.

Last night Obama found a way out, sort of. It’s not a fiery partisan confrontation; it’s a kind of fighting bipartisanship. He’s now putting forth a substantive agenda that is very likely to boost the economy, create jobs, and improve the basic fairness of the tax system in order to spread the benefits of economic growth more broadly. But he aggressively linked almost all of those things to ideas that Republicans had already supported, or that wealthy people such as Warren Buffet had embraced. He took ownership of some ideas that had traditionally been conservative, and embraced ideas that had had some Republican support.

None of that means that the American Jobs Bill that he insisted Congress pass will pass. Of course it won’t. And maybe it’s all too late; maybe at this point, only results matter. I noticed an odd idiosyncrasy today in the July Pew poll on Obama: Despite his 44% approval rating, his rating on the question, “Cares about people like me,” which many politicos consider the only question that really matters, is at 60%, higher than George W. Bush at his best. But the combination of the two suggests that people no longer care that he cares. They’re fed up with gestures, empathy, or good ideas that get blocked in the political process—all they want is results.

Obama’s new approach, though, sets up, in theory, a different hypothetical win-win than the one we’ve been operating under for almost three years. One possibility is that Republicans have some qualms about a wholly obstructionist agenda, Congress passes some or most of the American Jobs Act, the economy improves (likely with some help from the Federal Reserve, international circumstances, and good fortune), and actual conditions get Obama out of the box he’s in. Failing that, if the White House and Democrats can keep their focus on the American Jobs Act (and if the left can avoid getting distracted by Obama’s wise concessions to reality, such as long-term reductions in Medicare spending), then Republican obstruction takes a new form. It’s not just blocking Obama, or his agenda—it’s blocking economic recovery, systematically, including ideas that Republicans have embraced in the past and will embrace again.

Pulling that off, however, requires a discipline that goes beyond one speech. It means that every action of the administration from here into 2012 needs to reinforce the point that we have it in our means to rescue the economy and to restore the promise of a middle-class country. This speech alone won’t do the work. But if it’s a roadmap to the next period of the Obama presidency, it might represent a dramatic change, not just in the president’s electoral prospects, but in the range of policy solutions that are available now and in the future.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.