Any administration wants to leave certain distinct impressions with different audiences. They will all want to make their own core constituencies happy, while convincing the media and the broad middle of the electorate that they are more pragmatic than ideological. They all want to make their political opponents fearful of opposing them. They will all want to look tough on defense, even if some administrations are most interested in making diplomatic breakthroughs. So, it’s not easy to know what any administration or president “really” feels about things. Making things more complicated, each administration inherits a bunch of ongoing programs and problems from the prior administration, meaning that a huge portion of their initial agenda involves stuff they didn’t even initiate and might not want to continue. Finally, whether an administration is mainly ideological or mainly pragmatic doesn’t matter a whole lot. The balance of powers and the rules of the Senate assure that no president can do anything overly ideological unless they have supermajorities in Congress, and even that might not be enough if their own party is divided.

A good place to start in assessing the true intentions of an administration is to ask yourself what they would have done if the composition of Congress had been different. If Obama had enjoyed a 68 senator majority like Lyndon Johnson enjoyed in 1965-66, would he have had a public option in his health care plan, would he have passed a cap and trade energy plan, and would he have signed off on a humane immigration reform bill? How many senators would he have needed to close Gitmo or go back to the well for a second stimulus package?

Do we have any reason to believe that the Obama administration wouldn’t have taken advantage of this hypothetical supermajority to do any of those things? Would he not have completely filled the absences in the federal judiciary? Would he have had to govern with vacancies on the NLRB, FCC, and Federal Reserve? And, since Obama didn’t have this supermajority but LBJ did, are we entitled to make statements like, “Obama is far to the right of LBJ”?

I want you to keep these two ideas in mind: that all administrations try to create a positive impression with different audiences, and that all administrations are ultimately pragmatic unless they have so much congressional support that they can be ideological.

The truth is that the Obama administration has been frustrated on some of its main priorities, and has had to make compromises it didn’t want to make in order to achieve its goals in every other area. But they’re not going to say that their health care bill is a shell of what they hoped for. They’re going to trumpet all the good things that are in the bill. They’re not going to focus on the mess in Afghanistan; they’re going to point to progress and their commitment to get out soon. They’re not going to rigidly oppose the Republicans’ demands that we dismantle the social safety net; they’re going to make good faith offers that they nonetheless are confident will be refused. They want to appear reasonable in comparison with the Republicans, not as just the other side of an inflexible coin.

The Left just doesn’t know how to interpret this kind of message management and subtle strategy. Too many of us take everything literally. Let me give you an example.

As reported in Ryan Lizza’s recent piece for the New Yorker, the Obama administration has been talking a lot to the press about how a second term might shake out. As part of that, they’ve expressed the hope that having a good election night in November might “break the fever” that has overtaken the right and get them to come to the table with a more reasonable set of demands next year. This hope has been received with open derision on the left because it is assumed that the administration is as hopelessly naïve as they sound. For example, I give you Ed Kilgore:

…what I found striking is Obama’s frequent references to the possibility that a 2012 defeat might change the Republican Party from its current direction of hyper-polarization, 1964-style reactionary messianism, and paranoia. The term he uses with Lizza (as elsewhere) is that “the fever may break.”

While the clinical term is entirely appropriate, I do wonder if Obama really believes it.

Let me be blunt. Not only would it be a bad idea for the president to suggest that our present gridlock might remain unchanged in his second term, that simple idea represents the single biggest danger to his reelection prospects. Mitt Romney has only one compelling argument for his presidency. His platform of programs is unpopular. He can’t compete with the president for coolness or popularity. He didn’t get bin-Laden. His business record is as much a liability as an asset. He’s a gaffe machine. His one and only compelling argument is that he might be better able to work with the Democrats (who, at least, believe in governance) than Obama has been able to work with Republicans.

Never mind the deeply troubling implications of this argument, which includes the idea that no Democratic president can govern this country because the GOP won’t allow it, and that, therefore, we must only elect Republican presidents. It doesn’t matter if the strategy is dishonorable. All that matters is that it might work. In fact, nothing else has much of a chance of convincing people that Romney would be preferable to Obama.

For the president to buy into that idea for even one moment would be beyond irresponsible. It would be borderline suicidal. And, yet, the left wants him to make a variant of that argument. Instead of bitching at him for alleged naïvety, we should be saluting him for his political acumen.

But, sometimes, we’re as stupid, partisan, and bloodthirsty as any tea partier.

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