Barack Obama and the Long Game

| Wed Jan. 18, 2012 12:19 AM EST

Is President Obama playing a "long game," as Andrew Sullivan says, or mostly just reacting to political realities, as I think? A Democratic staffer emails to take issue with me on one particular topic:

The big place where I think Sullivan is right and you’re wrong is on deficits/ jobs/ confrontationalism. After the 2010 elections, I think any spending whatsoever, on jobs or anything else, paid for or not, would have been literally laughed out of town and had Senate Democrats racing to the microphone to denounce it. Obama therefore dove into the deficit fight. It was virtually certain, regardless, that there were going to be long-term deficit cuts, and for that matter that House Republicans were not going to give in on revenue without major concessions. So Obama began a process that inch by inch, day by day, painted Republicans into a hated obstructionist corner, and in the end Obama basically gave up what he was going to have to give up all along.

The end result was that spending cuts happened, which I actually think in the long term there’s a sound progressive policy rationale for; they were backloaded so they wouldn’t hurt the economy in short term; the deficit debate was largely taken off the table; a half-trillion dollar stimulus package became a potent weapon rather than a laughable liability; and after years of Republicans obstruction without consequence they are suddenly paying a price for it every time and it has becoming a defining tenet of the Republican brand. As a result, Obama can bash the crap out of them while not sacrificing the mantle of being a guy who means what he says rather than being a cheap partisan.

Obama actually pivoted to talking about deficits a year earlier than this, during the 2010 State of the Union address, which was likely a mistake even if you buy this staffer's argument. I'm not entirely convinced myself, but he makes some good points that I thought were worth passing along.