The Opportunity Cost of Playing Nice

I got an email this morning from a friend who, while agreeing that Obama’s low schmoozability isn’t really keeping anything from getting done in Washington DC, is still a bit concerned that Obama might be taking things too far. After all, if he’s given up completely on having a decent relationship with the opposition, that might still have an effect on the margin.

At a first pass, that sounds unarguable. Other things being equal, friendly relationships certainly can’t hurt, can they?

Actually, they can. The problem, I think, is in the opportunity cost. In the past, it was possible (according to legend, at least) for politicians to rip each other bloody in public and then head out for a beer afterward to laugh about it. But even if that’s true, it’s an era that’s long gone—and not just in the White House. For better or worse, politicians of opposing parties just don’t socialize much anymore.

So here’s Obama’s problem. He can continue to try to make nice with Republicans, figuring that even if it does no good, it probably does no harm either. But if he does that, he has to be reasonably friendly in public too. And that might carry a cost. It means he’s given up one possible way of moving public opinion in his direction.

So in his second term, he seems to be making a different calculation. If trying to compromise gets you nowhere, maybe a more direct appeal to the American public will. And that means attacking Republican intransigence more directly. It’s no sure thing this will work, of course, but it’s worth a try given his utter failure to move Republicans even a smidgen during his first term. And guess what? He seems to have gotten a decent fiscal cliff deal out of it. He’s starting to generate a bit of Republican nervousness toward using the debt ceiling as an opportunity for hostage taking. And his favorability ratings continue to creep upward. Being the bad cop doesn’t seem to be doing any harm.

Political scientists will tell you this can’t work because presidents don’t really have much power to move public opinion. Maybe. But Obama seems to think it’s worth a try, and I find it hard to disagree. One way or another, the tea party faction of the Republican Party has to be held accountable for its zealotry. Maybe a little plain talk is the best way to do that. And maybe Beltway sensibilities need to toughen up a bit.


The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.