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How to Construct Cooperation

November 15, 2010

If I were Barack Obama heading back to Washington to face the first meeting of the newly lame-duckified Democratic Congress, I’d be feeling a little scared. Like, Frodo and Sam sneaking into Mordor type scared—the kind of scared where you know there’s some really important stuff you’ve got to get done in a pretty urgent time frame, but you’re afraid you might not be able to do it before powerful opposing forces manage to stop you. After all, Obama made some pretty sweeping campaign promises that he hasn’t gotten to act on yet, and it seems like Republicans are pretty adamant about dismantling the work done on some of the promises he’s kept.

And sure, when speaking to reporters on Air Force One yesterday while traveling back from a trip to Asia, Obama starts out all contrite and apologetic for his “obsessive focus on policy.” He even says that this led him to lose sight of some of his “principles.” But when he switches to discussing how he plans to co-govern with the newly elected Republican house majority, he goes less for Frodo and Sam and more for Gandalf facing the Balrog:

Campaigning is very different from governing. All of us learn that. And they’re still flush with victory, having run a strategy that was all about saying no. But I am very confident that the American people were not issuing a mandate for gridlock.

Oh, snap. It’s a novel strategy to start a discussion about cooperation with a catty swipe at those you’ll have to cooperate with, but Obama’s little zinger here accomplishes two pretty important things: first, it pretty much reduces the oppositional fervor of the Republicans’ midterm campaigns to something akin to obstinate childishness. Republicans here are like Christian Bale in that (NSFW but still hilarious almost two years later) rant on the set of “Terminator Salvation.” Their entire strategy in the election season was “saying no.” Not “suggesting alternatives” or “standing up for their positions,” but “saying no.” Secondly, by saying what the election results were not—“a mandate for gridlock”—Obama puts himself in a position where, even though his party lost, he can have a say in what they are.

And this is exactly what he does. He says that the American people “want to see us make progress precisely because they understand instinctually how competitive things are and how we have to step up our game.” So, the election results weren’t a mandate for a change in course, as future Speaker of the House John Boehner and the Republicans seem to think, but merely a request for everyone involved, Obama included, to “step up their game.”

And he expects the Republicans to act accordingly:

So my expectation is, when I sit down with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner this week, along with the Democratic leaders, that there are a set of things that need to get done during the lame duck, and that they are not going to want to just obstruct, that they’re going to want to engage constructively.

Republicans aren’t “going to want to obstruct,” because that’s not what the election results mean. They are, however, going to “want to engage constructively” to accomplish the things that “need to get done,” because after all, not getting enough done is why the Democrats lost, right?

Both sides of the aisle have been touting compromise a lot since the outcome of the elections, but these brief remarks by Obama are interesting in the way they talk up compromise. He talks like a man that hasn’t just suffered a major political defeat. In doing so, he manages to both reshape the significance of that defeat and offer an alternative rationale for why it happened. He also gets to play a role in shaping the discussion of what will happen the aftermath. Uncooperative House Republicans could be a real threat to Obama’s agenda come January—but by discussing the election results in terms of progress, not opposition, he already sets up the expectation that instead of struggling over what work he’s already done on his agenda, it (or at least the parts of it that he can find common ground with the Republicans on) will continue to run along smoothly.

If you want to know more:

  • My thoughts here were informed by Erving Goffman’s work on footing, as discussed in a chapter in “Forms of Talk.” By being so bold about his expectations, Obama’s rhetorical stance keeps him on the footing of someone who’s still got a lot of political power, thus allowing him some control over the situation.
  • While I couldn’t find a full transcript as of press time, I quoted Obama’s remarks as they were excerpted in this article by U.S.A. Today.
  • There’s a bunch of parodies and mash-ups of the whole Christian Bale thing on YouTube, most of which aren’t very good, but my personal favorite is probably this parody by actor Michael Cera on the set of “Youth in Revolt.”

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