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Obama and The Art of Compromise

Thomas Whitley

This afternoon President Obama announced the tax deal that he cut with Republicans. After his prepared remarks he took questions from the press. How he handled the final question, I believe, shows that he understands the art of compromise. The final question was asked by Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal:

Some on the left have questioned -- have looked at this deal and questioned what your core values are, what specifically you will go to the mat on.  I’m wondering if you can reassure them with some specific things in saying, all right, this is where I don’t budge. . . . Where is your line in the sand?

And for President Obama's response:

So this notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate that we had during health care.  This is the public option debate all over again.  So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower     premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done.  People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.  And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.

That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service.  That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.  This is a big, diverse country.  Not everybody agrees with us.  I know that shocks people.  The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America.  Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page.  Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us.  And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise.  This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans.  You did not qualify.  And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people.  When Medicare was started, it was a small program.  It grew.

Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal.  This country was founded on compromise.  I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding.  And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.

So my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there.  What is helping the American people live out their lives?  What is giving them more opportunity?  What is growing the economy?  What is making us more competitive?  And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.

And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight -- not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?

And I don’t think there’s a single Democrat out there, who if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.

Take a tally.  Look at what I promised during the campaign.  There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do.  And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.

And so the -- to my Democratic friends, what I’d suggest is, let’s make sure that we understand this is a long game.  This is not a short game.  And to my Republican friends, I would suggest -- I think this is a good agreement, because I know that they’re swallowing some things that they don’t like as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years.

I have quoted his response at length because I think it is important to read them within their context. The aspect of his response that I want to highlight is how he handled the notion that someone should be considered weak if they compromise on anything.

People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.  And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are . . .

His point is well-made with me. No matter how right we believe our position to be, simply sitting in our ivory towers closing our eyes and ears to other perspectives and allowing people to suffer in the meantime is not something to be lauded.

In my field of the academic study of religion plenty of people take a purist position and never budge on any position, they never read opposing views, they never compromise for the benefit of other people and the entire field suffers as a result. President Obama was criticized for not compromising during the first two years of his presidency and now he seems to be making wise decisions on when and when not to compromise. I, for one, want to laud his approach that values critical thinking and compromise and does not perpetuate narrow-mindedness and a blind devotion to some party line.

What do you think of the President's comments?