Obama’s Leadership on Health Care and DADT

Obama seems to have disappointed liberals with his suggestions that progressives should stop hammering senators about health care, and his (lack of) speed at reforming “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” I think they are examples of astute political leadership.

First of all, even though Obama may make these suggestions, it does not mean Progressives should listen to dear leader and stop saying stuff. If anything, Obama is implying organize better. By simply not impeding progress, he is actually enabling forward movement – but the work will revolve around groups organizing popular support.

What ideological progressives forget is that good politics is not a matter of diktat. Political calculus requires constantly negotiating between different competing interests. For this reason, Obama’s comments to progressives should be seen as shoring up as many favors and political capital as he possibly can among conservative Democrats. And it seems to be working. He has an impressive number of victories. Obama is carrying out his agenda with steady, if slow, progress, laying down a solid foundation for future political victories. He understands that politics is not done by shouting ideological platitudes at people. It’s done by building relationships. By showing loyalty to conservative democrats, he builds good will with them – capital he can spend later. It is a smart maneuver on his part.

It does not mean we should obey him.

If Obama presses too hard on DADT at this time, he may force conflict in a fashion that will undermine his tenuous relationship with the military establishment. If he were to push DADT now, he risks both losing that battle and making it impossible in the future to manage other important political issues, such as curtailing defense spending. He has stated his position about DADT clearly already: it will end. But he will do it when he has his ducks lined in a row so that other important policies don’t get sacrificed.

This does not mean we should stop complaining. Not at all. I believe that Obama expects and desires that we organize. In fact, by being temperamentally conservative, he helps progressives avoid political complacency – which is exactly what happened under Clinton. They should not be frustrated that the organizer in chief is as conservative as he seems.

His implicit message: continue organizing. It is enough that we have a president that will listen.

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