Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Understanding Obama

Harold Heie


UNDERSTANDING OBAMA??January 7, 2011?by Harold Heie

President Obama has managed to infuriate the right without satisfying the left. His commitment to talking respectfully with those who disagree with him strikes his political foes as spineless and worries his supporters.

This dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle is a product of President Obama’s commitment to dialogue.  The roots of this commitment are cogently described in James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition. If the first step in constructively engaging someone who disagrees with you is to seek to understand the reasons for their beliefs, then those on both sides of the aisle need to seek better understanding of these roots for Obama’s approach to politics.

There are those who say “we cannot accomplish anything legislatively until you agree with me.” They hold to unyielding fixed positions, believing that to give an inch is to compromise deeply held beliefs.

President Obama rejects such a position, favoring instead public debate and hearing all sides on an issue before forming a judgment.  This approach leads to compromise—but note carefully his definition of “compromise,” presented immediately after congress approved the tax cut legislation in December 2010: “Compromise means yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on something all of us care about.” The operative word here is “yielding.”

When driving through one of the rotaries (that is, roundabouts) in Massachusetts, “yielding” is not the end of the journey. Rather, it is a temporary delay in an ongoing journey. Analogously, in the December 2010 tax legislation Obama yielded on some matters about which he has strong beliefs, most notably his belief that tax cuts should not be extended to the wealthy. Why yield? Because it was the only tactic that would encourage his political opponents to do some of their own yielding, most notably agreeing to a number of tax breaks for the middle class and an extension of unemployment benefits that the president supported.

But in agreeing to such a compromise, didn’t both President Obama and his political opponents violate their deeply held beliefs? Only if you think that December 2010 was the end of the journey. They only agreed to this yielding because they shared two elements of common ground: the belief that to do nothing in December 2010, allowing taxes on everyone to go up on January 1, 2011, could be a political disaster, and the belief that the first priority was to create jobs and spur economic growth.

What took place in December of 2010 is far from the end of the journey. President Obama believes that the tax cuts for the wealthy will not create a significant number of jobs. His political opponents believe this measure will create many new jobs. Who is correct?  Politicians on both sides of the aisle need to exhibit enough humility to acknowledge that they could be wrong. Only time will tell. It is only after the politicians and the American public see the results, intended or unintended, of the December 2010 legislation that the needed priorities for the next round of legislation will become clearer. And we may also gain greater clarity as to how to cut the huge federal deficit. What a marvelous thing it would be if the conjecture of columnist David Brooks materializes, that the deliberations of December 2010 may have helped to build up some trust that will be sorely needed when that huge debate begins.
These reflections are not intended to express support, or lack of support, for the December 2010 legislation or for any of the other initiatives that president Obama has taken. Rather, they are meant to indicate my support of a conciliatory and conversational method for engagement in politics, engaging those who disagree with you in respectful conversation for the purpose of seeking common ground, legislating on the basis of that common ground, and refining previous legislation based on the actual consequences of that legislation. This is a method for political engagement far superior to hyper-partisan politics. I commend it to both sides of the aisle.

—Harold Heie is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College (MA) and a former Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”