Inside the tent

    The president, humbled by his midterm shellacking, was breaking bread with his political adversaries – a strategy that naturally prompted his liberal base to go ballistic. One prominent left-leaner scoffed, “He’s still chasing after people who have utter contempt for him, who still think he’s a socialist.” Another said, “There’s a lingering feeling among us that you can’t quite put your trust in this guy.” And a third liberal activist warned that the president’s re-election bid might be imperiled: “If he doesn’t start to mobilize the Democratic base, then he’s got a problem.”

    You might well assume that those remarks were uttered yesterday, in the wake of Barack Obama’s “neighborly” outreach to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which only recently spent $50 million during the midterms in a concerted effort to beat his brains in. But no. Those opinions surfaced in interviews that I conducted…on October 25, 1995. The ire was aimed at President Bill Clinton. I still have the notes. I was covering an AFL-CIO convention in New York City, an event that drew a huge contingent of disillusioned lefties. They told me they were furious about Clinton’s increasingly centrist orientation and his penchant for talking to the enemy. They didn’t like his free-trade policies, which threatened domestic jobs. They were ticked off that he had trekked down to Texas, one week earlier, and schmoozed with an audience of rich people. One liberal activist told me that Clinton was toast, a one-term president: “What has he done for us? My heart’s not in it.”I couldn’t help but recall this episode yesterday, when I heard the liberal ire about Obama’s trek to the Chamber, about how he had “surrendered” and “capitulated” by making such a “mortifying” move. And sure enough – echoes of 1995 – a prominent labor union leader said this about the rank and file: “It is going to be hard to get them to show up at the polls (for Obama). Our villain is apathy. They are disgruntled. They are discouraged.”Granted, history does not neatly repeat itself. But it does suggest that today’s liberals would be wise to afford themselves a little perspective. They may well be justified in believing that Obama is not one of them, that he is only willing to give them half a loaf – but a Republican president, in 2013, would surely give them a napkin of crumbs. Which, for them, would be worse?And if Obama is to secure a second term, he needs to reconnect with the independent swing voters who in 2008 ensured him the biggest Democratic popular vote percentage since 1964. He can’t get those voters unless he demonstrates a willingness to work with adversaries on issues of common concern, particularly issues that might help grow the economy. Indeed, the Chamber has been signaling a willingness to tone down its own anti-Obama rhetoric, in the interests of “advancing our shared priorities.”I see merit in what Jon Cowan, president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, told the National Journal yesterday: “The path to re-election runs through the center of the electorate. And the center of the electorate is pro-growth. And so the politics and policy of being a pro-growth Democratic president align perfectly.”By the way, Obama didn’t exactly “capitulate” yesterday. He still got his licks in. He told the Chamber that businesses need to “get off the sidelines” and “get into the game” by spending some of the $2 trillion currently on their balance sheets to create jobs. He agreed with the Chamber that some government regulations were onerous and therefore needed to go – but he also delivered a ringing defense of the safety net (just as he did in the State of the Union, just as Clinton did in 1995 and 1996), in essence telling the suits what they didn’t want to hear:”Even as we work to eliminate burdensome regulations, America’s businesses have a responsibility to recognize that there are some safeguards and standards that are necessary to protect the American people from harm or exploitation. Few of us would want to live in a society without the rules that keep our air and water clean; that give consumers the confidence to do everything from investing in financial markets to buying groceries. “Yet when standards like these have been proposed (in the past), opponents have often warned that they would be an assault on business and free enterprise. Early drug companies argued that the bill creating the FDA would ‘practically destroy the sale of … remedies in the United States.’ Auto executives predicted that having to install seatbelts would bring the downfall of their industry. The president of the American Bar Association denounced child labor laws as ‘a communistic effort to nationalize children.’ Of course, none of this has come to pass.”

    There’s something else. It’s politically smarter for Obama to have the Chamber working with him, at least on issues of mutual interest, than for Obama to diss the Chamber and essentially give it a license to kill in the ’12 election cycle. As Lyndon Johnson shrewdly observed nearly 50 years ago (and I’ll cleanse his verb for this family blog), it’s far preferable to have a potential adversary “inside the tent urinating out, than outside urinating in.”Or, as Michael Corleone put it (because The Godfather is the font of all pragmatic wisdom), “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

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