There are, of course, perils to negotiating and compromising. In an era when we are starved for both, and for the middle road that solves a problem — though there are no guarantees that the middle road is the solution — many Washington insiders turn to the example of 1990, perhaps the greatest modern example of a president changing course. At that difficult economic juncture, George H.W. Bush, who had vowed not to raise taxes and had challenged Americans to read his lips, acceded to a budget compromise that raised taxes.
This decision, which emerged from 11 days of fraught negotiations in isolated bungalows at Andrews Air Force Base, won the plaudits of conventional Washington and even today is celebrated in those circles more as an act of courage than of concession. But it is remembered as an unforgivable unconditional surrender by the founding fathers of the new conservatism — and a forbidding cautionary tale as this month’s negotiations continue.
Part of the Obama approach will necessarily be set by his opponents. They began Obama’s first term believing they were in an ideological crisis. (Remember all that 2009 talk about a new generation of liberalism?) Then Obama’s Democrats were torched in 2010 and the talk was of an irresistible conservative counter-revolution.
Now, after the Republicans’ 2012 debacle, the GOP sees itself in a demographic crisis. How the Republicans handle this defeat, and how they plot their return, will be a major factor in the politics of 2013 and the midterm congressional elections of 2014.
The final factor might be called the comparison trap. Obama began his presidency being compared with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and did nothing to tamp down those comparisons. This represented two missteps, one from the commentators who made such facile comparisons and one from the president who believed them.
But no two men are the same, and that is especially so for presidents. Obama really isn’t much like Lincoln, or the Roosevelts, or Taft, whose anecdote opened this argument. Each presidency must be regarded on its own, judged by its own merits and demerits.
As he goes forward, Obama may come to realize he isn’t being compared to George H.W. Bush (compromiser in the budget vise) or to Lyndon Johnson (architect of a vast expansion of programs and entitlements). The danger, or opportunity, is something else entirely. He will be compared to Barack Obama.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.