The Compromiser-in-Chief

By Maureen Dowd, New York Times - October 18, 2009


Maureen Dowd

One singular leader who wrote elegantly about his ideals, was swept into the presidency and then collided with harsh reality had some advice for another.

In an interview with Alison Smale in The Times last week, Vaclav Havel sipped Champagne in the middle of the afternoon and pricked Barack Obama’s conscience.

Havel, the 73-year-old former Czech president, who didn’t win a Nobel Peace Prize despite leading the Czechs and the Slovaks from communism to democracy, turned the tables and asked Smale a question about Obama, the latest winner of the peace prize.

Was it true that the president had refused to meet the Dalai Lama on his visit to Washington?

He was told that Obama had indeed tried to curry favor with China by declining to see the Dalai Lama until after the president’s visit to China next month.

Dissing the Dalai was part of a broader new Obama policy called “strategic reassurance” — softening criticism of China’s human rights record and financial policies to calm its fears that America is trying to contain it. (Not to mention our own fears that the Chinese will quit bankrolling our debt.)

The tyro American president got the Nobel for the mere anticipation that he would provide bold moral leadership for the world at the very moment he was caving to Chinese dictators. Awkward.

Havel reached out to touch a glass dish given to him by Obama, inscribed with the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. “It is only a minor compromise,” he said. “But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”

Our president would be well advised to listen. Havel is looking at this not only as a moral champion but as a playwright. Obama (who, as Robert Draper wrote, has read and reread Shakespeare’s tragedies) does not want his fatal flaw to be that he compromises so much that his ideals get blurred out of recognition.

As Leon Wieseltier writes in the upcoming New Republic: “The demotion of human rights by the common-ground presidency is absolutely incomprehensible. The common ground is not always the high ground. When it is without end, moreover, the search for common ground is bad for bargaining. It informs the other side that what you most desire is the deal — that you will never acknowledge the finality of the difference, and never be satisfied with the integrity of opposition. There is a reason that ‘uncompromising’ is a term of approbation.”

F.D.R. asked to be judged by the enemies he had made. But what of a president who strives to keep everyone in some vague middle ground of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, without ever offending anyone?

White House advisers don’t seem worried yet that Obama’s transformational aura could get smudged if too much is fudged. They say it is the normal tension between campaigning on a change platform and actually accomplishing something in office.

Yet Obama’s legislative career offers cautionary tales about the toll of constant consensus building.

In Springfield, he compromised so much on a health care reform bill that in the end, it merely led to a study. In Washington, he compromised so much with Senate Republicans on a bill to require all nuclear plant owners to notify state and local authorities about radioactive leaks that it simply devolved into a bill offering guidance to regulators, and even that ultimately died.

Now the air is full of complaints that Obama has been too cautious on health care, Afghanistan, filling judgeships, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and rebuilding New Orleans; that he has conceded too much to China, Iran, Russia, the Muslim world and the banks.

The White House Web site that went up during President Obama’s first week in office bragged about the four trips that Senator Obama made to the Gulf region after Katrina, promising to “keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans.” He may be doing a better job than Brownie’s boss, but Obama didn’t make his first visit to New Orleans until Thursday. He stayed just a few hours before jetting off to a fund-raiser in San Francisco.

At the New Orleans town hall, 29-year-old Gabriel Bordenave complained about the slow pace of the recovery. “I expected as much from the Bush administration,” he told Obama. “But why are we still being nickel-and-dimed?”

The president gave a technocrat’s answer about the “complications between the state, the city and the feds in making assessments of the damages.”

“Now, I wish I could just write a check,” he added. When an audience member yelled “Why not?” he dryly noted, “There’s this whole thing about the Constitution.”

The president should remember, though, that when you’re cooking up a more perfect Union, sometimes you’ve got to break some eggs.

Also in Opinion »

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