Opinion

President Obama is the only grown-up in Washington

Part of being a wise politician – and an adult – is compromising with your ideological rivals sometimes, especially when it's for the greater good of a divided government and recovering nation. Lately, it seems President Obama is the only grown-up in the room.

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“Politicians are not stupid. Politicians are not stupid. Politicians are not stupid.” This is the first rule of political analysis.

They know when to cover their behinds. Usually, this is all too apparent, but these past few weeks the folks in Congress have been acting so crazy, I have to keep repeating this mantra to myself.

And caught in the middle, vilified by both sides (even his own), is President Obama – the only grown-up in the room.

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Self-righteous indignation

The Democrats are ticked at their party’s leader, Mr. Obama, for working out a compromise with the party of small government and big tax cuts. Never mind that the deal may just keep the economy from slowing to a standstill. Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that everyone was talking about the sluggish economy as the reason that Democrats lost so many seats?

Even some of the same Democrats who voted for Bush’s original tax cuts have apparently found religion and were full of self-righteous indignation that Obama agreed to a two-year extension of their vote. I know they are supposed to look after their own interests, but can this be smart? They seemed so angry to me that I actually think their feelings were hurt.

I’ve heard that the Obama administration has been terrible at communicating with Democrats on Capitol Hill, and I know that liberals have had to settle for a good bit of moderate legislation, but do they really think they could have gotten something better?

Of course, the liberals aren’t alone in this theater of the bizarre.

Confusing hypocrisy

Right when I think that shared governance has brought the Republicans back to the land of responsibility and compromise, they go and vote against a bill that would grant federal aid to 9/11 workers and victims who are sick because of the time they spent at ground zero.

When I first read that headline, I thought surely there must be a logical explanation for an otherwise monstrous-sounding move. Sure enough, there was a reason; the federal aid would add something in the neighborhood of $7 billion to the budget deficit. Remember this was two days after Republicans had fought for and won a tax break extension for millionaires that would add hundreds of billions to the deficit.

Drawing lines in the sand

It may be that Democrats and Republicans are cynical actors playing their roles for the folks back home, but if so, the constituents they're listening to are the outliers. There is some evidence that the tax deal is popular among the general public and it is hard to imagine that the 9/11 aid bill would not be, which makes me think that something closer to the heart is involved. Both groups feel like they have been forced to draw a line in the sand.

Of course, this is nothing new for the Republican leaders. They have lately marketed themselves as ideological purists. The only reason they will vote against their principles is if President Obama agrees with them. Still, in this case they have outdone themselves. Maybe the sponsors of the retooled 9/11 aid bill should consider reintroducing it as part of a large tax break for the rich. That would win Republican support!

The Democrats are obviously less experiences at this ideological posturing. Republicans vote “No” and walk away. Democrats pass a non-binding resolution, walk away, and keep looking back with expectant eyes. When asked about the deal, they don’t say, “It’s dead!” They say they want a better deal. Still, like their ideological rivals, they are talking about core values and loyalty to principle.

Politician as prophet

Almost a hundred years ago, Max Weber wrote an essay called “Politics as a Vocation” in which he contrasted the work of a politician with that of a prophet. The latter is loyal to the cause, come what may. The politician, on the other hand, is loyal to the cause but also aware of his responsibility for consequences. There are no prophets in the House or the Senate, but every now and then lots of folks up there like to play one, especially on TV. These politicians may be smart, but they are certainly not wise.

These past few weeks it has seemed that President Obama is virtually the only political grown-up on the scene. Like most parents, he’s got his rules and principles, but in a crisis he recognizes that compromises have to be made if the family is to survive. He realizes that responsible leadership in a divided government requires compromise even with your ideological rivals.

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“But he should have fought!” is the common response from the president’s progressive critics. I agree that politics is about more than policy and point scoring. It is about justice. And the tax deal signed into law last week is onerous because it represents another case in which the powerful are granted an exemption, at a time when many Americans are carrying heavy burdens. This should give us pause, and to be fair, the president might have paused a bit longer. But he recognizes what all people should: that our power is limited.

There are campaigns to be waged and positions to be extolled, but in the end, deals have to be struck with one’s opponents. Such is the life of politicians – and grown-ups.

David True is associate professor of religion at Wilson College, where he teaches courses in religion and ethics. He co-edits the journal Political Theology.

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