A Success Secret of Barack Obama? Conciliatory Rhetoric as a Ruthless Political Strategy for Isolating Opponents?

Isolate with love, empathy, and dialogue?

This is a technique that Jonathan Chait thinks that Barack Obama uses as a sort of cunning ju-jitsu on his opposition. By drawing opponents out, inviting them into cooperation and compromise, he actually succeeds, when they behave badly or stupidly, in isolating them! Chait sees the technique in both the way that he has dealt with the GOP and with the Muslim world (via his Cairo speech):

Obama began his presidency by elaborately courting the opposition party. Republicans in Congress believed that, by flamboyantly withholding cooperation, they could deny Obama his stated goal of bipartisan harmony and thus render him a failure. Instead, they wound up handing Obama the alternative victory of appearing to be the reasonable party. Polls showed that the public, by overwhelming margins, believed that Obama was trying to work with Republicans and that Republicans were not reciprocating. Likewise, by defusing the complaint among Islamists that the United States disrespects their religion, Obama can more easily force the Iranian leadership to negotiate on the terms of its stated goals. This is actually “a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers,” as American Prospect editor Mark Schmitt wrote in 2007. “One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in,” Schmitt explained, “treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem.” This apparent paradox is one reason Obama’s political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it’s all the same thing. Obama’s defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.

I think that there is something to be learned here for dialogue and engagement in general. For example, some scientists think that dialogue via The Templeton Foundation with regard to religion should never be engaged in. But what if these scientists took a more conciliatory Obama-style with regard to religious discussion? Right now, these scientists run the risk of appearing unreasonable to the public, never giving dialogue a chance. But once dialogue is engaged, the instabilities of arguments are exposed and those who have engaged in good faith are perceived as being on the moral high ground. At least they tried. Right now, the Templeton Foundation is succeeding in isolating some scientists by making them appear narrow minded and intractable to reason. (How ironic is that?)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to A Success Secret of Barack Obama? Conciliatory Rhetoric as a Ruthless Political Strategy for Isolating Opponents?

  1. jonolan says:

    Yes, well Obama had already described this strategy years ago. He even wrote about in one of his autobiographies.

    Genuine bipartisanship, though, assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes that the majority will be constrained – by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate – to negotiate in good faith. If these conditions do not hold – if nobody outside Washington is really paying attention to the substance of the bill, if the true costs of the tax cut are buried in phony accounting and understated by a trillion dollars or so – the majority party can begin every negotiation by asking 100 percent of what it wants, go on to concede 10 percent, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support this “compromise” of being “obstructionist.” For the minority party in such circumstances, “bipartisanship” comes to mean getting chronically steamrolled, although individual senators may enjoy certain political rewards by consistently going along with the majority and hence gaining a reputation for being “moderate” or “centrist.”

    – Senator Barack Obama
    The Audacity of Hope, Chapter 4 – Politics, pg. 131

  2. santitafarella says:


    That’s an interesting Obama quote. Thanks for sharing it.


  3. jonolan says:

    No problem.

    What I found sad but interesting was the fact that in his book he made it sound like he disapproved of the practice as he described it, but when he and his cabal of Liberals took power it turned into part of his manifesto as it were.

    Demand everything, concede the least important 10%, then claim the opposition are obstructionists clinging to some outmoded idea…

  4. santitafarella says:


    Contextually, I think it should be kept in mind that for a very long time, liberals in this country (whether accurate in their perception) felt like we were being rolled by conservative mendaciousness (whether on the radio, or via Fox News, or in the halls of power). Obama is an evolved phenomenon of an arms race that we had lost for too long. With the advent of the Internet, liberals now have a tool as powerful as conservative talk radio for mobilizing and counter-messaging etc.

    One of the things that contemporary liberals have learned is how to fight and win in a very difficult climate. We’ve neutralized talk radio with our own counter-media. And in the instance of Obama, notice that he immediately appointed a bulldog—Rahm Emmanuel—as chief of staff. Liberals now know how to give a punch and take a punch. Obama’s empathy message and appeal to dialogue can now be used by him to unbalance authoritarians both here and abroad. When they won’t play nice, it marginalizes them in the eyes of the world. It’s a very powerful liberal “soft power” strategy. And it exposes how authoritarians need each other to dance. Bush needed Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad needed Bush. Obama’s Cairo speech destabilized the Axis of Evil rhetoric in Iran and here. It smoked out the Iranian regime, revealing its illegitimacy, and alternately made the average Iranian someone who is no longer “other.”

    Obama is very good at holding the center and driving others to the margins.


  5. Lona says:

    It’s great thqt you are getting ideas from thi paragraph as
    well aas from our dialogue made at this time.

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