Washington Babylon — December 16, 2009, 12:06 pm

Obama’s Strategy for Victory: Defeat

I mentioned in a post yesterday that liberal bloggers tend to exempt President Obama for blame over the failures of his administration. Some times it’s said that Obama inherited a gigantic mess and it’s not fair to expect him to quickly solve the country’s problems. But most presidents inherit a mess (admittedly not often as big as the one handed off to Obama) and the man did run for president. If the job was too big for him, he shouldn’t have placed his name in nomination.

Even less convincing is the argument that Obama can’t get anything done because of a weak Democratic congress. Fine, it’s a lousy congress, but the president sets the tone and signals his priorities. As I noted yesterday, Obama was a big backer of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) when on the campaign trail (when he needed union votes). He’s barely mentioned it since taking office, and so that central demand of labor has gone nowhere. That’s not all the fault of Congress.

Just look at some of today’s headlines. The Washington Post reports that the government “quietly agreed to forgo billions of dollars in potential tax payments from Citigroup as part of the deal announced this week to wean the company from the massive taxpayer bailout that helped it survive the financial crisis.” Steven Pearlstein adds this in his column:

There’s the president of the United States, sitting in the Cabinet room at the White House, cameras rolling, talking with the heads of the country’s biggest banks, each one of which had benefited from an extraordinary government effort last year to prevent the financial system from collapsing…At the same moment, officials next door at Treasury are putting the final touches on agreements that will dramatically reduce the legal and political leverage the administration holds over those very same banks by allowing them to repay the bailout money they received.

Hello? Is this what passes for political arm-twisting and bare-knuckle negotiation at the Obama White House?

Over at Politico we hear that Obama believed banking executives when they told him Monday that they would restrict their lobbyists from working to undermine financial reform. “But on Tuesday morning,” the story noted, “there was little evidence that the major Wall Street firms planned any changes in their approach to lobbying on financial regulatory reform.” No one but Obama was surprised by that.

But the kicker came in this Politico piece:

But it’s not just the liberal base that’s feeling unsettled. Obama has also proved frustrating to moderates, who simply wanted to know where Obama’s core principles on health care stood, all the better to cut a deal to the president’s liking.

Time and again, he rebuffed Democrats’ requests to speak up more forcefully about what he wanted — a strategy that allowed Obama to preserve maximum flexibility to declare victory at the end of the process, no matter what the final bill looked like.

All this is because Obama has a weak congress to work with? God, bring back that old waffler Bill Clinton. Next to Obama he looks like a man of hardened principle.

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More from Ken Silverstein:

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