Balance and the Balance of Power
Posted on June 11, 2009
This originally appeared in The Politico
According to ancient Chinese philosophy, life is the balance of yin and yang. Yin (feminine, dark, passive force) and yang (masculine, bright, active force) are complementary opposites rather than absolutes. Each creates and defines the other’s opposite.
Balance is an important concept in politics, as well. Unbridled power, which tends toward an extreme, usually encounters a counterforce that works to moderate that extreme.
President Barack Obama seems to understand how important balance is politically. In almost every speech, he seeks to position himself not as an advocate but as an arbiter. Then-candidate Obama’s March 2008 speech on race acknowledged not only the grievances of African-Americans but also the resentment of whites toward affirmative action and crime. His speech in Cairo last week made a conscious effort to acknowledge both the terrible truth of the Holocaust and the plight of Palestinians who have lost their homes and live in desperate circumstances.
And in almost every public speech, Obama positions himself rhetorically in the center, weighing both sides of the argument before making the “right” decision.
Obama’s balance strategy is not restricted to speeches. He consciously and publicly lives a balanced life. He makes time to work out, to go on dates with his wife, to do homework with his kids and even to sneak out for lunch to get a cheeseburger. The president doesn’t hide his efforts to live a normal life, to achieve a life balance. He makes it a point to highlight them.
It’s a smart strategy: The latest poll numbers show that it has worked for the president. According to Gallup, the American people like him personally, 67 percent to 32 percent. But on issue handling, those numbers take a dramatic drop. For example, only 46 percent of the American people approve of the job Obama did handling the deficit, and only 45 percent approve of his efforts to control federal spending.
I believe the Republicans need to think balance when they consider ways to counter the Obama White House.
Attacking the president directly and personally — like criticizing his and first lady Michelle Obama’s Saturday night jaunt to New York City for dinner and a show — is counterproductive. It doesn’t help to bring balance to the political conversation. In fact, most of the personal attacks look extreme, petty and mean.
Instead of attacking the president personally (à la Rush Limbaugh), Republicans should seek to counter the liberal Democrats in Congress in order to bring more balance to the political order.
People want a check on the president’s power, and polls show that message works better for the GOP.
They should highlight the legislative and ethical excesses of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and company. Having a more robust Republican Party will provide ideological balance and better, more honest governance for the country.
Once Republicans get through the midterm elections, where they will hopefully get more balance in the political system by making up ground in the House and Senate, they should turn to finding a more balanced presidential candidate.
Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, for all of his political moderation over the years, was not seen as politically balanced. He was more a maverick than a moderate. His volatile personality, alleged volcanic temper and political inconsistency undermined whatever advantage he might have had in the experience department. Temperament turned out to be a key attribute in the last election.
The American people seem to want a candidate who lives a more balanced life, not just one who is an advocate for one ideological outlook but one who can see both sides of every issue and then make the best decisions for all Americans.
Republicans love to talk about the fierce conservatism of Ronald Reagan, but they forget that an essential part of his campaign rhetoric was his empathy for the old Democratic Party. He would always remind the voters that he, too, was once a Democrat and that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left him. Reagan was seen not merely as an ideological warrior but as a man who had a balanced vision for America.
What the Republicans need to counter Obama is not more ideological warfare. What they need is more balance.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.