The president is miscast as a wonky technocrat, which he has never been, or a leftist true believer, which is more about the dabbling of his formative years than the man he became. His priority is not policy, nor is he interested in the wholesale remaking of American life into a progressive utopia. Obama does believe the mechanisms of government are better, and produce more ethical outcomes, than the competition of the marketplace – but so do many politicians. But even if he didn’t believe that, Obama would pursue the kinds stakeholder-focused policies he does, because that is how you wield power in the traditional machine politics environment.
Applied nationally, this approach doesn’t heal the land or the hearts of people tired of partisan dischord – it doubles down on the divides of class and interest, an approach even the left acknowledges has made for a nation more divided. The contraception mandate is a perfect representation of this strategy: a calculated and unexpected declaration that religious liberty extends only so far as the whims of a bureaucrat will allow while benefitting politically from creating a wedge within the opposing coalition and ostracizing those Catholics in their funny hats. These flashpoints are perfect examples of traditional big city politics: you sideswipe your foes with an argument they don’t even expect using the full weight of power, and reap the benefits. This harsh approach has its limits, however – it poisons the well for negotiation and agreement on things that matter – as Obama has discovered on more than one occasion.