When Republicans won a commanding midterm victory in 2010, President Obama decided, for multiple reasons, to accept the outcome as a blow to his own legitimacy. He conciliated Republican leaders. He adopted as his own the nominal goal of their economic agenda: deficit reduction. He set aside progressive tax increases, climate change mitigation, immigration reform—all the unfinished business of his first term.
In substantive terms, this decision was disastrous. It invited premature austerity, muzzled the economic recovery, and normalized, at least for a time, a cycle of legislative brinksmanship in which Republicans threatened to harm to the country—to shut down the government, withhold disaster relief, and default on the national debt—unless Obama agreed to more and more conservative policy objectives.
The concessions seemed at the time, and still seem to this day, like an error. But there was at least some logic to them. The Republican wave in 2010 was genuinely historic. In its wake, Obama had good reasons to wonder whether the voting public would still have his back if he resisted Republicans without giving their agenda a hearing. Counterfactuals are a tricky business, but as foolhardy as Obama’s 2011 strategy seems in hindsight, he and the Democrats recovered and won a satisfying victory in 2012.