Lessons From the Great Compromiser

Obama with Portugal Prime Minister José Sócrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousain 2010. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)
Obama with Portugal Prime Minister José Sócrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousain 2010. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

With the repeal of the controversial "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevented homosexual soldiers from serving openly in the U.S. military, ratification of the new START Treaty and a surprise 11th-hour passage of the 9/11 first responders' health care bill, President Obama is being hailed as "the Great Compromiser." But just a couple of weeks ago, after the passage of the president's contentious compromise tax- cut extension, many of Obama's unhappy supporters — including some in his own party — were bashing him for repeatedly caving in to increasingly brazen Republican opposition.


Even once-doting, man-on-the-street African Americans were questioning his intestinal fortitude. I've heard a number of people use street vernacular to refer to the president as "Bitch Ass Obama." While reasonable people may argue about his toughness, what is more troubling is the example that his detractors — political leadership at the highest level and on both sides of the aisle — are setting for young Americans.

Compromise, it seems, has become a dirty word, and the art of giving something to get something is for wimps. Statesmanship be damned. Despite the president's stunning political victories last week, U.S. politics today is increasingly conducted in an all-or-nothing arena, where getting less than everything on one's agenda every time is scored as a total loss.

No one, including many of the nation's leading media pundits, seems willing to give any credit at all for partial achievement. Republicans have made it their top priority to make sure the president fails at all costs, and Democrats see his willingness to reach across the aisle and seek compromise as a sign of weakness. In fact, until last week, the president had received very little credit for having accomplished more in 2½ years than any chief executive in recent memory while placing the interests of Main Street Americans above partisan political victory. 

Such Obama bashing only bolsters the argument that American politics is badly broken and increasingly ineffective. But the real losers are neither Democrats nor Republicans, but impressionable young Americans. Instead of learning the virtues of fair play and compromise, young people are getting the message from Washington (and elsewhere) that winning at all costs is always better than making a deal for the greater good of the nation. So much for the banners that once hung prominently in schools all over this country promoting the principle that more important than winning or losing is how we play the game.

Instead, young Americans see political leaders at the highest levels of government going at each other as if they were playing a kick-ass-and-take-names video game in which the only objective is to destroy your opponent and win the game any way you can. Of course, it's not just politics where poor examples are being set for young people. And it didn't just start with the assaults on this president. It's been happening in the United States for a long time.

Remember the mother of a high school cheerleader in Texas who hired a hit man to kill the mother of her daughter's biggest rival? Or Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, who tried to boost her chances for victory by getting someone to kneecap her principal rival, Nancy Kerrigan? Not to mention the almost-regular occurrence of professional athletes abusing steroids and other illegal drugs to help them win.


Last week, Barack Obama was as graceful a winner as he was a loser on Nov. 3, when his party suffered a humiliating political beating in the midterm elections. "Compromise by definition means taking some things you don't like," he said after signing the ratified START Treaty, which had been held hostage by GOP opponents, who would not allow it to come to a vote unless the tax cut was extended for those making more than $250,000 a year. "But the overall [tax-cut extension] package that we passed is the right one."

And that's an example Americans of all ages can be proud of.

Sylvester Monroe is a native of Chicago and frequent contributor to The Root.