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Barack Obama's Kobayashi Maru problem

President Obama meets Uhura from Star Trek.
President Obama meets Uhura from Star Trek.
Nichelle Nichols/Twitter

In the Star Trek universe, the legend of Captain Kirk begins with his performance on the Starfleet Academy's dreaded Kobayashi Maru test. The test is a simulation: the Kobayashi Maru, a civilian vessel, is stranded in the Klingon Neutral Zone. A rescue attempt will lead to all-out war with the Klingon Empire. Abandonment will mean consigning the trapped passengers to certain death.

The Kobayashi Maru isn't a puzzle. It's a lesson. It's a no-win situation meant to test the cadet's ability to handle failure. Or it was, before Captain Kirk found a way out.

Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru test was simple, in a way: he simply snuck in the night before and reprogrammed the simulator. The only way to win the game was to change the game.

The remaining two years of Barack Obama's presidency look like a Kobayashi Maru test. He can blaze forward with a slew of executive actions and spark all-out war with the Congressional Republican Empire. Or he can abandon his domestic agenda to die in the Congressional Zone and focus on foreign policy. It's a no-win situation.

As a result, the debate over Obama's next moves is between those counseling counterattack and those counseling retreat. "Obama just lost the battle for the Senate," writes Brian Beutler at The New Republic. "It's time he waged war for real."

A new level of irony for Obama

It's a grim vision — and one that is violently at odds with Obama's entrance into national politics. It is, at this point, trite to observe that the cost of Obama's successes has been further damage to the political system he promised to heal. As former White House press officer Reid Cherlin wrote, the administration has managed to "accomplish much of what Obama promised to do, even if accomplishing it helped speed the process of partisan breakdown."

But it would be a new level of irony for Obama, who ran for office critiquing George W. Bush's imperial presidency, to end his presidency by disengaging from Congress almost entirely and sparking a war over a new level of executive overreach — one that makes even his supporters uncomfortable.

The question is whether there's some way to change the game.

Ross Douthat offers one option at the New York Times. The standard issue set, Douthat argues, is too polarized to permit any serious progress. Republicans and Democrats are not going to slip out of their conflict over taxes, or Obamacare, or immigration reform. But there are issues where the left and the right haven't yet settled into real disagreement — in part because Washington has not, in recent years, seen these ideas as worthy of much attention. Douthat advises the president to give a speech along these lines:

The voters have delivered divided government, and in a divided government we have an obligation to find common ground. I feel that I've been trying to do exactly that on tax reform and immigration reform, but without much success. So I'm going to switch tacks. Over the next few weeks, I'll be holding a series of meetings with prominent Republicans on a different set of issues where we might make some headway. First, I'll be inviting Senator Rob Portman to the White House to discuss moving forward on the stalled trade agenda. The week after that, I'll be inviting Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee to have a conversation about reforming our drug laws and incarceration policies. The week following, I'll have Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Paul Ryan in to discuss how we might find common ground on anti-poverty policy, and particularly on the expansion of the earned-income tax credit they've both endorsed. Then I'd like to have Senators Lee and Rubio back again to talk about their ideas for reducing the tax burden on working families.

I would add a few other issues to that list, like software patents, federal procurement reform and, given the Ebola outbreak, pandemic disease response. And I'm skeptical about some of the ones Douthat mentions, like tax reform. Still, the overall point here is worth considering: Washington's politics have calcified around the issues Democrats and Republicans are used to fighting about. Why not force the agenda onto some issues they're not used to fighting about?

A return to the old Obama

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The caveat here is a big one: Washington can polarize literally anything. This is an age where farm bills and infrastructure investment measures get mired in Congress and where the Export-Import Bank almost powered a government shutdown. A history of consensus is not a promise of protection in this era. The fact that the parties weren't polarized around an issue yesterday doesn't mean they won't go to war over it tomorrow.

But it's worth a try anyway. The early years of Obama's presidency were marked by an angry conflict between him and progressives who thought he was naive about the nature of his Republican opposition. But the White House wasn't all that naive — at least not for long. The House GOP's lockstep opposition to the stimulus was a seminal moment for the Obama administration. It was nearly the first event of their presidency, and it taught them, quickly, that they weren't going to get the honeymoon period extended to past presidents.

The White House still saw value in pursuing bipartisan policies. First, there was always the off-chance it would work — and, remember, the stimulus wouldn't have passed the Senate without Republican votes. But it was also good politics. As Mark Schmitt wrote in a sharp analysis of Obama's theory of change:

Take a slightly different angle on the charge that Obama is "naïve" about power and partisanship. Suppose you were as non-naïve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it. In other words, perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure.

Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk. The public, and younger voters in particular, seem to want an end to partisanship and conflictual politics, and an administration that came in with that premise (an option not available to Senator Clinton), would have a tremendous advantage, at least for a moment.

This is even truer if Obama is simultaneously going to pursue major executive actions on issues like immigration. If he's going to go to war on some issues, he may at least be seen trying to make peace on others. If he tries and fails, then at least he can't be blamed for not trying.

And failure, it should be said, is a real possibility. One problem in punditry is that what you might call the Strategic Fallacy: the idea that there's some political strategy out there able to cleanly solve any political problem. There isn't. The odds are that Obama's final two years in office will be ugly and unproductive, at least so far as his relationship with Congress goes. But if there is some strategy that might change that — if there is some better end to this presidency — it won't come by declaring all-out war on the Congressional Republican Empire or by leaving Obama's agenda to die in the Congress Zone. It will come by finding some way out of that choice.

Obama is in a no-win situation right now. His only hope is to change the game.