Watch This Story. It Could Be Obama’s Legacy.

The foundation of one component of Obama’s legacy may be established with his planned health care summit. We saw a preview two weeks ago in his appearance at the GOP retreat. For lack of a better description it’s a form of unilateral bipartisanship. And it is poorly understood. Jon Chait gets it.

This apparent paradox is one reason Obama’s political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it’s all the same thing. Obama’s defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.

Chait was writing about foreign policy. In a must read post today he notes the same elements at work with health reform. There, Obama has already adopted many of the opposition’s ideas. If they accept that fact and walk with him, he’s won a bipartisan victory. If they walk away in plain view, their disingenuous inconsistency is revealed.

At the moment, Obama’s outstretched hand exists in a quantum superposition-like state, simultaneously an olive branch and cudgel. Republicans’ response will determine which is realized. Unless Republicans find a way to rewrite the narrative Obama ends up looking good either way. Chait calls this The Obama Method.

I’m not saying this is some kind of genius maneuver. I’m not even saying it will work. (I wouldn’t bet against it, though.) I’m just saying that this — not starting over, and not pleading for bipartisan cover — is what Obama is trying to accomplish.

If it works I expect it will be identified as a quintessential element of Obama’s legacy. Unilateral bipartisanship may be, logically, semantically, an oxymoron, but it is exactly the marrying of those two ideas that Obama offers as a third way of governing. Though it may also end up as productive as one hand clapping.

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