I will not be actively supporting Obama’s reelection next year. I will not donate money to his campaign. I will not even put a sign on my lawn. In the end I will vote for him, but only because to do otherwise would be to reward the Republicans for their appalling and unpatriotic behavior over the last four years. And if Obama loses next year to some Republican lunatic, I won’t be shedding any tears for him.
I am hardly the first liberal to notice that, after a few decent legislative accomplishments early in his term, it’s been one betrayal after another from our supposedly progressive President. While the Republicans make a fool out of him time and time again, the only ones for whom he and his flacks have any harsh words are “the professional left” and Paul Krugman. At a time when the Republicans are accelerating their plans for dismantling the meager social safety net we have and redistributing wealth upwards, Obama seems to have no interest at all in articulating an alternative vision for America’s future. He has been acting like the Republican caricature of a Democrat: spineless, lacking conviction, and sticking his finger in the political wind. I haven’t the faintest idea what he thinks should be done on much of anything.
In response to those of us who have noticed Obama’s inadequacies, a counter-meme has developed among certain left-leaning bloggers. Here’s the normally reliable Kevin Drum, for example:
Honest to God, Republicans must all be sitting in their back rooms and just cackling like hell right now. Think about it. They developed a strategy to hamstring the president completely — a strategy that’s bulletproof thanks to our country’s Constitution — knowing that it would rally their base but also hoping that it would cause moderates and lefties alike to become disgusted with Obama’s weakness even though we all know who’s really responsible for what’s going on. And it worked! In fact, it’s worked better than they could possibly have imagined. They can probably barely keep from spitting up their beers right now.
We are such chumps.
After the Democrats got creamed in the 1994 congressional elections, some Republicans were spreading the meme that then President Clinton had become irrelevant. Of course, Clinton proved them wrong by humiliating them in one conflict after another. To judge from Drum’s remark, Obama really is irrelevant. Frankly, if Obama really is as helpless as Drum suggests, and if you’re a chump for thinking that he deserves any measure of blame for the recent policy disasters the Republicans have successfully implemented, then maybe I should just vote for Republicans and be done with it.
The latest version of the meme comes from Jonathan Alter. Apparently those of us who think maybe Obama hasn’t lived up to his promise are simply confused. Actually he’s been a splendid President. Alter writes:
Tell me again why Barack Obama has been such a bad president? I’m not talking here about him as a tactician and communicator. We can agree that he has played some bad poker with Congress. And let’s stipulate that at the moment he’s falling short in the intangibles of leadership.
A remarkable opening. Playing poker with Congress and exhibiting strong leadership are not minor distractions from the real business of being President. They are actually central to the job, and by conceding that Obama is lousy at them I’d say Alter has answered his own question.
Skipping ahead, Alter writes:
Like everyone else, I’ve got my list of Obama mistakes, from failing to break up the banks in early 2009 to neglecting to force a vote on ending the Bush tax cuts when the Democrats still controlled Congress. He shouldn’t have raised hopes with “Recovery Summer” and “Winning the Future” until the economy was more durable. I could go on.
But do these miscalculations really mean it’s time for him to go?
That’s called moving the goalposts. We started with the question of why Obama has been a bad President. Alter is doing a good job of answering that question himself. But Obama is fortunate that his opponents are so openly contemptuous of anyone who isn’t a millionaire or a religious fanatic that his reelection can be justified on the grounds that, as incredible as it seems, the alternatives are even worse. That hardly means he hasn’tbeen a bad President.
Here’s another one:
From the left: “He should have pushed for a much bigger stimulus in 2009.”
That’s the view of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, now gospel among liberals. It’s true economically but bears no relationship to the political truth of that period. Consider that in December 2008, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a hardcore liberal Democrat, proposed a $165 billion stimulus and said he would be ecstatic if it went to $300 billion. President- elect Obama wanted to go over $1 trillion but was told by House Democrats that it absolutely wouldn’t pass. In exchange for the votes of three Republicans in the Senate he needed for passage, Obama reduced the stimulus to $787 billion, which was still almost five times Rendell’s number and the largest amount that was politically possible.
You would think that the economic truth of the assertion would count for something. At the least it should mean that people who raise this issue should not be dismissed snidely as blind followers of Paul Krugman. That’s all the more true when you consider that Krugman’s job is make sound economic arguments, and not to assess the political feasibility of implementing various policies.
But let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Alter is right about the politics. In that case Obama should have said forthrightly that while the stimulus bill would do a lot of good it is not adequate to pull us out of the deep hole that we’re in. The evidence is now in, and it is pretty darn clear that the stimulus had a major, positive effect, precisely as standard economic theory predicted.
Instead he spent months telling us about green shoots and about how the economy was clearly on the road to recovery. And now that it’s completely obvious that the economy is not on the road to recovery Obama just looks foolish. The result is that the whole idea of stimulus has been discredited, to the point where it is now politically unthinkable to suggest such a thing. He handed the Republicans exactly what they wanted. They can now argue with renewed vigor that Democrats are just reckless spendthrifts, and that the only real solution to our economic problems is to make massive cuts to anything that benefits poor and middle class people. For his part, Obama has completely absorbed this message, and now apparently sees his job as making Republican-proposed budget cuts very slightly less draconian than they would otherwise be.
Of course, the big-ticket item right now is the debt deal. Truly it’s hard to imagine how Obama’s handling of the situation could have been more hapless. But here’s Alter:
Again, from all sides: “He looked weak during the debt- limit debate.”
Yep. And if you were president and a group of extremists was pointing a gun at the head of the American economy, what would you have done? Invoking the 14th Amendment sounded satisfying, but a constitutional crisis layered on top of a debt-limit crisis would have been a fiasco, and probably would have ensured default as world markets spent months wondering who in the U.S. had the authority to pay our bills.
What is wrong with Alter? Why the “yep”? Why the bemused tone, as though he’s reveling in Democratic helplessness? Why the implication that the only alternative to complete capitulation was invoking the 14th Amendment?
What should Obama have done? Well, he could have made raising the debt limit a priority back in December 2010 when the Democrats still controlled the Congress. Instead he said this:
Look, here’s my expectation — and I’ll take John Boehner at his word — that nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse, that that would not be a good thing to happen. And so I think that there will be significant discussions about the debt limit vote. That’s something that nobody ever likes to vote on. But once John Boehner is sworn in as Speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower.
Who can read that today without crying?
Instead of spending months engaged in obviously pointless negotiations with Republicans, instead of waiting to the last minute and then giving one effete, ineffective, embarrassing speech after another about how we need a balanced approach and it would, you know, be a good idea to raise the debt limit, Obama could have gone on the offensive early. He could have made it a major talking point in every public appearance, scaring the crap out of everyone about what would happen if the country defaulted. He could have said early on that the only deal was a clean extension of the debt limit, and if the Republicans were determined to play chicken then he could have geared up for the blame game. He could have tried to bring some political pressure on the Tea Partiers, to make sure they paid a price for their recklessness and stupidity. In short, he could have explained over and over again, in clear, forceful prose, exactly what would happen if the country defaulted.
It has become fashionable to describe the Tea Partiers as terrorists. Now, I happen to be among those who believe that the English language lacks the resources to adequately describe how loathsome and immoral and unpatriotic and just flat stupid the Tea Partiers are. But for all of that let’s not lose sight of two simple facts. The first is that all they actually did was refuse to vote for something that did not reflect their interests. McConnell briefly threatened a filibuster, but for the most part they were not using procedural gimmicks to prevent a deal from coming to a vote. The second is that the effect of their intransigence was that they got nearly everything they wanted and the country didn’t default. There’s a reason you’re not supposed to negotiate with terrorists. They were not made to suffer in the slightest for their hostage-taking.
After the debt deal, John Boehner was crowing that he got ninety-eight percent of what he wanted. If the difference between Obama and, say, a President Perry is that other two percent then why should I sweat the difference? Right now it’s the worst of all worlds. We have Republican policies being implemented by a Democratic President.
And so it goes. The health care bill? Even leaving aside the fact that the Supreme Court will almost certainly find the bill unconstitutional, it could only be defended on the grounds that it was, at least, an improvement over the complete disaster we currently have, and might perhaps serve as the basis for future reforms. It was the product of horribly inept tactics on the part of the President, in which he spent months in his trademark pointless negotiations, allowed his opponents to frame the issue entirely in their terms, and made his opening position far to the right of where he should have been? The Dodd-Frank bill, meanwhile, has already been gutted to pointlessness.
As for foreign policy, he got Bin Laden. I’m ecstatic, really. But he also doubled down in Afghanistan, which was pretty clearly the wrong decision. He briefly showed signs of trying to bring Israel, currently in thrall to its own version of the Tea Party, to its senses, but he backed down immediately as soon as he got some push back.
Unimpressive stuff, but ultimately none of that is the reason for the tendentious title of this post. Rather, it is Obama’s complete unwillingness to use the bully pulpit that makes him so ineffective. Unions are under attack like never before from Republican governors in states like Ohio and Wisconsin. The Republicans are supremely unpopular in these states as a result, but Obama can’t run away from the unions quickly enough. Preposterous regulations are being passed in state after state for the sole purpose of curtailing abortion rights. Is Obama troubled by this? If anyone asked him directly what he thinks of this trend do you think for one second he would give an unambiguously pro-choice response? Right now House Republicans are blocking emergency relief for states affected by Hurricane Irene on the grounds that such funding has to be offset by cuts elsewhere. Any response from Obama? Republicans have used procedural gimmicks to leave something like eighteen percent of all government positions unfilled. Have you ever heard Obama point that out to people?
For that matter, when was the last time you heard him say anything that wasn’t just standard boilerplate?
Let’s compare that quickly with two examples of what Republicans do. Earlier this year they came out with the Ryan Budget, which featured a plan to basically end Medicare. Every poll showed it was incredibly unpopular. It led to a Republican defeat in the special election in New York’s 26th district, a dark red district if ever there was one. But have the Republicans backed down? Did they whine about how politically unpopular it was and retreat to safer ground? Not at all. They’ve doubled down on the idea, to the point that Paul Ryan was seriously discussed as a possible Presidential candidate.
Or consider NJ Governor Chris Christie’s recent defense of Sohail Mohammed, a Muslim attorney he nominated for a judgeship. Responding to right-wing bloggers who made an issue of Mohammed’s religion, Christie said:
Sharia law has nothing to do with this at all. It’s crazy. It’s crazy. The guy’s an American citizen who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in the state of New Jersey, swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the constitution of the state of New Jersey, and the Constitution of the United States of America…this sharia law business is crap. It’s just crazy. And I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.
Bravo. And when you consider that Christie might actually have ambitions for higher office, that actually took some courage given the environment in the Republican Party. Most of the time Christie is just a standard-issue right-winger, but with a few more statements like that he might just get me to vote for him. When was the last time Obama, or any other prominent Democrat, said something that clear and blunt?
Recently, psychologist Drew Westen published this lengthy essay in the New York Times, describing Obama’s failure in presenting a clear story to the American people. The essay is brilliant, and perfectly summarizes many of my own frustrations with Obama. Here’s an excerpt, but you should read the whole thing:
IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.
Westen was widely pilloried for this in the blogosphere, mostly by the same people now trying to convince us that Obama’s apparent weakness and fecklessness is somehow a sign of his great political savvy. But Westen is right and his critics are wrong. Obama has failed utterly at reminding people that it was Republican policies that got us into this mess, and Republican intransigence that prevents us from doing anything serious about fixing our problems. His failure has been so complete that people have already forgotten the cataclysm of the Bush years, and he has now been reduced to implementing slightly watered-down forms of the same policies.
The whole thing reminds me of a memorable episode of the Batman television series from the 1960s, the one with Adam West and Burt Ward. In one episode Dr. Freeze crashes a party at stately Wayne manner. He forces the wealthy and powerful guests, including Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, into a small wading pool and freezes the water so they can’t move. Then, in front of Gotham City’s most prominent citizens, actors pretending to be Batman and Robin show up. They have been hired by Dr. Freeze specifically to make Batman and Robin look foolish by being soundly defeated in a fight.
That’s how Obama looks to me. He’s like some Republican contrivance put in office specifically to make progressives look foolish. Republicans will be running against him for decades in precisely the same way they ran against Carter. If Obama is really as helpless in the face of Republican intransigence as people like Drum and Alter suggest, then why should I care if he gets reelected at all? And if people have already forgotten the disaster of the Bush years, then maybe they need a few more years of Republican rule to remind them.