Thursday, January 21, 2010

Time for Obama Presidency 2.0 already

Paul Krugman latched onto the idea that the Democrats should accept the Obama-Lieberman version of health care reform, aka, the Insurance Monopoly Profit Guarantee Act, and he's not letting go of the idea. He's not even giving up his carping at reformers who have been trying to get a more constructive bill.

But he's apparently also feeling some of the sense of letdown that much of the Democratic base felt last month when Obama came down hard against the critical public option feature of health care reform. In his blog post He Wasn’t The One We’ve Been Waiting For 01/20/10, Krugman focuses on George Stephanopoulos' Exclusive Interview with President Obama ABC News 01/20/10, in which Obama sounds awfully like he's throwing in the towel completely on health care reform. Krugman's conclusion:

Maybe House Democrats can pull this out, even with a gaping hole in White House leadership. Barney Frank seems to have thought better of his initial defeatism. But I have to say, I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.

The passage on which he focused in Obama's interview was:

I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don't, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of, to this bill. Now I think there's some things in there that people don't like and legitimately don't like. If they think for example that there's a carve out for just one or two particular groups or interests, I think some of that, clearing out some of that under brush, moving rapidly...
What's certainly true of that comment from Obama, of Barney Frank's initial panicky response, as well as other comments from prominent Democrats, is that they certainly didn't show an instinct to fight. In the face of what was a significant but limited setback in the Massachusetts Senate special election this week, their initial response seemed to be a rush to pre-emptive surrender to the Republicans. Not good.

David Dayen characterized that reaction this way in I Take No Pleasure In Being Right FDL News Desk 01/20/10:

So what did we see today [Wednesday]? The usual suspects outside the political arena advocated for passing the bill. But those with their political careers on the line did not. Almost immediately and with virtually no exceptions, liberals and moderates and conservative Democrats alike ran for the exits. Dianne Feinstein wanted everyone to slow down. Anthony Weiner said he wouldn’t pass the Senate bill almost a second after Coakley conceded. Bart Stupak, EXTREMELY predictably, balked at passing the Senate bill. Barney Frank merely reflected the reality of the situation by telling constituents that the votes to pass the Senate bill didn’t exist. Sure, he walked it back a bit tonight, but he’s not disagreeing fundamentally with his initial assessment – he’d vote for the bill, but under the surface – there aren’t 218 votes for it. ...

I could have written this post a week and a half ago, pretty much word-for-word. The flee from the playing field, the desperation, the dropping of what Obama and the Democrats have spent a year constructing and practically all his political capital getting to the precipice of a vote, it was all so ... typical.
These criticisms are on point. But I'm not giving up on the Obama Presidency or even the Congressional Democrats yet.

Not even entirely on health care reform. The Democrats are awfully close to getting this thing passed, and the loss of the Massachusetts seat should encourage them once they get over their initial panic to take on the problem of the filibuster rule in the Senate. And despite Obama's inadequate record on health care reform, we have seen with the rejection of the public option in the Senate and the Afghanistan War funding that this administration is capable of bringing down the hammer on recalcitrant Members of Congress to get what they want passed. If they decide that the only way to get a defensible health care bill is come down hard in favor of a public option, even a limited Medicare buy-in for younger participants, they might well get that through. I'm not especially hopeful on that point. But it's not over until it's over.

During Nixon's first term in office, he proposed a welfare reform idea whose design and marketing was reported to be based on the notion that if you give the liberals rhetoric they like they will go along but you have to give conservative substance. I'm not sure whether his proposal met those criteria, and in any case neither liberals nor conservatives liked it much and it went down to defeat in Congress.

But it has seemed to me this last year, especially on health care reform, that the Obama administration was working from some very similar assumption. In any case, the Republicans are still pursuing their fundamental opposition of the "just say no" variety, no matter how corporate-friendly and consumer-unfriendly the health care reform gets, the Senate's Obama-Lieberman version being the low point so far. And his own Party's base seems to be largely reacting with something between disappointment and dismay or even despair.

We're seeing another rhetorical rollout of new measures to restrict misconduct by banks. But economist Simon Johnson (Paul Volcker Prevails Baseline Report 01/20/10) suggests some guidelines for us to measure whether the substance and the larger political narrative it produces for the Democrats actually measure up to the initial liberal talk:

  1. Does the president provide a clear statement of why we need these new limits on banks? The administration’s narrative on what caused the crisis of 2008-09 has been lame and completely unconvincing so far. The president must take it to the banks directly – tracing the origins of our “too big to fail” vulnerabilities to the excessive deregulation of banks following the Reagan Revolution and emphasizing how much worse these problems became during the Bush years.
  2. Are the proposed limits on the total size (e.g., assets) of banks, or just on part of their operations – such as proprietary trading? The limits need to be on everything that banks do, if they are to be meaningful at all. This is not a moment for technocratic niceties; the banks must be reined in, simply and directly.
  3. Is there a clear strategy for (a) taking concrete workable proposals directly to Congress, and (b) win, lose, or draw in the Senate, running hard with this issue to the midterm elections?

Finally, I haven't been a fan of the "Obama tried to do too much" Pod Pundit conventional wisdom. The punditocracy's version of that "analysis" stresses that he shouldn't have tried to get health care reform passed because who cares about that boring stuff anyway? Our pundits need sex stories to talk about!

But Stephan Walt offers a variation on the theme that makes more sense to me in On the Senate election in Massachusetts Foreign Policy 01/20/10. He raises a question about whether it made sense for Obama to make a show of attempting to achieve certain goals when his administration either wasn't prepared for or wasn't serious about actually accomplishing anything substantive on them:

In retrospect, Obama and the Dems would have been better off had they attempted a lot less in the past year, and gotten some of it done a lot quicker. Did Obama really need to jet off to Europe to try to get the Olympics for Chicago, or show up at a climate change summit that wasn’t going to yield an agreement? Was it a good idea to raise everyone’s expectations about Middle East peace, when your team hadn't thought through its strategy and when you didn’t have the political courage to do what was necessary to bring it about? Why talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons when everyone knows that isn’t going to happen for decades? And why betray your own base by doubling down in Afghanistan, largely in the hope of deflecting GOP criticism? [my emphasis]
We don't really know at this point if Obama's Afghanistan War escalation decisions were taken "largely in the hope of deflecting GOP criticism," though Walt's point on that is good on the political implications of that decision. Obama had clearly talked in his campaign about escalating the Afghanistan War, and the need to do so was pretty much a consensus among the leading Democratic candidates for President. So it may have been a policy mistake as well as a politically damaging course for Obama to take.

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