Sunday, December 12, 2010

A very unclear future for the Obama Administration

An unclear future for the Obama Administration

"To accede to what you believe to be a wrong policy without a fight, and to say publicly that you would rather not have done so, is getting to be a peculiar custom of the Obama presidency," writes David Bromwich in Obama's Peculiar Custom LRB blog 12/10/2010. And he writes of Obama's awful tax deal this past week:

Doubtless, in surrendering as fast as he did, Obama evaded the stigma of being a 'purist'; but his settlement can only be called a victory by drastically narrowing the definition of defeat. In return for a two-year extension of the Bush cuts on all incomes, he got a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits. The lower taxes that he could not bring himself to let expire in 2010 he will be much less inclined to tamper with in 2012 when his own re-election is on the line. The word 'expire' will soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, by giving a second life to the cuts, he has made lower taxes appear the natural state of things. The Republicans are as earnestly pledged as the president is to reducing the deficit; and since a reduction of military spending is unimaginable to them, the only substantial programmes they will look to trim are Social Security and Medicare.

Obama dislikes the friction of politics. He prefers not to be present at the negotiating table, leaving that work to others, and is disturbed to the point of sudden concession when an important group, party or person threatens to depart in disgust. These are general traits. The odd thing about the tax negotiations is that he gave up so easily and so early. He did it while the Democrats held a majority in the lame-duck Congress. He could have waited until the Republicans took over in January, and supported his acceptance then by a legitimate excuse: 'Now they have the votes and I don't have a choice.' Yet given the chance on any issue at all, Obama prefers to drop a veil of emollient comfort words over the appearance of deep disagreement. [my empahsis]
While this is a description of Obama's relationship to the Republican Wrecker Party, we need to remember that he was willing to fight Democratic advocates of a public option on health care. And he's fighting Democratic defenders of Social Security right now on the tax deal.

As Tom Tommorrow puts it in Middle-Man strikes back! 12/07/2010:

In a longer article in the 11/18/2010 London Review of Books, Bromwich takes a more detailed look at The Fastidious President. His most important point comes near the end, clearly connecting Obama's key failure on the rule of law with his political problem in changing the broader narrative:

The truth is that Obama exposed himself to the worst the Republicans can do by his conciliatory tone from the first days of his administration. He gave assurance when he entered office that he would not look exactingly into the conduct of the last administration. Bush and Cheney received from him a legal indulgence for any conceivable transgression, on the theory that after the bombings of September 2001, anything that public servants did was a hasty but honourable response to a dreadful emergency by well-meaning persons. To Obama at the time, this must have seemed a magnanimous deed as well as a signal of non-aggression to tamp down the savagery of the Cheney circle. Yet his decision to make justice begin today achieved a different end. It made sure that none of the people from whom Obama had most to fear would ever fear him. It also robbed of reality all his talk of a profound commitment to justice – a justice which he had suggested went beyond considerations of bridge-building for the sake of domestic policy or national expedience. By broadening the claim of state secrets to prevent the disclosure of evidence of torture and extraordinary rendition, the Obama administration has lent credence to the original claim of Bush and Cheney that their actions were dictated by necessities of state. In doing so it has foregone the only assurance the law affords against the repetition of such acts. [my emphasis]
Some liberal economists understandably call Obama's inadequate stimulus in early 2009 the Original Sin of this administration. And as economic policy goes, that makes sense. But the real Original Sin, in the moral and Constitutional as well as political senses, was his failure to prosecute the torture perpetrators. He was and is legally obliged to prosecute torture perpetrators, whether or not is was or is good politics. But I share Bromwich's judgment that it in fact was a bad political decision, as well. It was an unprecedented opportunity to discredit the previous Republicans administration in a devastating way. And Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder flushed it down the toilet.

We have two years of experience with Obama now. And it's not too soon for people like Bromwich to make informed speculations about the sources of Obama's conduct and his decision-making style:

Of all Obama's appointments, the most damaging to his credibility with liberal supporters were Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, the chief economic adviser and the secretary of the treasury. Geithner has the air of a perpetual young man looking out for the interests of older men: an errand boy. The older men in question are the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, AIG, and the big banks and money firms. Geithner at the New York Fed had enforced – or, rather, let flow – the permissive policy on mortgages that Summers pushed through in the last years of the Clinton presidency. Summers himself, renowned for his aggression and brilliance, came too highly recommended for Obama not to appoint him. The new president credited his adviser’s belief that there were only a few persons in America who could undo the harm of the mortgage crisis, and it happened that they were the very people who had caused the crisis. The Obama economic team, with its ‘deep bench’ of Goldman Sachs executives, might have done better if mixed with economists of other views like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Obama knew little economics, however, and he took the word of the orthodox. It would have been wiser, from a merely prudential standpoint, to consult Summers behind a screen. But Obama has always craved legitimacy in a conspicuous form. [my emphasis]
And Bromwich does seem to be prudent in the conclusions he draws from his informed speculation. This is intriguing, getting to Obama's drive to "put points on the board", Rahm Emmanuel's reported focus. at the expense of leaving dangerous weaknesses of policy open, like his insistence on the omission of the public option in his health care reform:

... Obama wanted to have what would look like achievements. His generalised desire seems to have been more important to him than any specific achievement. He surprised his supporters by making healthcare his first initiative. A recent story by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker showed that in the first days of his presidency, his staff debated whether to go first after healthcare or global warming (euphemistically renamed ‘climate change’). They threw both ideas against the wall, Lizza wrote, to see which would stick in Congress, and healthcare won out. Obama then shifted gear and acted as if he had been the healthcare candidate all along. His love of fame – to occupy the central place but also to perform the shining deed – is greater than anyone had estimated. Yet his political instincts turn out to be weak. A recent blog by William Galston at the New Republic pointed out that when in spring 2009 he approved the bonuses for the bankers who had destroyed the economy in 2008, he did so without any sense that the rewards could disgust anyone. He was simply following the advice of Summers and Geithner. [my emphasis]
In the grand scheme of things, it can hardly be said as a blanket judgment that anyone who got elected as the first African-American President of the United States has weak political instincts. But his instincts as a candidate are a related but different matter than his instincts as a national and partisan leader.

This is a good laugh line:

From Lizza, Woodward and other sources a portrait has been emerging of a president who is curiously dissociated. This marks a contrast with George W. Bush, who knew he was not up to the job and gave the presidency away to someone else.
The "someone else" being Dick Cheney, of course.

Bromwich also makes a good point that has surfaced a number of times, including in the 2008 campaign with his foolish renunciation of Wesley Clarke after Clarke made what in the Beltway Village bubble was a gaffe about McCain's qualifications for the Presidency. Clarke at the 2010 Netroots Nation convention made a point that the voters are not going to trust the Democrats to defend the country until they learn to defend each other. As a philosophical point it's questionable, but it speaks to this particular problems of Obama's unwillingness to fight a fight he is likely to lose in order to set up a later win by changing the dominant narrative:

... Obama does not like to be associated with defeat. He scuttled his support for several Democratic candidates – Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas – before election day when he came to believe that they would probably lose. He allowed his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, to say as early as last summer that the Democrats might well lose the House of Representatives. This degree of self-protectiveness is unpleasant in a politician, and is bound to make his party ask itself sooner or later: should we be more loyal to him than he is to us? [my emphasis]
I think with the tax cut deal this past week, it has become "sooner".

Obama's conduct on the tax cut deal fits this observation by Bromwich, made before the tax deal took place:

Obama wants credit for the highest intentions even when conceding that he lacks the will to fulfil them. The trouble is that a politician who says what he would like to do and then fails to do it leaves himself open to attack on both counts. You disappoint your supporters and at the same time give notice to your enemies that the thing they stopped you from doing was the thing you would have liked to do.
He also brings up the BP oil disaster, which I hope the year-end summaries that everyone does will get more attention than they have been. That could have also been a key narrative-changing moment. But that's not what Obama wanted:

Obama weighed in with the American public on the safety of deep-water drilling on 2 April. 'It turns out, by the way,' he said, 'that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.' On 20 April the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred. On 29 April Obama made his first mention of the spill, and on 2 May his first visit to Louisiana. In his campaign for president, he had treated Bush’s uncaring response to Hurricane Katrina as an index of the incompetence of his administration. Here was a disaster of a similar magnitude, in the same state, and Obama avoided all contact with it. His address from the Oval Office on 15 June, concerning the spill, may have marked the moment when his public image finally tipped away from popularity.
The latter is an intriguing suggestion, and one probably not sufficiently considered in much of the analysis of the political trajectory of the Obama Administration in its first two years.

Bromwich's indulges in some theater criticism which is pretty subjective. But it's better than most of what we hear from our Pod Pundits, who love this sort of thing but are generally bad at it. I do think this little bit of theater criticism is useful, because it involves a little actual historical research and thought:

I recently listened to some of John Kennedy's press conferences, and was struck, not by his charm and easy control of the press, the usual traits that people bring up, but rather by his quickness and conversational rhythm. Kennedy’s answers are detailed and matter of fact, and though he occasionally speaks of his own views, he treats Congress as an equal partner. He sometimes shows irritation and is none the less cogent for that. He can speak a whole paragraph when a thought comes all at once without a pause. Any observer of Obama realises that, by contrast, he is always slow, always circumspect, and he has two distinct registers of diction: one for talking to very clever but abstracted people, the other for talking to well-meaning people who are very young or very old and certainly need remedial help. In the higher idiom he talks of a 'critique' of policy and 'trend lines' and the ways to 'incentivise' better care and 'prioritise' the next steps of government assistance to show that we are 'doing everything we can to accelerate job creation'. It is the language of a technocrat, the man at the head of the conference table. In the lower idiom, there are lots of 'folks', 'folks who oppose me', 'a whole bunch of folks', interspersed with vaguely regional comfort words like 'oftentimes'.
That description of Obama's style of addressing "well-meaning people who are very young or very old and certainly need remedial help" would fit well his rant against the "sanctimonious" Democratic base this past Tuesday over the tax deal. And the spin-off from that included mindless discussions of the virtue of Compromise in the abstract. Bromwich catches something important with that phrase: "talking to well-meaning people who are very young or very old and certainly need remedial help."

But we shouldn't sloppily slip that into the decades-old old Republican cliche about Democratic "elitism". George W. Bush's inability to string a couple of coherent sentences together on his own without smirking in pleasure that he was able to get them out isn't a sign of sympathy for concerns of ordinary people. When Republicans accuse Democrats of "elitism", they typically mean that Democrats try to convince people that Democratic ideas are preferable. What Obama does when he address fellow Democrats as people in need of "remedial help" is a diss to his own supporters, not a sign of some emotional "elitism".

Bromwich does indulge in too-easy historical analogies, in this case FDR and Lyndon Johnson. Although Obama's first overt embrace of a Social Security Phaseout measure occurred with the tax cut deal after Bromwich's longer article was written, there are two critical factors which greatly complicate historical analogies, which in any case are usually more misleading than helpful. One is that we're in a depression. The second is that we have a Democratic President who embraces Social Security Phaseout. We're in uncharted territory here.

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