Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Obama Administration: Strategic political problem? Or good enough at putting "points of the board"?

Frank Schaeffer is a recovering Christian Rightist and has some very insightful things to say about his former movement, of which his father was a major founder. And at one level it's refreshing that he isn't the kind of convert who goes from being a shrill rightwinger to being a dogmatic leftwinger.

Having said that, it's still annoying that in defending President Obama and the Democratic Party, he still likes to verbally punch the hippies, as he does in his year-end piece, Obama's Critics Owe Him a New Years (Fact-Based) Apology Huffington Post 12/31/2010. Why should Obama's critics like Paul Krugman apologize? "Why? Because 2011 will see the USA rebounding, the Democratic Party doing well in 2012, the country in boom times by 2013 and the President having a great second term." Okay, maybe he does have some of the convert's starry-eyed optimistic zeal! It's just focused on Obama and the Democratic Party rather than some actual lefty dogma.

Despite what Schaeffer says in his column, Paul Krugman and others like Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz have been pretty consistent over the last two years, in their cases specifically on the subject of the stimulus of early 2009 not being large enough to jump-start the economy. Their warnings against fetishizing the balanced budget are well taken. As are their related debunking of various conservative scare stories: the bond vigilantes are after us! We're becoming like Greece! The Federal Reserve is printing lots of money and is going to set off hyperinflation! If the economy booms and unemployment plunges in 2011, not only they but lots of other economists will be taking a new look to see what they missed. But such a turn of events would be near-miraculous.

And if Krugman and his Democratic sympathizers, including the DFHs of the blogosphere, are what Schaeffer means by "the Left", it's hard to imagine how he came up with this: "But the Left is also being shown up because it kept carping no matter what the President did." The latter specifically in relation to the Senate approval of New START, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and the health-care compensation for Ground Zero workers. But did Krugman criticize any of those things? Did any of the front-page writers for Daily Kos? Anybody else who would be recognized by other liberals or progressives as liberal or progressive? Not that I saw.

Democratic progressives have generally been concerned about a number of serious and substantive policy issues: the failure to prosecute perpetrators of torture and war crimes from the previous administration; the inadequacy of the stimulus to push the economy into a healthy recovery which thereby risks the danger of a liquidity trap that could produce something like Japan's "lost decade" of the 1990s; the escalation of the Afghanistan War; government secrecy claims literally more extreme than those made by the Cheney-Bush administration; a health care reform bill structured in a way that makes it highly vulnerable to attack by Republicans and to nullification of many of its practical benefits by private insurers - yes, including the critical weakness of not having a public option; a financial reform bill that doesn't restrain the financial derivatives practices that crashed the financial system in 2008; the continuation of Bush's tax subsidies for billionaires coupled with a payroll tax reduction that sets up Social Security for phaseout advocates, which will likely include the President himself.

The Washington Post's E. J. Dionne did a milder version of the same in his Post column, Liberals should accept defeat and get back to their goals12/30/2010, and in his 12/31/2010 guest appearance on the PBS Newshour (transcript here):

This is Dionne's basic pitch from his column:

For the president's loyalists, of course, this indictment is profoundly unfair. He inherited a mess at home and abroad. The economic downturn began on Bush's watch, but its bitter fruits were harvested after Obama took office. By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt took power after Herbert Hoover had presided over three of the most miserable years in American economic history. Blame was firmly fixed on Hoover by the time FDR showed up with his jaunty smile and contagious optimism.

And, yes, there is the small issue of Obama's real achievements, the health-care law, above all. If insuring 32 million more Americans is not an enormous social reform, then nothing can be said to count as change. The now well-rehearsed list of additional accomplishments - from Wall Street and student-loan reform to the end of "don't ask, don't tell" to the simple fact that the economy's catastrophic slide was halted and reversed - would, in the abstract, do any administration proud.
As strange as it may strike Frank Schaeffer and E. J. Dionne, it is possible for Democratic base voters and activists to walk and talk at the same time. We can praise Harry Reid for getting New START and DADT repeal through the Senate, and still point out that the decision to continue the filibuster rule in the 2009-10 Senate was brutally damaging to official Democratic positions and to the Democrats' political standing. I attended the Netroots Nation convention in 2010 where Elizabeth Warren was a guest. And from what I could see, those DFH liberals there regarded her as a heroine. Those same liberals who also cheered for her appointment to head the Consumer Protection agency which she was instrumental in getting enacted can also look at the financial reform bill that contained it and see that it failed to enact adequate regulations to address the known and highly consequential risks associated with financial buccaneering with derivatives.

Unless we regard politics as little more than a sports event, in which putting "points on the board" for Our Side is the only thing that matters - and that is pretty much how our star pundits regard it! - then any adult of reasonable mental competence should be able to see things of which they approve as well as things they don't in this Administration.

It doesn't fit in the points-on-the-board framework that both Schaeffer and Dionne use in these examples. But Marshall Gans' op-ed, How Obama lost his voice, and how he can get it back Los Angeles Times 11/03/2010, which I've quoted here before, makes an important point. The times in which Obama became President called for transformational leadership. But what the Obama Administration has provided has been transactional leadership: "The nation was ready for transformation, but the president gave us transaction. And, as is the case with leadership failures, much of the public's anger, disappointment and frustration has been turned on a leader who failed to lead."

This is a valid point, though Obama's popularity ratings have held up well, and it was Congress that was the more direct target of discontent in 2010 for the obvious fact that members of Congress were up for election and Obama wasn't. But the Republican Party does take a longer view in their political strategy, looking toward transformational opportunities. They know that fighting for an issue that can define the Party strategically and losing can be a failure in "putting points on the board" but an important success in the longer run effort to frame the issues in the media and the public discussion.

If the Democratic President in his State of the Union address later this month endorses Social Security Phaseout, that is likely to be a transformational moment. But not in a good way for most people. And not in a good way for the Democrats in either the long term or the point-scoring game.

And regardless of what position it occupies at the moment on the left-to-right scale as determined by the Beltway Village, the Obama Administration's failure to properly investigate and prosecute known criminal actions by the Cheney-Bush Administration, especially the torture program in which both Bush and Cheney have publicly and explicitly acknowledged being involved in acts that a unquestionably criminal, is a fundamental failure in its duty to defend the Constitution and the laws of the country. The torture issue isn't going away. But Constitutional government was nullified in significant ways by the previous Administration. And the failure to prosecute all but guarantees that the next Republican Administration will consider itself even less bound by US or international law.

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