Friday, February 24, 2012

Obama: a question and a contrafactual thought experiment

Imagine for a few moments if the Obama Administration had done the following in its first term.

Prosecuted the torture perpetrators, civilian and military. Prosecuted Justice Department officials who had committed illegal acts as part of their segregationist attempt to concoct "voter fraud" cases out of the air. Closed the Guantánamo Gulag and processed the outstanding cases through civilian courts. Proposed a trillion-dollar-plus recovery package with the package focused on spending and little or none on taxes cuts and including a public jobs program. Put Citigroup and Bank of American through bankruptcy as he did with General Motors and used the occasion to reinstate Glass-Steagal regulations on investment banking and insist on far-reaching and effective regulations of financial derivatives. Proposed and fought for a single-payer healthcare program, and refused to settle for any compromise that did not include a public option. Gotten the Employee Free Choice Act passed and heavily promoted the value and importance of the labor movement. Used the BP oil spill to demand better safety regulations and more careful restrictions of offshore oil drilling and used it to emphasize the importance of renewable energy sources. Allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire. Aggressively defended Social Security and Medicare and called out the lies of the Peterson Foundation and other One Percent lobbies that opposed them. Relentlessly highlighted the responsibility of the previous Administration for the economic problems and adopted a reasonable policy for government transparency that would have allowed far more critical scrutiny of the failures and misdeeds of the Cheney-Bush team. And throughout his Presidency, emphasized the value of affirmative government and the irrelevance of the budget deficit instead of trying to sound as much like a Republican as possible in his framing of the issues.

Altogether, that sounds like a radical Administration in the context of politics as of February 2012. But all of those individual measures were discussed as practical policy alternatives in real time. All of them were measures that the Democratic base would have largely welcomed and would have been either broadly popular or popular with a significant plurality.

If that had been the case, would James Fallow be writing the following as he does in Obama, Explained for the March 2012 issue of The Atlantic?

Chess master, or pawn? That is the question I asked a variety of political figures last year, starting when the Obama administration was wrangling with Republicans in Congress to avoid a damaging default on the national debt. I spoke with current and past members of this administration, officials from previous administrations, current and past members of the Senate and the House, and some academics. Compared with the last two times a Democrat was in the White House - during Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s and Bill Clinton’s in the 1990s  -  I found Democrats much more careful about criticizing their own party’s president during an election year. It’s not that Democrats have become so much more disciplined, nor, obviously, that they have no complaints, but rather that they seem more worried about the risks of helping the other side. I asked someone who has been close to Obama if I could interview him about his experiences. He said, "I’m not going to say anything that might hurt during the campaign." At the Capitol, I asked one prominent Democratic legislator what he had learned about Obama as a leader and a person that the general public did not know. He sat for nearly a full minute and then replied, "I would rather not say." But other people I spoke with—from Congress and inside and outside the administration - volunteered sincere-seeming flattering accounts of the Obama they had observed in informal discussions and strategy sessions. [my emphasis]
Maybe he would be writing something similar. But I doubt it. Blue Dog Democrats like Ben Nelson would be howling at what a wild-eyed radical Obama turned out to be. In the Citizen's United era, there would very likely have been some kind of conservative challenger in the primaries.

Instead, we have a Democratic Party that should be challenging Obama on a number of fronts, publicly criticizing him on the ways his economic programs have fallen seriously short, attacking him for any hint of considering a "Grand Bargain" to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, and holding Congressional hearings on dangerous and reckless programs of questionable legality in military affairs like targeted assassinations, drone strikes in countries with which we are not at war, and the reported Special Forces operations in dozens of countries.

Fallows' article is interesting, not least because it's likely to be influential among the punditocracy. But much of it is devoted to dismissing what Democratic criticism Obama is receiving as not even worth considering on the subject:

Another harsh reality of the modern presidency is one we conveniently forget when thinking about new presidents. Without exception, they betray their followers—and must do so, to stay in office and govern. In Obama’s case, this started with the forgiving approach to Wall Street and continued with his recommitment of troops to Afghanistan and extension of other Bush-era security policies.

However jarring, this is part of a historical norm. George W. Bush’s name was barely mentioned in the recent Republican primaries, because a party that professes concern about debt, deficit, and big bailouts cannot easily talk about what happened on his watch. Bill Clinton now reigns as the Democratic Party’s sun king and savior. ... In this he compares unfavorably to George W. Bush." Anything that bitter liberals have said about Barack Obama’s weakness and willingness to compromise was said more bitterly about the previous Democratic president.
Would those "bitter liberals" be the ones who now gripe about Obama's proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits? I'm not sure in what part of the Democratic world that Bill Clinton is regarded as "sun king and savior." Clinton's respected for being a fighter in a way that Obama is not. But Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign showed dramatically that many Democrats have lasting regrets over the inadequacies of Clinton's policy choices. Fallows in operating in the "horse race" comfort zone of establishment political reporting when he writes stuff like that.

Fallows seems to think of "bitter" and "liberal" as practically a conjoined pair of words, bitterliberal. He also writes, "Jimmy Carter so antagonized the left that its champion, Teddy Kennedy, waged a bitter primary fight against him and badly weakened him for the general election." Jerry Brown also made a significant primary challenge that year, but maybe he's a nonentity in the Beltway Village memory banks.

It's worth remembering that it's a well-entrenched piece of conventional wisdom that Kennedy's primary challenge cost Jimmy Carter his re-election. It's easy to see why those participating in Carter's re-election drive would find that explanation attractive. But at most, it was one factor among many. Remember the Iranian hostage crisis? Neither Ted Kennedy or Jerry Brown caused that. Economic determinists among the pollsters more typically look at the state of the business cycle in 1980, whose course had something to do with the very tight money policies applied by Federal Reserve Carter appointee Paul Volker.

At best, that assumption about the 1980 election is highly questionable. In any case, it shouldn't stop Democrats from challenging incumbent Democratic Presidents. Primary challenges force the frontrunners to sharpen their game and engage the interest and enthusiasm of activists. It's hard to imagine that Obama's 2008 general election campaign would have been as strong as it was if he hadn't had a very strong primary challenge from Hillary Clinton. Given his combination of caution and devotion to destructive one-percenter economic policies, a liberal primary challenge in 2012 would likely have made him a stronger candidate in the general.

Fallows' argument is largely a defense of Obama's first-term performance, based heavily on both unnamed sources and named ones like Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader and healthcare industry lobbyist who Obama wanted to head his effort to enact healthcare reform. It's detailed enough and sufficiently drenched in conventional wisdom assumptions that it is likely to become a quick reference for other journalists, especially his list of Obama successes and not-so-much-successes to date.


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"It is the logic of our times
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