The Obama Question

The postmortem on Obama’s first term has already started. He is, at turns, a radical socialist, a corporatist or the greatest president the 21st century has seen.

This is the mark of a great politician. Ever since his 2008 presidential bid, people have read into Obama’s words and actions wildly different things. Noam Chomsky called Obama a “blank slate” on which people can project their greatest hopes or fears.

Obama doubtless fancies himself as another Lincoln. Like the Great Emancipator, he is an Illinois-based politician who faced stiff competition in his own party from a successful Senator from New York. After fending off that challenge, he appointed Hillary as Secretary of State much like Lincoln did with William Seward.

Unfortunately, being a great politician does not necessarily make him a good leader. Through the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was able to move the country towards a new consensus. Obama, on the other hand, goes where the consensus already is: the mainstream center.

We see this clearly in the analysis of Andrew Sullivan, one of Obama’s staunchest supporters in the media. Sullivan is a self-described conservative and regular contributor to The Daily Beast:

“But Obama did several things at once: he continued the bank bailout begun by George W. Bush, he initiated a bailout of the auto industry, and he worked to pass a huge stimulus package of $787 billion.

All these decisions deserve scrutiny. And in retrospect, they were far more successful than anyone has yet fully given Obama the credit for. The job collapse bottomed out at the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect. Since then, the U.S. has added 2.4 million jobs. That’s not enough, but it’s far better than what Romney would have you believe, and more than the net jobs created under the entire Bush administration. In 2011 alone, 1.9 million private-sector jobs were created, while a net 280,000 government jobs were lost. Overall government employment has declined 2.6 percent over the past 3 years. (That compares with a drop of 2.2 percent during the early years of the Reagan administration.) To listen to current Republican rhetoric about Obama’s big-government socialist ways, you would imagine that the reverse was true. It isn’t….

You’d think, listening to the Republican debates, that Obama has raised taxes. Again, this is not true. Not only did he agree not to sunset the Bush tax cuts for his entire first term, he has aggressively lowered taxes on most Americans. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts, affecting 95 percent of taxpayers; he has cut the payroll tax, and recently had to fight to keep it cut against Republican opposition. His spending record is also far better than his predecessor’s. Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms. Under Bush and the GOP, nondefense discretionary spending grew by twice as much as under Obama. Again: imagine Bush had been a Democrat and Obama a Republican. You could easily make the case that Obama has been far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor—except, of course, that Obama has had to govern under the worst recession since the 1930s, and Bush, after the 2001 downturn, governed in a period of moderate growth. It takes work to increase the debt in times of growth, as Bush did. It takes much more work to constrain the debt in the deep recession Bush bequeathed Obama.”

If Obama was the radical socialist that Republicans paint him as, at least it would be a show of bold leadership. What is telling throughout Sullivan’s analysis is how he is celebrated for how temperate and moderate he is. His stimulus prevented a further spiral of unemployment, but did not necessarily spark a recovery. Given the way we count unemployment today, where people who have given up looking for work are simply no longer counted, the luster of these statistics takes a hit. It does not even touch on the issue of underemployment. Merely citing that private sector jobs were created, without analyzing what types of jobs these are, does not paint a full picture of the impacts of Obama’s stimulus.

About one-third of the Obama stimulus was in the form of tax cuts. Is there a direct correlation between these tax cuts and the bottoming out of the unemployment rate? Maybe, but Sullivan never draws the connection. Sullivan also celebrates Obama’s ability to keep the deficit in check. Throughout the 20th century, the instances of keeping the deficit in check while digging the country out of an economic hole are rare. Hoover tried to balance the budget while providing stimulus during the Great Depression, with little benefit. Why is keeping the budget in check such a victory for Obama?

It is because Sullivan’s analysis works from a pragmatic framework of what he believes are political realities. His overall thesis, which is the main thesis of Obama supporters across the country, is that Obama has been wildly successful given what he inherited and the toxic political culture in Washington. Obamacare is the greatest symbol of this thesis:

“The great conservative bugaboo, Obamacare, is also far more moderate than its critics have claimed. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will reduce the deficit, not increase it dramatically, as Bush’s unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug benefit did. It is based on the individual mandate, an idea pioneered by the archconservative Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and, of course, Mitt Romney, in the past. It does not have a public option; it gives a huge new client base to the drug and insurance companies; its health-insurance exchanges were also pioneered by the right. It’s to the right of the Clintons’ monstrosity in 1993, and remarkably similar to Nixon’s 1974 proposal. Its passage did not preempt recovery efforts; it followed them. It needs improvement in many ways, but the administration is open to further reform and has agreed to allow states to experiment in different ways to achieve the same result. It is not, as Romney insists, a one-model, top-down prescription. Like Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, it sets standards, grants incentives, and then allows individual states to experiment. Embedded in it are also a slew of cost-reduction pilot schemes to slow health-care spending. Yes, it crosses the Rubicon of universal access to private health care. But since federal law mandates that hospitals accept all emergency-room cases requiring treatment anyway, we already obey that socialist principle—but in the most inefficient way possible. Making 44 million current free-riders pay into the system is not fiscally reckless; it is fiscally prudent. It is, dare I say it, conservative.”

Obamacare was the best possible outcome given the political realities of the time. The last sentence is very telling, where Sullivan refers to Obamacare as “conservative”.

No word better describes Obama’s presidency. A president who has volunteered to slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would normally be labeled as politically conservative. But Obama has been conservative in the sense that he does not make political gambles. Defending a public option would have been such a gamble, probably a successful one if Obama were to get behind it. Obama’s style, in both the domestic and foreign policy fields, is one where he leads from behind. He allows the political circumstances to dictate his major policies. This might be good politics, but it is poor leadership.

Many progressives have turned against Obama because of this style. The sense is that he has sold out the most cherished progressive values of the Democratic Party. Sullivan makes the point for the progressives against which he rails when he celebrates all of the great conservative things Obama has accomplished. This is exactly the point. The progressives who voted for him did so to break out of the conservative trap in which the nation has been caught over the past 35 years. Dare I say, this is what progressives heard when Obama recited the word “change” over and over again. Where is the change if we are stuck with the same conservatism that has defined the post-Reagan era?

Again, this speaks to Obama’s brilliance as a politician. Those that knew of his days at Harvard and his brief stint in the Senate realized that Obama was no progressive. He never promised to be one. Yet, they saw a candidate who was challenging the Clinton machine, a name associated with the sellout of progressive values. They heard the words “hope” and “change” and took it to mean a promise to dismantle the Reagan Revolution. They cited his opposition to the Iraq War and used it as a sign of his bona fides as a true Ted Kennedy Democrat. Essentially, they saw what they wanted to see in Obama. Meanwhile, Obama did nothing to disabuse them of their delusion.

A president who wins in a thorough landslide, whose party takes overwhelming control of Congress and who mobilizes people to turn out who would not normally do so usually has an enormous mandate for leadership. While fighting for a public option or a bigger stimulus or to defend programs for the poor would not have been easy, it still would have been possible. He would have held the cards. Just like Lincoln nudged the country, as well as himself, to accept the idea of emancipation, Obama could have nudged the country ever further to the left. Lord knows he has the rhetorical gifts to do it.

And this is where Sullivan misses the point of the progressive criticism of Obama. He had the opportunity to fight for real change, to lead the country wherever he wanted it to go, and he brought it to a place little different from where John McCain might have brought it. He used his enormous political capital to solidify the Democratic Party’s role as another “conservative” party. This damage is worse than anything any Republican could have done. It has been the type of change that has extinguished all hope for a progressive renaissance of the Democratic Party.

Obama supporters like Sullivan will never understand this. Progressives across the country are fed up with political “centrists”, the people who look at the political landscape the way it is now and believe in a middle course. That middle is far to the right of where it used to be. Obama’s policies have seen to it that the center will drift to the right further still. Sullivan calls Obama’s progressive supporters “purists”, as if having deeply held beliefs about social justice and helping the poor is a filthy thing. I suppose none of us should have any real values at all and allow the middle of whatever the political spectrum happens to be act as our guide.

Ironically, Sullivan, who is gay, does not believe Obama has done enough for gay rights in the United States. Whether he has or has not is still up for debate. However, the ending of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the wave of gay marriage reforms across the country are signs of progress in the area of gay rights, progress that we have not seen in other areas of concern to progressive voters. While gay rights still has a long way to go, it is ridiculous to decry Obama for not providing enough leadership on the issue while accepting his conservative stance on unemployment and poverty. It is tough to see the consistency in Sullivan’s celebration of Obama’s lead from behind approach while criticizing him for not being enough of a front line fighter for gay rights.

A recent article expresses the frustration with the Obama presidency:

“Obama’s willingness to bargain away core progressive values of the Democratic Party in a deficit-reduction deal comes after his meltdown on a large range of issues dear to progressives: His unconditional support for Bush’s Wall Street bailout; his escalation of the Afghanistan War; his acceptance of Bush-era limits on civil liberties; his shift from supporting the healthcare public option and opposing individual mandates during the 2008 campaign to subverting the public option and backing individual mandates in 2009; his extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich (in exchange for Republicans allowing an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states); his withdrawal of strong EPA rules on clean air; his gratuitous attacks on “the professional Left.”

At times it has seemed that Obama went out of his way to attack progressives and undermine progressive programs in order to prove he was truly the post-partisan president he claimed to be. Indeed, as I and Andrew Sullivan have previously argued, the evidence is pretty conclusive that Obama has governed as a conservative.”

This is probably why the Republican Party has seemingly gone out of its way to self-destruct during its long primary season. No matter who gets nominated, they will not be able to institute conservative policies any better than Obama.

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2 responses to “The Obama Question

  1. Cool piece.
    I realize that, as th VP said ‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive’, but I have to drop this thought; as a teacher who must now contend with Race To the Top, as a (new) homeowner who’s house is worth 100,000 less than it was when I bought it (and no program to help me), and as a faithful Unionist democrat who watched him throw Cardcheck under the bus and NOT make good on his 08 promise to walk the picket line if they go after collective bargaining rights in Wisonsin… Why did I vote for this guy? and why should i vote for him again?

  2. I disagree with one notion: that Obama had an overwhelming majority in Congress. This does not account for all the Blue Dogs who were the ones that spearheaded the push for all those tax cuts in the stimulus. They would not vote for the package without them.

    I agree with most of what you said (I love Sullivan, even when he is off base he is interesting), but the trump card, the conch shell that Obama holds is the Supreme Court. If Romney gets in then we will never restore sanity to that branch.

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