Garry Wills was right. Obama's default mode is "endless placation." When it doesn't work, he keeps doing it. He did it nonstop on 60 Minutes tonight.
A few days ago, I linked to a Times story relating some statements by Ronald Reagan in January 1983, when his approval rating hit its nadir of 35%. The words sounded superficially like Obama's, since the situation was so similar -- an unemployment rate stuck in the 10% range, a large loss in the recent Congressional elections. But the differences were more telling than the similarities.
Reagan was unequivocal: his policies were working and would continue to work. To the extent that they hadn't worked fast enough, it was because of compromises forced by the Democrats.
In the 60 Minutes interview tonight as in his Nov. 3 press conference, Obama validated Republican lies about his policies and the legislation passed by the 111th Congress. The healthcare reform process somehow tainted the result. The bank and auto bailouts and stimulus gave the appearance that he was a proponent of big government. He took too harsh a tone or somehow damaged the interest of the business community. He failed to change the tone in Washington.
He never called out Republican mendacity or asserted that the reason he wasn't able to work with Republicans was because they made a bad-faith decision early on to stonewall his entire agenda and malign policies that in any sane era would have been bipartisan -- stimulus, bank and auto bailout, a health insurance program that leaves the private insurance industry intact and flourishing.
Worse, he never defended his own record with any vigor. It's easy to ventriloquize a "liberal Reagan" defending the accomplishments of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. We created or saved 3 million jobs and added 3 points to GDP. We saved the U.S auto industry from destruction. We saved the U.S. banking industry from destruction. We've got the states literally racing to enact meaningful, measurable education reform. We've made unprecedented investments in alternative energy. We ensured that banks could not entice and defraud consumers as was their practice last decade. We ensured that there will be no more megabank bailouts. We've ensured that every citizen will be able to afford health insurance within five years and at the same time instituted healthcare cost controls that the CBC conservatively estimated will save $1.34 trillion over twenty years. We closed the donut hole while eliminating Republican giveaways to insurance companies that balloon Medicare costs. We ended the corporate welfare system of student loans and ensured cheaper, fairer loans for all college students. We enacted the most stringent emissions controls on cars and trucks ever. We wrung $20 billion in restitution from BP. We did and we did and we did -- we accomplished more on behalf of working Americans in 2 years than our predecessors have done in the last 50.
Of course there's another side to many of those claims. But they could be made with more veracity than 90% of the claims made by politicians, very much including Reagan's on the domestic front.
Now it's time to defend this legacy. The Republicans are baying for blood, promising to tear down the PPACA, gut Dodd-Frank, stymie all further stimulus, and make Obama a one-term President. Obama will have to face them down, budget after budget, as Clinton did -- expose their cruelty, their bad faith, their crocodile tears over deficits, their demagoguery over any proposed entitlement cuts. How can he do any of that if he won't make the case for the rightness of his own policies?
Yes, the American people say they want compromise. Yes, they believe in large numbers that Obama is more willing to compromise than the Republicans. He can't lose that perception -- it's hard-wired by now. His ability to move the Republican stonewall -- say, to eventually force some spending on infrastructure, or to agree on tax cuts that are likely to actually stimulate rather than sit on the ledgers of the super-rich -- depends on exposing Republican mendacity and self contradiction, not on further proving his own sweet reasonableness.
I retain tremendous faith in Obama's ability to craft good policy and considerable hope that he will deal with a Republican House as effectively as Clinton did with a Republican House and Senate. But his early post-election performances are not boosting my confidence.
To take a breath: as with most people, Obama's greatest strength -- his willingness to work with people of all views, his confidence that he can win over antagonists -- is his greatest weakness I would not want him to be a 'liberal Reagan.' Reagan had the endless certainty of the second-rate. But Obama needs once again to prove -- as he did in the healthcare reform endgame -- that he knows how to fight.