He has therefore earned some credibility as a critic of President Obama. And his latest, Obama's 5 Big Mistakes, delivers a pretty devastating brief that Obama has failed to lead -- in fighting for further stimulus after the first dose, in coddling bankers, in negotiating away the store -- or more precisely, the debt ceiling. And worse, in ceding core Democratic priorities:
In this round of debt negotiations, the president has drawn red lines. He has threatened to veto a small increase in the debt ceiling, one that would force him to return to the argument before the election in 2012. By contrast, he has not threatened to veto debt-ceiling measures that cut too deeply into social programs. His red lines are drawn for his political advantage -- not to protect his core supporters' values and interests. His red lines are not theirs.
Recently, Tom Ricks challenged the preconceptions of a generation by making a case that JFK was the worst President of the 20th century:
When I read this, it struck me how hard it is to assess a presidency. Every crisis is sui generis; every failure to act has its compelling reasons, every momentous decision its mix of motives; every attempted course of action its multidimensional constraints.
In retrospect, he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco. He came into office and okayed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Then he went to a Vienna summit conference and got his clock cleaned by Khrushchev. That led to, among other things, the Cuban missile crisis and a whiff of nuclear apocalypse.
I am not prepared to judge the Obama presidency in mid-course, particularly at this dark hour. We don't know how the debt ceiling endgame will play out -- and to some extent, we won't know until Nov. 2012 or even Jan. 2013, when the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire. And some of Frum's criticisms -- e.g., Obama's alleged lack of displayed personal empathy for the unemployed -- are just piling on. He minimizes, too, the stimulus that Obama dearly bought in December 2010, ignores the fact that part of Obama's goal in the debt ceiling negotiation is to similarly buy another round of stimulus, and leaves out of the equation the epic battle over healthcare reform.
But in these last few months, watching Obama founder and all but break on the rocks of Republican refusal to raise taxes, I feel in my bones the wrongness of his failure to fight -- or to fight on the right terms. He may be beating Republicans up politically at the moment. He may yet win the endgame, if he makes a stand at last as the Bush tax cuts approach their Jan. 2013 expiration date. Reports of what he's offered up thus far in negotiations may not be entirely accurate. But we do know that he's failed to fight for an adequate revenue mix and hence to minimize the harm from spending and benefit cuts in the grand bargain he was prepared to make; that he bound himself over as a hostage to an implacable, fanatic opposition by embracing the debt ceiling as "a unique opportunity"; that he's all but ruled out the Constitutional option should the stalemate continue; and that most recently he's blessed a deal that offers up $2.7 trillion in spending cuts without breaking through the GOP tax taboo. That last might be okay if Obama were okay with letting all the Bush tax cuts expire. But he's not.
What would have felt like leadership from a Democratic president in 2011? Outline a deficit reduction/tax reform plan that included new stimulus at the outset, backloaded spending cuts and at least $2 trillion in new revenue over ten years. Refuse definitively, early and often to tie deficit reduction talks to the debt ceiling; insist early, loud and often that the debt ceiling must be raised unconditionally, and threaten to use the Constitutional option if it weren't. Say to the GOP: I'm ready and willing to negotiate - call me when you're ready to consider revenue increases. Eschew high-drama deadlines, and make it clear that the Bush tax cut expiration date is the endgame.
I have in these past few months to a large extent bought the argument that presidential advocacy polarizes. I thought it smart when Obama spoke of all getting in the boat together. I think the deficit reduction plan he unveiled in April was well-timed, if light on both detail and new revenue. But climbing aboard the debt ceiling deadline express strikes me as a terrible error. And I think that Frum's core charge -- that Obama is drawing his line for political advantage at the expense of policy outcome -- has weight. I hope it will ultimately, paradoxically, be proved wrong, as the battle for public opinion -- and reelection -- can't really be separated from policy outcomes. But the failure to articulate and fight for progressive principles is a grievous fault in a Democratic president.