Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rx for Kevin Drum's Obamanemia

Kevin Drum disagrees with the substance of some expressions of left wing disillusion with Obama, but shares the spirit:
Like Rosenberg, I've been feeling pretty schizophrenic about Obama for quite a while. My brain tells me that, given the realities and constraints of American politics, he's done pretty well: a big stimulus package, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, healthcare reform, withdrawal from Iraq seemingly on schedule, a decent start on rationalizing Pentagon procurement, financial reform (maybe), and progress on DADT (hopefully). Even his Afghanistan policy, which I don't agree with, was deeply considered and responsive to the obvious limitations of military action.

There are, of course, things I don't like about Obama's record too...But this isn't why I'm schizophrenic about Obama. I never expected to like everything he did. The reason I'm schizophrenic is that it's almost impossible to get a handle on what he really wants. Did he want a bigger stimulus bill but compromised down because $800 billion was all he could get? Or did he not really want more than that in the first place? Ditto for the public option. Ditto for DADT repeal, which he had to be pushed into supporting this year. And ditto again on financial reform, which is worth passing only because of numerous amendments to the original bill. On all of these issues and more, I don't feel like I ever knew what Obama's real position was. There's a big difference between compromising because politics is what it is and you have no choice, and compromising because the more centrist position is the one you genuinely hold. But Obama never gives me a good sense of which it is with him.

Now, it's a bad idea to look at FDR through rose colored glasses. Plenty of New Deal legislation passed over his objection, and there was nobody better at playing his cards close to his vest. Still, there was seldom any question about where FDR stood on the big issues, and you either loved him or hated him for it. With Obama, I'm left unsure far too often for comfort. Thus my schizophrenia.

I don't know. Maybe my organ of veneration, as the phrenologists (who may be enjoying a renaissance) used to call one imagined bump on the brain, is overdeveloped and I'm a Pollyanna-ish  hero worshipper.  Maybe I read too much Sullivan.  But I feel not this disillusionment deity in my bosom. Afghanistan aside, I am impressed and delighted by what Obama -- or more accurately, the administration in sometimes-rocky partnership with the Democrats in Congress -- has managed to accomplish in the face of relentless, hysterical, deranged and dishonest opposition. I can think of three reasons why Drum's unease with Obama doesn't really grip me:

  • Obama's odd negotiating style: most of us assume that you start negotiating from a maximalist position and move to the center as slowly as you can, tossing in bargaining chips in ascending order of their importance to you.  Obama seems to calculate at the outset what he'll have to give away and effectively give it away at the outset.   But on his own often low-profile priorities, he doesn't budge. In the health care reform process, this meant damning the public option with faint praise early on -- probably because he knew that a strong public option was never in the cards in this round -- but holding on like hell to the Medicare commission, the excise tax on expensive plans, and a raft of other cost control measures. 

  • Tactical centrism: will the gods of history spit Obama out for being lukewarm?  While thoughtful progressives like Drum mourn his lack of Rooseveltian fire, the Limbaugh-led Republican leadership and rank and file insist with one voice that he's the second coming of Stalin, inflicting socialism on a proud unwilling country of rugged individualists.  Karl Rove crows that the country is rejecting his statist power grab, and the more moderate Clive Crook asserts that he's blown his mandate by governing from the left rather than the center.  Could it be that he's moving the country left about as fast and far as it can bear?  Maybe it's selection bias on my part, a comforting personal myth, but I recur repeatedly -- hopefully (ad nauseum?)-- to Frederick Douglass' 1876 assessment of Lincoln: Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

  • Strategic Centrism: Drum feels unsure where Obama stands on the big issues. I've never felt that. I think his broad goals are simple, and manifest, repeated endlessly throughout the campaign: to reverse a thirty-year trend of growing income inequality; revamp the frayed safety net; catalyze more sustainable and shared growth by improving educating and tilting incentives toward developing the next-generation industries such as alternative energy; arrest nuclear proliferation; and restore a style of multilateral leadership that exercises power "by mapping its limits," as Philip Stephens put it.  It's way too early to judge his efforts on these fronts -- no one knows what the long-term effects of  the Patient Protection Act and the FinReg bill will be, or whether he'll be able to put a meaningful price on carbon over the course of eight years if he gets them, or whether his generally well regarded education reforms (which I confess to not having tracked too closely) will take root to good effect.   But to my eye the legislative record is impressive, and -- barring the myriad potential catastrophes that could sidetrack his administration -- success will breed success.  He has described his incremental approach to systemic change as a drive "to move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction" -- recognizing the limits of presidential leadership as well as the uncertainties inherent in attempting to reform enormous systems like the health care industry. 
Obama constantly stresses that the major legislation he seeks in each area is only a beginning. To put his use of the "battleship" metaphor cited above in full context:
This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.
 By that standard, he's not doing too badly.


  1. I feel partly the way Drum does towards Obama's beliefs/real goals. His goals are so broad, at times, that we aren't certain through what means he intends to achieve those goals. His sometimes non-confrontational policies results in a centrist way of governing where he never is seen as losing on the big issues. Why not fight for the public option or too-big-to-fail in FinReg and then lose? Its always seemed as if Obama doesn't want to lose face on certain policies. No one doubts that his legislative achievements have been great. The problem is that he is not publicly vocal about what specifics he wants to see in certain legislation, and when he does, it is not left enough for the progressive citizen.

  2. Some of us look forward to the fight, stake out a position, hold on for dear life, defend to the end and even if we go down in defeat it feels good. Some, like the President, are trying to achieve a goal and are more concerned with getting from here to there than fighting about the specifics of how and what. If the President is laying the foundation that each american is entitled to affordable health care, the public option is not the only, or necessarily the first thing, that MUST happen. Establishing that the government will regulate the financial markets so as to protect the rest of us from its abuses does not immediately require "too big to fail". Winning the Civil War did not require ending slavery the day after the attack on Fort Sumter, indeed attempting that probably would have fatally weakened the war effort. Progressives, keep your eyes on the prize, stop bitchin that the raod is not as smooth and straight as you want it to be

  3. To use a sports analogy:

    This is all about "style" points.

    Does it matter if you win the championship with an undefeated season while blowing every opponent out of the water, or losing close games because you failed to adjust the offensive or defensive schemes, and, just perhaps, lose the title all together?

    Or does it matter that you simply win the championship, and if it took low-scoring defensive affairs, lucky bounces, strategic plays that didn't look like great ideas but now do?

    Eyes on the Prize....

  4. Every time I get discouraged about Obama, he finds a way to bring me back. He's earned my trust and my patience.

  5. Look back at Reagan his goals were broad and the changes incremental. We look back at his 8 years and imagine that the change took place all at once.

  6. Obama's record on civil liberties is terrible, mostly an extension of Bush policies. That is one area where he has not kept any of his campaign promises, and where he has much more control vis-a-vis Congress. I can live with the other lukewarm policies (though the lack of stimulus will come back to bite all of us big time), but in this area disappointment is too weak a word.