Sunday, May 01, 2011

Feeling the presidential elephant in an economic shitstorm

Everyone knows the parable: the king's blind counselors are charged with telling him what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of his body, and each comes back with an utterly different impression. And the old joke: one of them is positioned under the tail -- at an unfortunate moment. He comes back with a malodorous report.

For the duration of Obama's presidency, the United States has been in a very bad extended moment (economically speaking), and that leads to a corollary of the old parable: At such times, all the king's kibbitzers are clustered under the tail.

Take, for example, two critics of Obama's mode of compromise. Here is Clive Crook, re-casting a critique by Walter Russell Mead. Mead first; Crook after the double indent:

This repeated lunge for the sour spot -- the place where costs are high and benefits are low -- now seems to be a trademark of the President's decision-making style. On the left it is earning him Carter comparisons from people like Eric Alterman; on the right it means that despite his compromises and yielding of significant ground he continues to feed the incandescent hostility of his bitterest foes. Worst of all, it suggests to people abroad and at home that the way to manipulate this "split the difference", consensus-seeking President is to raise your demands. If you are going to get something like 50 percent of what you ask for, ask for twice as much as you really want. And with this Presidential style, the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Not surprisingly, all the wheels have begun to squeak.
Here is the paradox we face: The President is a consensus-seeker whose decision making style rewards polarization and a conciliator who loses friends without winning over enemies.
I agree with most of what Mead says in his long and thoughtful post, and I have been arguing along similar lines myself, but still I think his summing up is not quite right and there is a simpler way of putting it. Obama has not really been a consensus-seeker. Rather, he has acquiesced in compromise when he had to. Think the stimulus, health-care reform, the post-midterm tax deal, the new posture on the budget. The difference between leading the country to compromise and putting up with compromise when he has to is crucial. Obama has consistently failed to champion, before the fact and often even after the fact, the kind of agreements that he should have known at the outset were bound to be necessary. He stands aside, which diminishes him. And he gets no credit for the outcome, even when the outcome (as in those four cases) is nothing to be ashamed of.

Question for both critics: What do you expect compromise to look like in America's triple-veto system of government when the opposition party, having perfected the science of all-fronts obstruction for political gain, is united -- and the economic climate has been horrendous for three years? Given the unemployment rate, Obama's approval ratings are relatively high -- more or less exactly matching Ronald Reagan's at the comparable point in his first term. His future, as was Reagan's, will probably be determined by where the unemployment rate goes from here.

Starting with Crook: he has not always "been arguing along similar lines myself."   Maybe I've missed or have forgotten some recent commentary, but for most of Obama's term he has been claiming that Obama has governed from the hard left -- a claim Crook made repeatedly even while periodically acknowledging that Obama was faced with irrational, implacable opposition. This stance left Crook in the absurd position of arguing that while he himself thought that the Affordable Care Act was worth supporting on policy grounds, Democrats were foolish to pursue it because Republicans had successfully demonized it.

Crook's characterization of Obama's conduct is inaccurate: Obama has not been grudging or belated about compromise.  He frustrated liberals at the outset of his presidency by proposing a stimulus that was more than one-third tax cuts and only two-thirds the size that Christina Romer initially suggested (his "original sin" according to Mead and countless others); he of course effusively (if ineffectively) praised the resulting bill, which was pared back rather modestly from his initial rather modest request. Passage of the ACA dragged on too long because Obama was deeply invested in obtaining the buy-in of Republicans who proved to have been negotiating in bad faith.  Following the Democrats' "shellacking" in the  2010 midterms, he immediately and consistently stressed the need for compromise; he has followed through on that promise and continues to signal confidence, against all apparent odds, that he can work with the GOP to forge a major long-term tax reform/budget reduction deal.

The sole basis for Crook's claim that Obama has "failed to champion" compromises he eventually signed onto is the press conference that Obama held following  announcement of the tax cut deal at the end of 2010, when he stressed that he was forced to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% against his wish. But that was in service of painting the GOP as the party of monied interests, and a served as a backdrop to emphasizing the large progressive stimulative concessions he'd won. It was good politics, and it had the benefit of being true.

Finally, Crook far overestimates the power of presidential rhetoric and advocacy. He clams that Obama has "consistently failed to champion, before the fact and often even after the fact, the kind of agreements that he should have known at the outset were bound to be necessary." That is, Crook would have Obama start from the end point of negotiations and not budge at all.  Presumably, he'd manage this trick by casting his desired outcomes in so brilliant a light of reason that the public would demand their ratification as is.  That kind of presidential "leadership" is a figment of pundits' imagination.

Over the course of Obama's presidency Crook has slammed him for "governing from the left" while lauding the substance of his centrist policies and acknowledging the extremism of the American right;  for compromising without predetermining the outcome of his negotiations; and for failing to win "credit" for policies that have inevitably failed to deeply dent the unemployment that shapes public opinion.

Mead more tellingly hammers relentlessly at Obama's signature weakness -- his tendency to hedge and split differences -- while refusing to acknowledge the flip-side signature strength: his ability to compromise, and indeed to forge just the kind of creative third-way solutions that Mead claims he fails to make. "Leadership " he writes, seeking to convince us that Obama lacks it, "is looking at the positions of two sides and finding creative new directions that give something to all sides — but move the ball down the field."  But Obama does do just this, regardless of how you assess the wisdom of the resulting course of action. Policies that I would put in this category include the Afghan buildup-with-timeline; the Libyan intervention with handoff to NATO; and the tax cut deal that brought unexpected new doses of stimulus into being. Whether any or all of these were good policy is debatable (Mead casts the first two as failures); whether they were creative and surprising is not.

On the domestic front, Mead essentially just blames Obama for continued bad economic conditions.  Some of his criticisms -- mainly of the size of the stimulus -- have some force, but the governing premise is that a larger stimulus would have led to a v-shaped recovery. Mead should know better --  should know that recovery from a catastrophic financial crisis is likely to be halting, regardless of policy choices. Perhaps a bigger stimulus would have alleviated the pain, but it would not have ended it. At the same time, Mead sausage-rolls real successes, like the ACA,  into his negative brief without cogent discussion of just what's so terrible about them.  The whole essay, moreover, is shot through with implicit, semi-conscious admissions that Mead is blaming the president for appearances and events beyond his control:
These successes would not be so damaging if it were not for the core failure to date of the Obama presidency: the failure to deliver what looks to most Americans like the promise of an improving economy...
The President looks like a man who is ridden by events; at just the moment when the nation craves a strong leader, the President looks weak, dodgy, uncertain (my emphases). 
When you're blinded by appearances shaped primarily by unemployment  in the 9-10% range, success, partial or full-bodied,  looks like failure:
At home, the President has been wounded both by his successes and his failures.  Colin Powell referred to the US victory against Saddam Hussein as a “catastrophic success”; President Obama now has a couple of those of his own.  The economic stimulus package aroused a fear on the hustings and, increasingly, in the bond markets about the looming fiscal catastrophe.  The health care bill, an achievement the President expected and believed would cement both his place in history and a new era of liberal Democratic hegemony in American politics, continues to weaken the administration; the patient is not (yet) accepting the transplant.
Lurking here is a variant view of the stimulus. Mead's core policy accusation, the one he spends most time on, is that it wasn't large enough to spark a swift recovery; here, he implies that it was large enough to spook the bond market. Regarding the ACA, the "transplant" hasn't started yet; the exchanges won't open until 2014. That may have been a design flaw, but we get no consideration of the alternative to postponing the exchanges: further increasing the short-term deficit, and therefore presumably spooking the bond market further (and probably also scaring the right-edge Democrats needed for passage). 

For his peroration, Mead whacks Obama with the Great President cudgels -- though his choices are a bit idiosyncratic:
He lacks Lyndon Johnson’s sure sense of what Congress will or won’t do (not to mention Johnson’s legendary ability to build support for his agenda), and he lacks the international seasoning of a George H. W. Bush or Richard Nixon.

These long-range unfavorable comparisons are just foolish. I too admire Bush Sr.'s conduct of foreign policy, as does Obama.  But Bush was lambasted in his time and in years following for not signaling clearly to Saddam Hussein in advance of his invasion of Kuwait that such an invasion would not be tolerated; for urging the Shiites to overthrow Saddam and then hanging them out to dry; for subordinating the Baltic states' drive for freedom to his desire for stability in the decomposing Soviet Union; and for abandoning Afghanistan to chaos. Nor did James Baker's deep investment in negotiations for Israeli-Palestinian peace yield much fruit. The point is not that Bush did not conduct foreign policy successfully, but that he was subject, rightly and/or wrongly, to criticisms similar to those now aimed at Obama. And it's too soon to write Obama's account.

As for Nixon: if Obama had his "seasoning," perhaps he would have managed by now to kill a few million civilians or destabilize countries bordering Afghanistan or Iraq. Moving on to Johnson, Medicare's initial launch was a far more partial legislative victory than it looks in retrospect; Johnson's aggregate domestic legislative successes sparked a backlash that ushered in a generation of Republican dominance and has inhibited every Democratic president following; and he made a few noteworthy mistakes on the foreign policy front. In any case, Mead hits at Obama for not being a fusion of his chosen foreign and domestic policy paragons: what president has been?

FDR, perhaps.  Maybe Mead's broadside boils down to this: Obama has not yet proved to be FDR.


  1. It's not just the big things though. His executive branch has completely failed to stop the mortgage/foreclosure bank shenanigans that could have helped the housing market recover faster, right? All those horror stories of banks gaming the readjustment system...