Monday, July 25, 2011

Harsh words for Obama from Frum, frenemy

Since at least early 2008, former Bush Jr. speechwriter David Frum has been a trenchant critic of Republican extremism. He saw Sarah Palin for the unqualified fraud she is.  He saw the need for a Republican healthcare reform strategy beyond blocking/negating/demonizing the modified Romneycare put forward by the Democrats. He acknowledges the need for stimulus from both the Fed and the Federal government.

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:

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.
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.

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.


  1. The Obama-Boehner deal though did have stimulus

    Obama and his advisers are looking at the same job numbers as the rest of us. And they think this budget deal could be their best, if not last, chance to get legislation that would boost consumer demand and jobs. According to a senior administration official, Boehner last week had indicated his agreement with an extension of unemployment insurance, some kind of renewal of the payroll tax holiday, and at least some "language" about future funding for highways. Together, those steps would likely have pumped about $160 billion, maybe more, into the economy over the next year.

    I checked with a few economists. The consensus was that, very roughly, such a stimulus would lift gross domestic product by 1.5 percentage points. That would translate to about a million additional jobs.

  2. [Frum shouldn't get any credit for calling the far right nuts. And he's only an enemy.]

    Angering that Obama gets no credit for Dodd-Frank nor space privatization nudge nor shale gas nudge. Auto bailout was the unpopular right call. Student loan reform was big.

    And by the way why does Jim Cramer rant all day about the white house and democrats attacking and destroying the banks? Durbin interchange fee eventually moved by fed from 12 to 21 cent cap but big progressive win, no?

    White House energy policies very smart. Great leadership. First-term domestic agenda priorities very solid.


  3. Andrew,

    To be honest, I hope you're wasting your energy on this purely to get a discussion going. Otherwise, if you're entertaining Frum's pronouncements as "serious thoughts to be considered", please get real.

    Even if Frum wins some points stating the blatantly obvious against non-reality-based Tea Party diatribes (wow... what an intellectual win there!), the reality is that he is still part of the pundit class.

    These people ride the professional gravy train by making pronouncements, giving speeches, and soliciting donations to fund "think tanks". They go out and write articles like "Obama's 5 Biggest Mistakes", ""Boehner's 3 Top Challenges", "6 Things Growing in John Bolton's Mustache", blah blah blah.

    Frum has a business to run with the "Frum Forum" where he has to keep generating content and **PAGEVIEWS** as long as it's a going concern.

    Want a smart take on Frum's totally illogical and self-contradicting "Top 5" list? Read the excellent political scientist PM Carpenter's take on it:

  4. MinneapolisPipe, thanks for the pointer toward Carpenter. He's right, of course, about the GOP. and learn. Obama's reaction to the GOP's bad faith and extremism in 2009-10 was to bend over further backwards.
    As for Frum: of course, like Brooks, he has his bias and propensity to view a Democrat in a harsh light. but his criticisms are not as contradictory as Carpenter suggests -- the ACA may have been a fragile (and still endangered) success, but Obama's extended attempts to woo the GOP on it were not. I noted some false notes in Frum's critique myself. But he's such a trenchant critic of the current GOP, he is at least worth listening to when he turns his attention to Obama.

  5. As someone who is disappointed in Obama, what I've learned over the last year or two is that campaign rhetoric _sometimes_ needs to be taken at face value.

    When George W. presented himself as a compassionate conservative, it was just posturing. When Obama went out of his way time and time again to praise Reagan, it was easy to believe he was just pandering to the right. However, it's turned out that he basically is actually a moderate conservative (maybe he is the compassionate conservative that W wasn't, ha).

    It's still disappointing that even a moderate conservative either doesn't believe or thinks he can't say that a govt is not like a household when the economy tanks...

  6. Andrew,

    Your point is well taken.

    However, I have to respectfully disagree with you that Obama caved or "bend[ed] over further backwards" in 2009-2010.

    Despite the liberal meme, Obama could not wave his wave his magic wand and have a stimulus 2x/3x/4x/Zx what he actually got. He got what he could have.

    The economy was still struggling at the end of 2010. Obama's choices was to win one of the progressive sacred cows/litmus tests (repeal of Bush tax cuts) or to actually analyze the ramifications of his choices.

    The economy was in bad shape. The Republicans would absolutely not agree to another stimulus package.

    What transpired next was something brilliantly diabolical on Obama's part. He knew that the Republicans were salivating about the opportunity to extend the Bush cuts in order to satisfy/pay back their true patrons.

    Obama used this to his advantage to secure what is essentially a SECOND stimulus package. Because the Republicans wanted to pay off their master, they pretty much negotiated a tax-cut based stimulus for Obama.

    Obama got an extension of federal unemployment support, payroll tax reduction, & extension of middle class tax cuts. These are real dollars that impact working people. We both have jobs so it's not as impactful in our own experience, but this happens to be important to a lot of people.

    Even the hyper-partisan Charles Krauthammer realized what had happened and was angry at the GOP for being "hoodwinked" by Obama.

    The "cave" at the end of 2010 would essentially become Obama's "Stimulus Part II". Liberals would not accept this because it was an all-tax cut based stimulus. But Obama was smart enough to know that it was the only kind of stimulus he could get with the current state of the GOP.

    I'm sure Obama's hope was that it would provide the escape velocity for the economy to come out of recession. But if not, it would at least help it from cratering.

    The liberal AND conservative meme is that he is weak, will cave, and does not have the "cajones" to stand up to such and such.

    The reality is different (you can tell it to the roadkill that is the Hillary Clinton and John McCain presidential campaigns, the very same people that thought of him as "O'Bambi").

    Like Reagan, his opponents and his supporters underestimate him.

  7. Minn, I more or less agree with you regarding the Dec. 2010 deal. Perhaps my language re the timeline was unclear: I meant that Obama's reaction to the 2010 election was to double down on compromising with the GOP that had obstructed him every step of the way to that point. It semi-worked in the end-of-year deal with the last Congress; it is not working with the ultra-extremist new Congress.

  8. ASP, thanks for the clarification. My mistake for the confusion.

    I think the jury is out on what the result would've been had Obama tried a different tack. I tend to agree with Carpenter in that we would still be in the same place because the GOP/Tea Partiers are dead set on derailing Obama at all costs. However, Obama benefits using his current tack because he is winning back independents..

  9. Obama inherited the 'lesser depression' and two war wind downs, plus mass wage stagnation. We've got $100 oil and the global economy remains hyper dependent on it. Furthermore, the 'cost of college crisis' is for many meaner than healthcare inflation.

    Did he bend over to get a budget passed in April? Well, i followed that one pretty closely too, with your assistance, of course,
    Andrew (thanks). Endgame no shutdown.

    Debt ceiling? I guess it'd be nice to avoid default.

    We simply have very little political capital right now. 2010 elections determined long before any of us showed up on this planet.

    It's pretty to think the Obama can again avert shutdown in October. Probably best for the economy to get a budget passed.

    #Millennials #shalegas