Thursday, September 08, 2011

A fair look at Obama

With a good deal of pain, I have read, and ruminated over, and sometimes pushed back against, a large number of assessments of Obama in this season of failure following the debt ceiling debacle.  Today I think Joe Klein actually got the mix about right, providing some clarity:
In fact,the great conundrum of Obama’s presidency is that he has accomplished a hell of a lot–preventing a depression with his stimulus package, passing a plausible universal health care plan, fighting the good fight on financial regulatory reform, saving the auto companies–but it has worked to his political disadvantage. Dowd is correct about one of the reasons for this: the President simply isn’t a top-draw politician. If he were, we’d be talking about the Obama tax cuts–there have been two big ones–instead of the “failed” Obama stimulus package; the Obama Senior Citizen prescription drug benefit (he closed the donut hole), universal health coverage that you can never lose instead of death panels; the Detroit auto boom as a path to a revival of manufacturing. Most important, we’d be talking about jobs instead of deficits. We would never have played the Republican deficit follies these past nine months. He would be defining the political arena. Instead, the Republicans are. 

As Klein suggests elsewhere in the post, the policy vs. politics division is too neat.  Obama's timidity, his passivity in the face of Republican stonewalling and sabotage, his unwillingness to stage fights, goes to substance too. As Klein implicitly asks, why didn't he appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the Financial Consumer Protection Board, and embrace the fight when the GOP inevitably filibustered? For that matter, why isn't he orchestrating pressure now over their refusal to allow a vote on his more anodyne if able nominee, Richard Cordray? Why didn't he make noise when Richard Shelby blocked a confirmation vote for his FHFA nominee, Joseph A. Smith, who might have directed Fannie and Freddie to launch a mortgage writedown program? Or when Shelby successfully blocked Nobel laureate Peter Diamond from serving on the Federal Reserve?

Above all, why could he not have signaled that he was happy to engage in, or preside over, a grand bargain for deficit reduction but would under no circumstances tie that negotiation to the debt ceiling deadline? That line in the sand could have been backed by the 14th Amendment option at the appropriate time, if it came down to the wire. If that option was viable for Bill Clinton, it should have been viable for Obama. To embrace the debt ceiling deadline as "a unique opportunity to do something big" was a cardinal sin for which Obama is rightly paying now. To borrow the legal term, he knew or should have known that he was accepting the embrace of a bad-faith negotiating partner that had signaled with bracing clarity that its overriding objective was to destroy him. By accepting the deadline, he made himself complicit in that bad-faith negotiation.

Americans elected Obama in part because he promised to change the way politics is practiced in Washington. Part of that equation is modeling civil engagement and willingness to compromise,as he has done. But the other part is calling out those who made politics dysfunctional -- by blocking nominees against whom they have no substantive objections, by blocking legislation they have favored in the recent past, by relentless lying about the substance of bills they oppose, and of course by taking the country hostage as a negotiating ploy. As a new "semester" begins, to borrow Klein's metaphor, Obama has to declare war, and show himself ready to fight, for policies that the GOP will block unless the political pain of blocking them becomes unbearable. Otherwise he's toast.

1 comment:

  1. Point your shotgun at Reid and Pelosi for a change. Watch where you're shootin over here. Bernanke can actually do things.