Thursday, February 09, 2012

Judging Obama by his own standards

Many of us who are emotionally invested in the Obama presidency have read epic defenses of his record (Chait, Ezra Klein, Sullivan) and scathing or wistful indictments.  James Fallows has distilled the strongest arguments on each side (in large part through the mouths of past and present Democratic elected officials and aides) and laid them in the scales. His question: is Obama "chess master or pawn"? Is he executing a long-term strategy to restore a progressive approach to the nation's problems or has he let himself get rolled by Republican obstructionism?

On the one side, there are the mammoth but still fragile and equivocal legislative accomplishments, the prevention of economic collapse, and a restoration of American soft power abroad that Fallows presents unequivocally as masterful. On the other, other, the usual suspects: a too-small stimulus, a coddling of the banks, passivity in the face of unprecedented filibustering and holds on nominees, a ceding of the message wars to Republicans demonizing his initiatives .

Fallows' finger on his near-evenly weighted scales is hope for the future. Some months ago, when Democrats were writhing as Obama hurtled toward the tax-free deficit reduction deal agreed to under the gun of federal default, Fallows wrote to me, "We will hope that the qualities we admire in Obama outweigh the ones that make us nervous." He finds evidence in the GOP's short-term December payroll tax cut cave that that is happening. Obama has learned in the past half-year how to be president:
My impression from recent evidence is that he has found his footing, and has come to understand how to use the constrained but still real powers of a president facing congressional opposition—just in time. 
Fallows' final point is undeniable: Obama's legacy depends on re-election; Republicans will wipe most of his accomplishments away if they win in November. Taking that as a given, though, I'd like to add one voice to the judgmental chorus: Obama's, in late 2008 and early 2009.  It is instructive at this midstream moment to judge Obama by standards he set for himself at the outset.

Looking to Obama for a standard of judgment was triggered, for me, by one particularly silly charge that Fallows gave voice to. It's this:
On the night he was elected, as a rhetorical opening of his speech to the throngs in Grant Park, Obama said, “Change has come to America.” He was careful to add that his election was only the beginning, that there was hard work and disappointment and—though he didn’t use the word—compromise still ahead. But every presidential election seems at the time to signal a new era, and that night the success of a handsome young black intellectual inevitably aroused expectations of comparably dramatic changes in policies. “I get the importance of his own achievement, and I celebrate it, but it was the wrong thing to say,” a senior Democratic official told me. “He opened himself to the interpretation that the great struggle was over just by virtue of his being elected, that ‘change had come’ to America before he had spent a day in office.”
First of all, change had come to America when Obama spoke that night.  The 2007-2008 campaign was a glorious exercise in democracy. In speech after speech, debate after debate, Obama laid out an historic and philosophically grounded case for moving the American center back to the left, correcting the anti-tax, anti-regulatory, antigovernment tilt of the past thirty years, restoring "fairness" and a commitment to shared prosperity to the center of the country's agenda.  And let's not minimize: America had just elected a black president.  Today, that may seem normal as Monday morning, as Maureen Dowd once marveled. But it was epochal. It signaled a generational shift away from racism, and hence toward fulfillment of the ideals voiced in the country's founding documents, as no single other collective deed could.  It was an affirmative action stripped of all the baggage that that term has accrued over the decades -- an act of national affirmation.

Second, nobody at the time considered that speech triumphal. It was downright somber -- as was Obama's Inaugural Address. The obstacles and the warnings that change would be slow and incremental that Fallows acknowledges were keynotes, not mere caveats. And, as was the case with Obama's entire extended campaign pitch, the speech was delivered, conceptually if not grammatically, in the perfect tense: past leading up to present. That is, it made a (highly idealized) historical argument: what American has done, we will continue to do: work toward a more perfect but never perfected union:
For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow. 
More to the point: throughout the transition and his early honeymoon months in office, Obama was at pains to emphasize that change would be incremental, that his job was to make a new beginning on several fronts, to turn the battleship a few degrees. Look at the benchmarks he laid out for himself in an interview with Time published on Dec. 17, 2008.  Indulge my I-hope-not-too-flip scoring, interspersed.
When voters look at your Administration two years from now, in the off-year election, how will they know whether you're succeeding?
I think there are a couple of benchmarks we've set for ourselves during the course of this campaign. On [domestic] policy, have we helped this economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? [yes.] Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the road that assure this kind of crisis doesn't occur again? [instituted, yes. Assure non-recurrence? Too early to tell, and GOP and lobbyists doing best to undermine, but maybe.] Have we created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves? [not enough, but now there's cause for hope] Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care and expanding coverage? [yes!] Have we begun what will probably be a decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? [yes, too slowly] Have we begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our public-school systems so we can compete in the 21st century? [yes to action; can't say as to results ]That's on the domestic front.

On foreign policy, have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way [no!], put a clear end to torture [yes] and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution? [some restoration, but far from balance] Have we rebuilt alliances around the world effectively? [yes!] Have I drawn down U.S. troops out of Iraq [yes], and have we strengthened our approach in Afghanistan — not just militarily but also diplomatically and in terms of development? [not really, but we may be on track to the least bad course -- a sort of "timed release" version of the sustainable engagement Rory Stewart laid out 2.5 years ago] And have we been able to reinvigorate international institutions to deal with transnational threats, like climate change, that we can't solve on our own? [no to climate change, but a resounding yes to reinvigorating multilateral efforts and institutions]

And outside of specific policy measures, two years from now, I want the American people to be able to say, "Government's not perfect; there are some things Obama does that get on my nerves. But you know what? I feel like the government's working for me. I feel like it's accountable. I feel like it's transparent. [yes. The website tracking money allocated by ARRA has had a trickle-down effect on state governments] I feel that I am well informed about what government actions are being taken. I feel that this is a President and an Administration that admits when it makes mistakes and adapts itself to new information, that believes in making decisions based on facts and on science as opposed to what is politically expedient." [mostly yes, though political expedience has its place too] Those are some of the intangibles that I hope people two years from now can claim.
There's no way to weigh these partial and provisional successes against partial and provisional failures, until a year or five years or ten or twenty years from now. As a progressive, in tune with all these goals, I have little doubt that Obama has advanced them as well as anyone now present on our political stage could have. 

As for the 'long game' meme, it's Obama who planted it-- with reference not to strategy but to policy. Here he is, managing expectations again, emphasizing a series of beginnings, in his 100th-day press conference:
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.

The thing about turning the battleship, of course, is that you have to keep it pointed where you turned it.  Everything does hinge on reelection -- which is to a large degree out of Obama's control. But he has made his beginning.  For any progressive, that's reason enough to do the utmost to give him a chance to finish the job. Finish it, that is, in the sense that Roosevelt finished his: building durable new institutions that foster shared prosperity.


  1. First of all, excellent post.

    But, good Lord!

    The fact that we have to have an article like Mr. Fallows is laughable. But if one's rent check is based on generating content, then by god, one must generate content until retirement comes.

    First, let me amend your assertion that the election itself was proof that change did come to America. Not only did this country elect its first black president. A nation that had once enslaved Africans went on to elect a black man with an African name.

    In regards to his presidency, let's take a step back to 2008.

    This once-great nation was mired in two bumbling and incompetently managed wars. These wars were not paid for with additional revenues by the way. In fact, revenues had been willfully reduced by cutting taxes on the wealthiest of Americans. In the fall of 2008, due to short-sighted maneuvers taken by the Clinton and GW Bush presidencies, this country entered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

    And so, change did come with the 2008 election itself. But it went beyond that.

    Since 2008, Barack Obama has ended two costly wars.

    His administration has cold-bloodily and ruthlessly hunted down the Al Qaeda organization's leadership and has left it a decimated shadow of its former self.

    Near universal health care, a major unaccomplished goal of many modern presidents has been passed. In addition to all the accomplishments of the ACA, the bill essentially regulates the insurance companies like utilities (read it-- this was ignored by journalists because they don't really understand business economics).

    He pushed through an ambitious stimulus plan that stopped the hemorrhaging of job losses through the economy and also helped save many state budgets. Perhaps it wasn't ambitious enough, but he pushed through the maximum he could get through in the real world.

    Without much fanfare or chest-thumping, he quietly maneuvered through the inflated egos of Congress and repealed the grossly discriminatory Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, an antiquated idea from the 1990s.

    The financial reform bill that went through also didn't have dramatic fireworks to it. But it will show its beneficial influence as the years go on.

    Bin Laden. DEAD.

    Barack Obama has already accomplished things of more significance in three years than Bill Clinton or GW Bush did in eight years.

    In 20-30 years, I believe Andrew Sullivan's writings (especially his major Atlantic magazine essay before the Iowa primaries) will be prophetic.

    You are living in a time where you get to witness first hand a consequential and historic president.

    Seriously, every good liberal ought to kick Drew Westen in the nuts.

  2. I too found Fallows' piece very tedious. It needed to be cut down to one paragraph comprising Emoprog inanities. He has no clue how his President operates. He assumes that the same options that white presidents had are available to him. Not once does he discuss the unprecedented degree of venality of the Conservatives as a new dimension to the headwinds a President seeking to dig a crumbling nation out of financial morass, is facing. Fallows annoyed me to no end.

  3. Anon, I didn't find Fallows' piece tedious; I devoured it, and thought it was quite fair-minded. Quoting people did not in many cases imply endorsing their perceptions. I do think that criticism of Obama's passivity regarding appointments is legitimate, and that his acquiescence in negotiating deficit reduction under the debt ceiling deadline was a major blunder, and that for far too long he tried to make nice to the GOP. Fallows too hopes that these missteps should and may well be outweighed by Obama's major accomplishments -- but that depends on reelection.

  4. "... give (Obama) a chance to finish the job. Finish it, that is, in the sense that Roosevelt finished his: building durable new institutions that foster shared prosperity."

    The aims and effects of FDR's policies were to buy votes in competitive states and to preserve large institutions like the federal government, large corporations and large unions.

    Widespread prosperity started after FDR's death, after many of his policies were abandoned, by himself during his later terms and by his successors.

    Obama, like FDR, took a bad situation and made it worse.