Friday, January 22, 2016

As Democrats mull how change works, consider Obama

Bernie Sanders' light sketch of single-payer healthcare Utopia has got Democrats debating their theory of change. Generate mass support for fundamental restructurings -- of healthcare, banking, wage law --or take any step you can, by legislative compromise or executive order, to make current institutions more progressive?

Obama is often held up these days as a proto-Bernie who stoked the thirst for swift transformation in 2007-8 and then disappointed. But if  Hope and Change was the Obama trumpet call, his bass note was always slow, hard, pragmatic step-by-step progress.

Even at his most apparently messianic, Obama has always stressed the incremental nature of change for the better. As I've noted more than once, the key words here, on the night he clinched the Democratic nomination in 2008, are began to:

If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. 
He stressed beginning again seven years later, when the global climate deal was struck:
Now, no agreement is perfect, including this one.  Negotiations that involve nearly 200 nations are always challenging.  Even if all the initial targets set in Paris are met, we’ll only be part of the way there when it comes to reducing carbon from the atmosphere.  So we cannot be complacent because of today’s agreement.  The problem is not solved because of this accord.  But make no mistake, the Paris agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis.  It creates the mechanism, the architecture, for us to continually tackle this problem in an effective way.   
His metaphor of choice is "turn the battleship a few degrees"-- as 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.
He generally casts his triumphs as a first step or beginning or foundation. As on the evening the ACA passed (and on the eve of climate deal passage noted above):
So this isn’t radical reform. But it is major reform. This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like.
He continually stresses the virtue of taking half a loaf -- as in his defense of the 2010 tax deal that extended the Bush tax cuts but also the tax cuts for low- and middle income people that he built into the stimulus:
Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us. And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew.

Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal. This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.

So my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.

And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight -- not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?

And I don’t think there’s a single Democrat out there, who if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.

Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.
And he uses the language of beginning, and of continuity, and of working in a context that constrains the possible, as much at the end of his presidency as at the beginning, as in a January 2014 set of conversations with David Remnick:
But I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society”...

“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. 
The biggest flaw in Obama's theory of change was born of arrogance rooted in past personal success. He plainly thought he could win Republicans over by moving toward them. I don't think he fully corrected on that until the sequester took its first bite and he realized that Republicans wouldn't compromise to shut it off. That quirk aside, though, I don't think that Democrats ruminating over how change works can find a more nuanced or effective perspective than Obama's.

UPDATE, 1/23: Nancy LeTourneau yesterday also spotlit Obama's longstanding incrementalism -- and made the interesting point that in the 2007-2008 campaign it was Edwards, not Obama, who "was attempting to ignite the same kind of populist uprising that Sanders is going for now." Actually, it was Krugman (as Nancy points out) who made that point in '07.  And speaking of Krugman: he wrote yesterday that "Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama."  The argument above, of course (and in LeTourneau's post) is that President Obama is heir to candidate Obama.


  1. Progressive change happens in this country when a mass movement organizes into a powerful voting bloc (labor) or convinces people who might otherwise not care that something is fundamentally unfair (civil tights, women's suffrage). In any case, it requires generations of persistence in the face of setbacks and deep-rooted opposition.

    There is much wasted comment on whether President Obama has been transformational or transactional. That's for academic seminars on leadership. (I suppose that one could say that he has used transactional means to set the stage for transformation.) The point is that-- like peace -- progressive change comes dropping slow, and he has accomplished much by turning the ocean liner and setting sail in new direction.

    BTW1: I don't know to what extent that the president believed that Republicans would compromise. I do know that their obstructionism is unprecedented in modern politics and that Obama was obligated by virtue of his campaign to at least try.

    BTW2: In The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald makes a compelling case that the 2010 agreement was a rout for the president and amounted to a second stimulus.

  2. I love your critical analyses of Obama and the way you have held him to a higher standard, but I think you and a lot of his left critics continue to be blind to the "long goal" aspect of his attempts to reach out to the Republicans. All along, his "no red state, no blue state" argument has been an attempt to reframe the national debate. At a time that Republicans were saying "you're either with us or you're against us," Obama was saying "we're all in this together." It was an attempt to cast the exclusionary Republicans as assholes, not to put too fine a point on it. This is not something that's going to transform the debate over night, but in conjunction with demographic changes and the incrementalist policies that appear to be having a transformational effect on the country, it's a frame that could still set the terms of debate in years to come. It's a way to counter Republican fear ("you're against us") with hope ("you're one of us").