By John Pagani*
Have the wheels come off the Obama presidency since the messy debt negotiations, subsequent S&P downgrade and global market turmoil?
Not so much.
Drew Westen is one of the most important theorists about political behavior right now.
In the Sunday NY Times he pulverized Obama, in a 3000 word column that has been everywhere on the political net ever since.
[W]hen faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.
The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history was his handling of the stimulus. The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. The result, as predicted in advance, was a half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy. That, in turn, led the White House to feel rightly unappreciated for having saved the country from another Great Depression but in the unenviable position of having to argue a counterfactual — that something terrible might have happened had it not half-acted.
To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, “stick.” Nor did anyone explain what health care reform was supposed to accomplish (other than the unbelievable and even more uninspiring claim that it would “bend the cost curve”), or why “credit card reform” had led to an increase in the interest rates they were already struggling to pay. Nor did anyone explain why saving the banks was such a priority, when saving the homes the banks were foreclosing didn’t seem to be. All Americans knew, and all they know today, is that they’re still unemployed, they’re still worried about how they’re going to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can’t get a job. And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal exhortations after bargaining it away.
It's a devastating critique, hampered really only by the detail of being completely wrong.
How exactly would indicting his predecessors more forcefully have helped Obama get a larger stimulus through Congress -- particularly the Senate, where he needed a couple of Republican and a handful of nervous conservative Democratic votes?
Question 2: where's the evidence that tax cuts "had already been shown to be inert"? The argument for them was that they went into effect more quickly than never-shovel-ready infrastructure projects -- though there was indeed a structuring/messaging problem in that most Americans seem never to have recognized that they got a tax cut. Question 3: does Obama get a little credit "for having saved the country from another Great Depression"? How about the measures that more or less worked -- saving the auto industry, recapitalizing the banks?
The criticism that 'if only Obama had made such and such a point he would be fine' is one the gets echoed here - if only Phil Goff said 'such and such' it will all turn around.
Not true, as the Sprung blog points out. Unlike Labour here, Obama is in a good polling position.
Polling post the debt deal shows Obama's approval rating is holding steady. Not great, but holding. The Republicans are dropping like bombs.
Obama: 48-47 Approve/disapprove.
Do most members of Congress deserve re-election?
Yes: 14, No: 74.
Economic turmoil might cause voters to blame Obama. But it might also cause them to blame Republicans. That's who they blamed when Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole shut down Clinton's federal government in 1995.
Therefore Andrew Sullivan's response to Westen looks more in tune with voter moods.
What Westen seems to have wanted was the Democratic version of George W. Bush, contemptuous of his opponents, ruthless in his often unconstitutional determination to get his agenda through, divisive and polarizing. But Obama would not have won election on those grounds and did not have a mandate for that. He was elected as a moderate Democrat, prepared to engage any pragmatic solution to obvious problems, while not splitting an already polarized country even further.
That he has tried to do, against an opposition party that decided to double down on polarization, on politics as warfare, on politics as a game, and bereft of any ideas except taking us back to before the New Deal. What has to be defeated is not just their agenda, but their modus operandi. Only by patiently out-lasting and out-arguing them will Obama be able to do this. And it says a lot about the utopian left that they do not see the wisdom and responsibility of this strategy.
*John Pagani is an independent political consultant and writer who has worked as an adviser to Labour Leader Phil Goff. He writes his own blog at Posterous.