Is Obama on our side?

When Barack Obama’s 2008 landslide carried such unlikely states as North Carolina and Indiana, and swept in large majorities in Congress, many progressives imagined a transformational presidency like FDR’s. Katrina Vanden Heuval wrote:

[F]uture historians may well view Barack Obama’s victory as the end of the age of Reagan and the beginning of something substantially new.

So far, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Not that President Obama hasn’t had accomplishments. The Bush economic crisis did not become a second Great Depression, as it threatened to do. With all its compromises, the Affordable Care Act is still a historic step in the right direction. Obama’s two appointments have slowed down the rightward drift of the Supreme Court. In thousands of ways that don’t make headlines, regulatory agencies have gone back to protecting the American people. On gay rights, President Obama has not led, but at least he has not stood in the way. The Iraq War has continued to wind down, our relations with other nations in general are less belligerent, and we finally nailed Osama Bin Laden.

That’s not nothing. But by now the list of liberal disappointments has gotten long.

What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent a repeat catastrophe.

  • No public option. Given the public option’s popularity, a great speech might have made a difference to wavering Democrats in the Senate, but Obama didn’t give one.
  • Ratifying Bush’s power grabs. On Inauguration Day, the new president had a chance to define the Bush administration as an aberration and turn the corner. Obama could even have enforced the law and prosecuted Bush officials for ordering torture. Instead, he let his initial effort to close Guantanamo fail, and has continued to practice and has systematically defended in court many of the Bush administration abuses of power.
  • Afghanistan. To be fair, Candidate Obama portrayed Afghanistan as the good war that got ignored because we fought the bad war in Iraq. So Afghan escalation shouldn’t have been a surprise. But we still have no coherent goal or exit strategy.
  • Libya. Again: goal? exit strategy? By ignoring the War Powers Act — in defiance of the advice of his own top lawyers — he’s expanded executive power beyond even Bush.
  • Global warming. In a recent article in Rolling Stone, Al Gore credits Obama for at least starting to take action, but then says:

President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House passed cap and trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority. Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that “drill, baby, drill” is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.

  • Taxes. When Republicans wouldn’t extend the Bush tax cuts just for the middle class, Obama had a perfect place to make a popular stand. Imagine: “I wanted to keep your taxes low, but the Republicans blocked me to protect the millionaires.” Instead he agreed to extend all the Bush cuts — and didn’t even get a debt-ceiling increase written into the deal.

And now, he seems ready to make significant concessions on Social Security and Medicare in those debt-ceiling negotiations he might have avoided. Like the public option only moreso, Social Security and Medicare are popular. There’s a significant rabble waiting to be roused, if a silver-tongued president were so inclined. So far, nothing.

Explanations. In the beginning, progressives explained these disappointments with some combination of 1) He’s doing the best he can given political reality and the power of the special interests and 2) He’s a bad negotiator who compromises when he doesn’t have to. Lately, though, a third explanation is getting louder and louder: 3) Maybe he’s not really on our side.

Bringing up Explanation 3 — even to deny it — is the surest way to start a blood feud on a liberal web site like Daily Kos. Emotions run high. Some liberals feel strongly that Obama has betrayed them, while others are just as strongly attached to him.

The problem is: All three explanations work, and each explains things the others can’t. For example, I think Obama was genuinely surprised by the popular resistance Republicans raised to closing Guantanamo. (Scary, scary terrorists were going to be housed in flimsy jails down the street from you.) Otherwise, why make a grand promise only to back off of it? And I believe he did (foolishly) expect Republicans to negotiate in good faith on vital issues like the debt ceiling.

True intentions. In spite of all the socialist and Marxist and big spender rhetoric from the Right, what if Obama has always been a centrist? Left and Right alike imagined that the centrist positions he campaigned on were masking a deeper progressive agenda, but what if they weren’t?

From the beginning, the role Obama has written for himself has been to let liberals and conservatives fight it out in Congress, and then to come in at the end with a compromise. (The problem has been that liberals are largely shut out of the corporate media — when was the last time you saw Dennis Kucinich on TV? — so the public debate has been between the most moderate Democrats and the most conservative Republicans, with Obama coming in at the end to make a center-right compromise rather than a left-right compromise.)

I think the way he has handled entitlement reform tells us a lot. The Simpson-Bowles Commission Obama appointed to study long-term deficit issues was stacked from the beginning. (Digby kept calling it “the Catfood Commission”.) When the commission was appointed, Unsilent Generation posted:

Despite protestations to the contrary, the commission exists primarily to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The commission’s slant is evident from the choice of its two co-chairs: former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson, a long-time foe of entitlements, and Erskine Bowles, the middle-right former Clinton chief of staff.

It should have surprised no one when Simpson called Social Security “a milk cow with 310 million tits“. And it should have surprised no one that the Commission recommended Social Security and Medicare cuts.

Presidents do this kind of spadework to cover unpopular actions they want to take later. It’s where you can see presidential intention in its purest form. Obama has believed all along that Social Security and Medicare need to be cut. So while he’s not likely to get on board with the Ryan privatization plan, he’s also not likely to make a bold stand against cuts that he’s been maneuvering towards from the beginning.

Framing is another place you can see presidential intention at work. The other side can force you to accept deals you don’t like, but they can’t make you repeat their deceptive rhetoric. Recently, though, Obama has said things like:

Government has to start living within its means, just like families do.  We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs

Paul Krugman comments:

That’s three of the right’s favorite economic fallacies in just two sentences. No, the government shouldn’t budget the way families do; on the contrary, trying to balance the budget in times of economic distress is a recipe for deepening the slump. Spending cuts right now wouldn’t “put the economy on sounder footing.” They would reduce growth and raise unemployment. And last but not least, businesses aren’t holding back because they lack confidence in government policies; they’re holding back because they don’t have enough customers — a problem that would be made worse, not better, by short-term spending cuts.

My conclusion. Consider the possibility that Obama is a Clintonian centrist whose liberal actions have been forced on him by events. I don’t think he’s a bad guy or a traitor to the cause. I just don’t think he’s ever been a progressive.

Deep down, I think Obama wants to be the president who steers the center course — fixing the long-term growth in entitlement spending without gutting the safety net. The ACA is part of that vision, because health-care inflation is the main long-term fiscal threat, and the private sector is never going to stop it. The near-depression forced a half-hearted stimulus on him, but expanding government services is not his fundamental inclination.

He never said it was.


Conservative columnist Ross Douhat on the deficit negotiations: “The not-so-secret secret is that the White House has given ground on purpose.”


Rick Perlstein was all over this more than a year ago.

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