(Not Jonathan Chait)
Jonathan Chait did an annoying hit piece on _____ in New York Magazine. I put in a blank there because I expect to reuse the text. This time around the names to fill in are Cornel West, Tom Frank, and Mike Kazin. The subject is alleged “hatred” of the president. I will probably be able to reuse that sentence too.
Describing a position with which you disagree as motivated by “hatred” is one way to avoid engaging any actual arguments. Your adversaries don’t have any substance, they are just emotional: too stupid to be afforded the respect of having an argument worth acknowledging. These dummies have tenured positions at Princeton and Georgetown and/or have written well-regarded books.
Chait links to two offending pieces (linked above). His central point is common among defenders of the president: that critics fail to see any real constraints on what the president could have accomplished. Defense of Obama’s failures goes under assaults on the “Green Lantern theory of presidential power.”
While presidential power can be exaggerated, so too can the inertia of public opinion. There are positions that enjoy massive public support but little presidential effort, such as universal background checks for firearms purchasers. That doesn’t mean Congress will just roll over in support of positions that their constituents actually support, but it does indicate political potential. If nobody is talking about it, when does anybody think a change would be possible? There are other positions where public opinion is malleable.
Speaking for myself, I’d be happy to stipulate that Obama got most of what could be gotten in the realm of domestic legislation when he had Democratic majorities in the Congress. Health care could have been somewhat better, but not much. Ditto Dodd-Frank. The first stimulus was about as big as it could have been.
The main problem in the big domestic policy cases was the cynicism that the Administration and its apologists share: that public opinion is something they are stuck with, rather than something they can influence. I do not suggest this could have been changed enough in real time to affect the legislative result. I am certain if no ambitious policies are ever put forward and motivated, we will never get them. That’s the defensible truth of the West/Frank/Kazin critique: it’s not so much the policy compromises at the end of the process, it’s the rhetorical compromises at the beginning and right on through to the end, and beyond. It’s the lack of any sustained focus on any big, affirmative national goal (Kazin’s point). The prospect of some future innovation in policy seems foreclosed. The Obama presidency is over. He has turned himself into a lame duck.
An example. Obama’s own advisers knew a bigger stimulus was needed, one larger than $800 billion. (With the benefit of hindsight, even the bigger numbers would have been inadequate.) So the Administration took a deal for $800 billion. Fine. The problem was, they never motivated the need for something much larger. Their rhetoric was further crippled by the false notion that deficit reduction was something we needed to worry about any time soon. Even now, they tout deficit reduction, notwithstanding its harmful effect on employment. The advocacy for infrastructure, never incidentally put forward as any kind of strategy, is a sideshow. It should be the main event. If the GOP won’t give you the $20 billion you’re asking for, why not say we need $200 billion more? (Which we do.)
Perhaps at every point the president believed deeply everything he said. That brings up the bamboozle issue. A different person contested in the primaries in 2008. I’ll give you another example. In the debates Obama upheld the value of increasing the payroll tax to “fix” Social Security. Not my preferred solution, but whatever. After the election that notion sank beneath the waves, never to reappear. Instead we got support for the Simpson-Bowles bullshit: benefit cuts amidst a bouquet of other policy canards. That’s not a minor difference on a major issue.
Even presidential speech with no immediate legislative implications can be important. Here again the president a) failed; and b) contradicted prior stances. Two examples: during the goings-on in Wisconsin, the president might have said more than public school teachers ought to be respected, even though in the campaign he was Mister Labor Movement. This was a huge leftish uprising. Of white people. The White House was mute. For Occupy Wall Street, there was a national pattern of police abuse, including numerous violations of civil liberties. Ditto in Ferguson, MO. Did our professor of constitutional law president say anything? If Kennedy could deploy the national guard to protect black school children in Alabama, isn’t there something the Department of Justice could have done to defend the right of protesters to stand in the street in Missouri?
There remain huge areas of executive authority for the president that are not subject to micro-management by the Congress. One is foreign policy, another is homeland security, another still is law enforcement in regard to the financial crisis. Elaboration in these areas is left for another time. The point here is they are vital areas where the White House had substantial freedom of action. You can’t blame the manifest deficiencies on the Republicans.
The bit that has most got Obama’s dander up lately is the barbaric beheading of an American journalist by the latest Hitler-of-the-month, the so-called Islamic State (‘ISIS’). Events in the world have handed him a focus he could not bring himself to gin up on his own.
(Evidently not so barbaric are beheadings carried out on a routine basis by staunch U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. About some recent U.S. exercises in capital punishment, the less said the better. More barbaric, there’s the Israeli pummeling of Gaza, supported by the Orwellian rhetoric of an Israel besieged.)
ISIS now threatens to absorb all the political oxygen. Nothing else of consequence will be done. What does beckon is the morass of interventionism, and the way is prepared for the person who promises to outstrip Obama in this regard: Hillary Clinton.
The way is also open for a peace candidate in the 2016 primaries. More generally, there is space for new voices on the left willing to contradict the awful inevitability of a second Clinton presidency (again). A critical spirit must begin with the inadequacies of the current Administration. For that we will need other sources than New York Magazine.
“We are blues people. The blues aren’t pessimistic. We’re prisoners of hope but we tell the truth and the truth is dark. That’s different.”
— Cornel West