Jonathan Chait deconstructs the left’s magical thinking on Obama

President Obama and the one time Democratic majority, which they had free and clear for exactly 4 months in 2009.

A brilliant, must-read essay in today’s New York Times Magazine.

Jonathan Chait of TNR explains the truth about President Obama versus the magical scenarios concocted by people like Glenn Greenwald, who constantly complain about what Obama hasn’t done. A clip:

Obama’s image as a weakling and sellout on domestic issues now centers on his alleged resistance, from the very first days of his presidency, to do whatever was necessary to heal the economy. “The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history,” wrote the Emory professor Drew Westen in this newspaper, “was his handling of the stimulus.” Just as the conservative repudiation of George W. Bush boiled down to “he spent too much,” the liberal repudiation of Obama has settled on “he didn’t spend enough.”

There’s truth in that. President Obama underestimated the depth of the crisis in 2009 and left himself with bad options in the event the economy failed to recover as quickly as he hoped. And yet the wave of criticism from the left over the stimulus is fundamentally flawed: it ignores the real choices Obama faced (and the progressive decisions he made) and wishes away any constraints upon his power.

The most common hallmark of the left’s magical thinking is a failure to recognize that Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government consisting of members whose goals may differ from the president’s. Congressional Republicans pursued a strategy of denying Obama support for any major element of his agenda, on the correct assumption that this would make it less popular and help the party win the 2010 elections. Only for roughly four months during Obama’s term did Democrats have the 60 Senate votes they needed to overcome a filibuster. Moreover, Republican opposition has proved immune even to persistent and successful attempts by Obama to mobilize public opinion. Americans overwhelmingly favor deficit reduction that includes both spending and taxes and favor higher taxes on the rich in particular. Obama even made a series of crusading speeches on this theme. The result? Nada.

That kind of analysis, however, just feels wrong to liberals, who remember Bush steamrolling his agenda through Congress with no such complaints about obstructionism. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently invoked “the panoply of domestic legislation — including Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement — that Bush pushed through Congress in his first term.”

Yes, Bush passed his tax cuts — by using a method called reconciliation, which can avoid a filibuster but can be used only on budget issues. On No Child Left Behind and Medicare, he cut deals expanding government, which the right-wing equivalents of Greenwald denounced as a massive sellout. Bush did have one episode where he tried to force through a major domestic reform against a Senate filibuster: his crusade to privatize Social Security. Just as liberals urge Obama to do today, Bush barnstormed the country, pounding his message and pressuring Democrats, whom he cast as obstructionists. The result? Nada, beyond the collapse of Bush’s popularity.

Perhaps the oddest feature of the liberal indictment of Obama is its conclusion that Obama should have focused all his political capital on economic recovery. “He could likely have passed many small follow-up stimulative laws in 2009,” Jon Walker of the popular blog Firedoglake wrote last month. “Instead, he pivoted away from the economic crisis because he wrongly ignored those who warned the crisis was going to get worse.”

It’s worth recalling that several weeks before Obama proposed an $800 billion stimulus, House Democrats had floated a $500 billion stimulus. (Oddly, this never resulted in liberals portraying Nancy Pelosi as a congenitally timid right-wing enabler.) At the time, Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders — that is to say, just about everybody who mattered — as mind-bogglingly large. News reports invariably described it as “huge,” “massive” or other terms suggesting it was unrealistically large, even kind of pornographic. The favored cliché used to describe the reaction in Congress was “sticker shock.”

Compounding the problem, Obama proposed his stimulus shortly after the Congressional Budget Office predicted deficits topping a trillion dollars. Even before Obama took office, and for months afterward, “everybody who mattered” insisted that the crisis required Obama to scale back the domestic initiatives he campaigned on, especially health care reform, but also cap-and-trade, financial regulation and so on. Colin Powell, a reliable barometer of elite opinion, warned in July of 2009: “I think one of the cautions that has to be given to the president — and I’ve talked to some of his people about this — is that you can’t have so many things on the table that you can’t absorb it all. And we can’t pay for it all.”

Rather than deploy every ounce of his leverage to force moderate Republicans, whose votes he needed, to swallow a larger stimulus than they wanted, Obama clearly husbanded some of his political capital. Why? Because in the position of choosing between the agenda he came into office hoping to enact and the short-term imperative of economic rescue, he picked the former. At the time, this was the course liberals wanted and centrists opposed.

I attempted to get to the same place in this post last month, but I think Chait sums it all up brilliantly. Of course, the Greenwald/Aravosis/Adam Green crew is surprisingly resistant to facts, or to the realities of governing, versus their heroic mythology about George W. Bush. Greenwald’s response to Chait, who calls him out by name (a big Glenn no-no) is unsurprisingly petty. But reality is reality.

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9 Responses to Jonathan Chait deconstructs the left’s magical thinking on Obama

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Chait deconstructs the left’s magical thinking on Obama | The Urban Politician

  2. bmull says:

    Oh Jon Chait I love you I love you. Please write more stuff like this:

    “You change history not from Congress but from the White House, and not as an independent but as the leader of a major party in which your ideas can be institutionalized and carried on by others. Only a handful of politicians per generation capture the public’s imagination and channel it toward moral and rational ends. McCain [yes, that McCain] has the opportunity to do this. He can leave his imprint on history, but history will not come to him.”

  3. Jean says:

    This is your blog and I appreciate that you are a strong supporter of President Obama. I really want to believe you are right about President Obama, and I have defended him many times to my moderate friends over the past two years. However I can no longer ignore his continued lack of ability to lead and willingness to draw an actual line in the sand — ever. I think Hillary was correct in her assessment, that he is a very intelligent man who was not ready to be President.

    Every opening gambit of his was close to what most liberals thought his end point should have been. He has given away the store over and over again and I do not believe for one instant that he will protect Social Security and Medicare from annihilation. The Republicans smell blood in the water for a reason and that is because President Obama is a weak negotiator or at the least doesn’t give a hoot about the perception of his ability or lack thereof.

    Thank God we aren’t in the middle of the Cold War, he probably would give away our “excess” nukes to the Russians if they complained that we had more than they did. They would know that they could make any crazy threat they desired because they would never need to follow through. They would get exactly what they wanted each and every time by just making an insane threat. Isn’t that your explanation for his giving in to Republicans ? They make crazy threats ? If that is all any opposition needs to do, make crazy threats, then it is clear that President Obama has painted himself into a corner by folding over and over again without a fight.

    I believe it is President Obama’s plan to ante up significant changes to Medicare and Social Security as sacrificial lambs to his corporate, free-trade agenda. Look how quickly he did so during the deficit raising debacle. It wasn’t even requested and he was offering to make cuts. Were they cuts that would have hurt retirees in the near future ? Probably not, but President Obama and his advisers show absolutely zero understanding of messaging. I think he truly believes we can’t afford Social Security and Medicare and that he frequently parrots the Rethuglican line about deficits over and over because he agrees with them.

    If he is just being pragmatic, why does he constantly state progressive goals for his agenda only to back off and recalibrate his agenda months (sometimes a week or two) later ? There is not one person on this planet who doesn’t KNOW that he will back down in a very substantive way every single time and do it so quickly, that his previous position is barely reported in the news before he reverses himself. Why broadcast a position that you are so unwilling to defend ?

    I will not vote for him again, no matter what crazy kook the other side puts up as a candidate. I have no doubt that he will run a brilliant campaign, like he did in 2008, but his words are empty and meaningless simply because he has shown a clear track record of having no will to fight for anything he says he believes in. That is a fact. The man has no fight in him. He folds as soon as he perceives immovable resistance either presently or in the future. I would rather he fight and lose, then for him to give in automatically, as he does now, based on so-called pragmatism. When you are standing in the stream of a fire hose, incrementalism in moving forward just does not work. You only end up on your butt 2 miles down the road.

    And finally the biggest problem I have with President Obama his that every single one of his “deals”, like with the stakeholders in the health care law, has occurred behind closed doors. So much for being a transparent President.

  4. Flo says:

    Really Jean?: “Thank God we aren’t in the middle of the Cold War, he probably would give away our “excess” nukes to the Russians if they complained that we had more than they did.” Get down to your fallout shelter.

    Apparently there was one time when the “left” actually believed the McCain-Palin campaign: when they said Obama’s really really liberal; socialist even.
    Enjoy President Rick Perry lefties.

  5. Kerry Reid says:

    Jonathan Chait deconstructs it — Jean gives us a living demonstration of leftie magical thinking. “Better to fight and fail?” Really? On what planet is getting nothing you want a victory over getting substantive gains in the direction you’d like? How does that work for you in your daily life? If your boss refuses to give you exactly the raise you want, do you quit your job and claim a moral victory because you stood firm at your bully pulpit on your line in the sand or whatever mindless empty-calorie cliche you’re employing in Purity Progressive Bingo at the moment?

    It would have been better NOT to have any kind of healthcare reform than what we got, which means that kids can’t be denied for pre-existing, $11 billion more is available for public health clinics, the Medicare donut hole is cut, etc.? Really? Care to run that by some of the people who are benefiting from the ACA? Remind me what followed the failure of HCR in the 1990s? How far “down the road” did that failure get us? What did the “no difference between Bush and Gore” line pushed by the Purity Left give us?

    “There is not one person on this planet who doesn’t KNOW that he will back down in a very substantive way every single time and do it so quickly, that his previous position is barely reported in the news before he reverses himself. ”

    Speak for yourself. I’m a person on this planet who has been involved in politics since the late 70s and I say you’re full of it, because I know that Obama and the 111th Congress passed more legislation and more PROGRESSIVE legislation than we’ve seen in decades. Or you’re just not well informed as to how politics and bargaining and the separation of powers and all that other Civics 101 stuff works.

    Obama folds “every single time?” Lessee — what was his response to Boehner making cuts to Planned Parenthood? “Nope. Zero.” Boy, sure folded there, didn’t he? And on DADT? Boy, he certainly failed to come through on that! And too bad he didn’t stand firm on his resolve to bail out General Motors — oh wait. He did.

    Yeah, I’d sure take Hillary Clinton’s word for what constitutes fighting after the great triumphs of the Fightin’ Clinton 90s — between failing on HCR, instituting DADT/DOMA, kicking poor kids off Medicaid through welfare “reform,” and repealing Glass-Steagall, I wonder just where Hillary thinks Bill exhibited any fight in anything that mattered to the country. In fact, I wonder if any Clintonistas would care to name ONE great progressive legislative victory won by either of them that stacks up to what Obama has put on the boards in less than one term.

    So you go ahead and declare victory through suicide, Jean. I’ll be over here donating, phone banking, canvassing, etc.

  6. Kerry Reid says:

    And Jean, given that Obama has a great track record on “loose nukes” from his days in the U.S. Senate, where he worked with Richard Lugar (oh noes! Bipartisanship! Sell-out!) on that very issue to the passage of the START Treaty last December, I’m not sure your use of Obama giving away the nuclear codes is particularly, um, based in reality.

  7. Alan Parson says:

    Dude’s wack. Return for a refund.

  8. Ronbo says:

    Jean is right. To not fight is certain to fail. It’s not magical thinking. It’s realistic thinking.

    For those who are wishing and hoping and hoping and wishing that Obama begins to choose Democratic policy, you most only look to his foolish jobs program to see that Obama is a core Republican. We know that jobs are never created by tax cuts. Jobs are only created by demand.

    Obama’s foolish Republican policy wishes continue unabaited. (Tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts) What is the defiinition of taking the same actions and expecting different results?

    Obama is clearly a Republican trojan-horse. Don’t be fooled by the soaring rhetoric. He folds to the Republicans on cue. Almost like that was how it was planned. Trojan-horses aren’t more obvious than Obama. He is channeling Herbert Hoover, and our labor depression continues unabaited.

  9. hilda banks says:

    Sorry, I am just commenting on this article. Who are progressives/liberals anyway? They are as much of a sellout as President Obama will ever be. At least, the President knows who he is. Sometimes I seriously wonder about the left. What do they really want? President Obama has jumped more hoops that any other President in history. I will blame a lot of it on racism. You can laugh but if you seriously admit it, you will to. A lot of the left voted for the President and in return for their vote they felt and feel free to try and make him do exactly what they want. They are so quick to give up. This is his first term and if the country was or is as bad as they say it is, how could you fix everything in less than three years? That’s just ludicrous. Bush got his second term simply because the idiots wouldn’t support Howard Dean or John Kerry. Howard Dean would have been a great progressive President, maybe and maybe not. What happened, lefties?

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