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 et.al. 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.