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There appears to be a new rash of arguments out there about how we’d all be better off if Barack Obama had just read his Robert Caro a little more closely. The broader arguments have already been made elsewhere. I’m sure I’ve probably made such arguments myself in moments of high emotion too. But the more I think about it, I just see this particular theory–that with some combination of cajoling, bullying, and pleading, Obama could pass his agenda over a stone-crazy GOP House and a filibuster-prone Senate–as not that compelling. So I’d advise proponents of it to make a more sophisticated argument: that Obama has already failed to be LBJ. Specifically, that the decisions he made in 2009-2010 ensured that Democrats would lose Congress and that he’d thus lose the ability to pass big, important legislation. I think this is actually a plausible argument, though I don’t fully believe it. Johnson had been a Washington legislator for over two decades when he became president, while Obama had really only done the job of a day-to-day U.S. Senator for two years upon getting into the White House. It’s been exhaustively documented that Obama cared much more about policy than politics and was insistent about bipartisan outreach, leading to a situation where he led the banks out of crisis by taking extensive political damage, and taking over a year to pass health care while the economy was pushed to the back-burner. The public got fatigued by the debate, the Tea Party made a stronger narrative about the ACA than the White House did, and so on, which led to Scott Brown and the rest of it. This is a plausible argument and I could go either way on it depending on the weather and so forth, but it’s not exactly ironclad when one remembers just how hapless those large Democratic majorities were, and even a second stimulus wouldn’t probably have staved off significant losses in 2010. But you could make more of an argument there.

For my money, the only moment where Obama needed to show that mythical LBJ/FDR spine of steel and didn’t was the first time the debt ceiling was threatened. Sequestration is turning out to be a policy disaster for the liberal project and a political disaster for Obama, the original sin from which (nearly) all others entered our world. He damned himself by not putting himself and his presidency on the line to shut down this disaster, and given that the Republicans folded like a 2-7 hand in Texas Hold ‘Em in March when it came up again, there’s even less reason to assume that Obama made the right call back then. Frankly, it almost doesn’t matter what he does now since that decision set the environment perfectly for austerian Republicans to turn the tables on him. It was one of those defining moments you hear about, and Obama flat-out flunked the test. Since then there’s been little opportunity to reverse that catastrophic decision, so complaining that Obama isn’t being tough enough now is beside the point.

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