I liked Mark Schmitt’s comparison of Barack Obama’s electoral brilliance to the often less-than-brilliant strategery we’ve seen from the man as president, but this is a pretty odd thing to say:
But we should also use this opportunity to recognize that being good at campaigns and elections and being good at politics in office are, however unfortunately, very different things. That’s not a surprising insight—spend a little time around Congress, especially the Democratic caucus, and you’ll see dozens of people who have mastered the art of winning elections even in a hostile constituency, but can’t figure out how to do much more when they’re in office than avoid losing reelection. (Consider Senator Max Baucus, for example, who has won six statewide elections in conservative Montana, by an average of 25 points, and yet lives in such constant panic that he’ll lose the next that he’s accomplished almost nothing of significance.)
Oh, but he has. Sadly. Baucus helped shepherd the Bush Tax Cuts through Congress, which is bad enough. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the failed strategy of endless outreach to Republicans long after it was clear it wouldn’t work. Baucus’s career really exemplifies the post-rational embrace of bipartisanship, and the fact that he lent Obama his former Chief of Staff to be White House Deputy Chief of Staff ought to be at least mentioned in a discussion of Obama’s obsessiveness over getting broad bipartisan support when it wasn’t at the time even necessary.
The other thing I think needs to be mentioned here is just how poorly the Administration handled issues related to the financial crisis. I mean, in one sense, sure. The world’s economy hasn’t collapsed, so it was successful. But there was no consideration of social justice, no consideration of the fallout, no straightforward look at the politics of the thing, which would have been helpful. After all, without that albatross, perhaps later stimuli would have been politically possible? But on the TARP and financial reform, the President listened almost exclusively to Sec. Geithner, who not only didn’t understand the political ramifications of just giving money to the banks with no strings attached, but almost thought it was obscene to consider them in light of a possible global collapse. Ultimately passing a financial regulatory reform bill that does little to reform the financial sector, but does a lot to enhance the power of the Treasury Secretary, didn’t fix the political problems associated with the bailouts. By shutting out anyone not trusted by the financial establishment, Obama’s priorities reflected almost entirely what a combination of rich people and centrist policy wonks wanted to see (bailouts and then deficit politics for the former, modest stimulus and healthcare cost-cutting for the latter), and people who had different ideas were not listened to. It’s interesting to think of what the political situation would look like if the Administration had made housing a top priority, but that’s the point (and yeah, I know, the stimulus did help normal people, but not really in any way they’d be able to see themselves, in such a way that Democrats could use to connect with their policies). Not much else to say about this, but I do recommend reading the full article. He talks about a lot of the same things I do, only because it’s Mark Schmitt, it’s even better.
Let’s “pause for two beats” and pay homage to the “ruthless killing machine that is the” Obama campaign, says Mark Halperin at TIME. “They have parceled out their opposition research in a manner both strategic and tactical,” ensuring that the Bain story and the controversy over Romney’s unreleased tax returns remain almost constantly in the news. “And, make no mistake, the Obamans are sitting on even more research that they will unfurl down the road.” It’s no wonder Republicans are complaining.
It has been suggested that the attacks on Romney hearken back to the brilliantly ruthless blows to John McCain in 2008. There’s a similarly thrilling element to them I admit, but overall 2012 just doesn’t feel much like 2008. What I remember most about 2008 was how much fun the general election was. It was fun to watch Obama lay into the dumb, shopworn arguments of McCain, and he seemed to be having fun doing it. Obama’s being barely able to restrain his laughter while mocking Phil Gramm’s “nation of whiners” complaints (ironically, a whine in and of itself) was just the best moment of the campaign for me. To have someone out there saying all the things that you’d been thinking for eight long years, and doing it in a way that didn’t suggest bitterness but rather optimism, was really just this amazing thing. There was nothing like it.
This election is just very, very different. The ruthlessness is still there, but it doesn’t feel the same. There’s just an overwhelming grimness about the whole thing, even though Obama is again saying a lot of things that are, from a progressive perspective, correct and undersaid. But nobody’s having much fun this time. Obama isn’t cracking up while mocking Romney surrogates, his party isn’t jubilant over the prospect of massive change (because the prospect isn’t there, except for an entitlement-shredding “grand bargain” that I don’t even want to think about). But ultimately this isn’t anything new–with the onset of the financial crisis, suddenly the whole situation took on a different air. Obama’s inauguration speech was famously sober and grim, no doubt because he was just becoming aware of how much shit we were in. I’m convinced at this point that the financial-then-economic crisis was what led to Obama’s self-consciously serious and dour attitude during much of the first term, and also what was behind his insistence on working with Republicans. Because, after all, the country comes together during a crisis, don’t we? Like after 9/11 (for like two months). One can understand his Administration’s early, cool disposition toward the left through this lens–don’t these folks realize that we’re in a crisis, and this is no time for politics? To which the general response was, tell that to Republicans. Obama’s self-presentation was what he thought the country wanted to see, but I think it was not that great for morale.
Neither was the crappy economy, of course, and that probably has a lot more to do with setting the nation’s mood than anything else. Just something I was thinking about today.
I’m struggling to come up with anything new to say about this month’s jobs report. Ezra Klein has some pretty solid facts here. It’s pretty bad. But we’ve seen this already, haven’t we? There’ll be a few months of good job numbers, and everyone starts to get euphoric about the recovery. Then it falls off and everyone starts talking double-dip, until hiring picks up a few months later. We’ve only seen this cycle about a half-dozen times over the past three years, and it seems clear to me that the economy is not weak enough to falter completely, but not strong enough to rebound fully. Eventually I figure we’ll lurch back into normal territory, in a few more years.
What’s interesting about this report is that it’s already seen a few of the more stalwart Obama defenders buckling just a bit. I don’t really have anything against Obama loyalists, used to qualify as one myself, but I think Zandar misunderstands the nature of the situation when he recommends that Obama go the full Krugman. He can’t do this for the same reason he can’t bash the banks, can’t bash the insurance companies or the drug companies, can’t bash the Republicans for ruining the economy. Because he collaborated with all those groups on crafting major policy. If Obama had tried to attach some strings to the blank check Bush and Paulson wrote to the banks, if he had made FinReg a nonnegotiable part of the process, if he’d ignored Tim Geithner, that Tribune of the Upper Classes, then he could legitimately campaign against the banks this year, saying he had refused to accept a bailout without strings attached. But he didn’t do any of those things–he listened to Geithner, who was panicked that even the slightest move against the banks would crash the global financial system. You sort of get why the banks gave him the job running the New York Fed. If Obama pivots from that philosophy to a virulently anti-bank one, he’d look phonier than Mitt Romney. Similarly, Obama can’t talk about how his health reform is the worst nightmare to the drug companies because he included them in the negotiations (the insurers, of course, dropped out late in the process, after having some significant input). Obama has had considerable difficulty in selling his policies to the public because of the process that made them–he can’t just lie about what he did, as he’s not Romney and thus can’t get away with it–so he has to sell them almost entirely on a positive basis, something which is not only inherently harder to do in our media age where pithy attacks are absorbed so much more easily, because Obama can’t tap into the currents of anger and revulsion that the public has toward these industries, currents which drove the reform push to begin with. To do so would ring false. Obama has spent most of 2010, 2011 and bits of 2012 fixated on the deficit and debt rather than growth and employment, this is hard to dispute. He enacted the Budget Control Act after the agonizing debt ceiling imbroglio, a document which couldn’t have been more clear in terms of what Obama thought ought to be the priority in a time of economic crisis: short-term deficits. I don’t see the basis for a pivot toward Krugmanomics here, because Obama simply hasn’t governed in a way that paid more than lip service to the sorts of ideas that Krugman believes in. Even the stimulus was weakened by a bunch of nonstimulative tax cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax patch, and so on. How you play the game does matter. In each of these instances, Obama ignored the existing crosscurrents of public opinion on the issues, and the cost of that has been that activists have been irritated and that the public doesn’t understand the bills, or see the point to many of them.
I think this is a big part of why I’ve felt let down by Obama as a leader for a while now. I don’t think he’s been worse than Bush, that’s silly. And in some areas, his record has been great, even inspiring. What I’ve been hearing from him over the past eight months or so has been much better than before, and has been backed up with some solid action, too. But in addition to all this the simple fact is, he called it wrong on the economy. Took his eye off the ball and went for what he thought would be an easier time on the deficit, despite the history of the politics of the issue over the past 22 years. I know, he signed the stimulus, and that helped. But it wasn’t enough, and it got watered down anyway. It did pass smoothly, but the next stimulus wouldn’t have passed as smoothly, so Obama didn’t bother. That is now normal politicians work. But leaders are supposed to push hard when they need to, to do the more difficult thing when doing anything less won’t cut it. Obama did this on health care, to a point. But on the economy, at a point where he had a supermajority in the Senate and a big House majority, it didn’t happen. And I don’t really think that today’s jobs report changes any of this logic.
Jon Chait, contrary to other voices, insists that the president does in fact have a re-election theme:
The fact that high-information voters like Edward Luce and Paul Krugman seem unaware of it suggests that Obama might need to hit the theme a little harder. But the theme is “We Can’t Wait.” Charlie Savage reports that Obama actually came up with the slogan himself in a staff meeting. The idea is that Republicans are blocking any action to help bolster the economy, and so Obama is going ahead himself, either taking whatever unilateral actions are available, or demanding that Congress act (and thereby exposing them to blame when they inevitably refuse).
Obama has been rolling out pieces of the “We Can’t Wait” agenda for several months now. Today, he’s demanding Congress acts to keep student loans from rising. He met with success with his campaign to extend the payroll-tax holiday and some of the unilateral parts, like his recess appointment of Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The list of items on Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” agenda is pretty long. Many of the items amount to Keynesian stimulus spending, but defining these proposals in specific terms — infrastructure spending, hiring back laid-off teachers and cops — frees them from the general animus against spending.
This is true and well-taken. But if this is actually The Theme For 2012, I think there are a few issues. Mainly, while I think that this is a good way of distancing Obama from a do-nothing Congress, it’s actually not a very good argument for Obama, since Obama is one of the waitingest presidents we’ve ever had. This is not a criticism–indeed, this strategy has been indispensable to some of Obama’s greatest triumphs. It’s possible to imagine a much quicker Iraq withdrawal, but it’s hard to imagine one as graceful and final. And on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, Obama’s patience paid off brilliantly, cementing a signature political win in such a way that the issue is now completely dead, with only a shrinking handful of deadenders even inclined to bother with it. But there were also some issues where waiting was absolutely not a good idea. Health care comes immediately to mind, and the president’s patience on our Afghanistan mission turned out to be misguided. It now seems apparent that leaving rapidly would probably have been the better overall move, and that Obama shouldn’t have waited.
However, the biggest reason, and the one why it would be positively nuts for Obama to make “We Can’t Wait” into a slogan in a contest versus Romney, is the economy. On no other issue has the Obama Administration contented itself to simply wait and see how its policies played out, again and again, rather than continually pushing new arguments, ideas and bills. Admittedly, this isn’t why the economy has stayed poor for so long–part of it is simply the natural cycle of financial crisis recoveries, part of it is a situation vastly worse than decisionmakers anticipated in early 2009–but simply put, Obama has rarely given the appearance of someone singlemindedly focused on the economy (because he wasn’t), nor of someone who did everything he could to fix it. I generally give the Administration some slack on the economic decisions they made in early 2009 because, while an extra $100bn of stimulus or a stand against banker bonuses might have helped at the margins, it wouldn’t have dramatically altered the situation. The team got quite those questions broadly right and after a point it becomes about splitting hairs. But what is less excusable is how quickly the Administration stopped paying attention to the economy as its main legislative concern (this occurred some time before Scott Brown’s 2010 election), presuming it was improving rather than hammering at it until it was proven to be better. This is a complicated debate, for sure, but what isn’t complicated is that Romney could easily say something to the effect of, “President Obama says we can’t wait to implement all his new wasteful spending, but apparently when it came to the economy, he had all the time in the world to wait.” This would, unlike the vast majority of Romney’s attacks on Obama, have some element of truth to it. Which is why it’s not the best weapon to bring to this particular fight.
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