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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/6/11

Jonathan Chait's case for Obama

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I guess what really annoys me about the last paragraph in Jonathan Chait's "What the Left Doesn't Understand About Obama" (Sep 2), is that the piece as a whole reminds me of how my brother-in-law described Colin Powell's 2003 speech at the UN, warning us all of Iraq's mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction. He told me that "Yeah, it was real convincing, provided of course, that you had no prior knowledge of the debate and had no knowledge of the issues. Other than that, yeah, it was really persuasive."

Chait's final paragraph was:

Liberal critics of Obama, just like conservative critics of Republican presidents, generally want both maximal partisan conflict and maximal legislative achievement. In the real world, those two things are often at odds. Hence the allure of magical thinking.

This might be convincing if President Obama had truly "left everything on the road," had he truly made a genuinely maximal effort to achieve the goals he said he was committed to. "Liberal critics" were very much aware that the legislative option of "reconciliation" was available for passing the Affordable Care Act in the Senate, meaning that it was completely unnecessary to have a supermajority of 60 Senators to bypass the Senate's filibuster rule (The House operated by plain old majority rule, so there was no need for any bypassing there). The filibuster is, by the way, nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. Chait's statement:

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.

But that's a rather bizarre observation, considering that reconciliation was used after the Senate passed the Affordable Care Act, but before it went to the House for final passage of various fixes. It simply wasn't necessary for Obama and his people to permit the Blue Dog Democrats to act as though they had veto power over what went into, and what got thrown out of, the bill. Sure, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) was a terrible fellow for getting the public option deleted from the ACA, but Speaker Pelosi made it clear that, although she was in favor of re-introducing it "...the Obama administration [had] shown no interest in the public option over the past year."

Yes, President George W. Bush conducted a PR campaign to gut Social Security and feed it to the sharks of Wall Street, but I paid pretty close attention to the 2004 campaign for Bush's re-election, but after that campaign and vote, the introduction of his plans concerning Social Security came as a complete surprise to me. Bush had successfully convinced America that Senator John Kerry (D-MA) couldn't be trusted to be our President, but that's pretty much all that the 2004 campaign was about. It was also clear that Bush wanted to continue the Iraq War and that Kerry was a bit less enthusiastic about that, but Social Security was simply never an issue in the campaign. So yes,

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.

But this episode says absolutely nothing about the filibuster and nothing about the ability of Presidents to force Congress to do as they urge it to do through PR campaigns. If Bush had a mandate, if he was describing reality by saying "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style." then yes, one could draw conclusions about how effective it is to barnstorm the country on a PR campaign. But a far better example would be Harry Truman's Whistle-Stop Tour, where he reminded the public what the Democratic Party stood for:

I'm asking you just to read history, to use your own judgment, and to decide whether you want to go forward with the Democratic Party or whether you want to turn the clock back to the horse and buggy days with such people that made up that "do-nothing" 80th Congress.

That Congress tried its level best to take all the rights away from labor. That Congress tried its level best to put the farmer back to 1932. That Congress tried its level best to put small business out of business. For what purpose? To help the big interests which they represented.

Note that Truman was successful precisely because he wasn't trying to ram through a deeply unpopular proposal. He was, instead, reminding people of what they already liked about the Democratic Party. Sorry Chait, but if Obama tours the country, advocating a jobs program, then I think Obama's job would be far more similar to Truman's tour than to Bush's.

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."

Nothing the slightest bit "odd" about it. Historically, a high unemployment rate has doomed presidential re-election chances. Getting Americans back to work was and remains a top-of-the-line political priority.

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.

Sorry, but I saw that in early 2009 and continue to see it today as an extremely poor strategic choice. That political capital did Obama no good whatsoever in passing the ACA and winning over "moderate" Republicans (Whose voting records tend to be indistinguishable from their more hard-line colleagues in any event) has been a complete bust. Obama saved his political capital for nothing.

But by far the most serious problem, as the economist Brad DeLong points out, was that Obama pivoted to deficit reduction far, far too early. Appointing the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission (Progressives popularly refer to it as the "Catfood Commission" and it's second iteration, the "super committee" created by the debt-limit deal, as "Catfood Commission II") was a true stinker of an idea that, among many other problems, made it politically impossible to ask Congress for another stimulus without the Obama Administration appearing to be a bunch of incompetents. This was an entirely unforced error that has severely hamstrung the Obama Administration, turned them away from their own best interests and aided and abetted their political opposition by making it appear that their favorite issue since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, deficit reduction, was more important than putting people back to work, addressing Global Warming or addressing Peak Oil. All three of these issues are many, many times more important than deficit reduction is, was or ever will be.

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PN3(Ret), USN, 1991-2001. Done a number of clerical-type jobs. Computer "power user," my desktop is a Windows machine, but my laptop is an Ubuntu Linux. Articles usually cross-posted at Personal details at (more...)
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