Dylan Matthews had a Wonkblog post that basically said Americans think John F. Kennedy was one of our geatests presidents. He wasn’t. I took issue with his opinion based upon his objective measure of his accomplishments in an email he will never read. Basically my point was that he had all his facts correct, but his conclusion missed the real greatness. That geatness was his leadership that got us all thinking of the big things this country could do and our hope for the futue. The accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson were achieved in a America that was still basking in the afterglow of Kennedy’s vision of hope, greatness, and doing the hard things because sacrifice is our duty.
Well you can agree or disagree with me on this one, but when I apply that same measure to President Obama, he comes up lacking. Let me be clear, I don’t think the only measure of a President is by the legislative success he has had, but how he changed the course of the nation’s thinking so that real change could occur in the future. So let’s evaluate what President Obama really accomplished against that measure.
Let’s start with 2009 and the financial/banking crisis. Here was a real chance to change the whole dynamic of the financial markets and what happened was that all the usual suspects were brought in to advise, and what we have today is way way too big to fail. The banks are bigger. We solved nothing. So what happened? I don’t think he had a vision or understanding of what was wrong and how we got here. So he called in the status quo to restore the status quo, not with a look to the future, but with a backward glance at the past. While banks got bailed out, home owners got left holding the bag (and still are). And the real problem, economic inequality never got addressed.
Now comes the stimulus and restarting our economy. One can argue that faced with the Republican opposition, he got what he could get, which we now know was clearly way too small and some economists at the time were telling us just that. But his failure of leadership here was not in getting what he could get, but in selling to the American people that that is all that was needed. Had he change the argument to it is too small, but it is all I can get now, the playing field would be different today in that we would be poised to push for more stimulus and not have the sequester. So what happened?
Well, what happened is what will be a theme here, there is no there there. It is clear, and will be repeated in this analysis, President Obama doesn’t seem to have a well thought out economic policy approach. He gathered flatland economists around him who have shunned Keynes and went with their consensus opinion. There were economists out there warning that this was too little, but he bought into the conservative, looking backward (just not far enough backward to the Great Depression) and trying to restore the status quo. He seems to think that the experts that got us to where we were, had the best solutions for the future, without his own vision of the future and how to get there.
Next up is healthcare reform. And once again, he seems to have no vision for where we want to go. Instead he choses a consensus approach (Romney Care) that is a market based approach the Republicans might buy. He is underestimating Republican hatred of him. Now once again one could accuately argue that this is what was politically possible. But there was a moment when he could pushed for an option for Medicare for everyone. He could have said let’s see if the market place can compete with that. But he let the progressives in Congress die on their swords instead of at least giving us a vision of the future. He is looking for a consensus solution, not the optimal solution. I don’t think he has a vision of the optimal solution.
Now we get the real ball drop that defines the rest of his Presidency, the pivot from jobs to the debt. The Republicans framed the economy’s problems in government spending and debt. The framing is wrong, the debt solutions are counterproductive, yet he pivoted to their framing and we are stuck in a never ending cycle of cuts with Republicans wanting big ones, and Democrats fighting for damage control. So what happened? This one is the same problem, he has no basic economic philosophy that will allow him to see that this is the wrong solution. All of what Paul Krugman calls Very Serious People (VSP) are repeating the debt mantra, not based on an economic model or data, and Barack is held in their sway.
This becomes even more evident when he starts looking for the grand bargain with all the wrong solutions, including cutting entitlements. His offering up of the chained CPI told you everything you need to know about his buy-in to the Republican framing of the problem. There is a movement now in both houses of the Congress (Democrats of course) to raise Social Secuity benefits recognizing the changed circumstances in our country in regard to pensions and personal savings for the 99%. It is called leadership and what President Obama lacks. A vision for our future. He was saved from his giant mistake (The Grand Bargain) by intransigent Republicans who refuse to do a deal with him even if it was a win for them. Then we get the Sequester which is austerity on steroids which everybody now sees as a huge mistake.
Okay, once again, you can argue that nobody thought the Republicans would actually stand for those severe cuts even to the Defense Department. I would argue that is another failure of leadership to not understand who the Republican Party has become and how much they hate anything that might help the country and make President Obama look effective.
Next up are drone strikes and the massive surveilance state we have constructed. Here we have a “Constitutional professor” authorizing drone strikes and the largest expansion of domestic surveilance in our history. So what happened? Well, once again, no there there. The military and the CIA were loving the success they were having with drones. The counter argument that collaterial damage was creating a greater threat than the removal of high level terrorists was not part of the VSP discussion. Nor was the respect for our constitutional protections and underlying philosophy when it comes to terrorism being examined. Some reporting indicates that the Obama Administration is again late to the party to even recognize the collaterial damage. So he went with the military because he has no real experience with them, just like his surge in Afghanistan that accomplished nothing, it was not thought through (Note, I can argue that our plan to stay in Afghanistan is just as mindless).
On the surveilance thing, first we would not know about it without Edward Snowden so let’s hunt him down like a dog and crush him under our boot of justice. Second, when thoughtful Americans who understand the need for heightened surveillance, asked for more visibility to the FISA court decisions, President Obama assured us there was oversight. By whom exactly if not by the people? Trust me? There is a whole level of no there there is this attitude. I could also attack his failure to go after the torturers and expose the whole sordid mess in the Bush Administration, but we are looking forward, not backward, so sometime in the future this will happen again as Republicans reinvent history.
Now this will be where someone will bring up the banishment of Don’t Ask, Don’t, and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage act, but that was not leadership. It was happening all arould him and he was late to even recognize same sex marriage. It was the courts and the states that were showing leadership and he just saw the flow (unlike Republicans) and went with it.
So we are where we are today and I wonder, what is the plan? The Senate, also very late to the party, has done away with the filibuster for judicial nominees and executive appointments so where are the meetings with Democrats and the White House to see what we can get done? Where is the combined campaign and strategic plan? President Obama does not seem to be a detail guy and the devil really is in the details. Like Obamacae website rollout, if it is important you have to be on top of it. He leaves the details to others and again it is a reflection of no there, there.
So I will just sum this up like this. I think President Obama faced incredible challenges as the first black president. He is smart, well meaning man who came to the White House without a clear agenda except to get both sides to work together and in those compromises would be good policy. Not only was the assumption that out of compromise we get good policy wrong, but the idea that this new Republican Party would work with him was terribly flawed and was late to recognize both. I think he now understands the nature of Republicans, but without a there there, he is very late to the party of staking out our new direction. That was his fatal flaw. I am not sure he knows what that direction is with the confidence to fight for it as his most important legacy. He is getting better, but I think the American people are getting it as they are starting to become more populist. Maybe he can tag along.