Sympathy for Obama

Perhaps this is just part of the natural cycle of gearing up to vote for him, despite everything, this November, but lately I have become much more sympathetic toward Obama. It’s customary in some quarters to view him as squandering the unprecedented mandate for radical change, etc., but I don’t think anyone is really taking seriously the extent to which our political system is designed from the ground up to make sure that mandates for radical change are squandered.

This isn’t some big secret — it’s what Americans learn in high school civics. The Founders, in their infinite wisdom, designed the system to be as unwieldy as possible, with as many bottlenecks as possible. The Senate has recently added another one, but purely procedural nonsense like the fillibuster has been a common feature of American political life throughout history (sometimes in the House, sometimes in the Senate). The fact is that we have two self-governing legislative bodies that must be brought into harmony in order to get anything done, and one of them is designed to be less responsive to popular pressure. The president does not have the power to change the procedural rules in either house of Congress.

But he’s the leader of his party, you might object. That would be a very effective objection if the American political system was designed to have strong parties, but it was, again, designed to thwart them. Obama is not dictator of the Democrats — especially when it comes to upper-level people like Senators, they’ve all assembled their own mini-coalition and come to power in a more or less entrepreneurial way. The Democratic National Committee does not select candidates in a top-down fashion. Instead, candidates self-select to run in the Democratic primary, which may or may not be limited to registered Democrats. And in the case of the Democrats, a lot of those candidates have self-selected to be “the reasonable person in the room who will be an independent voice and restrain liberal excesses,” etc., etc. Presumably “we” could run primary challenges against these centrists, but the track record for that is pretty poor — even a successful primary challenge was unable to dislodge Joe Lieberman.

But the Republicans are a more coherent party, you might object. Yes, and the last couple years have been a great example of how the system just breaks down when one party starts acting like a traditional, disciplined parliamentary party. The system wasn’t designed to have parties at all, if you’ll recall, and our current two-party system is an awkward overlay. Due to the nature of the constitutional system, divided government is more or less inevitable every once in a while, so that the two parties have to work together to get even the most basic things done (budgets, routine increases in the debt ceiling, etc.).

And don’t even get me started about how our unwieldy system of semi-autonomous states and municipalities was bound to screw up the stimulus — unless the federal government basically took over state and municipal finances indefinitely, which I’m not sure is either legal or feasible.

I’m not saying that Obama didn’t make mistakes or that he shouldn’t have tried for more. In fact, there are areas where he basically has a free hand that he’s done terribly at — I’m appalled at the drone warfare and the “war on terror” claims of executive power, and they seem to have actively undermined the effort to bring relief to underwater mortgages. But it seems to me that the kind of counterfactuals that people are gaming out basically would’ve required either a constitutional convention or a radical reworking of what an American political party is — or a coup.

Short of that, it seems that he exerted all the pressure he reasonably could within the system we have. At every step, he was as attentive as possible to the weirdness of the system, starting with the primaries. He pushed the discipline of the Democratic party as far as he could, for instance by naming as his point-man the guy to whom the younger and more centrist Democrats owed their jobs (Rahm Emanuel). He was willing to pay people off if necessary — remember when Ben Nelson demanded a special exemption for Nebraska from one of the provisions of health care reform? He was willing to exploit procedural loopholes when possible, as in using reconciliation to pass the health care reform bill (retrospectively making his odd insistence on making it deficit-reducing seem like a pretty good idea). And it seems like all the things that he could’ve done unilaterally would have just increased the executive power grab that, as I recall, we were all opposed to when Bush was president.

Again, this is not to say that Obama has turned out to be what I hoped for, nor that he hasn’t made any unforced errors — but it seems to me that any plausible counterfactual would be a more or less marginal change, nothing on the scale of single-payer healthcare or a coherent nation-wide public works program. Personally, I find it profoundly depressing that Obama is probably the best our political system can produce as things stand. But that’s how things seem to be, and I don’t know how we could make them better.

19 thoughts on “Sympathy for Obama

  1. Unfortunately this apology doesn’t account for things like the much-vaunted “deficit turn,” which Obama took completely voluntarily despite it being both factually wrong and destructive of his own chances for reelection. Or his wildly increased immigration enforcement. Etc. He has frequently made policy choices that cater to the right while getting nothing in return, while giving his own base nothing to work with.

    What you say about US government institutions is obviously true, but it was just as obvious in 2009 how this was all going to go. He should have gone to war with the GOP as soon as it was clear they were trying to torpedo the stimulus. Nuclear option the filibuster, pass everything you can in the two years before the 2010 midterms, exec order the rest, and hope the results are good enough for the voters.

    It was abundantly clear the GOP had toxifed, and that no compromise would ever be possible. The time to go to war was when they were on the mat; instead, he helped them up…

  2. Frankly, there’s a lot he could have done to be less shitty. He’s Nixon going to China. Though, for all that, he is possibily the best the Democratic could likely produce. Which is no reason to vote for him.

  3. Yeah I basically just think you are wrong. I don’t think counterfactuals are the best way to judge a president, anyway. I wasn’t expecting him to dismantle capitalism. However, the things he’s done via executive fiat put him in the running for worst president ever, and I’m mainly thinking of drone warfare, the crackdown on whistleblowers and the general expansion of executive power and secrecy surrounding it. He actively willed all of these things, when he easily could have done otherwise, and it’s a virtual lock that these chickens are coming home to roost when we inevitably elect someone crazy. I have no sympathy whatsoever, and I think your rationale for it is something of a moral failure. I had incredibly low expectations for Obama, as I would for any American president, but he’s basically doubled down on some of the worst reactionary right wing policies acting unilaterally as the executive.

  4. You make an argument, if it fails, then it’s on Congress. But he’s basically a reactionary himself, so there’s no need to worry about what Congress might or might not have done in the face of anything.

  5. What that question reveals, I think, is a desire to disperse blame to “forces” rather than locate it in a single flawed individual. My advisor and I have vague plans to write a “death of the politician” piece on this subject, arguing that what matters is not the president as a concrete indivual but the president-function, which registers all the various forces and countervailing forces within a given administration. So if we use “Obama” as the shorthand name for all the actors within the Obama administration, the question of whether it’s personally HIS fault as an individual subject or the 50th Democrat’s fault becomes moot; the point is the Obama-function blew the mission by choosing a wildly insufficient legislative strategy.

  6. It’s not a great insight to think we may have reached the end of the modern liberal-democratic market state’s capacity to solve the problems it creates. Perhaps instead of choosing the best it can produce, we should in the next several election cycles vote for the worst it can produce in the hopes that its eventual, inevitable collapse will be hastened.

  7. But maybe I’m not reading enough irony here. Clear referrent for “sympathy for Obama” = “sympathy for the devil”?

  8. “He’s Nixon going to China.”

    I understand the analogy but I like think of my achievement as a positive one. I think everyone would agree at any rate that it’s nice to have a reliable financier in troubled times.

    Franklin Roosevelt was enabled by the Great Depression. This was not a revolutionary man; he was presented a crisis and he took advantage of it to move well beyond what the Democratic politics of the day prescribed.

    Lyndon Johnson was not a stalwart liberal. The shock of the Kennedy assassination made the nation more malleable and propelled him into a position, and into a frame of mind, where he felt compelled to complete and expand upon the Kennedy agenda. He stands now as the last great liberal Democratic president.

    President Obama entered office amid a crisis, as a Democratic politician with positions to the right of mine on many important issues. He moved further right. He’s striking a thinly populist note now, in a climate where populism can’t possibly be reflected by action in the legislature, but one can’t help thinking he will continue his rightward tack should he win.

    You should all give some serious consideration to supporting my campaign as the first Undead-American candidate for President.

  9. You might also note that in the case of both FDR and LBJ, there was an actual-existing alternative to capitalism, however inadequate it turns out to have been in retrospect.

    I wonder what would’ve happened if Obama had taken the aggressive line Gerry recommends. The whiny centrists still would’ve held the balance of power in the Senate and would’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to position themselves as the reasonable advocates of bipartisanship, etc. Failing Stalinist purges of the Democratic party, what exactly are you going to do?

  10. The behavior of the banks and Wall Street provided an extraordinary opportunity to use those institutions and their leaders as foils for a progressive/populist agenda. Low-hanging fruit, slow-moving targets, legislative supporters of whom could be easily painted as on the wrong side of fairness, justice, humanity and history. Remember how angry people were?

    President Obama was incapable of taking advantage of the opportunity not because he didn’t have the skills to do it, but because he simply doesn’t support many of the things that people who identify themselves as progressives support. Relatively few people seemed to notice, but Candidate Obama campaigned as what he is: a conservative, corporate, conciliatory and hawkish Democrat.

    Modern Democrats, including many erstwhile liberals, have taken the wrong lessons from a series of traumatic beat-downs beginning with my election to office. They are embarrassed and somewhat repelled by passion and anger. Among the traits most admired by President Obama’s supporters is his “cool.” He could not have been effective, we’re told, had he behaved as an Angry Black Man.

    But who would the Angry Black Man have alienated? Republicans? The racists swarming out of the shadows during the past several years? Could they have been more in opposition than they were from the instant the polls closed in 2008?

    Of course not. Angry or cool, in the minds of the reactionaries President Obama would still have been the Muslim Socialist Communist Fascist Kenyan Black Supremacist Anti-colonialist Impostor that he has been all along. The Angry Black Man would have offended and frightened the timid liberal, the beaten-down centrist. Never mind that Angry Black Men, Angry Women, Angry Workers, the Angry Left, are the inevitable engines of what progress the country makes.

    Though it’s me as says it, the country really could have used an Angry Black Man, of whatever color.

    Nixon 2012, ladies and gents. Nixon Rising.

  11. Tell that to the wives of the cousins of the friends of Anwar Awlaki’s first-born.

    (I haven’t been here long, but if this “gearing up to vote for him” is more than poetic license, I’ll have to consider packing up for redder shores.)

  12. I know there’s not a huge difference between Romney and Obama, but I’m not going to pretend there’s no difference at all (especially in terms of the kinds of infrastructure investment that Chicago needs to make). Given that it takes ten minutes of my time, it seems worth it to register my preference — you know, since they’re asking. I also feel I should support the Chicago Democrats, since I appreciate their totalitarian instincts.

  13. All that being said, look at the other world leaders everybody else has got. Compared to Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Putin, Harper, Gordon Brown……Obama looks great next to that crew of midgets, crooks and weirdos. And he looks to be in (reasonably) good standing compared to the US Democratic presidents of the past, too – he’s done better than Clinton or Carter or JFK did, so he’s bumping against LBJ or Truman. Which are reasonably successful shoes to fill, if still inadequate.

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