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On Presidential Power Yet Again


It won’t surprise most readers to know that my reactions to some of the responses to Corey Robin’s informal roundtable are pretty similar to Matt’s.    The idea that there’s not really any difference between Obama and Bush is only true to the extent that it’s not relevant to American electoral politics — yes, the Democratic Party is not (and has never been) a party of the left in a broad sense, and yet I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it actually matters that the New Deal and the Great Society were enacted.   So while I agree with much of the criticism of Obama in one sense I also don’t have any sense of disillusionment, and I’m not sure what some people expected.   The fact is that Obama is the second most progressive president since FDR*, and FDR wasn’t significantly more progressive — however much people like to quote the “I welcome their hatred” line, the key pillars of the New Deal were both skeletal half-a-loaf compromises and thoroughly racist.   And the contemporary equivalent of the “there’s no difference between Obama and Irving Kristol” crowd also thought LBJ (the one clearly more progressive president) was unacceptable.   FDR even embraced austerity (granting that this was more forgivable in 1937 than in 2011.)   In addition, while Obama deserves every bit of criticism he gets for his civil liberties record (an area much more under his discretion than most domestic policy) it’s also worth noting that this is what was going to happen because there’s essentially no political constituency for civil liberties.    To engage in some sad comparisons, whose record is better?  Clinton, definitely not. LBJ, hard to make the case.   Saint Roosevelt was infinitely worse.

To add one more point, Adolph Reed and several others are of course right about Obama’s anti-empirical commitment to “reasonableness” despite the lack of any partner willing to play the game.   What remains unclear to me is how much difference a more clear-eyed approach would make in terms of policy outcomes.    Whatever you can say about George W. Bush, you can’t accuse him of being adverse to going on the offensive, and yet his the domestic policies that passed under his watch consisted of 1)policies that united his party and didn’t require Democratic votes, and 2)policies that involved substantial policy compromises.    For all of his toughness, his second term resulted in no legislation of central importance to his agenda passing.    We don’t know if a better debt ceiling deal would have been possible had Obama not pre-emptively folded, and Obama doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt because he prevents us from assessing the counterfactual.    But as long as Republicans control the House, any improvements were going to be marginal.   There’s no set of strategic tools that can allow the president to do things on domestic policy that the median votes in Congress are strongly opposed to.

To be clear, none of these means that Obama should be exempt from extensive criticism.    But I think it’s worth keeping some perspective.

*And no, I don’t go along with the fashionable, too-clever-by-half assertions that Nixon was more progressive, which are ahistorical.   Yes, since Nixon didn’t care much about domestic policy, he was willing to acquiesce in good legislation passed by a liberal Congress, just as he would have been willing to collaborate with legislation passed by Newt Gingrich had he been president then.    The fact remains that Obama is to the left of the median votes in the Senate and House (and is now way to the left of the median vote in the House); Nixon wasn’t.   And however disappointed one might be in Elena Kagan, she ain’t William Rehnquist.

…I agree with this: while the extent of FDR’s leftism has been greatly exaggerated, in terms of audacity and innovation he certainly runs circles around Obama.

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  • Epicurus

    Thanks for this post, Scott. A lot of cogent thinking and facts here; won’t make any impression on the TPers, but I think you have it exactly right. It seems that many think that the Presidency is a royal office; sadly, not in our system. While I agree that the President has not been as forceful as he might have been, like me, he understands that the Constitution demands compromise. It’s “baked in.” Unfortunately, it also seems that the GOP chooses to ignore the parts of the document that don’t suit their world view. E.g., 10th and 2nd Amendments good; 1st and 14th, not so much. Uhhh, guys, you don’t get to pick and choose which laws you want to follow. So, screw McConnell, Boehner and especially the loathesome Eric Cantor. They don’t believe in compromise, but they will find it very difficult to avoid in the end. 11-dimensional chess anyone?

  • c u n d gulag

    Thank you Scott for giving people some perspective.
    Too many times, the reflexive action of commenters in the left blogosphere is to put all of the blame on Obama and the Democrats.

    I left a comment at Digby’s yesterday, basically blasting a good chunk of the commenters there for their reflexive and unreflective negativity. I’m going to continue to read her and David Atkins, but I’ve had enough of the commenters there – and I’m no longer going to comment there after 7 years. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great commenters there, but trying to find the wheat amidst the chaff and troll shit was no longer worth the time and effort. (And yeah, I know – who gives a shit what I think!).

    Neither Obama nor the Whoreporatist Democrats in Congress have been a Liberals dream. I never expected him or them to be.
    I do think he got some remarkable things done considering the Congress that he had, and the Red Dogs (ain’t nothin’s blue ’bout ’em) on the Democratic side of the aisle.

    If we want our politicians to be more Liberal, then we need to find, nurture, and then work like dogs to get them elected. And that starts from the bottom up.

    Just sitting aroung and waiting for a Liberal President with a Progressive Congress will be like waiting for Godot.

    If ‘we are who we were looking for,’ then we need to get some more of us into office. Until then – status quo. That’s where the money is, and because of that, that’s where the votes are.

    We have under 15 months of work before the next election. I’ve started working on trying to revive a dead Democratic Party in the area where I live. Maybe it’s not ideal, but it’s a start.

    • soullite

      No, you left a comment being a total dick, declaring that everyone sucks but you, and that you’re the only person in the world capable of both running their mouth on the internet and working for real change in the real world.

      • c u n d gulag

        That’s not true. I never said people there werent involved, and it’s right at the beginning of the comment.

        Was I dick?
        Yeah, I guess I was. Because it’s the same thing every day – with no discussion – unless it’s some troll accusing you of being a Mormon, or some other freaky, and usually hurtful, but meaningless accusation.

        I didn’t accuse the people who I read there repeatedly by name doing that – mainly because, first, there’s no point, and second, there’ no moderator there that I’ve seen, and people steal people monikers all of the time.
        I can go over there right now and use ‘soullite’ and if people don’t know how to use “view details’ under the name, they don’t know whether it was you who used it for years, or some troll who stole it for a day or two.

        My main point was not accuse anyone of anything, but a call to some action, instead of sitting and kvetching.

        But you see what you want to see.
        But then, I guess we all do…

      • c u n d gulag

        That’s not true. I didn’t accuse everyone there – I even stated that in the first paragraph. And I’m sorry if I offended you. I didn’t mean to be either a dick, or to get on my ‘high horse’ as someone said. I got tired of the same shit being said every day, with little or no debate, and no ideas outside of complaining – unless that debate was accusing people of really stupid shit – which I was guilty of with the trolls there myself. Or someone writigt “THIRD PARTY!” in the comment, without any thought behind it.
        It was meant to be a call to action. If people got offended, well, I’m sorry. But I’d had enough.
        It was meant to motivate the kvetchers to do something instead of sit there and bitch to one another.
        Sorry if I hurt your feelings.

        Also, too, I felt the need to put in a few things I’ve done because I’ve seen how the comment string goes, and how truly nasty the trolls and “Purity Police” are there.

        Also, in the short time David Atkins has been there, it has been particularly vicious. I don’t like that shit, he and Digby don’t deserve it, and I don’t need it.
        There are other places, like here, or maha, and other sites, where I can read stuff and appreciate the thought that goes behind the writing, debate the writers, instead of some response like, “F-U MFing Obamabot, Democratic bitch’ accusations that are there all of the time. I should also add “Mormon whore” thrown into there for accuracy.

        And that’s why I will no longer take part in it.

        So, soullite, you won’t have to worry about me over there. And saying what I said, if you’re ever read me before, and the way I said it was not the norm for me.
        As I said, I’d had enough. I had just HAD ENOUGH!

        I don’t regret what I said for a second. I think it needed to be said on Digby’s site. The comment string there is one of the worst outside of FDL – and I can’t speak to that because I haven’t been there in a long while, and hopefully the don’t let trolls run wild like at Hullabaloo.

        And I’m a free speach advocate, but it’s the anti-religious, sexist shit that the trolls throw around there I won’t miss.

        Have a nice weekend, soullite. I always respected your comments.

      • Furious Jorge


        This is rich, coming from soullite.

      • Malaclypse

        No, you left a comment being a total dick…


        And it helps all of 2-5% of the population, none of which includes me. So forgive me if I don’t applaud other people’s lives being made better while mine gets turned into shit.

  • John

    I basically agree with the vast majority of this.

    Why are we supposed to be disappointed in Kagan, though?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Only in the very narrow sense that it was arguably a missed opportunity. Her performance has been fine, if anything better than expected (especially in terms of her opinion-writing.)

  • Walt

    Presidential power is limited, but Obama has neglected to use the powers he has. For example, he could have attempted to recess appoint members of the single most important economic actor in the US economy — the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Agreed with that, although it’s worth noting that this avenue has now been cut off, and likely would have been after the first recess appointment.

      • Steve LaBonne

        It hasn’t been cut off if one happens to have read Article 2 Section 3 of the Constitution. That’s a very non-magical power.

      • JRoth

        Cut off by what? For 2 years the Republicans had absolutely no power to prevent recesses. Who would have run pro forma sessions to stop Obama? Reid or Pelosi?

        Meanwhile, the Fed is an incredibly stupid oversight, but there’s absolutely no excuse for his dilatory approach to the judiciary. Next time you want to rave about how progressive Obama has been, remember that Bush appointees will be overruling Obama appointees 2:1 for the next 30 years, rolling back whatever progress he made.

        QB Obama may have scored some TDs for Team Progress, but then he sent out a 5 man defense. Doesn’t sound like a win to me.

        • Scott Lemieux

          I agree with you about Obama’s approach to nominations, but Obama is not getting nominations at a rate anywhere near that bad. And unlike the fed, recess appointments aren’t very effective for the federal courts.

  • All true. It is also true that there is zero chance of a successful left-wing primary challenger for 2012, and zero doubt that Obama’s re-election would be better for every progressive cause than a Romney win (not to mention the truly apocalyptic possibility of a Bachmann win). Left-wing grumbling MIGHT push the Overton Windo to the left, but it also might demoralize Democratic voters.

    Of course, people should call things as they see them, but the problem is (a) the median voter self-identifies as to the right of Obama (even if she tells pollsters that she has positions to the left of him on some things) and (b) the Republicans won the midterms handily.

    What’s worse though are the fantasies about “tough” unconstitutional executive action (which Obama has in practice confined to Libya). The House of Representatives has to approve taxes, spending and borrowing. If you don’t like it, try to elect a different House of Representatives.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      All true. It is also true that there is zero chance of a successful left-wing primary challenger for 2012, and zero doubt that Obama’s re-election would be better for every progressive cause than a Romney win (not to mention the truly apocalyptic possibility of a Bachmann win). Left-wing grumbling MIGHT push the Overton Windo to the left, but it also might demoralize Democratic voters.

      Let me reframe this (which I basically agree with…other than the last sentence): things simply won’t get substantially better in November 2012, though they may get worse. It’s important, when considering the 2012 elections, to make sure that they don’t get worse.

      On the other hand, those of us interested in actually making things better need, therefore, to put at least some of our energies right now into things other than the 2012 elections, i.e. various forms of non-electoral political organizing and action and producing better choices for 2016 (and beyond).

      • Hogan

        This. So this.

  • gmack

    And no, I don’t go along with the fashionable, too-clever-by-half assertions that Nixon was more progressive, which are ahistorical. Yes, since Nixon didn’t care much about domestic policy, he was willing to acquiesce in good legislation passed by a liberal Congress, just as he would have been willing to collaborate with legislation passed by Newt Gingrich had he been president then.

    I want to emphasize this point. In addition to stuff like the EPA, one of the things that often gets cited as an example of Nixon’s “progressivism” was his support of the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), which would have provided all Americans with a guaranteed basic income (it was basically a negative income tax, which like the EITC, is effectively a neo-liberal response to poverty; the goal was to enable more market participation). But it’s worth remembering, first, that this plan was originally floated by the liberal Milton Friedman; it also contained early (though less harsh) versions of many of the elements of 1996’s PRWORA, including requirements for single mothers to work, and various efforts to restore the “traditional family.” Finally, Nixon withdrew support for the plan as soon as it became politically expedient for him to do so. Thus, while it might have been a marginal improvement over the existing law (AFDC, established by the Social Security Act), and while it would have been better than the reforms ultimately enacted, it hardly represented the liberal or progressive option at the time (the more radical plan was floated by the National Welfare Rights Organization, but it ended up going nowhere).

    OK, I’ll get off my hobby-horse for now. Sorry for the potential thread-jack.

    • shah8

      His unilateral approach to affirmative action was the same way.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    I think the focus on Obama (and presidents in general) by critics and defenders alike manages to miss what’s wrong with our politics. There just aren’t that many presidents, so “who’s the most progressive among them?” may not tell us that much.

    The key to the real game here is buried in your last paragraph:

    Yes, since Nixon didn’t care much about domestic policy, he was willing to acquiesce in good legislation passed by a liberal Congress, just as he would have been willing to collaborate with legislation passed by Newt Gingrich had he been president then.

    Despite the continuing presence of some old-fashioned, boll weevils Democrats in Congress, those ’70s Congresses were, in fact, significantly more progressive even than the Democratic majority Congress we had in 2009-2010. Our politics is far more conservative than it was in the 1970s, and that has much to do with changes in _both_ political parties, in the structure of the US economy, and in the power that flows from it as a result.

    To the extent that people see Obama, and Obama alone, as the problem, I agree the criticism is largely misplaced. But, despite always being imperfect, the national Democratic Party was significantly more progressive in the past, especially on economic justice issues, than it is today. And the crude comparisons of presidential progressiveness obscure this important change.

    (I should also add that your characterization of Nixon’s apparent progressiveness is not exactly correct. It was not simply a matter of acquiescing to the wishes of the Democratic Congress. A lot of Nixon’s progressive policies were about pursuing a strategy of divide-and-conquer against the Democrats, e.g. embracing affirmative action as a way of wedging white, working class people away from racial minorities. Indeed some of Nixon’s progressive initiatives were designed in one way or another NOT to pass that liberal Congress, e.g. his healthcare initiative. Nixon didn’t care about domestic policy, but far from being simply acquiescent in the Democratic-controlled Congress’s desires, he used domestic policies as a tool of politics.)

    • Hogan

      I gather that the only domestic policy initiative that Nixon felt strongly about was the war on drugs.

  • i want to revisit the lbj point for a moment, especially since i’m old enough to remember!

    the issue at hand in 1968 was not that there wasn’t a dimes worth of difference between lbj and whomever the gop might nominate (although nixon was the favorite, reagan was also lurking, and indeed, the possibility of reagan snatching the nomination is what led to the single most important political moment of 1968, the codification of the southern strategy).

    the issue at hand was that there had to be accountability for the disaster of vietnam.

    (as a side note, i have always believed that had humphrey, in december, 1967, resigned the vice presidency on the grounds that vietnam was a policy fiasco that he could no longer defend and had he been the minnesotan who challenged lbj, we all could have lived much happily ever after, since i do believe under those circumstances he could have won.)

    • c u n d gulag

      Interesting, I’d never heard that idea about Humphrey before.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      But would he have gotten the nomination under those circumstances?

      The one part of the party that stuck with Humphrey through thick and thin was organized labor. And the leadership of the AFL-CIO was very pro-war.

      So while I agree that an anti-war HHH could have won in November 1968, an anti-war HHH probably couldn’t have received the nomination in Chicago.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        I should add that the issue is not just organized labor, but President Johnson himself, who still had enormous pull within the party (which had, of course, not gone through the democratizing reforms that followed after ’68). If HHH had screwed LBJ in December 1967 as howard wishes he had, LBJ would have done everything in his power to crush HHH.

        • John

          Yeah, I agree. There’s no way Humphrey would have gotten the nomination if he’d broken with Johnson.

    • Ed

      If HHH had resigned LBJ would have squashed him like a bug, but it may be worth noting that he did better on the Presidential campaign trail once he began seriously distancing himself from LBJ and the war. Had he done that sooner and more forcefully once he had the nomination in hand, perhaps things might have been different. But Humphrey had gotten kicked around a lot, first by the Kennedys when he was running against JFK in the primaries and then by LBJ. Wasn’t the same man by ’68, I think.

      I agree with Incontinentia that the Who Was the Most Progressive President comparisons are on the crude side and don’t tell us much.

      • c u n d gulag

        Left unsaid is RFK and what might have been had Sirhan Sirhan not gotten a gun, or been allowed into the kitchen at the hotel.

        I’m pretty sure though, there might have been a back-up plan to get him.

        • efgoldman

          Left unsaid is RFK and what might have been had Sirhan Sirhan not gotten a gun

          Yup. The greatest counterfactual of all.
          I don’t believe in your second sentence, however.
          1968 was my first eligible presidential election.

        • RFK was the main instigator in JFK’s administration. While I love and admire the man, I don’t for one second believe he would have been any more, or less, a liberal than his brother.

          Which is not saying as much as it could.

          • howard

            actor212, i missed this earlier: the rfk of 1968 was not the rfk of the jfk administration: he had ideologically evolved leftward….

            • Ed

              Robert Kennedy had indeed changed a great deal and he was trying a difficult juggling act in ’68: wooing the kids who’d gone with McCarthy and also staying with the party bosses like Daley who represented traditional Democratic constituencies, hence Kennedy’s emphasis on law ‘n’ order – rather Clintonish in some respects. Even had he lived he might not have pulled it off.

        • Mike Timonin

          Jeff Greenburg – Then Everything Changed – a very nice collection of counterfactuals, including one which ponders what would have happened if RFK had not been shot. IIRC, Greenburg figures RFK would have been somewhere between Nixon and Clinton on the political spectrum – major reforms to welfare and such.

          • Mike Timonin

            And by Greenburg, I mean Greenfield, of course.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Ed has hit on the more serious ’68 “what if” question here: what if Humphrey had distanced himself from Johnson earlier in the fall? Humphrey almost won the presidency that year and was coming on very strong at the end of the campaign, despite the Democratic Party’s disarray. If we had our elections in mid-November, he might well have won.

        And had Humphrey won, everyone would remember George Wallace not as the harbinger of the Southern Strategy, but as a kind of rightwing Nader on steroids. As Nixon well understood, while Wallace’s issues could work very well for future Republicans, his independent candidacy completely picked Nixon’s pocket, which is why Nixon appealed (successfully) for Wallace to return to the Democratic fold in ’72.

        • howard

          i’m just going to catch up at the very end of this stimulating discussion and make a couple of quick points: first, incontinentia buttocks has hit on a key point – humphrey knew how to speak to prospective northern wallace voters in a way that no democrat since has really mastered (yes, i know times and circumstances have changed considerably). a humphrey victory followed by a withdrawal from vietnam would have led to a completely different set of facts on the ground in 1972, and all that followed.

          second, look, i don’t often play the counterfactual because there are way too many variables, but lbj did not crush mccarthy like a bug, he did not crush rfk like a bug, and he did not crush humphrey like a bug once humphrey did finally distance himself. so it’s not at all clear to me that had humphrey followed my preferred path that lbj would have crushed him.

          third, it is not clear to me that rfk could have wrested the nomination from humphrey had he not been assassinated, but yes, i do suspect that he could have gone on to win if he had.

          • Ed

            third, it is not clear to me that rfk could have wrested the nomination from humphrey had he not been assassinated, but yes, i do suspect that he could have gone on to win if he had.

            I think the nomination was farther away for RFK than it looked. It wasn’t impossible for him to go all the way in 1968 by any means, just harder than seems to be assumed on occasion. LBJ was still asserting considerable power behind the scenes that should not be underestimated.

  • jeer9

    We don’t know if a better debt ceiling deal would have been possible had Obama not pre-emptively folded


    But as long as Republicans control the House, any improvements were going to be marginal.

    Clean debt ceiling strategies existed and there were several from which to choose. Acceptance of Republican framing of the deficit as a priority would be a failure of leadership from a Democratic president. If only we had a political constituency that supported prosecution of torture, bank fraud, the drawing down of illegal wars, and increased taxes on the wealthy during 2009/10. If only there had been a mandate for change.

    I also don’t have any sense of disillusionment, and I’m not sure what some people expected.

    The shit sandwich is not what I ordered, but it’s the same price, so … (winks at waitress) could ya bring me a little ketchup?

    • JRoth

      I’m sure that Obama’s top-down decision to effectively shutter OFA in November 2008, and his post-primary efforts to shut out independent progressive groups, were a brilliant tool that did nothing to change the political dynamic in 2009 and 2010, and certainly did nothing to hurt turnout in 2010.

      The bottom line is that Obama’s electoral strategy in 2008 entailed activating the most liberal electorate in 32 or 34 years. However, since Obama himself isn’t particularly liberal, his governing strategy has been to shut out that electorate. Somehow he’s been surprised that this has resulted in massive electoral losses.

      • efgoldman

        Obama isn’t the only actor here. There are lots and lots of historical trends Which made 2010 pretty much predictable. Although nobody expected an influx of crazies, given usual first-term off-year historical trends, plus the economy, it was always possible that the House would be lost. Also, prior to the primary season, who would have predicted that the Dems would retain the Senate not in spite of, but because of the crazies nominating unelectable candidates.
        I suppose Obama could have been a more courteous and respectful version of Chris Christie. What, then, would/could he have accomplished in 2008/2009. No more, and probably less, than he did.
        Also too, a lot of his success was due to Nancy Smash, who did a hell of a job herding cats. She’s not Speaker anymore.

        • JRoth

          Obviously the story of 2010 was the economy. But it was also a story of failed turnout by the people who voted for Obama in 2008. A lot of that is demographics – young people and minorities don’t turn out in mid-terms. But frankly, they also don’t turn out in Presidential years, usually. Why did they turn out in 2008? In large part because Obama inspired them and engaged them and told them they were the ones they’d been waiting for. Then he got elected and told them not to let the door hit them in the ass. Shocking that they wouldn’t turn out for him in 2010, isn’t it? It must be the fault of digby for failing to adequately praise Obama.

        • jeer9

          As has been pointed out several times on this site recently, the Dem majority in the Senate could have disposed with the filibuster which would have cleared the path for numerous legislative reforms but they chose not to. That’s what’s called in the Karpian paradigm an imndispensable enemy which miraculously rears its head every time progressive reform threatens to triumph. Criticism of Obama which minimizes his responsibility or suggests his actions are due to weakness or incompetence and places most of the blame on the Right or declares that he is the most progressive president since FDR, encouraging readers to vote for him in 2012 even as he signs on to the dismantling of core Democratic programs is Panglossian. That the “wise” men (VSP) now invest all their rhetorical energies at this low point in the administration, telling you how good it all is, is all you need to know about their sagacity. Voters who crave a party or candidate to protect their safety net are confused and disenchanted and support for Obama only provides Dem cover for an agenda that should be solely the Right’s. Expect lots of posts and columns over the next year about how any Republican can win the race because the oligarchy wants you to be very afraid and there are no shortage of opinion page tools willing to promote that anxiety. The big money is behind Obama’s “good cop.” That’s just how the oligarchy rolls, though they are amused by academic pitter patter about institutional barriers. Obama remains a lock and it will lead to a landslide Republican victory in 2016 after eight years of economic stagnation and Democratic-led bipartisanship, but we’ll all have the comfort of knowing the descent will have been slower.

    • howard

      jeer9, of course it was insane to accept prioritizing of the deficit, but really: what clean debt limit increase strategy do you think gets through the house? i’d really like to know: i don’t see a one.

      the alternative was not a clean debt strategy: it was the 14th ammendment option, and as i’ve said in this space and elsewhere before, had obama pursued that, we’d be discussing the house judiciary scheduling impeachment hearings today.

      that would be advancing left interests…how?

      • what clean debt limit increase strategy do you think gets through the house?

        Three words: trillion. dollar. coin. Well, we would need two of them, actually. Or one two-trillion dollar coin. Or 50 40-billion dollar coins. No, make that 40 50-billion dollar coins. Whatever. The point is that Obama had so many weapons he didn’t even use.

        • cleter

          A trillion dollar coin with Reagan’s face on it. House wouldn’t have tried to stop that.

      • JRoth

        Back to front: Obama’s reëlection chances are a lot better following a failed impeachment (and it cannot succeed, given the Senate) by the House GOP than otherwise. It’s not objectively preferable, of course, but it’s a net good.

        More importantly, what’s your basis for the claim that a clean debt increase strategy was impossible? That Clinton did it because the House GOP in the late 90s was dominated by reasonable statesmen?

        Aside from the gross stupidity of leaving it to the Boehner Congress (pure unforced error), if Obama announced every day from January 1 to August 2 that he would veto any non-clean debt increase, he wins. Period. Because Boehner knows that, in that political environment, a default equals the destruction of the Republican Party. Full stop. On the small chance that Boehner takes that risk, Obama has the 14th Amendment option and the platinum coin option to prevent catastrophic default, and in that circumstance, he’d have majority support for doing so, because everyone would know what had happened – none of this “Washington needs to work better” crap, but, “The GOP decided to do this extraordinary, crazy thing, and I’ did whatever I had to to stop it.”

        • howard

          michael berube, no offense, but when people invent trillion dollars coins on tuesday, it’s not necessarily clear what unforseen problems are going to arise on wednesday: in short, i don’t think that was an option at all.

          if you’re going to bypass congress, just go ahead and bypass congress through the 14th ammendment solution, not through some bright-eyed scheme that no one has thought through at all.

          jroth, the clinton impeachment wasn’t that long ago: did any useful public policy come out of it? the main thing impeachment did was to distract from serious issues; because the economy was booming along, we could “afford” that distraction in some abstract sense, but we can’t today. the odds of decent policy are already very close to zero; impeachment would push them to zero (if not into negative territory!). the fact that impeachment would probably help obama’s popularity is neither here nor there from my perspective.

          as for “had obama just clicked his heels together three times and said ‘there’s no place like a clean debt ceiling home’ boehner would have had no choice but to agree: why? i don’t think for a second that it would have meant the end of the gop to resist that: why should it have? what’s the mechanism?

          you’ve seen the same polling data i have: people who self-identify as republicans are much less inclined to compromise than people who self-identify as democrats.

          if you really want the radical alternative, btw, i’d say he could have pushed for elimination of the debt ceiling altogether, which would be the correct policy, but i don’t think that changes anything on the ground.

          • howard

            p.s. jroth, i did also mean to say that yes, of course the gop is crazier today than it was in the mid-’90s, without question. this has been a 50-year process of increasing craziness….

          • Steve LaBonne

            There’s nothing to invent. The statute that would permit the monster platinum coins may be little known, but it is clear and unambiguous.

            • steve, i didn’t say it was illegal to do it: i said that it was a brand new idea to solve the debt ceiling problem by utilizing the law in this way and brand new ideas tend to have unintended consequences.

              • Steve LaBonne

                And we should never risk trying new ideas in a crisis. That’s what FDR would have said. Right?

                Wait till you see the unintended consequences of letting the Republicans redefine debt ceiling increases as prime hostage taking opportunities.

                • jeer9

                  I think it should be axiomatic that when a pundit prefaces his comment by stating his agreement with Yglesias some version of neo-liberal claptrap is coming down the pike.

                • Scott Lemieux

                  It certainly saves you from mounting a substantive rebuttal, which in countless posts you have yet to do…

                • howard

                  steve, i can’t emphasize this enough: if all you’re looking for is a way to bypass the congress, the 14th ammendment route is quite sufficient and much easier to think through.

                  not every roosevelt experiemtn worked; some of them were quite bad. we’re talking here about a workaround that could be loaded with unintended consequences: to the best of my knowledge, there simply isn’t any body of analytic thought about what introducing a form of currency expansion outside the fed might lead to, and when there’s a perfectly simple (in comparison) workaround in the 14th ammendment option, why not simply take it?

                  i’m all for innovative ideas (i mean, not to get carried away here, but i’ll repeat for you an idea i suggested in the initial stimulus period: the federal government could have underwritten the boom-era peak level of sales tax receipts for every state that would waive its sales tax until the employment-to-population ratio (or some other metric) stabilized at some target. this would have functioned as both revenue sharing and as a way to spur consumption and get the velocity of money up. i still think they should do it, even though i have never seen a single public figure mention it. so i’m all for potentially useful innovation.

                  i’m just not in favor of inventing a new currency on the fly without having thought it through.

          • Bill Murray

            to say that coin seignorage had not been thought through at all is not particularly accurate

            also when are unforeseen problems ever going to be foreseen in advance. I mean there are unforeseen problems with every proposal, even ones that have been done before, so I guess we should never do anything

            • howard

              bill murray, ok, let me revise my statement: show me the analytic work on what happens when a brand new trillion dollar coin is created overnight by presidential fiat.

              as for your comments on unforseen: for crissake, give me a break. the fact that unforseen results and unintended consequences can arise from anything is why we use our brains first and try to figure things out as best we can and not merely act out on every impulse.

              did you not notice that i said, look, you want a workaround, use the 14th ammendment option, don’t fool around with an idea that someone came up with yesterday? did you think that was because i am opposed to untried things on principle or did you have some other explanation in mind?

          • Walt

            What’s the mechanism? Who do you think owns Treasuries? Generation Y slackers? The constituency of for “don’t default on Treasuries” is the ruling class of the US. Every profitable company in America is stashing its money in Treasuries. Do you think that Boehner is going to go along with a policy that screws the rich and corporate America?

            • howard

              walt, there was never a second when we were going to “default” on government securities, so it’s not a relevant consideration who owns them.

              what was at stake was more in the nature of a government shutdown than a default on government paper itself. we’ve already seen a government shutdown, not that long ago: any sign that corporate and wealthy support for the gop has declined since the mid-’90s?

              the assertion that boehner wouldn’t dare have rejected a clean bill, and if he did, that would be the end of the republican party is not proven it the only evidence is that a non-existent default on government paper would turn the bourgeoisie into a revolutionary force, destroying the republican party for failing to serve its interests.

      • jeer9

        Former President Bill Clinton says that he would invoke the so-called constitutional option to raise the nation’s debt ceiling “without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me…” Sharply criticizing Congressional Republicans in an exclusive Monday evening interview with The National Memo, Clinton said, “I think the Constitution is clear and I think this idea that the Congress gets to vote twice on whether to pay for [expenditures] it has appropriated is crazy.”

        And as a good impractical lefty, I loathed Clinton and agree that most of the shiny patina left on his tenure is derived from the contingency of a dynamic economy. But still, there’s the difference between moderate Republican competence and moderate Republican incompetence.

        • Steve LaBonne


  • Scott,

    If only a real progressive with a chance of winning had run in either 1984 or 1988. If only Mondale hadn’t said “I will raise your taxes.”

    It would be nice to be in a wing of the party that has some validation.

    This isn’t about progressivism as embodied by one man, but about progressivism as practiced by an entire population.

    We assume that progressive policies will stand on their own merits, yet forty, even fifty years (if you count Eisenhower) down the road, no one has stepped forward who can articulate a clear progressive agenda that can’t be turned into a bumper sticker against us by the exploitative crowd.

  • efgoldman

    …no one has stepped forward who can articulate a clear progressive agenda that can’t be turned into a bumper sticker against us by the exploitative crowd.

    Think about that for a minute.
    What is “progressivism” or “liberalism” in the US context.
    At its most basic, its compassion for and protection of those with less money or power, often through some kind of redistributive program.
    Now, I’m all for that; most of us on this blog are.
    But how the FNCK do you put that on a bumber sticker or in a 10-second sound bite?

    • efgoldman

      Aargh, meant to reply to actor212 immediately above, and of course you put stickers on your bumper, not your “bumber.”

      • JRoth

        In fact, my bumbershoot is covered with political stickers.

        • jeer9

          So’s mine. Those silly, ineffectual Greens. If only we knew how good we have it.

    • Malaclypse

      But how the FNCK do you put that on a bumber sticker or in a 10-second sound bite?

      Montage: elderly man, leaving the dr’s office: I’m grateful for Medicare, and want to see my grandchildren have what I get. That’s just good citizenship.

      Parents, with disabled child: we’re glad we don’t need to rely on a voucher system for our child’s education. Vouchers always leave people like us behind.

      Popular, serious-looking governor: This bridge was built in the 1930s, the last time we had an employment crisis. It needs rebuilding, and we need jobs. Cutting spending now, and letting bridges crumble, is foolish.

      Cancer survivor: I’m relieved that insurance companies can’t deny me coverage just because I had bad luck and got sick. They are supposed to be there for us when we get sick, right?

      I can do more. Liberalism is not a hard sell, it is common sense.

      • Malaclypse

        Oh, and make sure you have an image of this on the bridge spot.

      • jeer9

        Yes, it is very easy (though it has now gotten a lot harder due to this budget deal which was it’s whole point.) The best progressive president since FDR working diligently to make sure you never see his pale shadow again.

  • JRoth

    This whole series of posts on “presidential power” seems to me nothing but an ongoing misdirection. Sure, to be President isn’t to be King. But that doesn’t excuse Obama for fucking up the job. Cook in the hospital cafeteria’s a pretty unimportant job, but that doesn’t make it OK for him to serve undercooked burgers. 25th man on a baseball team is pretty unimportant, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK for him to try (and fail) to steal home on his own.

    Obama was hired to do a job; he hasn’t been very good at it (and will you please stop giving him primary credit for Speaker Pelosi’s passing of AHCA? He was ready to quit after the Brown election; she made it pass. She’s the irreplaceable one in the equation, not him). Whether it was possible for him to enact Libtopia in 4 years is irrelevant to whether he could have done a much, much better job, both relative to his campaign promises and relative to minimum competence.

    • efgoldman

      So what was all that other stuff that got passed in the first two years? Chopped liver?
      Also too, get down in the weeds of regulation and the federal agencies, where Bush did a really [evil] good job. Lots of good work being done there, even without the Senate confirming any agency heads to speak of.

      • JRoth

        I’m not claiming he’s failed in every aspect of the job – obviously he’s done some good things, some of which relied on his particular characteristics. But he’s failed on too many fronts to give him a pass, ranging from areas where he has effectively unfettered power (foreign policy, civil liberties), through areas where he has lots of power & leverage (appointments & nominations, immigration enforcement), to areas where a better pol could have gotten a better deal (are you going to claim that his preferred path with the Gang of Six was in any way a good idea in prospect or a successful one in retrospect?).

        • Scott Lemieux

          I concede the point — if we decide in advance that Obama gets none of the credit for good legislation that passes and all of the blame for legislation that doesn’t pass, then Obama has been terrible. I see no basis for this. Of course, Pelosi deserves enormous credit for the ACA. But I don’t see what she did to get Ben Nelson to agree to the bill. And, in this case, Obama ignored the Emmanuel faction who were telling him to cut bait.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks


            If the President had indicated that he was willing to pass HCR with fifty instead of sixty votes in the Senate he could have gotten a much better bill.

            Would it have been incredibly divisive?

            Of course it would have.

            But it was incredibly divisive as it happened.

            Obama is much more willing to ignore and twist the arms of the left-wing of his party than to do the same to the rightwing of his party.

            And to return to your first sentence: if we decide in advance that all the failures of the Obama administration are due to circumstances beyond his control, of course his presidency looks much better.

            • UserGoogol

              Reconciliation doesn’t work that way. Non-budgetary matters (and much of the meat of PPACA was regulatory, not budgetary) are considered extraneous and not eligible under the reconciliation process.

              Of course, the majority could have manipulated the rules by declaring by fiat that such things ARE eligible, (by manipulating the parliamentarian, which has happened before) but that sort of thing would have had a much harder time getting even fifty votes of support. Which in turn you might be able to bolster by playing even more hardball, but the main point here is that reconciliation would have been a very difficult path to use, and in turn would have come with more risks.

              • Scott Lemieux

                This assumes that there were 50 votes for a better bill with reconciliation (i.e. without Feingold and other procedural types.) I see no basis for this assumption.

                • Incontinentia Buttocks

                  Well there are two issues here.

                  The first is the White House’s apparent unwillingness to explore reconciliation,

                  The second is the Democratic Senate majority’s intense dislike of governing and apparent comfort with that institution’s dysfunctionality.

                  I have always been of the opinion that most of what’s wrong with Obama reflects deeper things wrong with his party. He’s just the most notable symptom.

            • jeer9

              C.mon, IB. Lemieux’s argument is really substantial. You just have to let him set the grounds for the debate.

        • efgoldman

          …through areas where he has lots of power & leverage (appointments & nominations…

          You watch the Senate much the last three years?

      • soullite

        No, it was a waste of time. No matter what else you deliver in a time of massive economic catastrophe, the fact remains that you did not actually act on said massive catastrophe.

        The proper analogy isn’t FDR engaging in flawed programs that weren’t 100% awesome. The proper analogy would be if FDR said ‘fuck the Great Depression’ and instead expanded the national forest system by 800%. Sure, you could still argue that he was an awesome liberal in some sense, but the fact would remain that he let the country burn to the ground while he dicked around with a peripheral issue.

  • wengler

    Since it is stupid to deal in false tautologies, I will instead talk about reasonableness.

    President Obama is a very reasonable person. In fact I think his entire Presidency is staked on how reasonable a person he can be. This would be great if he were surrounded by reasonable people. But he’s not. He is besieged by unreasonable people all around him. People who only believe in my way or the highway. So how does a reasonable person respond to this madness? By going along to get along. It is the only reasonable thing to do.

    The problem with this post is that it tries to build up points instead of taking an overall view. Yes of course FDR at times embraced terrible ideas like an austerity budget and acquiescing to California racism, but his perspective was very strong. People knew that FDR was going to get them a fair deal, which is why he got re-elected so many times. FDR’s principles were staked not on being seen as reasonable, but on being the friend of the worker. He was not an arbitrator, but a supporter of one side over the other.

    Obama, of course, is not this person. He reminds me The Mediator in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. If only the two sides could get together and hash something out, is his motto. He completely abdicates the idea that he should have a side, since he is the reasonable one. And we wonder why the Republicans are able to roll him so easily.

    • DrDick

      This! 100 x this!

  • soullite

    You guys are really good at thinking up excuses as to why we all suck and nobody should have expect anything decent to have gotten done. You can pretend that the Democratic party didn’t outright promise the EFCA and a decent healthcare plan if we gave them majorities, but they did in fact do that.

    Stop blaming powerless people when the powerful act like total assholes. That doesn’t make you look like a reasonable person; it makes you look like one of the total assholes.

  • Murc

    This is a fine, fine post Scott, and I mostly agree with it. I’d like to raise some mild objections, however.

    I have gotten the impression, both from this post and others, that… hmm. How to put this politely; it seems to be that you are often focussed on a short game, not a long one.

    You mention how GWB wasn’t afraid to go on the offensive, and that it didn’t really make much of a difference in terms of what he was and wasn’t able to get passed. That’s entirely true, and it’s important to keep in mind. But I think it DID make a difference in terms of where the Republican establishment is TODAY, six years after Bush gave up trying to get anything that didn’t involve getting bombs dropped somewhere through Congress. He helped solidify and legitimate Republican ideas, narratives, and general whackalooness in the public mind, and kept the Democrats on the defensive.

    Let’s back up even further. The rhetoric and aggressiveness of the Republican-controlled House in the late ’90s didn’t make much of a difference in terms of what they were able to do THEN (and lets remember that at the time, it was regarded as a very radical and aggressive House, which seems quaint today) because Clinton had a veto pen and there was still a political environment that wasn’t conducive to a lot of their goals. They didn’t get much done that there wasn’t a large political constituency for anyway. But they helped lay the groundwork for the Bush years.

    Republican aggressiveness and rhetoric during the Reagan years didn’t much change what Reagan was able to do; Reagan still had to deal with Tip O’Neill and (at times) a Democratic Senate. Yeah, Reagan got a lot of what he wanted, but that was because of rock-solid political facts, not tone or framing. But said tone and framing helped lay the groundwork for the class of ’94.

    The Goldwaterites crashed and burned in ’68. By ’80 they were running the table.

    Roosevelt, as you mentioned, pushed actual policies that were skeletal, half-a-loaf, and in many cases morally suspect. But his ‘I welcome their hatred’ rhetoric and his absolute willingness to do things like hold a gun to the head of the Supreme Court were an integral part of getting those skeletal, half-a-loaf policies. If he’d adopted the stance of being the only reasonable man in Washington, would he have gotten as far? Would he have managed to create the lasting liberal coalition that was ultimately repsonsible for so much good? Perhaps. But I think it would have been much harder.

    I am not, I should stress, trying to make the case that being aggressive and constantly push, push, pushing will magically result in increased political dominance. But its a factor, one of the many plums in the political pudding, as it were.

    Part of the job of Presidents, of party leaders in general, isn’t to just consider what they can do today; it is to position yourself for the future. And THAT’S one of my big problems with Barack Obama. Do I think he should shoot himself in the foot in the name of purity today in order to secure theoretical gains in the future? I absolutely do not. I do think, however, he needs to get out there and NEVER STOP PUSHING. Just like the Republicans never stop. He needs to consider where his rhetoric, and his stated, public policy preferences, and his refusal to point at the Republican Party and say ‘these people are insane, and they need to be stopped’ places us not in the congress of 2011 and the election of 2012, but in the elections of 2016 and the congresses of the 2020s. He needs to groom people to keep pushing long after he has left office and is cashing checks on the lecture circuit.

    THAT is my central objection to how weak he often seems. He seems to think tactically, rather than strategically. There’s more to adopting a robust, confrontational, forward-pushing stance (even if you quietly accept policies that are much less aggressive) than in making me personally feel better. It’s a matter of looking to the future. The Republicans seem to get this; why can’t we?

    • Scott Lemieux

      I think there’s a lot of merit there, but one caveat:

      The Goldwaterites crashed and burned in ’68. By ’80 they were running the table.

      Kinda. But, remember, Goldwater ran on opposing civil rights and the New Deal. The GOP won only after they stopped doing this stuff explicitly.

      • Murc

        Absolutely true. Although that didn’t mean they started talking about how nice it was that they’d reached a national consensus with the Democrats and how great it was we could all be reasonable. They just started using coded languages and attacking from other directions, in other ways. But your point is well-taken; they didn’t keep charging up that hill once it became clear it couldn’t be taken. They switched to undermining instead.

        And thank you for not pointing out I typed ’68 when I very clearly meant ’64.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      I have gotten the impression, both from this post and others, that… hmm. How to put this politely; it seems to be that you are often focussed on a short game, not a long one.

      We can argue till we’re blue in the face about how we got here, but right now progressive have no short game (which isn’t to say that we should be indifferent to short game issues, just that we will predictably get nothing out of them).

      So I think it’s much more useful to stop fighting over short game scraps and start thinking medium-to-long term.

      To whit: who are plausible Democratic nominees in 2016 who could push the party to the left?

      What sort of or organizing should progressives do outside of electoral politics to push our issues and perhaps even pressure Democratic elected officials?

      Heck…there were a serious of posts recently here essentially arguing for a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party, before they kinda lost focus and morphed into a series of posts denouncing third party efforts.

      The long-run begins today. What’s the first step in a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party?

      I’m not sure what the right answer is, but it certainly isn’t “Vote Democratic in 2012!” That may be important, but in and of itself, it’s at best neutral in the (prospective) struggle over the party’s soul.

      • UserGoogol

        I keep on thinking that Sherrod Brown is pretty plausible on paper. On the one hand he seems pretty progressive, and on the other hand he’s the senior Senator from Ohio, so purely by virtue of that he’s pretty electable. If he can hold his seat in 2012 (which isn’t a foregone conclusion but he’s polling well so far) then running for President in 2016 seems like the sort of thing he could pull off.

        But as for turning the party to the left, I’d say that voting for Democrats in elections is important, but just as important is the stuff that happens before November. Vote/campaign for more progressive candidates in primaries, (where such candidates have a chance of winning, anyway, but there’s a lot of districts where they do) push for more progressive candidates to run in the first place, and apply this not just in Federal elections but in state and local elections. There’s a lot of tricky issues in how to build the institutions to do that, but that seems like the way to go.

  • soullite

    Also, there is a good reason why few people who don’t already agree with you will listen to this, and many who do may well roll their eyes. It is this:

    If a Democrat weren’t sitting in the house, you would not have written this post. Even if you believe every single word of it, you wouldn’t write it. You wrote no such posts when Bush was in office, and in a few years, you won’t write them when Obama is gone. You would not write a post essentially saying that progressive change is impossible, so suck it up. You simply wouldn’t. You’d know the likely result, and if you didn’t need to make this argument as a last-ditch effort to prop up an incumbent who is almost certain to lose reelection, you wouldn’t be making it now. You wouldn’t risk losing volunteers who won’t waste their time on a pointless cause, and you wouldn’t risk pissing people off who aren’t going to bother voting if there’s no way they will ever get what they want. It jut wouldn’t happen.

    • Murc

      Wait… what?

      I normally don’t respond to you, soullite, but it appears you actually put some though into this post. But it leaves me baffled, which is a different reaction than I usually have.

      We DO have a Democrat in the White House. And whatever his failings are, and they are many, there are legitimate barriers to him accomplishing things.

      Of COURSE Scott wouldn’t have written this if a Republican were in the White House. Instead he’d write posts about how said Republicans policies are bad, and if we want better policies we should elect someone who is better. You know, like he did for years and years under Bush. When a Republican is in the White House, the barrier to progressive change is his veto pen. Democratic strategizing can do very little to overcome that.

      You seem to think Scott has some kind of sinister ulterior motive for making very tepid defences of the Obama Administration and no defence at all of congressional democrats. Why? Why would he do that? He isn’t paid for this. Scott doesn’t write for the NYT, he does this blog as part hobby, part intellectual exercise, part attempt to influence the national discourse. He is unlikely to ever take a future job IN government or to work directly for a political apparatus. So what the hell, man?

  • tib

    I would take FDR’s, LBJ’s or even Bill Clinton’s compromised progressive successes over what Obama has delivered so far. There is a good chance Obama will leave office having broken the pattern of Democratic presidents reducing poverty and unemployment. The jury is out on ACA, if Obama chooses to sacrifice Medicare and move more people into the broken private insurance system under a weakened ACA, then he will be the most regressive Democratic president in modern times.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Bill Clinton’s compromised progressive successes

      What progressive successes?

      • tib

        CHIP, EITC, pulling millions of families out of poverty through broad based economic expansion, and changing our notion of ‘full employment’ from 6% unemployed to 4%.

        • Malaclypse
        • Scott Lemieux

          pulling millions of families out of poverty through broad based economic expansion

          Unless you have new evidence that Clinton was responsible for the tech boom, to see this as making him more progressive than Obama is silly. You think the policies enacted under Clinton would have lead to an economic boom if enacted starting in 2009? Christ.

          • tib

            Surely the Bush years showed that economic growth does not have to lift all boats? Or do you think it was purely accidental that income inequality stopped shrinking once Clinton was out of office, even when GDP grew?

            But as a matter of fact I do have evidence that Clinton had a hand in the tech boom, though those are Clinton’s liberal rather than purely progressive successes. Clinton’s early and strong enforcement of anti-trust through the DOJ and FCC made the Internet possible as a public good. The ISP industry took off in 1994, after the FCC forced telcos to extend favorable tarifs on data connections to third parties (I helped run an ISP from 1994 to 2007). Without that we would all be using slow Compuserve and AOL walled gardens. Once Clinton left office Bush took off the pressure from the FCC, the ISP industry collapsed, and Internet bandwidth expansion in the US stalled.

            By the late 1990s the web software industry was well on it’s way to being controlled by Microsoft. In 1998 Clinton’s DOJ put Microsoft under monopoly scrutiny, constraining their ability to use patents, partner agreements and other means to choke off competition. At that point companies like Google and Amazon were able to raise money and expand without worrying about being destroyed by an incumbent. Microsoft is merely the most famous case of the Clinton DOJ restraining monopolistic behavior in IT.

            The explosion of the Internet as a consumer service, and the explosion of software innovation on the Internet, are what drove the tech boom.

            Obviously different policies would be required in 2009. But despite making noise about anti-trust enforcement in 2009, Obama’s economic policies have favored incumbents across the board.

            • Walt

              Those are good points.

          • tib

            One other point, can we agree that a president whose policies raise people out of poverty and reduces income inequality is more progressive than a president whose policies increase poverty and income inequality? Or is your concept of progressive rooted in something other than measures of public welfare?

            • Scott Lemieux

              Can we agree that 1)no economic policies could have made 2011 look like 1999, and 2)the list of legislation passed under Obama is substantially more progressive than that passed under Clinton?

              • Asteele

                Well he didn’t have any secret black site prisons, or was complicit in decade long detentions without charges or trial, and I suppose these days that’s a position to the left of the democratic party.

                • jeer9

                  That’s just circumstance. When you’re the most progressive president since FDR, there’s no reason to act upon civil rights abuses unless a political constituency forces you to. It’s practically the same thing as Japanese detention camps. Ask Bradley Manning.

                • Furious Jorge

                  Perhaps not, but he was at the forefront of arguing in favor of the use of “secret evidence” in terrorism-related prosecutions. So there’s that.

              • tib

                1) Yes. 2) No.

                I’ll reconsider 2 if Obama gets a progressive budget with a tax hike through (doesn’t have to be as progressive as Clinton’s, just something) and depending on how ACA turns out. Universal health coverage is a huge progressive goal, but universal coverage that impoverishes people is not.

                On 1. Obama’s bar is much lower. Enough growth for employment to begin to recover would be progress, he doesn’t have to shoot for Clinton level job growth.

                In the end it doesn’t matter how ‘progressive’ we think this or that piece of legislation is, what matters to me as a progressive is broad based improvement of people’s welfare. It will be hard for anyone to beat FDR’s score on that measure, which is why we consider him a great president. It will be hard for Obama to beat Clinton on that measure, largely because, unlike FDR, Obama fumbled the opportunity the financial crisis gave him.

  • Michael Drew

    This is a very good post. Important perspective-keeping, as you say.

  • jeer9

    Lemieux: It certainly saves you from mounting a substantive rebuttal, which in countless posts you have yet to do.

    You find my arguments less than substantive? Coming from someone who is peddling the Obama as greatest progressive president since FDR narrative, I will consider that a compliment. Drum is selling a similar nonsensical story these days. Dark days require desperate measures.

    • Murc

      Who do you think was more progressive than Obama since FDR? Scott mentioned LBJ and put Obama in the number three slot. You can maybe make an argument Clinton was more progressive, but it would be a tough call. Who else?

      Please note that ‘most progressive President since FDR or LBJ’ is not the same as ‘sufficiently progressive on an absolute scale.’

      • Scott Lemieux

        This. You continue to quote this as if it was self-refuting, and yet you have yet to nominate another candidate.

      • jeer9

        It’s a silly ranking game that reflects nothing so much as the Lemieux/Drum/Yglesias axis of distraction from the many failures that are Obama’s policies. Just because you’re #2 doesn’t mean your performance hasn’t actually been shitty (although I guess it does in a potty sense.) Participation in this pastime is enjoyable for many in the shallow end of the pool and has been known to raise their spirits. I find myself more aligned with the Taibbi/Yves Smith/Greenwald view but then they’re not engaged in anything as substantial as historically ranking a president two and a half years into his first term.

        • Murc

          Okay, that’s… hrm.

          You are right that being #2 does not mean you’re good enough in an absolute sense. I am pleased to find us on the same page there, if only because I enjoy it when people agree with me.

          I also agree with you that Taibbi, Smith, and Greenwald have rock-ribbed criticisms about the performance of the Obama administration. Greenwald especially has gone for the jugular on civil rights, and if he is over the top sometimes it is only because he’s truly committed to the cause of freedom.

          What confuses me is the reason you impute bad faith to Scott, Kevin Drum, and Matt Yglesias. Lord knows all three of them have been wrong to varying degrees, Matt especially. But you imply that they know that the Obama administration is doing a shitty job, but have made the conscious choice to lie about and minimize that fact and distract people from it because of… because why now?

          What’s their endgame? What do they get from perjuring themselves like that? That seems to be where I get confused as to your logic.

          • jeer9

            I wouldn’t describe it so much as bad faith as a desire to promote the positive effects of this mostly incompetent administration (to the point of hyperbole) and a willingness to trust in their compromises (Drum: Obama knows more than I do and I believe he’ll make the best judgment) as if any form of compromise is the height of centrist wisdom and a recognition that institutional barriers preclude any other choice. Occasionally, they do get shrill but not nearly enough for my satisfaction. Perhaps it’s temperament; perhaps it’s because they believe an incrementally smaller step backward is better than a principled standoff. I don’t think the latter view has led to a particularly good place in Dem politics nor will it continue to do so in the future.

            Mr. Lemieux,
            I do not much believe in the Dem party any more, though I vote Dem more often than you might imagine. And I no longer believe that reform of the Dem party is possible from within (perhaps because I’m now an old fart), though you and Loomis and Digby propose it as the only path. I don’t think Social Democratic governments have any monopoly on efficient poverty-conscious policy or are any less prone to corruption – as the European monetary crisis seems to indicate otherwise. I do believe we need to think outside the box in order to move the country left. You denigrate such efforts. Unfortunately, my life is too busy to run for local selectman or city council in order to slowly manipulate the power away from those in thrall to Main Street or Wall Street – and I suspect your life is similarly busy as well. All I’ve got is my one lousy vote and I refuse to reward failure in this administration any more than I’d reward it in the classroom.

            As IB stated upthread:

            What sort of organizing should progressives do outside of electoral politics to push our issues and perhaps even pressure Democratic elected officials?

            While I also disagree with his/her (what is the gender? someone please inform me!) idea of reform from within, I do think this question is the central one (and no one wants to hear that nothing will move the Dems left.)

            • Robert Farley

              Shorter jeer9: I prefer shrieking at people on the internet to thinking very hard about politics or doing anything else particularly useful.

              • jeer9

                And your evidence of my “shrieking” is … you don’t like my DFH opinions? I’m sorry but the argument that Obama is the most progressive president since FDR and if you don’t engage with this theory you lack substance doesn’t take much hard thought. I also teach but then your instruction is probably much more useful. Time for another post on aircraft carriers.

        • Scott Lemieux

          You use this phrase “shallow end of the pool” a lot. I fear that this means you think that your “social democracy is here…if you want it” hand-waving is deeeeeeep. I can assure you that you are mistaken.

          • Malaclypse

            Nice Lennon reference.

  • I’d have more time for left critics of Obama if they realized two things:

    1. They are a tiny minority in America. Hardly anyone tells pollsters they don’t think Obama is liberal enough. In the debt ceiling thing, the median voter thought both sides were unreasonably extreme and Obama was just perceived as less unreasonably extreme than the other guys.

    2. Presidents are subject to constitutional constraints. In particular, they cannot unilaterally pass legislation or budgets.

    By all means, criticize. You are entitled to your own opinions. But not your own facts.

    • I’d have more time for critics of left critics of Obama if they realized two things:

      1. Polls regarding perceptions of liberality and conservatism say nothing about actual policy or its political or practical success.

      2. Get your head out of your ass.

      By all means, criticize. You are entitled to your own opinions. But not your own facts.

      • DrDick

        Not to mention that polling data have also shown that Americans prefer strongly progressive policies (by about 60-70%) regardless of how they label themselves and have done so for 30 years. I am considerably less taken with polling on labels than I am on substance.

  • You know I am really tired of people telling me that I do not understand history, or I don’t know that FDR was not as liberal as I might have wished. Therefore, Obama is really ok and my criticsms of him are out of line, because FDR did this, or LBJ did that, or or or.

    • Murc

      Well, here’s the thing, lawguy. Parts of Scott’s argument were addressed to people who claim (and I’ve seen these people, they exist) that Obama could have done the exact same things LBJ and FDR did with their legislative majorities, which is enact grand sweeping liberal legislation. It is meant to point out that FDR and LBJ didn’t actually DO that, that they had many, many laudable achievements but that it was those who came after them who finished the work, as it were.

      This is fair, I feel. If someone says ‘Why doesn’t X do what Y did,’ a fair response is ‘Y didn’t do that.’

      That is the specific point that he means to refute. It is not meant to imply that Obama is really okay and ALL your criticisms of him are out of line because of what FDR and LBJ did. It is implying that that SPECIFIC line of attack on Obama is out of line. And there’s truth to that in many respects.

      • Ed

        It is not meant to imply that Obama is really okay and ALL your criticisms of him are out of line because of what FDR and LBJ did.

        Yes and no. I still feel reasonably sure that if there was a Republican President in office, or a Democratic President not named Obama, that there would be fewer arguments and rationalizations of this kind. We’d mainly be talking about the questionable performance of the guy/gal in crucial aspects of his/her job.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        The serious argument is not that Obama would do “the exact same things” as LBJ did the 1960s or FDR did in the 1930s.

        The serious argument is that FDR was, e.g. more willing to question the conventional wisdom of the day and more effective at sounding populist notes to rally public support for his policies and his presidency. And that LBJ was, e.g., more willing to twist arms in Congress to accomplish his own agenda.

        The argument that neither FDR nor LBJ was perfect is, of course 100% correct. But since the issue isn’t why Obama isn’t perfect himself, the imperfections of the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations in and of themselves don’t tell us much.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Obama is really ok and my criticsms of him are out of line

      This is just a willful misreading of my argument.

  • FHD

    In addition, while Obama deserves every bit of criticism he gets for his civil liberties record (an area much more under his discretion than most domestic policy) it’s also worth noting that this is what was going to happen because there’s essentially no political constituency for civil liberties. To engage in some sad comparisons, whose record is better? Clinton, definitely not. LBJ, hard to make the case. Saint Roosevelt was infinitely worse.

    Could you elaborate on this a bit? Because I don’t remember Clinton, for example, claiming the right to incarcerate people indefinitely based on the suspicion that they might commit crimes in the future, or the right to extra-judicially impose the death penalty on American citizens he says are terrorists. Actually, I don’t remember H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, etc. doing those things either. Shit, George W. Bush didn’t even claim the latter.

    Obama’s approach on civil liberties has been to throw bones to the ACLU crowd while largely ossifying the abuses of the Bush administration into the system. That alone makes him worse than those presidents on civil liberties, and the fact that he got elected while pretending to care about this stuff only makes it worse. Take his approach to rendition: Obama signs an executive order that nominally creates more oversight of the practice, but he also 1) extends the abuse of the state secrets privilege, 2) nails people caught whistle blowing to the wall, and 3) protects anyone who broke the law w.r.t. torture from facing any consequences of their actions. The overall affect is to make it more likely the process of rendition will be abused in the future. Even if you think Obama has put a stop to the abuses under his term, what’s to stop the next president from torturing again?

    FDR was worse, it’s true, but it was also the freaking 1940s. Do you really think the current state of civil liberties in the US is better now than it was in the 80s or 90s? I suspect that, e.g., Clinton would have done largely the same things as Obama, given the chance, but that doesn’t let Obama off the hook, especially considering he got himself elected while promising to do the opposite.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Again, I am not arguing that Obama should be let of the hook. Not at all. I’m saying that it’s not surprising that he hasn’t done much to renounce expansions of arbitrary executive power. Obama has been a marginal improvement over Bush, which isn’t nearly good enough, but in not putting a priority on civil liberties, he’s in line with…pretty every other president in history. At some point, we may want to start thinking institutional incentives are relevant here.

      The key difference between Obama’s abuses and the abuses of Clinton and FDR is that the abuses of the latter were of their own initiative, not the continuation of policies initiated by others. Obama’s civil liberties abuses are, in themselves, worse than Clinton’s — that’s correct. But given his record, as you say, it’s nearly certain that Clinton would have done the same thing. (Which, again, is not a defense of Obama.)

      • FHD

        I agree that the problems are institutional. I don’t agree with the this:

        The key difference between Obama’s abuses and the abuses of Clinton and FDR is that the abuses of the latter were of their own initiative, not the continuation of policies initiated by others

        Obama hasn’t merely continued Bush era policies – in many cases, he’s gone further. The Bush DOJ never argued that it had the right to assassinate American citizens with no oversight whatsoever. Bush also bothered to get authorizations from Congress (a heavy burden, that) for the wars he wanted to fight. Both of these acts – violating the War Powers Act w.r.t. Libya and trying to kill Anwar-al-Awlaki – would be grounds for impeachment in a sane country.

        Also, (and I’m not sure that you really disagree with the following, but I’m angry and want to vent), it’s worth being clear about exactly how “marginal” the improvement has been. On those areas where Obama hasn’t miraculously managed to be even worse than Bush, he’s generally taken half-measures that don’t actually address the problems. A policy where you only give only give trials or tribunals to detainees when you think you can get a conviction is called “indefinite detention.” Likewise, even when he was making noises about closing Gitmo, he was defending the existence of similar facilities elsewhere, as if the problem with Gitmo was that it was a legal black hole in Cuba. The thing about this approach is that he gives the impression that he’s improving things – mollifying the public outrage over Bush, especially among liberals – without actually fixing the problems.

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