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What Could Obama Have Done?

[ 114 ] August 23, 2011 |

I find myself in an unusual position of arguing that someone is underestimating presidential power. Armando asserts that I argue that we shouldn’t care who is president. So, working backward from my clearly stated position, he seems to be saying that we shouldn’t care about foreign policy and security policy (where presidential power is dominant or near-dominant), the appointment power, the enforcement of legislation, the ability to veto legislation, the power to set the agenda, and the real (if subordinate) power to influence domestic policy all don’t matter! I disagree — I think this stuff matters a great deal, and personally plan to follow the next presidential election with substantial interest.

It is true that I believe that claims about the power of presidential rhetoric are a massive bullshit dump, 95% of the time involving pundit’s fallacies that are either demonstrably false or implausible and unfalsifiable. A bizarre number of people seem to have willfully misinterpreted this into an argument that progressives should not in any respect be disappointed in Obama, which of course isn’t true. Even if we focus on domestic policy and the president’s real rather than imaginary powers, there are plenty of things Obama could have done better. I particularly agree with #6 — not only did Obama drop the ball in making appointments to the Fed, but like his Democratic predecessor he’s gone along with the idea that a Republican Daddy should be in charge, with consequences that may cost him re-election.

Comments (114)

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  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    I do think that specifically on economics his rhetoric, and not just his (in)action, has also done real harm by reinforcing the appeal of austerianism in the public mind.

    • Hogan says:

      Maybe not “appeal” so much as “perceived inevitability.” But yeah.

    • John says:

      This seems backwards to me. The public’s (and the media’s) love of austerity has caused Obama to adopt that rhetoric, not the other way around.

      • Steve LaBonne says:

        It’s not a one-way street but a self-reinforcing cycle.

        • John says:

          To an extent, certainly. But the public was strongly on board for austerity while Obama was still talking in Keynesian terms.

          I also think it’s worth noting that Obama’s advocacy of austerity has been much exaggerated. It seems pretty clear he’s been talking a lot about balanced budgets while also trying to insure that there are as few spending cuts *this year* as possible.

      • dandelion says:

        Well, then: so much for leadership.

    • actor212 says:

      I’m not sure I agree, but then I’ve often accused Obama of playing eleven-level chess.

      I think he’s subtly influencing the second term by talking up austerity, letting Boener et al run with it.

      Look what happened when the Ryan plan was floated dropped with a resounding thud. After the nation’s got the whole “castor oil complex” out of its system, he’ll start (I think) to move left a little. I just hope it’s not too little and not too late.

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    I would add:
    1. Use the DOJ to investigate the Bush/Cheney cabal, and then prosecute for war and economic crimes if the evidence warrants it (and yeah, I’m sure it does).

    2. Use the DOJ to investigate economic crimes in the financial and real estate worlds, and then prosecute if the evidence warrants it (ditto).

    Then – no pardons!

    Instead, we have war, political, and economic criminals running free and completely unpunished.

    As a matter of fact, most of them ended up enriched by their crimes.

    This tells future war, political, and economic criminals that they can do the same thing, with little or no chance of being caught, and/or little or no chance of being punished.

    PS: Some may use Madoff as an example of an economic criminal who was punished.
    Well, sure!
    But he was punished because he ripped off other rich people.
    If he had fucked-over the poor, he’d be sipping champagne somewere right now, free as a bird and laughing his rich ass off.

    • Pithlord says:

      DOJ prosecutions of the previous administration would have gone over really well with independent voters and conservative Democrats.

      What planet do you live on?

      • Murc says:

        The planet where enforcing the law and prosecuting criminals is one of the primary jobs of the Executive Branch? Indeed, faithfully enforcing the criminal code without fear or favor is something that someone could reasonably regard as the executive branches MOST important function.

      • witless chum says:

        Yeah, if he’d done that the Democrats might have lost the House of Representatives.

    • rea says:

      Use the DOJ to investigate the Bush/Cheney cabal, and then prosecute for war and economic crimes if the evidence warrants it

      A not unreasonable fear of retaliation prompted this, I think–if the Democrats impeach a president for burglary and war crimes, the Republicans will impeach one for a blow job. If Bush and Cheney were prosecuted, the Republicans would make prosecution of an outgoing president of the other party routine.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        What makes you think that if Obama wins in 2012, they won’t trump up some bullshit and try to impeach him?

        I guarantee you that if Obama wins, and there’s a Republican House, my over/under for when impeachment investigations begin, will be as soon as Chief Justice Roberts gets the “Oath of Office” right, and Obama is sworn in, and the House is, too.

        Obama, “I swear!”

        The House is sworn in, in person or via TV: “Impeach the lying f*cking n*gger! What? Oh… Yeah, yeah – I swear! Now can we impeach the lying f*cking n*gger?”

        Republicans don’t just do tit-for-tat. They’re on assault all day, every day.

        • Captain Splendid says:

          I always thought the fears of attempted impeachment against Obama were rather weak for several reasons:

          1. It’s a big deal. You can’t whip it out too often, especially when your case is slim, which it will be here.

          2. People remember Lewinsky-Gate and remember, if nothing else, how much of a storm in a teacup it was. If the GOP decides to produce the sequel, it’s only going to hurt them, and they know it.

          3. This would, honestly, play right into Obama’s current “bipartisan civility” schtick. I’m one of those leftoids who hated that particular tactic, but I am impressed that’s he kept it up and stuck to it, and I can see that the effect has added up over time.

          The minute impeachment goes from rhetoric to being real, Obama’s given two great options to choose from. he can either stay on course, and look like a damn saint as the Repubs slit their throats, or, he could get up and make the not-unreasonable case that he’s been playing nice for 5-6 years now, trying to give the opposition a chance to not be rabid howler monkeys, but they’ve tied his hands and now it’s clobbering time. I have no illusions that an outfit that managed to best Team Clinton couldn’t do some major damage to high-ranking GOPs.

          Besides, all the conservative energy over the next few years will be focused, laser-like, on the ACA. Obama will be gone in a few years, whereas the legislation will still be around.

          (While I’m at it, I think props are needed for when the major effects of the ACA kicks in. If it’s even half-effective, and the economy’s still not tanked, he’s helped his Dem successor greatly when 2016 rolls around.)

          He might not be playing 11-dimensional chess, but I’ll grudgingly accept that he was thinking well ahead by the time he was sworn in.

      • I.M.Shocked says:

        A not unreasonable fear of retaliation prompted this, I think–if the Democrats impeach a president for burglary and war crimes, the Republicans will impeach one for a blow job.

        This was the biggest BS reason they made for impeaching Clinton (“Well, you impeached Nixon, so nah, nah, nah!!!11!!”) and really shows the GOP’s level of maturity, to say nothing their baldfaced lying.
        Nixon wasn’t impeached; he resigned. Please don’t help the GOP rewrite history.

      • dangermouse says:

        if the Democrats impeach a president for burglary and war crimes, the Republicans will impeach one for a blow job.

        Allowing that Clinton was somehow “retaliation” for Nixon, I’d gladly trade a Republican president being revealed as a common criminal and being forced to resign in disgrace for a Democratic president being revealed to have done nothing much that anyone gives a fuck about, several Republican congressional leaders resigning, and the Democrats picking up seats in the midterms.

  3. Pithlord says:

    One point about Bernanke. He’s a Republican and presumably right-wing on most policy questions. But he had a reputation as a monetary dove (“Helicopter Ben”), which is really all that matters, so it wasn’t crazy to keep him. The mistake was not making the other positions a bigger priority.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      Helicopter + ben + bernanke

      1.3 million results.

    • And true to form, Bernanke has put the pedal to the metal and left it there, dropping rates to 0 and announcing that they will stay there for at least two more years, while implementing two rounds of QE.

      He’s basically been the most activist Fed chair in history, in terms of using monetary policy to promote growth.

      • catclub says:

        Let me know when he mentions employment as part of the fed mandate.

      • Murc says:

        That’s a RELATIVE standard, tho, joe. It doesn’t really address whether the Feds actions have been sufficient or maximal, just what they’ve been relative to the past preformance of the institution.

        • Pithlord says:

          OK, but it seems relevant if the claim is that this was the decision that will cost Obama the election.

          Actually, I don’t completely agree with Joe, and I think Bernanke could have done more in the way of unconventional monetary policy.

          • Murc says:

            Both solid points.

            I’d go so far as to say he could go further with conventional monetary policy. Negative interest rates are a well-understood tool, for example, and they’d be really helpful with regard to making it painful to hold large amounts of liquid cash about now.

        • But when judging policymakers in terms of how their job would have been performed with different personnel – that is, how the Fed would have been different with two more liberal appointees – that “relative” measure is the right one to use.

          Can we expect that the Fed would have been noticeably more activist with two more Obama appointees around the table? I don’t think we can.

          • mpowell says:

            You make a good point, but don’t push it too far. It’s basically an unknowable now. I think the fed could have done even more to good result, but whether that was feasible or not, I think Obama should have pushed harder for appointments. Keeping Bernanke was not a bad idea, though, if you were looking for monetary easing. And hey, it’s made Perry look like a fool for criticizing the fed. A Dem appointment doing what Bernanke is doing may have created a whole different dynamic.

  4. david mizner says:

    This argument — could President Obama have gotten progressive bills through? — is ultimately unknowable because he didn’t try. That’s the problem.

    On his 3 big bills — the stimulus, health care, and financial reform — he failed to push what the country wanted and needed.

    On the stimulus, he shot for a relatively small figure, partly because of a concern about deficits.

    On health care, he dealt away the public option — the single thing that might have challenged the corporate stranglehold on health care.

    On Wall Street reform, he killed the effort to break up the banks and opposed the tough measure on derivatives.

    You could argue, I suppose, that he crapified his own bills in anticipation of what Congress would support, but then you’d only be underlining my point,. that he’s failed to try to pass progressive legislation.

    • John says:

      On health care, he dealt away the public option — the single thing that might have challenged the corporate stranglehold on health care.

      I thought the point was to allow more people to have healthcare, not to “challenge the corporate stranglehold on health care.”

      • There are liberals who care the most about helping the weak, and there are liberals who care the most about afflicting the strong.

        • Steve LaBonne says:

          And then there are people with a realistic view of how power works, who understand that sometimes you have to do the latter in order to accomplish the former.

          • A realistic view acknowledges that ‘sometimes,’ and doesn’t treat the lack of an attack on wealth as proof that a proposal lacks merits or does nothing to help the weak.

            Yours is not a realistic view, if you think my rejoinder requires such a reminder.

            • Steve LaBonne says:

              It is entirely realistic in the case of health care. There’s a good reason why no other advanced country allows profit-making in the provision or insurance of basic care.

              • It is entirely realistic in the case of health care.

                Who paid for your last doctor’s visit? Are you lucky enough to be on a government program, or was it an insurance company?

                It is exactly the opposite of realistic to pretend that extending insurance to those who lack it is not a massive improvement in their lives.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  IF they can afford the coverage. The jury is out on whether this law will prove workable and will really improve people’s lives significantly, and it will continue to be out until all of its provisions have been in effect for a while. But I’m willing to assume for the sake of argument that it really will help significantly.

                  Regardless, here’s what it is emphatically not. It is NOT progress, not even a tiny bit, toward a better system- the kind of system we will eventually HAVE to have if not to drown in exploding health-care costs. IF it works as intended, it’s just a bandaid on a system that remains unsustainable.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  Which is to say, even if it helps people for a while the effect will be temporary, and in the meantime yet another opportunity to move in the right direction has been missed. Allowing Medicare buying from age 50 would have been a much better move in a long-term perspective even if it helped fewer people initially. And don’t bother talking about Joe Lieberman because we have no way to know what would have happened if that had been the proposal right from the start.

                • Why don’t you want to answer the question, Steve?

                  IF they can afford the coverage.

                  Hence, the billions of dollars in subsidies.

                  Hence, the Medicaid expansion.

                  But those don’t even make it onto your radar, because they only (yawn) help poor people, instead of righteously smiting rich ones.

                  It is NOT progress, not even a tiny bit, toward a better system

                  The ideal of single payer is not the only system that is “better.” A better-run, better-regulated system of private insurance that also moves many more people onto public care is better than the status quo, too.

                  The reason “progress” is called “progress” is because it recognizes that something can be superior without being ideal.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  “buyin”, that is.

                • And don’t bother talking about Joe Lieberman because we have no way to know what would have happened if that had been the proposal right from the start.

                  Sure we don’t.

                  After all, massive expansions of government health programs against the wishes of the entrenched interests are so easy to pass. Oh, wait.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  Hence, the billions of dollars in subsidies.

                  Hence, the Medicaid expansion.

                  Both of which are highly vulnerable to the budget-cutters. And both of which merely paper over the unsustainability of the current system. I’m not the one who’s refusing to “answer questions” or deal with obvious realities.

                • Both of which are highly vulnerable to the budget-cutters.

                  A single-payer health care system wouldn’t be vulnerable to budget-cutters? Who do you think pays?

                  I’m not the one who’s refusing to “answer questions” or deal with obvious realities.

                  I think you just demonstrated that you are.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  After all, massive expansions of government health programs against the wishes of the entrenched interests are so easy to pass. Oh, wait.

                  Lieberman evidently disagrees with you, since he supported such a proposal for years before flip-flopping at the last minute in one of his patented attention-getting maneuvers.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  A single-payer health care system wouldn’t be vulnerable to budget-cutters? Who do you think pays?

                  Of course it is, but as the UK shows, there are limits to what they can do when everybody’s in the same boat and there’s no insurance lobby helping them along. I know you’re not such a political greenhorn as to be unaware that universal programs are much more robust politically than subsidies for poor people. That’s politics 101.

                • Lieberman evidently disagrees with you, since he supported such a proposal for years before flip-flopping at the last minute in one of his patented attention-getting maneuvers.

                  We seem to have very different understandings of “evidently,” if you think that the floating of a policy that did not pass, and ended up being opposed even by the person who floated it, is evidence of the ease with which such ah proposal can pass.

                • Of course it is, but as the UK shows, there are limits to what they can do when everybody’s in the same boat and there’s no insurance lobby helping them along.

                  Actually, National Health has been cut more than Medicaid lately.

                  I don’t disagree about the political benefit of universal health programs, but that seems a really shitty excuse for not providing for the needy when it’s possible to do so.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  And I don’t think there’s any excuse for slapping a bandaid on a failing system without even trying to take a step towards something that can help those people more than temporarily. So I guess we’re even.

                • mpowell says:

                  I just want to say that Steve has the upper hand here in that cutting medicare is a lot harder than cutting subsidies for buying private health care. When the UK cuts health care funding it’s at the margin of the most expensive, least useful medical procedures. That’s the kind of cutting our system needs frankly, and it’s unobtainable in our current system. Of course, if your plan is to move medicare availability to people over 50, now you simply have the problem that people will play around with that age cut off.

                • rea says:

                  I’ve never understood how anyone thinks it feasible to pass a bill shutting down a whole industry employing millions of people, however pernicious the effects of that industry may be. Immediate implementation of single payer would be a disaster. Gradually working toward single payer over a couple of decades might work, but your plan–never!

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  Straw man alert! Nobody, literally nobody, proposed doing that.Gradually working towards that is exactly what SHOULD have been done.(A modest downward expansion of the Medicare eligibility age, funded by actuarially sound premiums, is what I favored. And it would have been very popular) But it wasn’t. We didn’t even take a most step away from the current system.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  “modest”. I wish I were better at typing, and/or proofreading.

                • rea says:

                  Gradually working towards that is exactly what SHOULD have been done

                  And it looks to me like that’s what we’re doing.

        • david mizner says:

          Yes, everybody can win! We can help the masses AND protect the power of corporations, we can protect the profits of the banx AND help homeowners, we can preserve the tax breaks for the rich AND save social programs, cause we all know that wealth, resources, and the pool of power in DC are infinite.

          A rising tides lifts all boats! Look what’s happening right now, the country is getting richer, corporate profits are booming, and the country — oh.

          • I had to go back and check whether your sillly, shrieky comment was meant to be a response to mine, because the words you’ve put into my mouth bear so little resemblance to anything I’ve written.

            Knocking down a silly, absolutist sentiment is not the same thing as endorsing its opposite. I’ve written not a word about helping corporations or the rich. I haven’t even denied that it is sometimes necessary to curtail them.

            But, having read you in the past, I’m not remotely surprised to see you reply as if I had. After all, the most important thing to Protest People is their self-image as Protest People, so it’s not as if it’s novel to see you distort what you’ve read in order to give yourself an excuse to march around like an idiot with your fist in the air.

            Congratulations on writing yourself out of the conversation.

            • david mizner says:

              Well, you inadvertently provided the positive take on Obama-ism, that he’s trying help the weak without afflicting the powerful — which is merely futile.

              The less generous interpretation is that he doesn’t give a damn about helping the weak.

        • David B. says:

          SHIT YES!

          As for DeLong’s list, Nos. 1, 8, and 9 are probably illegal (by procedural or Constitutional rules), Nos. 2, 8, and 10 happened in varying degrees. No. 5 is pointless bully pulpitry, and Nos. 6 and 7 are subjective / assume facts not in evidence.

          No.3 is fine as far as it goes, except for the difference between real HAMP and fake HAMP should be fleshed out a bit more, and as for No. 4, I don’t quite understand how that would work or at what cost.

      • david mizner says:

        Well the goal was — or should have been — to create a decent, humane, and cost-effective system. A strong PO might have led to that.

        But even if we disagree on the goal, that doesn’t change the fact that the President dealt away the PO — an example of his weakening his bills rather than trying to pass them.

        • Well the goal was — or should have been — to create a decent, humane, and cost-effective system.

          No, the goal should have been to move the existing system as far towards a decent, human, and cost-effective system as was possible that year.

          the President dealt away the PO — an example of his weakening his bills rather than trying to pass them

          This doesn’t make any sense at all. Why do you think he “dealt away” the public option, if not to get the bill passed?

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Hi David,

          I think you aren’t taking into account how unlikely even the current bill was and how painful Yet Another Heathcare failure would have been both for the people not helped and for the prospects for progress.

          It was a Democratic party aspiration for generation (since at least Nixon) and each defeat made the next attempt weaker (certainly in ambition).

          The saga itself was astonishing in its twists and turns with a huge number of inordinately (in context) powerful players working their moments as hard as they can (often with a stunning disregard for the consequences for people lives…I’m looking at you Joe Lieberman).

          It was something far easier to destroy than to pass, with scary contingent moments (the loss of Kennedy’s seat is just one!) where sheer luck (and a ton of work) kept the whole thing from crashing and burning.

          I’m not a great fan of the policy per se nor of a great number of its provisions. But it passed and, as written, it helps an extraordinary number of people plus takes a decent crack at fixing the long term issues.

          So, the result is more humane, more decent, and more cost-effective, esp. relative to no reform. That’s a win. A huge win. It’s not my fantasy win, but it is an extraordinary one. Even Joe gets some credit for getting to the win. (He gets shame for all the stuff lost, of course, but he did vote for it and his vote was needed.)

          • Steve LaBonne says:

            But it passed and, as written, it helps an extraordinary number of people plus takes a decent crack at fixing the long term issues.

            I don’t see how the second half of that statement can be defended. Even if the cost-control measures work as well as advertised (no sure thing), they will only postpone the inevitable collapse by a few years. Both the system’s costs and their rate of growth will remain WAY out of line with all other countries and impossible to sustain indefinitely.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Hi Steve,

              I don’t see that you’re making an attack that I need to defend against, as it’s just assertion at the moment.

              I agree that there’s room for debate, but the second have is surely defensible. Here’s a defense. Here’s a more skeptical account. My understanding that the CBO scores the ACA as a deficit reduction measure (in the sense that repeal costs).

              I claimed that it is a decent crack. It’s hard to see how that’s not defensible.

              • Steve LaBonne says:

                The authors of that “defense” are highly interested parties- principals in the drafting of the law- who may be about the only two people who really believe this, or claim to. The “more skeptical account” reflects what I believe to be the consensus of health care economists. A little trimming around the edges of a grotesquely inefficient system, while doing nothing to alter the basic operating principles which cause the inefficiency, is not going to get the job done.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  I’m sorry if I don’t find your continued bare assertion remotely plausible, much less serious grounds for judging my rather modest claim indefensible. It’s obviously defensible, both via the defences for stronger versions of the claim and by the relative weakness of my claim.

                  If you are still having trouble imagining how the claim would be defended, trying imagining that you work for the CBO.

                  It’s a crack, not a done deal. But even putting aside the implausibility of getting anything significantly better this round, you have to defend 1) leaving the worse alternative (i.e., status quo ante, which was worse from a human as well as a budgetary pov) until 2) having lost another round, we win bigger the next shot? In, oh, 2010?

                  ACA makes some plausible moves. I’d rather start from there than from a position of no plausible moves.

                  I’d like to see you pony up some evidence about the consensus. Thus far, only I have provided evidence.

            • witless chum says:

              I pretty much agree with you about how the AFCA is likely to not improve things enough, but value in making it Congress’s problem when the healthcare system doesn’t provide decent coverage to everyone. And the AFCA does that, if the Democrats can keep it alive through long enough.

    • This analysis turns pretty heavily on what exactly it is you mean by “try.”

      • david mizner says:

        How bout try…

        to push through Congress, as in not preemptively making bills worse before Congress considers them and not actively fighting against progressive elements in said bills.

        • “Trying” to push something through Congress – as opposed to making a big show of how pure you are – means putting your support behind something that could pass.

          Which means, a bill that doesn’t include the public option. Making that a non-negotiable element, refusing to “trade it away,” would have been exactly the opposite of trying.

    • On Wall Street reform, he killed the effort to break up the banks

      We all remember how he threatened to repeal any bill that broke up big banks, and Harry Reid had to go back and rewrite the Senate bill, right?

      Because that’s totally how it happened. Thanks a LOT, Obama!

      • david mizner says:

        You have no reason to feel bad about not knowing what happened. Most people don’t.

        “Geithner’s team spent much of its time during the debate over the Senate bill helping Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd kill off or modify amendments being offered by more-progressive Democrats. A good example was Bernie Sanders’s measure to audit the Fed, which the administration played a key role in getting the senator from Vermont to tone down. Another was the Brown-Kaufman Amendment, which became a cause célèbre among lefty reformers such as former IMF economist Simon Johnson. ‘If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks in America,’ says the senior Treasury official. ‘If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened. But we weren’t, so it didn’t.’”

        http://baselinescenario.com/2010/05/26/wall-street-ceos-are-nuts/

        • dangermouse says:

          But the President has LITERALLY NO influence over congress except for public veto threats.

          I mean everybody knows that.

          • The frequency with which this straw man is thrown up served only to underline the strength of Scott’s actual argument.

            You wouldn’t feel the need to do this is you could hope to put out anything remotely convincing about what he’s actually written.

            • The big bank stuff is basically a red herring. Yes, the administration opposed Brown-Kaufman, but that proves basically nothing since there isn’t any meaningful consensus amongst left leaning economists on whether or not having very large banks is for better or worse, and plenty of them think a Canadian style system with a much larger, more tightly regulated cartel of a few very large banks would be preferable to the U.S. shadow banking system.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Yeah, I think that’s right. Especially in light of Canada, it’s not obvious to me what the progressive position on bank size should be.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I think this is central enough that I should respond in a full post, but the next person to come up with a plausible set of strategies that could have gotten conservative Dems in the Senate to support a public option will be the first. Which leads us to the bigger problem — people seem to assume that arguing for a maxmimalist position has no downside, because the bill that passed was always available. But that’s not true — you could damned well end up with nothing. Given the repeated failure of presidents using various approaches to pass universal health care, second-guessing a successful effort with no plausible path to a better bill makes no sense.

      • mpowell says:

        Very well said.

      • Steve LaBonne says:

        So the pharmaceutical lobbyists invested a lot of effort in getting Obama to bargain away something that never would have ha a chance of passing? What a naive bunch. Thank goodness you’re wiser in the ways of DC than they are.

        • Hogan says:

          Do you suppose those lobbyists might have talked to some senators too? Or did they think it was entirely up to Obama?

          • Steve LaBonne says:

            I’m not just blaming Obama by any means- I should have worded that better. But I am saying that assuming that what actually happened is the only thing that could have happened is an argument that proves far too much.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              No one has claimed that no alternative could have happened. Obviously, a lot of things could have gone differently (cf timing of Kennedy’s death). Lieberman could have physically punched an actual hippie and gotten it out of his system. Even then, it all would have been tricky. However, given the extreme delicacy of the success it seems far more plausible to think that more radical (and desirable) things like a public option were never a part of any likely success and that Obama pushing hard for them might well have been highly counterproductive. (Remember, that for Republicans in this debate, the efficacy of a reform measure is a bug, not a feature.)

      • david mizner says:

        A few things: we didn’t get “universal” health care. Even if this bill goes into full effect, millions will be uninsured.

        You of course don’t really believe that a bill with a PO is “maximalist” approach. A push for single payer might have led to a bill with a strong PO, (which might have led to single payer.)

        Which goes to a larger point: you seem to think that the parameters of what is passable are set in stone, that people like Ben Nelson and Susan Collins have rock-hard principles that prevent them from supporting this or that. In fact, “centrists” tend to be principle-less hacks who will support the middle path whatever that may be. The key is to move the middle to the left. On the stimulus they demanded that it be 100 bill smaller than Obama proposed, simply to be able to say that they did. There’s a good chance if Obama had pushed a 1.5 trillion dollar stimulus, they would have demanded that it be 300 billion dollars smaller. But Obama rejected a larger figure because he was neoliberlally concerned about deficits.

        In short, yeah go for broke (a maximalist position) until you run up against actual opposition; don’t scale it back in anticipation of opposition months from now, and scale back if you have to. The potential downside you cite, failure, is always there. The potential upside, progressive legislation, only exists if you, you know, push progressive legislation.

        Oh, and despite repeated claims to the contrary, you didn’t need 60 votes to pass the PO, only 50.

        • he key is to move the middle to the left. On the stimulus they demanded that it be 100 bill smaller than Obama proposed, simply to be able to say that they did. There’s a good chance if Obama had pushed a 1.5 trillion dollar stimulus, they would have demanded that it be 300 billion dollars smaller. But Obama rejected a larger figure because he was neoliberlally concerned about deficits.

          But the situmulus is not comparable. When haggling over amounts, a bigger bid might plausibly have led to a better outcome. Health care doesn’t work the same way. There’s just no way that you were going to get 60 votes for the public option now matter what. Nelson et. al aren’t infinitely malleable; they’re moderate conservatives beholden to monied interests. They, not Obama, held the cards in this negotiation.

          We went through this yesterday, but the argument that the optimal negotiating strategy was to fight for single payer isn’t serious. Empty threats don’t provide leverage, and the only possible effect of focusing on single payer would be to make a different bill politically toxic among moderates by making it easier to paint socialized medicine as the real goal.

          • david mizner says:

            Why do you insist on saying that 60 votes were needed to pass the PO? Just not true. Could have used reconciliation to pass the PO, and Bernie Sanders said the votes were there:

            “I think we do have 50 votes in the Senate for a public option and frankly I don’t know why the president has not put it in and I hope that we can inject it,” Sanders said on MSNBC. “I think it’s a very important part of healthcare reform.”

            So you could have lost a few conservative Dems and still passed it.

            Bernie wonders why they didn’t push it.

            I say: Because they’d already dealt it away in July.

            Others say: Because they feared such and effort would derail the entire bill.

            Glenn Greenwald says: the Dems would have just played villain rotation and killed the PO regardless.

            In any case, we get an administration not using its clout to try to pass it.

            Now, to be clear, I’m not among those who believe the PO was the end all – be all — in fact I feared that it would become a dumping ground for expensive-to-insure people and end up undermining the government health care cause — but if you’re wondering why many progressives are pissed off, the failure to try to pass the PO (whatever the reasons) is part of a pattern of, well, not trying.

  5. Armando says:

    That fair game. I did distort your position. You get to do the same to me.

    see this this

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Thanks for the retraction, but I think it’s pretty clear that I was joking to make a point, not “distorting your position.” Obviously, I don’t think that you actually don’t care about who sits in the White House.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “the idea that a Republican Daddy should be in charge… ”

    The same Republican Daddy who was recently called a traitor by a leading Republican presidential candidate?

    Bernanke isn’t the problem. Obama isn’t the problem. The Republicans are the problem—especially their inflexible crazy right wing.

  7. actor212 says:

    It is true that I believe that claims about the power of presidential rhetoric are a massive bullshit dump, 95% of the time involving pundit’s fallacies that are either demonstrably false or implausible and unfalsifiable.

    Prima facie, every time Obama says or does something to irk a Blogospherical pundit seems to disprove your statement. If in fact a President wearing a bike helmet was to mean nothing, then no one would care to comment.

    But the symbological implications of what any nation’s leader does, particularly one as (still) young as ours which is deciding whether to respect and honor precedents and protocols, cannot be ignored or denied.

  8. FMguru says:

    That’s a lot of words to make the simple (and long established) point that Armando is a dumbass.

  9. And what about the things Obama did do? Appointing Simpson and Bowles was something the crazee progressive purity schmucks were outraged by. And look, now we’ve got Super Congress mulling over Medicare and Social Security cuts.

  10. thanatz says:

    Mr. Lemieux:
    How exactly are “the power to set the agenda” and “the real (if subordinate) power to influence domestic policy” not rhetorical in nature?

    And since this blog seems to love counterfactuals, what is your take on the likely differences in “foreign policy and security policy (where presidential power is dominant or near-dominant)” between Obama and Generic Republican?

    • It’s my impression that this blog has been discussing counterfactuals that were floated elsewhere, so let me float one based on the GOP’s rhetoric over the past three years: Generic Republican declares war on Iran, doubles down on backing Mubarak and Qaddafi in the name of “stability,” continues the practice of extraordinary rendition.

      • Generic Republican doesn’t enter into treaty negotiations with Russia leading to a nuclear arms reduction treaty.

        Generic Republican makes a big show of building a maximialist missile defense system.

        Generic Republican loudly and frequently defends Israel.

        Generic Republican doesn’t close the CIA black site prisons, and continues Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.

        • And you know why? Because like the honey badger, Generic Republican doesn’t give a shit!

        • Uncle Kvetch says:

          Generic Republican loudly and frequently defends Israel.

          Whereas Generic Democrat furrows brow, expresses “grave concerns,” and quietly continues to provide Israel with the wherewithal to do whatever the fuck it wants.

          Yeah, big difference there.

    • Hogan says:

      How exactly are “the power to set the agenda” and “the real (if subordinate) power to influence domestic policy” not rhetorical in nature?

      The federal budget that the president proposes is not really a rhetorical document, but it does more to set an agenda than half a dozen State of the Union addresses.

  11. Eli Rabett says:

    What could Obama have done

    Let’s start with not take crap from the Republicans, the whole death camp nonsense being a great example and the refusal of the Senate to approve appointees.

    • Pithlord says:

      This posting sums it up. The issue is always that Obama doesn’t sufficiently demonstrate tribalism.

      He should be criticized, but not for that.

    • dave3544 says:

      Right, Obama should have held a press conference wherein he said some thing along the lines of, “I’m not taking this crap any longer. I’m not taking it. Don’t ask me what that means. Don’t ask me what I’ll do if Republicans or the Tea Party folks keep screaming death panels. I’m president, I’ve got ways to shut them up. I’m putting them on notice. That’s right, notice. This is some fucked up shit and I’m not taking this carp any more.

      Oh, and Senate, by which I guess I mean fellow Democrat Harry Reid, if you don’t start approving my nominees, like, today, I’m going to start something. I’ll use the hell out of this bully pulpit. I’ll do something crazy effective, like hold a prime time national address where I appeal to the American people to do something. I’m not sure what right now, to force the Republican Senators to stop filibustering my nominees. Because if they don’t, they’re totally going to get an e-mail from not their constituents.”

      Yes, he should totally not have done that.

      • Eli Rabett says:

        Nuts, every Dem and especially Obama should have been out there that summer pissing on the death campers as hard as they could.

        The passive response let the crazies dominate the news.

  12. rea says:

    Whenever a woman is raped, there will be some guy in the media (it’s almost always a guy) to say things like–she shouldn’t have been dressed that way, she shouldn’t have been in that bar, she shouldn’t have been out at night, she shouldn’t have trusted that man. Blame the victims rather than the rapists.

    Much of the criticism of Obama is similar. We facing active villany–the Republican Party is willfully trying to wreck the country. But somehow, we on the left spend most of our time criticizing President Obama’ tactics instead of resisting the Republicans. Blaming the victims rather than the rapists, again.

    • Pithlord says:

      Actually, the vast majority of liberal Democrats still think Obama is great and no doubt blame the Republicans. Anti-Obama Liberals are the libertarians of 2011: mostly male, overwhelmingly white and vastly overrepresented on the Internet.

  13. Sly says:

    Even if we focus on domestic policy and the president’s real rather than imaginary powers, there are plenty of things Obama could have done better. I particularly agree with #6 — not only did Obama drop the ball in making appointments to the Fed, but like his Democratic predecessor he’s gone along with the idea that a Republican Daddy should be in charge, with consequences that may cost him re-election.

    I will generally agree with the appointments criticism (though not on the grounds that he thinks we need a “Republican Daddy” at the Fed – its mostly for the purpose of continuity/stability in the face of a crisis) and the criticism of HAMP.

    DeLong, however, cites two items that were very likely impossible to achieve (passing, via budget reconciliation, the infrastructure bank and a second stimulus) and a number of other things that are possibly legal but still problematic.

    You can only use reconciliation once in a given budget year. PPACA was “reconciled” in the FY2009 budget, so any further reconciliation bills would have had to have been pushed back to 2010. Which means that they would have had to use it in a year in which the Senate didn’t even pass a budget, a situation that is rather problematic. That would have had to be addressed before crafting a stimulus and infrastructure bank that was deficit neutral, at least on paper, and that’s a whole other problem.

    Expanding P-PIP and the GSEs has similar issues; one of the principle reasons why HAMP was so ineffective was that it was taken out of already appropriated money, which provides constraints on (a) how much money you can use and (b) what can be done with it under the authority of the appropriating statute (the other reason HAMP was so ineffective was that the administration placed too much importance on warding off potential fraud so as to preempt criticism). I’ll have to go back and run the numbers, but I don’t recall there being much money left in TARP after P-PIP and HAMP. Doubtful there was enough money to do three trillion worth of QE, but I don’t know what kind of multiplier DeLong is working with.

    That leaves two items:

    8. Take equity in the banks in January-March of 2009 and keep them from lobbying against financial reform.
    ..
    10. Use TARP money as a mezzanine tranche to fund large-scale additional aid to states and localities to reduce their fiscal contractions.

    For a variety of reasons I’m not sold on #8 and #10 because I need a some details – mostly what DeLong means by “lobbying” and the size of the mezzanine tranche. There may be constitutional/logistical issues with the first and statutory issues with the second.

    Bottom line: This shit isn’t easy, and its certainly not a function of pure willpower.

    • I agree, esp. on #1 — doesn’t really fit.

    • David B. says:

      Good points. A lot of DeLong’s criticisms fit well in the category of the Green Lantern fallacy (willpower alone), or just don’t make sense on their own terms. Fed ppls have to be confirmed, anyway.

      I know the City of Philadelphia got TARP money, so as far as 10 goes, I think he’s objecting to things that happened. No. 8 raises some weird issues — keeping banks from lobbying? by virtue of a minority equity stake (or warrants), which happened under Bush anyway? What’s the line between lobbying agains something and providing necessary policy input, anyway?

      The point about Hamp seems a good one, but real/fake Hamp needs some fleshing out.

      Anyway, assuming the POTUS could have done all of these things, what where the trade-offs? Guns or butter?

  14. [...] think this comment from David Mizner — whose excellent novel you should check out — gets to the heart of [...]

  15. Eli Rabett says:

    Oh yes, Geithner’s tax problems slowed things up considerably and did huge damage. He should have been properly vetted and never appointed.

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