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Obama and the 2010 Midterms

[ 52 ] September 7, 2011 |

Elias Isquith is very agitated about one of the points in this post, which may be due to a lack of clarity on my part.    To provide said clarity, I should emphasize that I am not saying that the precise outcome of the 2010 midterms was inevitable.   I do think nothing Obama could have done could have prevented huge Democratic losses.   But it’s also true that the 2010 midterms turned out even worse than the models would have predicted, and if you want to say this is mostly because of Obama I can’t prove you’re wrong.   I am much more skeptical that anything Obama could have done could have gotten support in the Senate for a stimulus large enough to matter.    But since the “pivot” to deficit reduction was both 1)indefensible on the merits and 2)predictably provided less than no political benefit there was no reason for him not to try.   If you want to say that there’s no reason to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in assessing the counterfactual, I can’t argue with you.

He suggests that he also disagrees with the rest of the post, and I’m disappointed that he doesn’t elaborate.    I’m not sure which argument he disagrees with — is there secret evidence that primary challenges can bring about progressive change that nobody else can see?   Does he agree with Stoller that the crushing loss in the 1896 elections and the 36 years of a constitutional order in which federal regulation of child labor was considered unconstitutional it portended was in fact a huge win for progressives?   I want to hear it!

Comments (52)

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  1. bh says:

    agrees with the rest of the post, and I’m disappointed that he doesn’t elaborate. I’m not sure which argument he disagrees with — is there secret evidence that primary challenges can bring about progressive change that nobody else can see? Does he agree with Stoller that the crushing loss in the 1896 elections and the 36 years of a constitutional order in which federal regulation of child labor was considered unconstitutional it portended was in fact a huge win for progressives?

    Gee, with an attitude like this, I can’t imagine why people are getting ‘agitated.’ What exactly to you think you’re accomplishing here? You keep insisting on engaging with the stupidest possible versions of any counterargument, to absolutely no one’s benefit.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      the stupidest possible versions of any counterargument

      Look, sorry, but this was Stoller’s argument. He really does think a primary challenge to Obama would be useful. He really does cite Bryan — and only Bryan — as evidence for this proposition. I agree that this seems like a strawman, but it’s not.

    • Ed Marshall says:

      Did you read that shit? Scott is being generous and *making his arguments for him*. He has nothing except asshurt and some generalized suspicion of political science that he has replaced with (and I’m going to be ungenerous and speculate on what is in his head) a sort of religious belief in the Cult of the Presidency.

    • John says:

      This is hard to avoid, given how stupid Matt Stoller is.

    • You keep insisting on engaging with the stupidest possible versions of any counterargument

      Perhaps instead of hyperventilating, you could link to what you consider to be a better version of that counter-argument.

      Because I haven’t seen anything to lead me to believe that Stoller’s piece was even the lower half.

  2. rea says:

    An interesting rhetorical strategy–make such bad arguments that anyone who disagrees is accused of attacking a straw person.

  3. Walt says:

    I know that I’m repeating myself, but Obama has demonstrably fucked up with the way he handled Fed appointments, which could have had a large impact on the economy.

    • Murc says:

      He’s demonstrably fucked up on appointments, period. I understand that post-midterms; the Senate wasn’t going to confirm anyone, so why would you go to the trouble of vetting people and convincing them to leave their current jobs to sit in limbo endlessly?

      But back when we had sixty, there was no excuse not to be staffing the everloving shit out of the federal government. Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman are assholes, but they’re not going to vote to sustain a filibuster on a bunch of low-profile federal judges, second-tier fed appointees, and a bunch of sundry Deputy and Undersecretarys.

      It’s baffling.

      • jeer9 says:

        Yes, there are so many issues on which Obama could have taken a tougher stand (prosecutions) or pushed harder for better people (appointments) that might have made the mid-terms less disastrous. Certainly, the economy and job security were always going to be problems, but I think most voters understood the pile of shit he’d been left. He made lots of bad choices which had nothing to do with legislation that deflated the enthusiasm aroused by his election.

        • j_h_r says:

          He made lots of bad choices which had nothing to do with legislation that deflated the enthusiasm aroused by his election.

          This. Even more to the point, I think, Obama has placed a disproportionate amount of importance on legislation, and specifically the legislative process, that has been incredibly counterproductive. I saw in a number of blogs/webarticles a while back that Obama seemed to consider himself a legislator-in-chief. He ISN’T, and his efforts to be one have clearly been at the expense of his duties and powers as the head of the executive branch. Obama, as the ultimate head of ALL executive branch agencies, has a lot of freedom to act outside of Congress’ purview; maybe the current Boeing lawsuit is a trial balloon for sidestepping Congressional gridlock. If it is, it’s working, and “change through executive order” might help get some enthusiasm back.

        • Murc says:

          To be fair, I think that prosecutions specifically (you’re referring to going after former Bush admin officials for the war crimes they committed, right?) would probably have at best been electorally neutral and at worst had a deleterious effect.

          He should have done it anyway, because it would be both the right thing to do and is kind of his job. But politically speaking going after war criminals is, sadly, not a big winner these days.

          • jeer9 says:

            If the latest scoop on Obama’s failure to prosecute the torturers is true, then we have a national security state seriously out of control. Apparently, we can’t administer the law because the spooks and various covert agencies pose a mortal threat to the president. Needless to say, this does not provide a healthy prospect for the future. But he certainly could have gone after the banksters’ fraud, etc. And HAMP might have actually been a source of aid rather than a tool of the predators.

            • Murc says:

              Er, wait, what? The security apparatus of the U.S poses a what now to the President? What scoop is this?

              • jeer9 says:

                Christopher Edley is the source.
                The first of the two reasons is not terribly shocking: the CIA, NSA, and military would revolt if their crimes were exposed and prosecuted. This explains the cover-up portion of the past two-and-a-half years’ immunity-granting campaign particularly well. It fits with the known record, which has included seven former heads of the CIA publicly writing to President Obama to tell him not to prosecute torturers in the CIA.
                Perhaps Edley is not a reliable source. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the term “revolt,” but it doesn’t seem too far out of the realm of possibility that these organizations might have struck a bit of fear into our indomitable negotiator. And perhaps it was always impossible to go after the lower level thugs without bringing in Bush/Cheney, though they managed a pretty fair job of it with Abu Ghraib.

                • Mark says:

                  Bah. Not sure what Edley’s source is, if he has one, and maybe someone closer to the culture of the military will correct me, but I think that the vast majority of military personnel are not going to stop doing their jobs over the prosecution of some war criminals. Yeah, there are some right-wing psychos in there, but that’s not most of them.

                  I suspect that some people’s thinking has been infected by the right-wing claim, rarely stated explicitly, that the military is populated entirely by treasonous Republicans who might turn on the civilian government any time it does anything Dick Cheney doesn’t like.

                • witless chum says:

                  The top uniformed leadership of the military, who are as much politician as soldier, might well make a fuss just behind the scenes enough for military decorum’s sake. They’d find all sorts of willing enablers among congressional Republicans and some Democrats by invoking the sacred troops.

                  I’m sure the dumber backbenchers in the Republican caucus might hint at armed revolt, but I think the actual chances of anyone in uniform even edging toward that possibility would nil.

                • Hogan says:

                  I’m remembering a letter to the editors of National Lampoon from around 1976:

                  Dear Chevy Chase,

                  Just remember what happened to Vaughan Meader.

                  Signed,
                  A friend
                  Havana, Cuba

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        But back when we had sixty, there was no excuse not to be staffing the everloving shit out of the federal government. Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman are assholes, but they’re not going to vote to sustain a filibuster on a bunch of low-profile federal judges, second-tier fed appointees, and a bunch of sundry Deputy and Undersecretarys.

        It’s baffling.

        It’s not that baffling. Breaking a filibuster is super expensive in terms of floor time. (Absurd cloture ripening conditions, etc.) On striking thing about that term is the reversal of the classic “vote for cloture, since it’s procedural and vote against the bill for its substance” move for the “vote against cloture because, after all, the bill can win, then vote for the bill”!

        The Republicans filbustered things that got >60 votes (even 90 votes, I beleive). They did this to burn up time (and to get other leverage). Now, recess appointments would have been a good idea, but I think they were shy on that to try to avoid pissing off Snowe et al.

  4. R Johnston says:

    When the lesser evil is sufficiently evil, giving up completely or hoping for an absurdly unlikely longshot to come through become not-entirely crazy options. That doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge that the lesser evil is lesser, perhaps even considerably lesser, but if an 800 pound gorilla sits on your chest you’re just as dead as if a full grown elephant sits on you.

    If you’re on the left but Equal Protection issues take a back seat in your mind to economic issues and civil liberty issues then giving up on Obama is perfectly understandable.

  5. CaseyL says:

    See, this is what gets me about the people who yell and scream and want to primary Obama: They either have very short memories, or they’re willfully obtuse.

    Obama never had 60 votes in the Senate.

    Let me repeat that: He NEVER had 60 votes in the Senate.

    Besides Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh and Max Baucus also opposed him most of the time, notably on HCR. (In fact, it was Baucus’ delay on bringing HCR reform to a committee vote that wasted the momentum from the successful House passage) Al Franken wasn’t even seated until July 2009, by which point the HCR debate was already all about Death Panels and agents saboteurs disrupting town hall meetings.

    Obama never had 60 votes in the Senate. Continuing to insist he did doesn’t strengthen whatever argument it is you’re trying to make.

    • c u n d gulag says:

      Thank you for making that point. People forget that.
      Sure, Pelosi was great at keeping the Democrats in line in the House, and minimized the damage from the Red Dogs (I call them that ’cause there ain’t nothin’ Blue about ‘em), but Reid, no great tower of strength himself, didn’t have ‘enough’ of a majority, and almost no crossover from the Republicans side.
      So, blaming Obama is stupid.
      Hell, you can’t even blame Harry Reid.

      These are not the your parent’s Republicans who’ll cross the line. These people were already held in savage check by their base – and that’s only gotten worse since the Tea Party reared it’s ugly, mostly gray/white-haired, head.

      I’m interested in what Obama’s going to say tomorrow. I don’t know what he can say to sway the Republicans, since it hasn’t happened yet – obviously. I’m just hoping he stops with the bipartisan lingo and blasts them. You already have a few Congressmen say they won’t be there – FOR A JOINT SESSION OF CONGRESS! And now Dumbass DeMint is saying he may skip it.
      Can you imagine how the MSM would have treated Democrats if they decided not to attend one of Little Boots sessions?
      Unfortuntately, the MSM are not into equal opportunity to point things out. IOKIYAR!

      • soullite says:

        LMAO. We shouldn’t blame the Democrats for lacking partisan unity because Democrats suck. That is basically your argument. While true, it is not a good reason for electing a party that absolutely sucks and can’t get anything done.

      • soullite says:

        Really, do you people even listen to yourselves?

        You claim that we can’t blame Democrats for getting nothing done on the economy, because some Democrats are traitors. Yet the national party goes well out of their way to support those traitors and to scare away any primary challenger do them. Remember Blanche Lincoln, who was guaranteed to lose and still got 100% establishment support after publicly knifing the party in the back?

        You claim that we can’t blame Democrats for lacking unity.

        You claim we can’t blame Democrats for not changing their rules.

        you claim we can’t blame Democrats for anything at all.

        That is flat-out insanity and nobody is going to buy it who doesn’t already want to. Make no mistake, nobody is in the mood to want to right now but the over-privileged douche-bags who hang out at Obamaton sites, because nobody else has money, or a job, or a future and the Democrats have been promising (and failing without even trying) to fix that for longer than I’ve been alive

    • Holden Pattern says:

      The actual argument being made here is not that Obama couldn’t have done more. It’s that the US political system is hopelessly and completely broken for almost any purpose except whatever doesn’t greatly offend the people who own it (i.e., the malefactors of great wealth), and the only people who will be allowed to have significant power in that system will be those who won’t greatly offend the people who own the system (Obama included).

      The malefactors of great wealth and their slobbering peons will of course always howl like stuck pigs about every centrist elected no matter how inoffensive or moderate the centrist, because they want complete control over the system — a new gilded age is the end game, and they’re well on their way to achieving it.

    • soullite says:

      So we shouldn’t blame Democrats because they didn’t have an overwhelming majority, and we shouldn’t blame the Democrats for not changing the rules to make a majority the requirement because NAZI REPUBLICANS!

      Perfectly understandable.

  6. Green Caboose says:

    I am much more skeptical that anything Obama could have done could have gotten support in the Senate for a stimulus large enough to matter.

    Well, since he didn’t try we’ll never know will we?

    It is worth noting that, while justifying the stimulus in the first place, the Obama administration warned that without it unemployment could hit 9% by September. Well, it did hit that mark anyway – actually got to 10%. And yet, when that happened his administration chose to push for no additional action except for the meaningless jobs summit in December, 2009.

    Moreover, there were a TON of things that could have been done that weren’t tried by Obama to address the economy. 1) Call it a Jobs bill, not a Stimulus. 2) Push a second jobs bill through reconciliation in 2009. 3) Remove the AMT fix and the tax cuts from the first stimulus bill – they only served to make the number appear much larger than it actually was (about $500B). Both of the other would have been passed anyway later. 4) Administer HAMP in an effective manner to save millions of peoples homes, instead of in the disastrous way they chose to (the Obama goal apparently was to save Bank profits, not homeowners). 5) Administer the remainder of TARP in a manner that pushed for jobs. 6) Appoint someone without an R next to their name for the open Fed slots. 7) Package, as part of the stimulus, a CCC-like initiative to directly increase employment, instead of the indirect manner (like the ridiculous “cash for clunkers” which resulted in a lot of stimulus dollars spent on imported cars).

    In short, Obama could, and should, have started before January 20 realizing that he was facing the greatest economic crisis in almost 80 years and built his entire Presidency around addressing that situation. Instead he got one bill passed in his first month, laden with compromises that would reduce its effectiveness, and did NOTHING ELSE.

    And don’t repeat the “no one could have know back then” lie — this is the same lie that the Bush people used again and again. All the experts who’d been right about the housing bubble and the economic house of cards were saying these same things in December, 2008, but Obama chose to ignore them.

    • Blue Neponset says:

      He also could have had the DOJ very publicly investigate the bankers and rating agencies that were the main drivers behind the housing bust. People were screaming for blood after the bail outs and it was the tea baggers who capitalized on those feelings. He might also have fought back against the death panel lies.

  7. Uncle Kvetch says:

    Looking at today’s news, I see that Obama is once again being strong-armed by forces beyond his control (in this case, his own Administration) into violating one of his campaign promises. But it’s OK, because he’s not violating it as much as the forces beyond his control want him to violate it, so whatevs.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Thank God — we need yet more people arguing forcefully against the zero people who believe that the president doesn’t have wide discretion over war policy.

      • Uncle Kvetch says:

        Scott, I can’t make heads or tales of that response. Maybe it’s the multiple layers of meta-snark, or maybe it’s just the triple negative (“arguing against the zero people who believe the president doesn’t…”). Help me out?

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          My point is that absolutely everybody (certainly including me) agrees that Obama bears central responsibility for Iraq policy, so I have no idea who your last sentence is addressed to.

          • Uncle Kvetch says:

            I have no idea who your last sentence is addressed to.

            It was not addressed to you, or to anyone else in particular.

            It was more an expression of impotent frustration than anything else. Even though I know in my heart of hearts that I’ll hold my nose and pull the lever next November, shit like this makes staying home look better and better.

            But as you say, it’s not germane here, since this thread is specifically about areas where the degree of presidential discretion is open to question, and there’s no question here: Obama has 100% discretion to piss all over anyone who took him at his word when he pledged a total withdrawal from Iraq.

            Sorry for the OT comment.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            It’s be great to get more precision about that latitude.

            The president is certainly a much more peerless key player in national security (domestic and foreign), but there’s a lot of evidence that they are significantly constrained, with a strong bias toward action of certain kinds. It’s clearly much easier to violate civil liberties than respect them, increase domestic security measures than reduce them, and start military action than stop it.

            But re: military action, it’s clearly harder to start than increasing pointless airport security. Bush et al worked pretty hard to get Iraq going, including a pretty significant delay in their preferred timetable.

            Of course, there, the opposition that mattered wasn’t the peace movement, but the general national security institutions.

            My other big example is DADT in the first place (Clinton aimed for a Trumenesque desegregation order; failed).

            I’d also argue that Democrats are significantly more constrained than Republicans, esp. in the direction of restraint.

            I don’t think this absolves him, but I’d like to understand better the actual forces in play.

  8. [...] that note, Scott Lemieux has responded to my bout of severe grumpiness yesterday, altogether more cordially than I probably deserve: Elias Isquith is very agitated about one of the points in this post, which may be due to a lack of [...]

  9. soullite says:

    If this argument were going to convince anyone, it would have the first 100 times it was posted.

  10. While it’s clear that Obama and the White House team ought to have done things differently, it would have been very difficult. Not only was his campaign a ‘malice toward none, charity toward all’ argument, it seems clear that his refusal to go on the attack against Republicans and their policies is a reflection of how he really thinks. It may also be that he believes that being the black guy in the White House means that he has to be the calm one.

    What was really missing and what is still missing is any kind of left leadership in the congress. There are no left equivalents of the insane right-wing in the congress. As the congress began to consider the stimulus, there was no lefty caucus demand for $2 trillion in spending for jobs. When health care became the focus, it wasn’t that Obama failed to bring up single-payer or to demand a public option. It was that there were no lefty congresspeople or senators who forced those ideas into the debate. Pretty much the same with respect to the attempts to improve bankruptcy or financial regulation. As Senator Durbin said, the banks own the place.

    While he was less than perfect, it wasn’t Obama who brought about the 2010 debacle, it was the Democratic senators and congresspeople who did almost nothing to make a public argument that they ought to keep their majority.

  11. [...] that note, Scott Lemieux has responded to my bout of severe grumpiness yesterday, altogether more cordially than I probably deserve: Elias Isquith is very agitated about one of the points in this post, which may be due to a lack of [...]

  12. wengler says:

    I really think the 2010 elections can be summed up in a fairly simple way: a lot of the people that voted for Obama in 2008 stayed home, and a lot of seniors had the shit scared out of them over Obamacare cutting Medicare.

    You gotta remember that old people are home all day and a fair portion of them have the TV going most of the time too. They see commercials over and over and over again. And in the Citizens United era, the commercials were telling them that Obama’s signature healthcare bill was going to take their healthcare away from them and put them in front of a death panel. That’s powerful stuff.

    If you want to see a swing demographic, it’s the group of people that won’t be around in twenty years, but until they inevitably pass they need stuff. They need healthcare, they need their pension, they need help. And as long as they can still vote, they are going to be very pragmatic as to who will defend that stuff for them. All Republicans had to do was push these lies long enough until they became gospel.

    This is why the Paul Ryan plan was like when McClellan got Robert E. Lee’s battlefield orders before Antietam. He could’ve used them to destroy Lee’s army, just like Obama and the Democrats could’ve used the Ryan Plan to defeat Republicans all over the country. But instead McClellan once again dithered and refused to commit fully to the attack and turned what could’ve been a war-ending victory into a small victory with little strategic value. On the back of the Ryan plan, Dems picked up a highly Republican district in New York.

    Like McClellan though, the ineffectual follow through gave the Republicans the space they needed to get the President to sign on to their highly unpopular deficit agenda. And like McClellan, Obama left his supporters wondering which side he is on.

    If anything, the Paul Ryan plan is now a push, but with seniors leaving their tvs on next fall, they are sure to KNOW after thousands of hours that Obama is the one that cut Medicare(almost certain to be a factual statement this time) and Republicans think that’s just awful(nothing could be further from the truth).

  13. norbizness says:

    “We’ve tried nothin’ and we’re all out of ideas!”

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