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They Pull Me Back In

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I have been informed by several commenters that the beliefs about the limits of presidential power held by pretty much everyone to have studied the issue have been proven wrong.   I am especially happy to provide the link, as I can’t imagine a better (if inadvertent) case that there was no plausible path to a public option getting through the Senate.    Atkins’s argument is that the failure of Obama to try a bunch of obviously good strategies proves that he was opposed to the public option, and this is the primary reason it failed.   But the strategic options he presents are almost remarkable for being transparently ineffectual or counterproductive.    It’s hard to identify the single most obviously self-refuting item on the list, but I think we have a winner:

4. Promise to campaign hard for Blanche Lincoln if she voted for the public option.

So, if Lincoln votes for a public option, she would have the full support of a president who lost her state by almost 20 points in the midst of a fairly easy victory and remained about as popular as syphilis. Clearly, the fact that he didn’t think of this brilliant strategery proves he’s a closet Republican! And then he could have responded by threatening to support her primary opponent (point 6) for a nomination everyone knows is basically worthless anyway (point 5), and then offer her some unspecified “plum appointment” that would surely be more attractive than any other career available to a former senator.  Hard to see any flaws with that plan.

The rest of the list is similar; implausibility after implausibility that fails in particular to consider downside risk as well as the fact that the legislators who don’t care if anything passes hold all the cards. The fact is, the Obama/Reid strategy with Lieberman was vindicated; stripping him of his chairmanship would have just led to him caucusing him with Republicans, which means not only no public option but no ACA and no DADT repeal. And even in the extremely unlikely event that this worked his vote for the public option is worthless without the votes of other senators (like Bayh) Obama has no leverage over at all. (Why would we think that Nelson wanted a kickback he had to distance himself from and was stripped from the final bill so badly he would support the public option?) Baucus wasn’t “empower[ed]…to be a kingmaker” by Barack Obama, but by the fact that he controlled one of the relevant committees, and in any case how disempowering him would have made him more likely to support the public option is unexplained, for the obvious reason that it doesn’t make any sense. And so on. The idea that this amateur-night political speculation reflects hidden presidential powers is just bizarre. At some point, maybe you have to consider that a lot of Democratic senators are conservatives, and the leverage that presidents have over them is very limited.

But the real key is the assertion that “LBJ and FDR were legendary for their arm-twisting tactics when it came to recalcitrant Congresses, and they are Democratic legends in Presidential history.” The idea that the success of FDR and LBJ was in their ability to steamroller Congress is a myth. Let’s go to Sides again:

The short answer: presidents don’t often succeed in persuading reluctant members of Congress to go along with their views. Take Lyndon Johnson, supposedly a master manipulator of Congress. Edwards shows that support in Congress for Johnson’s initiatives was not systematically higher than Kennedy’s or Carter’s. For example, on crucial votes in the House, Johnson won the support of 68% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans. Kennedy did better among Democrats (74%) and worse among Republicans (17%). Carter did worse among Democrats (59%) but the same among Republicans (29%).

FDR and LBJ are the two presidents of the last century with longer lists of progressive accomplishments than Obama, and they were the two that had substantially more favorable legislative environments.  And the Democratic presidents with a less impressive record of achievements than Obama all (with the possible exception of Carter) had substantially less favorable legislative environments. Republican presidents in Democratic-dominated periods had much more liberal records than those in Republican-dominated contexts. At some point, you have to start wondering if it’s more than just a coincidence.

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  • mark f

    Why would we think that Nelson wanted a kickback he had to distance himself from and was stripped from the final bill so badly he would support the public option?

    And besides, to elaborate on what I said in the other thread, this point:

    7. Don’t offer Ben Nelson a Nebraska Compromise unless he voted for ACA with a public option. All or nothing. (And by the way, offering that sort of direct bribe proves that Presidential arm-twisting of Congress really is possible if you want it badly enough.)

    is easily refuted by taking it to the absurd.

    Even if we exclude the truly absurd, like “what if Obama wanted to kill Nelson’s whole family ‘badly enough’?”, and stick to something like “Could a president have bribed Nelson into supporting universal single-payer?” the answer would obviously be no. So we agree that at some point Nelson could be bribed no further, no matter how badly the president might want something. Now we’re just figuring out which side of the line the public option falls on and Atkins is asserting without evidence, and actually contrary to all available evidence, that the PO is on the “gettable” side.

    Every single item is remarkably stupid.

    • david mizner

      What’s stupid – or just wrong — is believing Dems needed the votes of Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson. They didn’t. They only needed 50 votes.

      Scott and others here have selective amnesia about this, but it was widely accepted that the PO could be passed through reconciliation. More than 20 Senators signed a letter in support of passing the PO through reconciliation —

      http://tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/02/running-list-of-senators-who-have-signed-bennets-public-option-letter.php?ref=mp

      — and even the White House accepted that reconciliation could be used. Here’s Greg Sargent at the time taking the White House to task for saying they wouldn’t push the PO through reconciliation, pointing out that momentum for it was growing.

      Asked directly whether the President’s failure to include the public option in his proposal means he views the public option as dead, Gibbs didn’t exactly dispute this interpretation.

      “There are some that are supportive of this,” Gibbs said. But he added: “There isn’t enough political support in the majority to get this through.”

      “The President took the Senate bill as the base and looks forward to discussing consensus ideas on Thursday,” Gibbs added, presumably meaning that the public option is not a consensus idea.

      It’s unclear why Gibbs is deciding in advance that there isn’t enough support to pass this idea. Momentum has been gathering for days. It’s also very likely that it would continue to gain steam if Obama racks up a victory at the summit and Dems press forward with plans to pass reform themselves via reconciliation.

      http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/health-care/gibbs-public-option-via-reconciliation-cant-pass-congress/

      You can argue that the risk of doing this was too great and would have doomed the entire bill. You can’t argue — not reasonably — that Dems needed the votes of the most conservative Dems to pass it.

      • The sum total of your evidence for the claim even the White House accepted that reconciliation could be used is a statement from the White House expressing exactly the opposite of what you claim, and the opinion of the TPM writer that they are wrong.

    • david mizner

      They only needed 50 votes; that is, they didn’t need the votes of Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson.

      [I put a comment about this already that seems to have disappeared, but forgive me if shows up, rendering this repetitive.)

      Whatever Scott and others might claim, it was widely accepted that reconciliation could be used to pass the PO. More than 24 Senators signed a letter supporting the PO through reconciliation —

      http://tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/02/running-list-of-senators-who-have-signed-bennets-public-option-letter.php?ref=mp

      — and even the White House accepted reconciliation could be used. Here’s Greg Sargent taking the White House to task for failing to push the PO through reconciliation even as support for this was surging.

      It’s unclear why Gibbs is deciding in advance that there isn’t enough support to pass this idea. Momentum has been gathering for days. It’s also very likely that it would continue to gain steam if Obama racks up a victory at the summit and Dems press forward with plans to pass reform themselves via reconciliation.

      But Gibbs’s statement seems likely, willfully or not, to slow that momentum in advance.

      As I noted below, the failure to put the public option in Obama’s proposal doesn’t preclude a reconciliation vote on it later. But Gibbs is flatly declaring it a non-starter right now, before the idea has a chance to gain steam after a successful summit — a declaration that risks being taken by some in Congress as a virtual death sentence.

      You can argue that such a move would’ve be too risky. You cannot honestly argue that Dems needed the votes of the most conservative Dems.

      • Oh good, one of these threads just wouldn’t be complete without you regurgitating this bullshit. I was starting to get worried.

        • david mizner

          As long as Scott keeps pretending Dems needed the vote of Ben Nelson and company I’ll keep pointing out that they didn’t.

          It’s rather instructive to read stuff written at the time. Here’s Greg Sargent — no Obama-basher, he — criticizing the President for not pushing the PO through reconciliation.

          • You keep pointing it out all you want, you’re wrong. Entertaining in your own way, but wrong.

            • rea

              In the last thread, I challenged him to look at the reconciliation rules, and explain how they allowed this. He prefers to keep repeating the same content-free argument.

              • What this thread really needs is an easily-disproved claim about public opinion.

      • mark f

        I put a comment about this already that seems to have disappeared, but forgive me if shows up, rendering this repetitive.

        You probably included more than one link. Perhaps the one you deleted actually addressed something in the post you replied to.

        • david mizner

          ? It undercuts the entire premise of your post, that Nelson’s vote was needed.

          • mark f

            Well, aside from being just plain wrong, as Brien Jackson and Murc have been ably and repeatedly explaining to you for two weeks, the entire premise of my post was actually that Ben Nelson accepting a bribe for x is not proof that a lack of presidential fortitude is what prevented Nelson from accepting a bribe for y, as Atkins claimed.

            • david mizner

              explained what to me?

              Yesterday Brien acknowledged that reconciliation could have been used — ie that the votes of Nelson, Lincoln, and company weren’t needed. Today he’s singing a different tune, but that’s not my problem.

              • Right, I said reconciliation could have been used to pass the public option alone without the majority of the ACA.

                Dumb or dishonest?

              • mark f

                I’ve been following along! At best Brien acknowledged that passing it through reconciliation was fomally possible, while consistently denying that the votes were there to actually put that into practice.

                • david mizner

                  I never said the votes were there — that’s not what we’re talking about.

                • mark f

                  I never said the votes were there — that’s not what we’re talking about.

                  I admit I’m vexed, and this time not by your obtuseness.

      • Murc

        They only needed 50 votes; that is, they didn’t need the votes of Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson.

        They didn’t have fifty. Period.

        There were probably fifty-plus votes for passing a public options via a normal vote. Support for pushing it through using reconciliation topped out in the low forties, and that might be generous.

        They didn’t. Have. The votes.

  • Also too, the stimulus was too small. Despite the fact he had to slash 100 bil to get it to pass by 3 votes, if he had only sent a 1.5 tril stimulus to the floor and twisted arms, the economy would be much better now. Damn Obummer.

    • Anonymous

      Much of the debate over the size of the stimulus, as I recall, was over whether it should be reduced from the initial proposal, not about the specific size. If Obama had proposed a $1.5 trillion stimulus, and certain senators had decided to show off by insisting on only $1 trillion, we would have got a larger stimulus. The starting point actually does matter. The idea that the president cannot just make Congress do whatever he wants is well understood. The idea that it makes no difference what the president tries to get Congress to do is dumb.

      • I don’t think anyone necessarily disagrees with that, so much as they’re saying there’s no guarantee it would work like that, and that it’s also possible that either a) Congress would never pass a stimulus bill that ended in “trillion” or b) a proposal too high would give pivotal Senators sticker shock and poison the well from the beginning, especially since the pivot Senators on the stimulus were actual Republicans. I’m not saying either of them is true, but I think too many people don’t consider that they’re at least possible when evaluating the stimulus bill.

        And it also seems to me that the people who seem convinced that Collins and Snowe just wanted to lop off some arbitrary amount of the President’s proposal are completely ignoring that they zeroed in on some of the most stimulative aspects of the bill, like aid to state budgets and food stamps. I’m not entirely convinced that’s a coincidence.

        • What Brien said also.

        • Anonymous

          Yes, there certainly is no guarantee it would work like that. That is a good point about the parts of the bill that Collins and Snowe were most interested in.

          • Anonymous

            Crap, I just realized I’ve been posting as Anonymous.

            Sincerely,

            guy who usually posts as Mark

      • If Obama had proposed a $1.5 trillion stimulus, and certain senators had decided to show off by insisting on only $1 trillion, we would have got a larger stimulus. The starting point actually does matter.

        Murc, the next time you want to buy a new car from a dealership, are you going to start the negotiations by offering $1,200?

        Why not?

        • Er, Mark, that is.

          • Mark

            No, but that number is so low that it’s ridiculous. It’s analogous to Obama starting off by asking for a $25 trillion stimulus.

            And since I have now remembered how to use the Internet, I am posting this under my actual “name.”

            • I submit that the word “trillion” would have produced a shock, completely unrelated to the merits of the amount, that would have caused it to be received as a ridiculous number.

              Note how the opponents of the ARRA spent the debate throwing that word around.

              • Mark

                Perhaps. Perhaps not. But somewhere along the line, the White House should have considered how large a stimulus was actually needed, that is, how large a stimulus would be passed immediately by a Congress made of competent, rational people in a functioning democracy.

                This would not, unfortunately, have been the only thing considered in designing what Obama was going to support, but I really do not believe that they came up with $800 billion, or whatever the exact initial number was, because they thought it was just right from either an economic or a negotiations perspective.

                I mean, from the day that information on the bill was available, I knew that what they were working on was too small and apportioned incorrectly. Didn’t you? I think millions of people did. At any time, did you think, “great, $800 billion is perfect! And those tax cuts aren’t stupid!”

                I suppose my real question for you is, do you think that economics played any role in the White House’s position, or that they just picked the biggest number they could think of that they thought wouldn’t freak out Ben Nelson? And if so, do you think that’s appropriate? Seriously, does Obama know how far from satisfactory that bill was?

                Personally I would just like some hint that Obama has a clue about these things. It’s the difference between thinking the president is an adequate executive playing a mediocre-to-bad hand, and thinking the president is a total fool. It’s not narcissistic to want some evidence that the president isn’t an idiot, is it?

  • Ya know, I was actually just feeling a little bit guilty about not reading Digby’s blog anymore. So thanks for helping me with that.

    This has to be a ruse, right? People can’t be that stupid without money riding on it, can they?

    • Malaclypse

      People can’t be that stupid without money riding on it, can they?

      Non-rich libertarians come from somewhere…

    • Alison

      Ya know, I was actually just feeling a little bit guilty about not reading Digby’s blog anymore. So thanks for helping me with that.

      Seconded. Sheesh.

    • Reading that writer chastising others for their self-regard was a bit much.

    • Marc

      The attitude is very common among her co-bloggers. Digby herself has always desperately needed an editor; shes just gotten more long-winded and Eeyore-like. That doesn’t leave much to like; there is a reason why she doesn’t get many links any more.

      The comments there are even worse, sadly. It’s really too bad.

      • Malaclypse

        shes just gotten more long-winded and Eeyore-like.

        Every time I go over there, I remember all the people who complained about Tanta being long-winded. The difference is, Tanta could write 30,000 words on how reverse-amortization mortgages worked, and it would be spellbinding. Digby lately, not so much.

        • Mikey

          You know what Malaclypse? Bless your heart for that!
          I miss her terribly. What I learned from her!
          Digby, not so much.

          • How sad it is that the might have fallen, particularly I now since realize they no longer agree with me.

            • Ok that’s it, no more posting after the third after dinner drink.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I don’t endorse the sentiments, at least in re: Digby herself, who is still worth reading in my book.

  • david mizner

    Your argument would be stronger if you didn’t misrepresent Atkins’ post:

    Atkins’s argument is that the failure of Obama to try a bunch of obviously good strategies proves that he was opposed to the public option, and this is the primary reason it’s failed.

    Where’d you come up with that?
    He says neither thing.

    • mark f

      Atkins:

      This is another restatement of the “Powerless President” meme from many Adminsitration defenders. It is used not just in relation to healthcare, but every other major legislative debate as well. There is some truth to it, in that even a truly progressive President would find it almost impossible to move a corrupted Congress on most issues. But when it comes to the ACA and public option in particular, the argument is utterly laughable.

      For starters, here are just a few of the things President Obama could have done:

      [stupid list]

      But not one of them was even tried, to say nothing of more creative tactics.

      Which leads to only one of two conclusions: either the President didn’t want a public option at all as many progressives convincingly argue based on a wide array of evidence, or the President valued Senate comity and gentlemanly process over the implementation of good policy.

      • david mizner

        Is that response to me? Show me where Atkins says it shows Obama didn’t want the PO or that his actions were the “primary reason it’s failed”?

        He makes neither argument.

        • mark f

          ?

          Show me where Atkins says it shows Obama didn’t want the PO

          not one of [my stupid ideas] was even tried . . . Which leads to only one of two conclusions: either the President didn’t want a public option at all as many progressives convincingly argue based on a wide array of evidence, or the President valued Senate comity and gentlemanly process over the implementation of good policy.

          or that his actions were the “primary reason it’s failed”

          the “Powerless President” meme . . . is used not just in relation to healthcare, but every other major legislative debate as well. There is some truth to it . . . But when it comes to the ACA and public option in particular, the argument is utterly laughable.

          • david mizner

            ?? Do you actually believe those quotes prove what you’re claiming they prove?

            Dishonest or dumb?

            • mark f

              Do I actually believe that Atkins writing “either the President didn’t want a public option at all . . . or the President valued Senate comity and gentlemanly process over the implementation of good policy” proves that Atkins was arguing the President didn’t want the PO? Call me dishonest, call me dumb, but yes, I do actually believe it.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Atkins says it shows Obama didn’t want the PO

          “either the President didn’t want a public option at all as many progressives convincingly argue”

          I’m not sure how this can be any more clear. It’s almost a direct quote.

          and this is the primary reason it’s failed.

          “But when it comes to the ACA and public option in particular, the argument is utterly laughable.”

          I suppose we can quibble over “primary,” but it sure reads to me like he believes that if Obama wanted it, it would have passed. If not, what are we arguing about? Obama should have done some stuff that would have inevitably failed anyway?

          • david mizner

            Come on, Scott. He says 2 not one conclusions are possible:

            Which leads to only one of two conclusions: either the President didn’t want a public option at all as many progressives convincingly argue based on a wide array of evidence, or the President valued Senate comity and gentlemanly process over the implementation of good policy.

            As for ‘quibbling’ over the use of primary — he doesn’t come close to saying that. The most he does is suggest that O’s failure to fight for the PO contributed to its demise.

            Your piece is just as strong without these misrepresentations — don’t know why you’re sticking with them. I hope you’re not one of those bloggers who can’t admit when he’s erred.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks

              Keep up the good fight on this, dm.

              Though I don’t entirely agree with Scott, he deserves credit for generally sticking to the substance.

              These comment threads, however, have largely devolved into howls of outrage and personal attacks, which I’ve decided I lack the stomach for.

            • I’m not sure why you think Scott substantively misrepresented Atkins. Yes, there’s formally 2 conclusions. The one that Scott quotes directly is the one Atkins says, “as many progressives convincingly argue based on a wide array of evidence”. I presume that if an author thinks that a conclusion has been convincingly supported by a wide array of evidence that they agree with that conclusion. Call me uncharitable, but that seems pretty reasonable. If you couple that with an alternative that is prima facie silly, insulting, and the author mobilizes no evidence in favor of, I think it’s a slam dunk. If I write, “Either, as all the scientific evidence overwhelming supports, the global climate is warming due to human actions, or the Tooth Fairy is futzing the data,” then you are safe in ascribing the first conclusion to me.

              The other also requires the first in some sense. I presume that if Obama could have easily won the good policy, knew it, and still let it die that this is enough to establish a revealed preference against that policy. (If you look at the DADT policy, I think the stronger argument is for anticipated efficacy. Yes, I think Obama didn’t value the PO enough to risk all health care reform over. Frankly, if the choice is ACA without PO or the status quo ante, ACA without PO wins hands down.)

              Even if the disjunctive conclusion were reasonable, how does it help Atkins? It’s really puzzling.

              • Scott Lemieux

                Yeah, I think we must have different ideas about what “convincing” means, and I don’t understand yours.

                • rea

                  He’s reasoning from first principles (Obama = bad) and his conclusions inevitably follow (Obama = bad, ergo, Obama = bad, Q. E. D.)

  • The post also suffers from not understanding concrete limitations. For example, once you pass an organization resolution (which sets committee chairmanships) the majority leader can’t just unilaterally change the makeup of committees. At that point, stripping Lieberman of his chairmanship would have required 51 Senators to vote for a new organizing resolution, and I do believe that could be filibustered.

  • Scott, it’s incomplete not to mention a correlative factor: national political experience.

    Both FDR and LBJ (less FDR, but he had some) had experience dealing directly with the Congressional leadership in both parties: Johnson as Senate majoirty leader (among other offices) and FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson during WWI (he created the naval reserves, in fact.)

    It’s no coincidence, I think, to note that Carter and Obama both have had trouble keeping their ducks in a row in their own party, primarily because they are viewed as insurgents from within.

    • I don’t know about that. Obama’s Presidential campaign got support from A LOT of the old guard in the Senate, and I’d actually say Obama did a remarkable job of holding the caucus together for 4-6 months. There’s just a limit to how much progressive legislation you can get conservative Senators to vote for.

      Or put another way, if we use Atkins’ standard FDR is basically the biggest monster in the history of American liberalism for not pushing anti-lynching and other civil rights legislation when he could have forced the racist Southern Democrats to support it.

      • Obama’s Presidential campaign got support from A LOT of the old guard in the Senate

        So did Carter, after he swept through the southern primaries. The parallels are there: unpopular Republican incumbent with a difficult economy, insurgency candidacy promising change, surprising strength for an unknown against a well-funded, well-organized establishment candidate (George Wallace, particularly in the South).

        In office, however, both were punished by the same old guard that had looked to their candidacy as a salavation: Carter, from forcing the party to defend Wallace to northern liberals, and Obama, from having to force the party to fight a rear-guard action against the ghost of the Clinton administration.

        Carter, mostly because he willingly antagonized Congressional leaders in the first hundred days, but Obama? I’m not sure.

        But since he couldn’t even get his party to agree on ARRA in the first two weeks of his administration, something or someone (*koffkoff*RAHMEMMANUEL*koffkoff*) musta pissed them off fiercely.

        • I think the Occam friendly answer is exactly the one Scott offered: a relatively large number of Democratic Senators are just conservatives.

          • It’s not like LBJ didn’t have the Dixiecrats to deal with.

            • TT

              He did have liberal Republicans, though.

          • a relatively large number of Democratic Senators are just conservatives.

            Not even a relatively large number.

            This comes down to 3-5 out of a nominal 60-Democrat-and-allies caucus.

  • CR

    What some folks seem unclear on is that while every item in Atkins’s list may have been weak tea, it was only beverage Obama had to serve up to progressives.

    Bill Clinton was a master at appearing to fight for progressive goals in general at the very same time he was dumping them overboard (the end of welfare as we know it, anyone?) When his admin couldn’t overtly portray him as fighting the noble fight for the left, they’d leak internal debates portraying him as reluctantly conceding to political reality. Were these just sops? Sure, but they allowed progressives to let go of some of their anger at election time.

    What do we get from Obama? Leaked details of deals with drug companies. It’s statecraft as stagecraft and Obama’s administration is utterly in inept at it.

    • fasteddie9318

      This criticism, unlike Atkins, makes total sense. Whatever their failings on policy, Obama’s White House strikes me as monumentally bad at politics.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        This seems to me to be a much more serious criticism, too.

        Indeed, the whole frame for the Atkins-Lemieux debate (and countless others like it) is way too technocratic and focused exclusively on legislative results.

        A lot of the anger at Obama from the left could have been avoided if the President had only bothered to look a bit more like he was trying to get more progressive policies passed (which would, in turn, have provided an opportunity to highlight the fact that he couldn’t get these policies passed, so he needed more Democrats in Congress).

        • So Lilly Ledbetter was, what, exactly? Expanding SCHIP? Suspending the Gitmo tribunals? Directing Transportation to issue higher CAFE standards? Ending the Mexico City policy which banned funding to international groups who permitted abortions? Setting a deadline to get troops out of Iraq? Relaxing enforcement of the federal marijuana laws? Endorsing the UN resolution on gender identity?

          That’s just the first hundred days.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            This is an argument about messaging. The better the substance, the more extraordinary the messaging failure, no?

        • And the problem with that from a substantive standpoint continues to be that it just assumes a lack of confidence, when in reality it’s highly likely that it would have led to an even more difficult time getting Nelson and Lieberman’s support.

      • UserGoogol

        I think it’s wrong to equate being “being good at politics” with “being good at making progressives feel good about you.” People who are both firmly progressives and who follow politics closely enough to care about the particulars of presidential signalling are not exactly swing votes. They’re nice to have around to knock on doors in election season, but even then it’s not the most important thing in the world. As such, someone who is good at politics can quite justifiably choose to overlook such people for other demographics. It’s possible he’s pissing people off with no gain, (in which case you’d be right) but I think he just has other priorities than assuaging people’s feelings.

        Politics is about utilizing the levers of power to get results. Stagecraft is one (extremely weak) mechanism out of many for getting results. Being good at stagecraft is neither necessary nor sufficient to be good at politics.

        • fasteddie9318

          I think it’s wrong to equate being “being good at politics” with “being good at making progressives feel good about you.” People who are both firmly progressives and who follow politics closely enough to care about the particulars of presidential signalling are not exactly swing votes. They’re nice to have around to knock on doors in election season, but even then it’s not the most important thing in the world. As such, someone who is good at politics can quite justifiably choose to overlook such people for other demographics.

          Sure they can, but he hasn’t done that either. I harbor a sneaking suspicion that a lot of those swing voters can be won over with a concerted argument in favor of more progressive policy; they’re swing voters, after all, so not ideologically set either way, and there’s plenty of polling out there to suggest that these people are “opposed” in general to policy initiatives of which they’re supportive when those initiatives are broken down and explained to them. This is a messaging failure that could maybe be rectified with a more vocal argument by the White House in favor of the liberal position. And that’s to say nothing of the swath of “low-information” voters out there who just like to see their president show some darn toughness and make them feel like daddy is here to protect them. In general I think the failure to not at least appear to be fighting for their positions has hurt this WH.

    • Anonymous

      The most obvious problem with this criticism is that it seems to lack empirical support regarding its conclusions. Obama has higher approval ratings from Democrat-identified voters than Clinton did at the same time in his presidency.

      It probably seems different because in 1995 the left blogosphere, where lots of high-information political junkies on the left with a long list of greivances hang out, didn’t exist, so the community of disappointed liberal supporters seemed a lot smaller.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Every little bit counts, electorally speaking.

        That said, I totally agree that Obama’s biggest electoral problem is with voters in the middle not with voters on the left.

  • md rackham

    It doesn’t seem to me that your FDR/LBJ numbers actually tell us anything, because we don’t know the numbers they would have had before they started arm-twisting. It seems unlikely that the starting (pre-arm-twisting) numbers would have been the same for both FDR and LBJ.

    LBJ in particular did a lot of drinking and arm-twisting with his old buddies from Congress. Did this actually make a difference? I don’t think we have enough information to know. But neither do we know that it hurt.

    Johnson and FDR also dealt with some very controversial legislation, where one would expect the starting numbers would be lower, so the fact they passed at all *might* be a testament to their arm-twisting. I don’t see how the numbers you quote tell us one way or the other.

    And Obama’s numbers for Republicans hovers around 2-6% (at least in the Senate), right? Does that really tell us anything about Obama and his arm-twisting capabilities/inclinations, or does it just reinforce the idea that Republicans are intransigent?

    • LBJ and FDR also had significantly more liberal Congresses to work with, at least in terms of economic issues.

    • Ed Marshall

      LBJ “twisted arms” by inviting people to White House dinners, taking them out on the presidential yacht to schmooze. The other way was to use allies in the legislature to offer pork. This seems to be the exact same formula Obama or any other president uses.

      • mark f

        We’d have Medicare for all if Obama would only make Even Bayh listen to him take a piss.

  • another thing the apologist axis pretends that they don’t understand is the short-lived window of opportunity for national transformation. yes, obama himself tossed that in a burlap bag with a cinder block and dropped it in the pond cuz he had no intention of upsetting the status quo, but the fact is still obvious to anyone who cares to see that had he wanted to lead, he could have. lincoln, bayh, nelson, et al. are not principled; they follow where they are lead. in the absence of leadership, they preen and wallow in their shallow vanity.

    • Exactly, they’re led by their paymasters in corporate American. Thanks for playing.

    • burritoboy

      They are also sitting US Senators, which makes them very hard to bribe. All of them have been (or had been) in the Senate a long time. The only job more important than their current ones is the US Presidency itself. Quite a few were retiring and not running for re-election (Bayh, Lieberman) at all. Probably the only thing anybody could have offered Bayh to influence him was a giant pile of money to put in his pocket (not pork for Indiana – he wasn’t going to participate in a re-election campaign anyway). Which donation of a giant pile of money is probably not a great idea for Obama to do.

    • the short-lived window of opportunity for national transformation

      Because as we all know, “national transformation” is a short-term phenomenon.

      As opposed to the passage of a president’s legislative agenda during his honeymoon.

  • also, too, digby’s kid kinda got you all upset, didn’t he?

    • Murc

      A little bit. I like my fellow activists to have a clear understanding of the facts involved and the political strategy that flows from them. Flawed strategy based on flawed facts won’t get us anywhere.

      (Insert joke about facts being optional in politics.)

  • fasteddie9318

    Scott, I would counter that the Lieberman troika of stupid ideas is more self-refuting than the Lincoln point, and actually seeing how stupid they looked written out in that piece has actually made me rethink the amount of criticism I’ve had for Obama.

    You can’t “pressure” the Senate majority leader to strip a committee chair in the middle of a session; it would never happen and you’d make the majority leader look like a fool. Stupid.

    You can’t “zero out any and all pork” going to a pain in the ass Senator who probably (and now we know definitely) isn’t running for re-election and is already so massively unpopular in his state that he likely wouldn’t win anyway. Lieberman pulled his support for Medicare-for-all because Anthony Weiner came out in favor of it. This is not a guy who cares about anything other than sticking his thumb in the eye of liberals at this point. All this would achieve would be to kneecap Blumenthal, Connecticut’s other Democratic senator. Stupid.

    Not “help[ing] the likes of Joe Lieberman get elected in the first place” sounds so cool and collected, except that the episode Atkins was talking about referred to Obama’s endorsement of Lieberman in the primary, not the general, and it all happened two full years before Lieberman full-on turned on the party and nearly four years before Lieberman proved to be such a PITA on health care. Sure, you probably could have seen some of it coming given what a douchebag Lieberman is, but political parties and their high-profile members almost always rally around incumbents in contested primaries, and expecting Obama to have looked four years into the future before he gave his endorsement is unfair to say the very least. Stupid.

    And the thing about all this is, if we’re dealing with a 60 vote threshold for legislation and the Democrats nominally have exactly 60 votes, if you can’t appeal to that 60th vote (and IMO they had nothing to offer Lieberman or with which to threaten him that would have changed his position), you can’t wrangle 59 other reluctant senators to force them to vote for a measure that is doomed to defeat.

    • Scott Lemieux

      You can’t “zero out any and all pork” going to a pain in the ass Senator who probably (and now we know definitely) isn’t running for re-election and is already so massively unpopular in his state that he likely wouldn’t win anyway. Lieberman pulled his support for Medicare-for-all because Anthony Weiner came out in favor of it.

      right. This wouldn’t hurt Lieberman; it would hurt the next Dem candidate.

  • Murc

    Oh man, I was waiting for you to get to that Atkins post, Scott. Mind if I get some of my own fisking done in there?

    1. Pressure Harry Reid to threaten Joe Lieberman’s committee chair position.

    I’d like to point out that in addition to being inadvisable, this is actually not possible. The Democratic Caucus isn’t organized like the Republican one is. Chairmanships are doled out based on seniority and its basically impossible to remove someone who remains a nominal member of the party from one, at least mid-session. Reid would have needed to pass (I believe) another organizing resolution through the entire Senate to do this, and he wouldn’t have had the voted.

    2. Pressure Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to threaten to zero out any and all pork for the state of Connecticut. Let it be known through Capitol Hill rumor that that was happening, and put the scare into other Senators as well.

    At which point they’ll both face massive caucus revolts. Trying to zero out pork for CN, as well as being monstrous (people in CN don’t deserve bridges and hospitals because Lieberman is an asshole?) and threatening to do it to other states would produce a Democratic caucus that says ‘oh yeah? And you’ll make us vote for this… how exactly?’

    3. Or, alternatively, don’t help the likes of Joe Lieberman get elected in the first place.

    This is actually legit. Once Lieberman backstabbed the party with the whole Connecticut for Lieberman thing Obama, Reid, and everyone else should have gone after him hard. The people of CN nominated a Democrat. The leaders of the Democratic Party should have fucking respected their decision.

    So so far Atkins is one for three.

    Points 4-8 Scott has already done an admirable job of taking down. I’d like to note that, while FDR and LBJ are famous for their ‘arm twisting,’ so far nobody has brought up specific instances of leverage they applied and explained how a parallel exists. LBJ and FDR got some votes at the margins they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten with some judicious applications of bribery to those who wanted to vote for their initiatives but needed some cover, and threats to those who didn’t want to vote for them AND who were politically vulnerable in ways the WH could actually exploit. The conservadems are neither.

    I’d also like to point out that in times past, a White House could also often exercise greater leverage over members of an opposing party than members of their own. Intracaucus comity prevents Obama from targeting (or even bribing very well) members of his own party. But if this were even the 1980s, there would be Republicans he could credibly threaten and/or bribe in order to secure their votes. That is not the case these days.

    • fasteddie9318

      This is actually legit. Once Lieberman backstabbed the party with the whole Connecticut for Lieberman thing Obama, Reid, and everyone else should have gone after him hard. The people of CN nominated a Democrat. The leaders of the Democratic Party should have fucking respected their decision.

      But what Atkins is complaining about, Obama’s endorsement of Lieberman, happened in the primary and before the Lieberman for Lieberman thing happened. Obama campaigned for Lamont in the general.

    • Ed Marshall

      Obama campaigned for Lamont after the primary.

      • Murc

        Please.

        The Dem establishment ‘campaigned’ for Ned Lamont in the sense that they went through the motions. And all the heavy hitters who came out for him were oh-so-careful to avoid hurting Holy Joes fee-fees while they did so; they acted like it was Lamont vs. that nameless Republican schmuck and that there wasn’t even a third person in the race. That’s less than effective.

        • Ed Marshall

          Lieberman won with a Republican/Conservative Dem coalition. I don’t think anyone casting a vote in that election didn’t understand exactly what they were voting for. The Republicans especially showed some very savvy political behavior.

          • There’s also the fact that Holy Joe was incomprehensibly popular in 2006 among Connecticut voters.

            I mean, Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts popular. He used to be a major icon, a point of pride, in Connecticut.

            It’s easy to forget this now, because he’s so thoroughly trashed his popularity, but Joe Lieberman was royalty in that state.

            • Then how did he lose the primary?

              • Scott Lemieux

                Because Democratic primary voters are different than general election voters?

              • Because it was limited to Democratic voters, who were a minority in the state.

                • January 2006, Qunnipiac: 62-24% approval, 64-24 reelect.

                  Here is an interesting site that allows you to track his approval over time – there are numerous polls throughout 2006 – and use a pull-down menu to look at his popularity by party affiliation.

  • But what Atkins is complaining about, Obama’s endorsement of Lieberman, happened in the primary and before the Lieberman for Lieberman thing happened.

    A smart politician would have stayed out of the fray until after the primary. Obama knew he needed Lieberman’s access to Connecticut hedge fund and bankstah money. It blew up in his face when he couldn’t get JoeMo on board to crew his boat.

    • fasteddie9318

      That may be true, but “Obama” and “smart politician” don’t seem to be synonyms at this point, and anyway it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference in terms of getting a public option into the healthcare package.

    • Ed Marshall

      That would have been such a violation of Senate Causus comity (like it’s never happened, no other Senator endorsed Lamont against Lieberman, I can’t think of any sitting Senator ever endorsing a primary challenger against another member of the caucus), I doubt that he would have been viable as a candidate for President. He wouldn’t have been getting any endorsements from the legislative branch.

      • Yes, but that would have been smart. Or something.

      • It’s not unheard of for a candidate for President staying out of another state’s primary decision.

        If Obama had not been running, then yes, he would have been compelled to support Lieberman but as a candidate who would have to support whomever was down ticket in the election, no one in his right mind would endorses a primary contender.

    • A smart politician would have stayed out of the fray until after the primary. Obama knew he needed Lieberman’s access to Connecticut hedge fund and bankstah money.

      So which is it? You just contradicted yourself.

      Would a smart politician have alienated someone, by refusing to endorse him in the primary, that he needed for his own political success?

      • I think the conclusion to draw from my comment is that Obama is not that smart a politician.

        Something he’s amply demonstrated over the past two years.

        • I really find the “Obama is not a smart politician” line to be both pretty obviously wrong and problematic.

          First, I don’t see how “smart” is being assessed here. Bill Clinton was never, IIRC, castigated as not being a smart politician, for all his tremendous political disasters (starting with health care! the loss of the House!). In general, he was dealt a far better hand than Obama has been. If anything, Clinton was less satisfactory toward progressives than Obama has been. It seems, afaict, Obama is at least as smart as Clinton was. Which is pretty smart, overall.

          Second, we have plenty of right wing nonsense about Obama not being smart simpliciter, and qualifying it with “politician” doesn’t hugely help. So, let’s not play into that rhetorical trope.

          • Really?

            With majorities in the House AND Senate, it took him a year to get HCR reformed passed.

            That alone would tell me the man is a frikkin’ idiot.

            • If that alone would lead you to that conclusion, then obviously you aren’t particularly tracking reality or reasonableness.

              Even prima facie your reasoning is nonsense. Why is a year unreasonably long for developing and passing a major piece of highly controversial legislation affecting a huge chunk of the economy? Just given the weakness of the majorities he had (including the problems seating Franken), what was supposed to happen? Given that key players in his majority pushed for delay, what was the “smart” move? Given that there was only barely a majority for most version of health care at any one time, what exactly was the play?

              Contrariwise, do you judge Clinton as a dumb politician for what happened to his health care attempt? If not, why not?

              Given the extreme weakness of your case, the way such a line is easily co-opted by racists makes it extremely unwise.

  • SamInMpls

    I still don’t get it.

    Jeffords starts caucusing with the Dems, Bush punishes him, and this backfired on Bush and ruined his policy agenda?

    Okay…

    • Anonymous

      Huh? I’m not sure how this relates. Jeffords defected, the Republicans punished him to the extent that they were capable, that was that.

      Jeffords was never necessary for Bush to get anything passed that he really wanted to get passed. He flipped the Senate, yeah, but in terms of a legislative agenda he was never a critical vote. Everything Bush wanted to get done during that brief window when Democrats had broad bipartisan support, coupled with the fact that the Democrats, who actually believe the Senate should be functional, weren’t filibustering everything.

      So I’m not sure what your point is.

      • Murc

        That was me, posting from work like an idiot.

      • I think his point was that September 11 never happened, and George Bush’s ability to push an agenda hadn’t cratered by mid-summer 2001.

        • SamInMpls

          The idea that the Reid-Obama strategy with Joe-mentum was validated doesn’t sync up with what happened to Jeffords for switching sides.

          For the sake of the party itself, Joe needed to be slapped down for the 2008 election. If he switches sides because of it, then you punish him at the trough.

          • mark f

            Cool! Then you get to protest that Obama passed no legislation at all, and that’s even more righteous than yelling about incrementalism.

          • Wait, what happened to Jeffords for switching sides?

  • Wannabe Speechwriter

    I agree that the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power is stupid. However, I don’t think it can be denied the Obama Administration made some political policy mistakes during his first 2 years in office. I think the argument we get from both you and Jonathan Chait (or at least it appears that way) tends to dismiss that the Administration did make some bad choices (most notably outsourcing health care to Gang of 6 and shutting down OFA after the 2008 election). This doesn’t mean there are structural impediments to change or the right beats us so often because they’re better financed. It also doesn’t mean Obama has accomplished more than any other Democratic President since LBJ. However, that shouldn’t take away that there were serious mistakes his administration made. Both FDR and LBJ made serious mistakes. No one’s perfect. But, it shouldn’t be glossed over…

    • NonyNony

      most notably outsourcing health care to Gang of 6

      Obama was big on letting the Congress do it’s goddamn job. He told people that was how he rolled and that’s what he did. Basically he tried to NOT make Bill Clinton’s mistakes – Clinton bigfooted his Democratic Congress, pissed them off immensely, and slowed down his own progress for the first two years of his presidency – allowing the Republicans to swoop in and take over. Obama’s team was intent on not repeating the mistakes of the Clinton presidency (and in the process, of course, made all of their own mistakes). To a degree Obama was successful on this because, unlike Bill Clinton, Obama actually managed to get a health care reform bill passed through Congress and signed.

      and shutting down OFA after the 2008 election

      This, however, was an amazingly bad tactical mistake. I think it comes from that same “comity with the Congress” attitude – he didn’t want to risk having OFA pushing people to contact their Congressmen to agitate for votes because he didn’t want to bigfoot the Congress. But it was a stupid move.

      • More importantly, there wasn’t anything Obama could do to force Baucus to speed things up if Baucus didn’t want to.

      • Jeff

        About this shutting down OFA. There was a brief period of transition Between December 2008 and July 2009 where OFA was transitioning into the DNC and was inactive. But right around July 2009 it was up and running again. And has been ever since. I know since I’ve been in OFA since 2008, and we’ve been far more active than people realize.

        One million calls before Dec 2009 in support of the health care plan is nothing to sneeze at.

        Not to mention the 50,000 calls a week we were making in California during the mid-term elections.

    • most notably outsourcing health care to Gang of 6

      I can’t help but notice that he actually got a comprehensive health care bill passed.

      It’s difficult for me to agree with any description of his handling of this bill as a mistake. It worked, when nobody else’s effort to do the same thing did.

      • Wannabe Speechwriter

        Won’t disagree it worked in the end. However, it stalled the bill by months trying to get Chuck Grassley’s vote. That was needless. Ultimately, it worked out in the end and I know in politics a win is a win is a win. However, it was a stupid mistake. My point being that Obama, like everyone else, makes mistakes. Some, like the Gang of 6, he overcame. Others, like shooting too low on the stimulus (should have put that in my original post) he never recovered from…

        • Stupid mistake or not, it wasn’t Obama’s mistake! It was Baucus’.

      • Walt

        This cuts both ways, though. If you can’t blame Obama, then you can’t credit Obama either. A Democratic Congress passed health care reform — if we’re going to attribute the accomplishment to anyone in particular, it was Reid and Pelosi. Obama’s contribution was to sign the bill, and that’s it.

        • I actually agree with that. I think Reid in particular deserves a lot more credit than he’s gotten. Say what you want about him, he clearly understood his caucus extremely well and knew just what it was going to take to keep all of them on the boat. With no margin for error, that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.

          • Pelosi too! Both for stiffening everyone’s spines after the Brown debacle and for keeping her caucus together in the face of the Senate’s fecklessness.

            Obama deserves credit for the strategy of Letting Congress Do It, which was pretty much explicitly the reverse of the Clinton strategy. Which also is pretty much the opposite of what some think he should have done.

  • These arguments are nuts. Among the very first people Obama appointed were Summers, Geither, and Emmanuel. What does that tell you? That he had progressive goals? I think not. Do you think that he would have devised a health care plan that was anything other than a massive gift to the ruling class?

    Well that is what he did and he did it such a ham handed fashion that he gave the country back to the republicans just two years after his “land slide.”

    So given that this blog is so fascinated with sports let me suggest that from this point on it is probably appropriate to think of him as the 1919 Chicago Black Sox or if one wants to be more generous as someone who rides to work every day on the short bus.

    • What does that tell you?

      Absolutely nothing that has anything to do with the topic of the post.

    • Larry Summers spent his time as head of the NEC touting the need for fiscal stimulus and more aggressive action to boost the labor market. He reportedly left the administration because he was frustrated Obama was listening to his political people and insisting on talking about deficit reduction and austerity.

      But hey, he’s Larry Summers, so fuck him.

    • burritoboy

      Why do you so confidently assert this about Summers? I don’t see much concrete evidence that he’s some rabid anti-progressive such that you can portray Obama’s selection of him as obviously not progressive.

      Obama needed a Treasury Secretary who:
      a. had strong credibility with the capital markets
      b. didn’t need ramp-up time to get deeply familiar with the financial system
      c. had some proven problem-solving ability in financial crises
      d. had proven managerial ability to be able to quickly take over a very large bureaucracy

      There simply aren’t enough people who would have met those criteria. I don’t know if Geithner was the least progressive choice possible – conversely, it’s at least somewhat plausible that Geithner was the most progressive choice that met the criteria.

      • He worked in the same Treasury Department with Robert Rubin and then when it looked like his public sector career was over he went to make some money in finance. He’s basically Ronald Reagan.

        • burritoboy

          He was actually President of Harvard for about 5 years after his time with the Clintons. Not that I think he did well at that role, but his big-ticket involvement with D.E. Shaw began in 2006. He doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry to cash in.

      • Krugman wasn’t available?

        • Hahahahahahaha. Seriously, I like Krugman as much as anyone, but that comment basically sums up this whole mess of tribalism.

          • Mark

            I’m going to need an actual argument as to why Krugman would have been a worse choice than Geithner or Summers. Not even Krugman, necessarily. Just anyone who was not going to consider his primary role to be the re-enhancement of the unproductive wealthy. And I realize that Obama wasn’t going to nominate The Ghost of Eugene Debs, but it’s hard for me to believe there was absolutely no one in the country — or the world, for that matter — who couldn’t have done a better job.

            • mark f

              Running an administration is about governing and managing politics. Running a department takes more than being right on policy.

              Nominating Krugman would’ve been terrible politics and anyway Krugman, by his own admission, would be terrible at running a department.

              • Malaclypse

                DeLong, who was actually in Treasury under Clinton, would have been a far better choice.

                • burritoboy

                  Perhaps, but we shouldn’t ignore that DeLong is:

                  1. Summers’ ex-employee at Treasury during the Clinton years (DeLong reported directly to Summers)
                  2. A co-author of multiple papers with Summers
                  3. effectively a student of Summers

                • Malaclypse

                  Perhaps, but we shouldn’t ignore that DeLong is:

                  I was claiming that DeLong would be better than Timmeh, not Summers.

              • Mark

                Thank you for this actual answer. However, there were potential candidates who were not Krugman, Geithner, or Summers.

                I don’t know for sure that it would have been terrible politics. It would have been different politics, that’s for sure. But it would have been pointless if Obama nominated Krugman and then did everything else the same way he actually did.

                If we had elected an aggressive leftist president, then that person might have nominated aggressive leftists for every position, and in that case it would not have been stupid politics. It would have been expected and worth the inevitable battles with Congress. But the scenario in which Obama, completely out of nowhere, nominates Krugman for Treasury, or Derrick Bell for SC, or Vincent Warren for AG, is not realistic. Nonetheless, there were potential choices in between Krugman and Geithner.

                Obama is not a radical, and I never thought he was. I think that for many leftists, if Obama had merely been as bad as they expected, that would have been quite tolerable.

                • I thought Geithner was supposed to be the analogue of Gates at defense: Republican enough to avoid a massive institutional, as well as political, rejection, but sane enough to improve matters.

                  Gates seems to have worked out spectacularly well while Geithner, rather less so. Of course, the scope of the problems Geithner was dealing with were far worse and fragile.

                • I would be interested in knowing how it would have been possible to have made worse policy choices than these brilliant minds.

                  If your argument is that Obama needed to make appointments that wouldn’t have screwed things up then isn’t this an argument against these people?

                  But basically, these are the people Obama likes and feels most comfortable with (most of you too, apparently), so I’m sure that these are his first choices.

                  Which brings us back to the original post way up there. Obama is a member in good standing of the American plutocracy. Therefore, his decisions concerning health care “reform” are not limited by what Nelson or Lincoln want. They are what he wants.

                • I would be interested in knowing how it would have been possible to have made worse policy choices than these brilliant minds.

                  Well, one could follow the Republican plan.

                  If your argument is that Obama needed to make appointments that wouldn’t have screwed things up then isn’t this an argument against these people?

                  My argument is that a reasonable interpretation of Obama not appointing someone like, say, Delong, is that he was trying to avoid an even bigger political and a large institutional resistance to sensible policies. I think it worked out pretty well with Gates, in spite of us not having the policies I overall prefer (e.g., faster withdrawal, closing GItmo, etc.). I think one can argue the case either way with Geithner, though there are notable blunders (e.g., HAMP).

                  I don’t know if these were the moves I’d make, but it’s utterly bizarre not to acknowledge that there are reasonable and coherent strategies that make sense of the appointments. They, of course, include a healthy dose of “This are the people Obama is comfy with”. But they should include all the reasons he might be comfy with them.

                  But basically, these are the people Obama likes and feels most comfortable with (most of you too, apparently), so I’m sure that these are his first choices.

                  I, personally, would rather have Krugman, if we’re talking just policy. Romer was a great choice. Summers, loathsome as he was, seems reasonable. Bernanke seems much less reasonable in retrospect, though he’s doing some helicoptering.

                  But do you really think Obama’s first choice is the current unemployment rate? This seems bizarre.

                  Which brings us back to the original post way up there. Obama is a member in good standing of the American plutocracy. Therefore, his decisions concerning health care “reform” are not limited by what Nelson or Lincoln want. They are what he wants.

                  Well, of course, they can be both, right? Of course, to a large extent, it doesn’t matter what Obama wants in his heart of hearts if a more liberal plan was not a real possibility.

                  But, afaict, Obama’s team would have preferred a less compromised health reform and a bigger, better stimulus. Is this even controversial? On the stimulus, there was definitely a calculation that this was about what they could hope for, that it was helpful, and that the macro trend was ok, esp. with the Fed helping. Krugman argued that they were wrong about the amount, but so was everyone because the downturn was far worse than was estimated at the time.

                  On health care, if you look at the team he had (and aimed for; remember the fall of Daschle), I think you would have gotten something that was recognizably similar in many elements to the ACA, but I have no reason to think that a public option or expanded Medicare wouldn’t have been in the mix. It’s hard to see Obama opposing them if they were on offer, which is what you have to argue to support your contention.

                • Malaclypse

                  If we had elected an aggressive leftist president, then that person might have nominated aggressive leftists for every position,

                  It says something very, very bad that people think Krugman is an aggressive leftist.

        • Ed Marshall

          For what job? I hope you aren’t suggesting Treasury or the Fed. Not that he wouldn’t have been a bad fit (although I wonder if he was really responsible for the policies he sometimes espouses if he would actually have advocated them). However, in a period of financial panic I can’t think that would have been a great idea. I don’t know that the Senate wouldn’t have issued a non-confirmation. Economics is extremely psychological, and fighting over a nomination during that timeframe would have been suicidal.

      • Murc

        Obama needed a Treasury Secretary who:
        a. had strong credibility with the capital markets

        Anyone who has credibility with the capital markets is almost certainly compromised. Massively. The capital markets desire policy outcomes that will allow them to loot the economy with impunity; that is their raison d’etre. Why the hell would you want anyone who had a shred of credibility with them?

        • Mark

          I second this question.

        • burritoboy

          Because whatever administration was elected in 2008 didn’t have any time. A lot of what had to be done relied (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) on deal-making by the federal government itself. Quite a number of the mergers that got done in 2007 – 2009, for example, relied on Paulson and Geithner talking various healthy (or healthier) financial institutions into acquiring weak ones. There was no obligation for the healthier firms to do any of that. To some extent, they were trusting that Paulson and Geithner would assist them if the firms they acquired were in much worse conditions than they had thought they were.

          Many of the deals were done extremely quickly, in some cases in 48 or 72 hours to structure massive transactions (some of which are among the largest ever undertaken). There was simply no time for someone who didn’t have credibility with the financial services industry to gain the level of trust necessary to do the deals (remember, most of these deals were at least partially based on completely implicit promises by the US government).

          Further, some of these deals were happening before Obama was formally inaugurated. Geithner already had substantial authority as NY Fed President, so Geithner could effectively start working for the Obama administration before the actual inauguration. Somebody like Krugman would have no ability to do that before his nomination was approved – which might have happened 6 months after Geithner (effectively) started working for the administration.

  • rea

    Shorter arguments against Obama:

    (1) He should have gotten himself a better Congress.

    (2) He should have gotten hismelf a better news media.

    Two huge, fateful mistakes, I admit.

    • Mark

      True, but those were not his only mistakes. This whole interminable argument is getting dumb. Obama is not king. Obama is not perfect. He is constrained. He is not powerless.

  • This is interesting:

    His argument relies on the work of Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, and more tangentially, who estimated the effect that voting for TARP, the stimulus, the health-care law and cap-and-trade had on the reelection chances of House Democrats.

    Perhaps surprisingly, McGhee found that TARP didn’t do much damage, possibly because so many Republicans supported it. But voting for the stimulus cost a Democrat 2.8 percent at the polls, voting for health-care reform cost them 4.5 percent, and voting for cap-and-trade shaved 2.1 percent.

    So if we’re looking for reasons why the Dems underperformed, we might have to look at the progressive successes of the administration, not any failures (esp. rhetorical ones). Obviously, this doesn’t refute the counterfactual of going all in, crushing the opposition, and enacting New Deal II+++ being a big electoral win (since it wasn’t tried!).

    It doesn’t make me happy, but it doesn’t seem to be stupid politics to try to minimize the electoral costs of enacting good (or at least better) policy. I didn’t agree with most of the tactical moves made (and was clearly proved wrong about some of them, e.g., Lieberman courting; I wanted him punished in 2008 and that would have been a disaster), but it’s hard to paint them as absurd or even clearly known to be doomed to failure. The Republican’s pushed the envelope and some of that was reactive. A harder line Obama might have generated an even harder line opposition. And that might have made the squishy center right even squishier.

    • mark f

      It’s nice to see a study confirming what the election made obvious. It wasn’t Nancy Pelosi or Barney Frank who got voted out of Congress; it was a whole bunch of Blue Dogs from conservative districts who enabled Obama’s Marxism. And where is Obama going to be in trouble in 2012? Not California and Massachusetts, but Nevada and Colorado.

      Obviously, this doesn’t refute the counterfactual of going all in, crushing the opposition, and enacting New Deal II+++ being a big electoral win (since it wasn’t tried!).

      Awesome. You should blog!

      • Well, that’s not quite so obvious that it was a pure “punishment for enabling Marxism” thing (putting aside the fact that Obama’s successes were no sort of Marxism). Republicans ran against the successes, so it wouldn’t be surprising that being associated with a success that was being attacked at all levels (including nationally) would hurt you. There’s still room for a “the weakness of the success turned off progressive voters” as well as “the strength of the success energized Republican voters”.

        The original analyses are interesting:

        On balance, there’s good news and bad news for the Democrats here. The good news is that none of our estimates, including the first cut, suggests roll call votes definitely cost them the House, and if anything, this new analysis suggests an even weaker effect.

        The bad news is that these roll calls definitely cost them votes, and probably quite a few seats. Moreover, it doesn’t help if the effect is limited to the purely “elective” bills—health care and cap-and-trade. Our estimates suggest Democrats would probably still lose the House without those two controversial votes, but the damage would have been smaller.

        I think the important thing about these analyses is that something like that was almost certainly going through everyone’s head. Obama et al made some calculations and got an enormous amount done. Given that the downturn and Republican tactics were both far worse than I think it was reasonable to anticipate, this isn’t evidence of a crappy politician or a particularly anti-progressive one.

        • mark f

          I was agreeing with you and your link. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated than the way I phrased it, but I think reasonable people would make the inference just from the results that Democrats’ 2010 electoral problems were less “turned off progressive voters” than “energized Republican voters.”

          (And I’m certainly not trying to say that empirical data confirming what seems clear to me has no value.)

          • Yep, sorry! I misread.

            • mark f

              No worries. I always enjoy your comments and meant the “you should blog!” sincerely.

              • Thanks! I used to back in the early 2000s, and I’m working my way back to doing so.

  • scott

    Still boring, in the way that only coulda/woulda/shoulda slapfights can be.

  • If the argument is that a president (black or white) other than Obama couldn’t have done more and gotten better people than it is bullshit. If the argument is that Obama couldn’t have done more or gotten better people then I’ll buy it.

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