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The BULLY PULPIT — Is There Anything it Can’t Do?

[ 65 ] July 30, 2012 |

The latest Drew Westen article has the same fundamental problems as every other Drew Westen article. There is, however, one howler that’s particularly instructive. Starting with the stimulus makes sense, because there’s a least a plausible argument that Obama left some money on the table. But the argument that “Obama’s first mistake was inviting the Republicans to the table” runs into the fairly obvious problem that at least two Republican votes were necessary to pass a stimulus bill. Since we’re dealing with someone who who genuinely seems not to understand why you don’t always need 60 votes to pass a tax bill, I suspect that he really doesn’t know that the legislative context was different in 2009.

On health care, there was at least a narrow window where there were 60 Democratic votes, and Obama and Reid probably did waste too much time trying to court Snowe. But Westen never stops to consider the implications of this — if 60 votes are your absolute maximum, what leverage do you have over the marginal ones? Not much. Westen, as always, solves this problem by implying that a better presidential slogan could have gotten Bayh, Nelson, Manchin et al. on board, which still still needs more pony.

And, yet, against all odds Westen’s latest recycling of the same awful argument isn’t even the worst green lantern argument to emerge this weekend. Over to you, Col. Mustard:

Obama, in complete control of foreign and military policy, will be unrestrained by electoral considerations in a second term, and will impose his vision of a Middle East settlement on the Israelis. There won’t be a thing Congress or public opinion will be able to do about it.

Right. Obama will get those settlements dismantled, perhaps with his bare hands, and will follow that up by unilaterally creating a two-state solution. Can’t see any limitations on his power there. The president is in charge of foreign aid appropriations, right?

Comments (65)

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  1. mark f says:

    Westen, as always, solves this problem by implying that a better presidential slogan could have gotten Bayh, Nelson, Manchin et al. on board

    Nit pick: Robert Byrd was still alive, though probably doing very little kicking, at the time of PPACA’s passage.

  2. david mizner says:

    Pressure from the United States could, in fact, go a long way toward ending the occupation. Without the cover of the United States, Israel would be totally isolated (and considerably poorer.)

    Romney’s statement is absurd not because of what he claims Obama could do but because of what he claims Obama might do. Obama has been every bit as “pro-Israel” as past presidents (more “pro-Israel” than some), and this wouldn’t change in a second term.

    • david mizner says:

      Oh, I see your point — that Congress would have to sign off. True, but appropriations aren’t the only lever.

      • firefall says:

        And what else would work in this context? That Obama has unilateral control of?

        • And that would be impervious to the signaling of a totally unified opposition party in addition to, at the least, a very sizeable portion of the President’s party making their opposition to the President’s actions more than clear?

          • david mizner says:

            Well, yes it’s absurd hypothetical: Congress would be nor more likely than Obama to get tough on Israel.

            But to answer firefall’s question: the U.S. could, in theory, diplomatically side with the Palestinians (at the U.N and elswhere). An American president could go the West Bank and call for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and an end to the blockage of Gaza. Hell, an American president could send troops in to evacuate Israelis from the territories.

            • Aaron says:

              So… hollow gestures that Israel will ignore on the one hand, and full-scale military invasion (against a nation state, with no declaration of war and resulting in impeachment and conviction before the troops were even in position) on the other hand. Thanks for… clearing that up.

  3. Amok92 says:

    This comment thread is gonna be SO AWESOME!

    • I.M.Shocked says:

      Get you pies for the great pie fight!

      Also, too.

    • david mizner says:

      Well, I’m more supportive of Westen’s line of argument here than many — in this particular case, his point about inviting the GOP’ to the able isn’t about specific negotiations but his general bipartisan fetish — but he’s not the person I want leading the prosecution of Obama. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to realize that Obama has a clear cut ideology — Rubinism/Geithnerism — that influences his actions; he seems to think Obama would govern as a liberal but for a lack of spine and storytelling powers.

  4. timb says:

    Jacobson is more of an embarrassment to the legal professorship than Reynolds is, if only because he doesn’t really teach anything AND links to absurd racists like McCain and crazy dickheads like Jeff ____stein

  5. scott says:

    Still waiting – after 42 months – for any acknowledgment at all from Scott that the president has real power to move debate or affect policy. Instead, we get straw manning and more posts sticking pins in his designated voodoo doll, Westen. I suspect I will continue to wait for either another 6 months or another 54, until Obama leaves office and this brand of rationalization for inaction is no longer required.

    • Hey, least self aware person in the universe, do you see what you just did there?

      Still waiting – after 42 months – for any acknowledgment at all from Scott that the president has real power to move debate or affect policy. Instead, we get straw manning…

    • Warren Terra says:

      Your comment is predicated on the notion that Obama has been wholly unable (or unwilling) to “affect policy”. This is perhaps not the hill you want to die on.

    • Murc says:

      Still waiting – after 42 months – for any acknowledgment at all from Scott that the president has real power to move debate or affect policy.

      scott, Regular Scott has acknowledged, many, many times, that the President has a number of powers to move the debate around in a domestic context, the most powerful of which is the ability to set the agenda, followed closely by (depending on the context) the exercising of his own veto point, although that one is a lot less potent for a Democrat.

      We have the ACA at all because a President who had made health care reform a priority got elected and declared that we would do this thing, and his allies in Congress said ‘sure.’ That’s the same reason we have the New Deal, CRA 64 and 68, and the Great Society.

      But the key thing here is that you need both pieces of the puzzle. President’s can set the agenda, and if they have specific leverage on the Congress they can deploy that, but history is full of NUMEROUS Presidents for whom they decided they wanted something to happen and congress told them to go screw. The New Deal doesn’t happen without crushing Democratic majorities and Roosevelt cutting some awful deals with reactionaries.

      If you want to criticize Obama for inaction, there are a lot of areas to do that in. His failure to fulfill the most important part of his oath and enforce the law against the war criminals who walk among us is a big one. But when it comes to legislation, Congress is the villain most of the time, because Congress is to Obama’s right.

  6. LAWGUY says:

    Isn’t the argument really that he never tried for more? Essentially he got what he asked for. He decided before negotiations that he couldn’t get anything more then he ended up getting.

    In other words he never tried the “bully pulpit” or for that matter any other generally recognized negotiating tool. So we do not know what he would have gotten if he would have tried.

    • James E. Powell says:

      If one looks carefully at the senate and house, as it was composed in 2009, one can see that if Obama had taken positions on the stimulus or ACA that were markedly to the left, he would have provoked the rebellion of about five senators and twenty to thirty congress-creatures who were never, never, never going to support things like a $2 trillion stimulus or the public option. Even if he gave the best speech ever, even if he gave several great speeches, even if he used powerpoint.

      What was missing, for the left, was any support in the congress for anything beyond what we ended up with. That this was something that the White House could learn without giving any speeches seems to be beyond the comprehension of the ‘bully pulpit’ advocates.

      • More to the point, it’s at least possible that the “ask for more” position would have served to poison the well, rather than moving the needle. This would be a disaster, because there isn’t any case at all for a “win by losing” strategy where the stimulus is concerned. But the bully pulpiteers more or less never acknowledge that this was possible, and take it as a given that Snowe/Collins/Specter/Nelson were interested merely in lopping off some arbitrary portion of the initial proposal, so the initial ask could have been anything, presumably up to infinity trillion dollars.

        • James E. Powell says:

          Not to mention Lincoln, Pryor, Bayh, McCaskill, Landrieu, Baucus, Lieberman, and probably several others who we don’t know the names of only because no one forced them to state their opposition to the two measures, stimulus and health care, that are the focus of these discussions.

          • FlipYrWhig says:

            If we’re trying to come up with a list of Senate Dems who would kvetch about spending and deficits, it’s going to be a long one. Add, at a minimum, Warner, Webb, Carper, and Conrad, and leave room for Tim Johnson, Byron Dorgan, Bob Casey, Bill Nelson, and Kay Hagan.

        • david mizner says:

          “Bully pulpiteers” like Lemieux, who agrees that Obama may have left money on the table?

          There was nothing magic about 775 bill, or whatever it was. It’s quite possible that if he’d gone for 1.5, the moderates — who, after all, have no beliefs — would have voted for 1.2 o 3 (the amount Roemer said was needed) if they were able to say they’d successfully argued for less. Of course we don’t know BECAUSE HE DIDN’T TRY.

          Why didn’t he? Because of ridiculous concern about deficits:

          TAPPER: Your team has talked about the stimulus package being $675 to $775 billion. But at the same time…you’re going to distribute a memo in which economists say it should be between $800 billion and $1.3 trillion. How do you reconcile that difference…?

          OBAMA: Well, we are still in consultation with members of Congress about the final size of the package. We expect that it will be on the high end of our estimates, but [it] will not be as high as some economists have recommended because of the constraints and concerns we have about the existing deficit.

          http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=85356#axzz1SJv80ACI

          There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: he didn’t ask for as much as what economists are recommending (economists cited by the White House) because of “concerns” about the deficit.

          The first of a few big errors on the economy that may cost him the election.

          • mark f says:

            we are still in consultation with members of Congress about the final size of the package. We expect that it will be on the high end of our estimates

            HE DIDN’T EVEN TRY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            I do think that Obama could have gotten more. I do not think that asking for $1.5 trillion was a good strategy at all. The ONE TRILLION barrier seemed to have substantial importance to a lot of the marginal votes, and the risk of getting nothing it too great. (David is not responsive at all to Brien’s point, which is that trying can also have a downside.) His opening bid probably should have been higher, but the assumption that he could have gotten almost anything he asked for isn’t well-founded.

            • david mizner says:

              I was unresponsive because I don’t buy it: You push for 1.5 and the well is so poisoned you can’t pass anything? No, you push for 1.5, the moderates say no until you agree on a number. Maybe the number is 1.2. maybe it’s 900 — that would still be a lot more than he ended up with it. Hell, worst case you end up where you ended up — at 775 — but at least you’re tried to pass what economists were saying was necessary, and that sets you up to argue for more down the road. Much better than pushing for a inadequate bill and then hailing it adequate when it passes.

              And you’re unresponsive to my point, which is that according to Obama himself, he asked for too-small a number not because of legislative limitation but because of concerns about deficits.

              • FlipYrWhig says:

                “Concerns about deficits” are presumably the reason why the conserva-Dems were dragging their feet all along. Obama is throwing them a sop by speaking their language. And there are a lot of them, not only the vocal irritants like Nelson and Landrieu but quieter people with similar concerns, like Warner and Carper.

                And another point that I don’t think gets quite enough play: at the time of the stimulus debate, the bank bailout had recently happened, and IMHO there are only so many times politicians are going to be galvanized by the rhetoric of OMG HUGE CRISIS WE CAN’T WAIT START SHOVELING $$$!

                • jeebus says:

                  Exactly, doom rhetoric only works when you want to give 700B to banks with few strings attached based on a
                  3 page memo pulled out of the Treasury Secretary’s ass.

                  Attempting to keep the middle class employed and prevent a lost decade requires more gentle persuasion.

              • Well now you’ve pretty much proven my point about just assuming a can opener then. So thanks for that.

            • DivGuy says:

              The ONE TRILLION barrier seemed to have substantial importance to a lot of the marginal votes, and the risk of getting nothing it too great.

              I think this misunderstands the psychology of the swing votes. They are always looking to cut 10% off of whatever official Washington wants to do, in order to appear moderate. They went for the Bush tax cuts, a radical and massive policy change, so long as they could cut off their 10% and appear moderate.

              I don’t think it’s a given that a $1.5T bid, backed up by a consensus of left-center economists, would have been successful, and I acknowledge the downside.

              But I think you’re missing the massive size of the upside – this isn’t the public option, a smallish policy mostly important for opening the door for future policies. This is a stimulus between $400-800B larger. That’s a 50-100% increase the jobs saved and crisis averted. It seems pretty clear to me that this should have been tried, though of course we can never know for sure.

          • Cody says:

            And we can be for sure he wasn’t just saying he was concerned about the deficit as to not scare off moderates in his party.

            After all, it’s not like he’s a politician or anything.

            • mark f says:

              That’s silly, Cody. Everyone knows that Obama only bullshits when he says things David Mizner wants to hear.

            • david mizner says:

              Yeah, his neoliberal “concern” about deficits has been entirely rhetorical.

              Also note that the bit I provided cuts against the conventional wisdom, according to which Larry Summers — who failed to give Obama’s Roemer’s rec – is responsible for the too-small stimulus. Obama was, of course, fully aware of what the economy needed but still decided to shoot for a little over half that amount.

          • but [it] will not be as high as some economists have recommended because of the constraints and concerns we have about the existing deficit.

            There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: he didn’t ask for as much as what economists are recommending (economists cited by the White House) because of “concerns” about the deficit.

            You are a remarkably dishonest person, and you have remarkably little respect for your audience.

          • It’s quite possible that if he’d gone for 1.5, the moderates — who, after all, have no beliefs — would have voted for 1.2 o 3 (the amount Roemer said was needed) if they were able to say they’d successfully argued for less. Of course we don’t know BECAUSE HE DIDN’T TRY.

            Go jump off a building, david, so we know whether you can fly.

            Before that, go to a car dealership and offer then $1000 for a new Accord. They’ll totally meet you in the middle, because that’s exactly how that works.

            • Except that no one actually disagrees that it’s possible that it might have worked that way. It’s just that David and his ilk outright refuse (he admits as much!) to accept that the alternative scenario is also possible.

    • mark f says:

      Regarding healthcare, one could make that argument. And one would sound very convincing to anyone who didn’t remember what happened, or didn’t feel like reading Wikipedia for five minutes, or didn’t take his fingers out of his ears.

  7. TCN2 says:

    The problem with the stimulus was primarily bad process/crappy advisers.

    Summers only presents the low and middle projections to the president. The president picks the low number because Emmanuel tells him $1T will cause apoplexy in the Senate. The administration sticks with $800B even after many economists tell them it is too little and the shitty December numbers come in. Passing an $800B package with bipartisan support becomes the goal rather than maximizing stimulus so you end up with a package that is 40% tax cuts.
    The administration then sells the package as just what they wanted.

    Not bully pulpiting would be a long way down on any list of the political failures that led to an inadequate stimulus.

    • FlipYrWhig says:

      If Democrats in the Senate were truly not willing to move off that $1T line, no matter how stupid it might have been as a stance, I don’t get what else should have been said, done, or tried. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting has seen good ideas get dropped due to unreflective and dedicated opposition.

      • ottomh says:

        If the total had to come in under $1T then you fight harder to make sure more than 60% is direct stimulus. Maybe the administration could have also tried for a package that had additional spending tied to the unemployment rate. Or if the president announced that X amount was necessary even if the Senate only gave him Y it might have made it easier to pass additional stimulus later.

        The more politically astute will have a better idea of what might have been possible. My biggest criticism is accepting a package that you know is not enough and then acting like it was exactly the amount needed. (Also I wish the y axis on that damn graph would have been percentage points instead of unemployment rate)

        • FlipYrWhig says:

          My biggest criticism is accepting a package that you know is not enough and then acting like it was exactly the amount needed

          I don’t think that’s a very salient criticism, though, to say that after all was said and done they should have been more negative about what they just accomplished. I think it’s more to the point to say that they should be talking more now about the need for further stimulus — which, of course, they do.

          Ultimately, my issue with the panoply of bully-pulpit-ish critiques is that they significantly underestimate the power and prevalence of deficit hawks _among Democrats_. There are a lot of them, and they are confident that they are on the side of the angels, and, given the bank bailout, they had already been arm-twisted into dumping a ton of money into solving one problem despite their consciences crying out in terror at the thought. It seems completely in keeping with the way those Democrats think for them to say, not only will we have to keep this thing at the low end, we will have to structure it in a tax-cut-heavy way, or else we walk. It wasn’t a good play economically or, in the end, politically, but it ticked all the boxes for Red State Dems who blanch at the idea of a generous welfare state.

          • ottomh says:

            ConservaDem Senators, adding a $150B sweetner of personal and corporate tax cuts to the bailout certainly didn’t help keep that on the low end.

            Remarkably, all these conscientious “deficit hawks” believe tax cuts and subsidies to their preferred industries have no cost.

          • Ya know, if there’s actually a salient messaging criticism of the Obama White House, it probably is the way they tried to notch the stimulus as a huge victory for them, instead of a package that was too small and too comprised of tax cuts that wasn’t going to deliver a big enough punch.

  8. KLG says:

    Whatever. The thing is, the president is neck and neck with Mitt Romney fewgawdsake, largely because of his own fecklessness.

    • Craigo says:

      I partially agree with the stimulus critique, and not at all with the health-care critique.

      But the real mistake he made was re-appointing a Fed chair who is so afraid of the grim prospect of 5% inflation that he’d rather mercy-kill the economy than subject it to such torment.

      • Malaclypse says:

        But the real mistake he made was re-appointing a Fed chair who is so afraid of the grim prospect of 5% inflation that he’d rather mercy-kill the economy than subject it to such torment.

        Except at the time of the re-appointment, Bernanke had the nickname “Helicopter Ben” based upon his academic work where he advocated deliberate inflation as a strategy when faced with an economic climate like today’s.

        Obama’s mistake was believing that Bernanke would let an entire career’s worth of policy recommendations stand in the way of Republican hackitude.

        • snarkout says:

          Even if you believe this — and I do! — there’s no good reason for Obama to dither around and not appoint dovish Fed chairs when he has 59-60 Democratic votes in the Senate. As the Dawn Johnsen debacle shows, there are a lot of useless Democrats so you can’t actually guarantee a lack of circular firing squad, but what’s the downside of actually filling those seats?

        • Craigo says:

          I’ll endorse snarkout’s response, and further – I agree with you in general, but my point is that the mistake, while understandable, is proving to be ruinous. The Fed chair and ECB chief have enormous power to inflate economies and end real human suffering – but since they might in turn produce short term losses on creditors’ balance sheets…

          • Malaclypse says:

            the mistake, while understandable, is proving to be ruinous

            Agreed. But in the very strange world in which I was elected President back in 2008, I would have made the exact same mistake. I’m pretty sure both Krugman and DeLong also endorsed the reappointment at the time.

        • Bernanke had the nickname “Helicopter Ben” based upon his academic work where he advocated deliberate inflation as a strategy when faced with an economic climate like today’s.

          And not just for his academic work, but for having actually supported, over the previous two years, the most aggressively expansionist monetary policy in the history of the institution.

          • Craigo says:

            I’d read his Great Depression work before he became chair – it was very influential on my own thinking, even if he leans a bit too far on the monetary side and gives short shrift to other causes – so watching him commit, more or less, the same mistakes he decried is just weird.

            • He dropped the rate to zero, announced it was going to stay there, and implemented two rounds of quantitative easing – while at the same time, regularly going to Congress and urging them to implement more aggressive fiscal stimulus.

              You’ll have to forgive me, but I detect some rather notable differences between his record and the mistakes he decried.

              A very weird mythology has cropped up about Bernanke’s performance.

  9. KLG says:

    I thought “Helicopter Ben” dropped money on the Banksters, and only on the Banksters. By the time of his reappointment it was perfectly clear that Bernanke had forgotten everything he knew about growing up a member of the middle tranche of the petit bourgeoisie of Dillon, SC.

  10. James E. Powell says:

    Another point on the immovable objects also known as ‘conservative’ Democratic senators and congresspersons: the stimulus bill was put together under the shadow of the Big Fat Bailout that pissed everyone off. Indeed, even at the time, many people conflated to two separate things.

  11. [...] throughout the political spectrum. In itself, this is probably less embarrassing that your typical Drew Westen column. Although the concession that he can’t actually identify any concrete steps Obama could take [...]

  12. [...] faith in bipartisanship — which have a great deal of truth in themselves — are often assimilated into green lantern critiques. Specific attempts to explain how Obama could have gotten sufficient Democratic votes for a public [...]

  13. [...] not sure why the Times didn’t just go directly to Drew Westen if it wanted this terrible argument made [...]

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