Here’s my problem: for months prior to Election Day, many Democrats and liberals insisted that the position of the presidency was so vastly important that it was worth suspending certain moral and ethical principles in order to elect the better candidate. I don’t want to rehash the wrongness or rightness of lesser evilism yet again. I’m just pointing out that this was the argument. And please note that the moral stakes simply could not have been higher; what was in argument were issues of literal life and death, of our stance towards the killing of innocent people. Retaining the presidency was so important that we had to put some of our most basic convictions on hold.
I don’t understand how these two impulses– to elevate the importance of the presidency to the point that you excuse any behavior to capture it, and acting like the president has essentially no power to implement his vision– can be reconciled so effortlessly. How can it be the case that electing the more liberal presidential candidate is at once the solemn duty of all progressive people, because it’s such a powerful position, and that the president shouldn’t be criticized for the deals he strikes, because he just isn’t that powerful? I understand that there is space to say “the presidency is very constrained, but the decisions the president makes are still very important.” But that space simply is not the space occupied by the people defending Obama during the election. Rather they advanced a maximal reading of the power of the presidency, the better to make the case for supporting the lesser evil.
It is, in fact, entirely possible for the president to have very limited power in terms of moving a legislative agenda through Congress, and yet for the president to be an important enough office that favoring candidate A over candidate B when the former is better on many things and worse on nothing is highly important. Presidents have a very substantial impact even if you don’t consider the ability to enact new legislation that goes beyond the ex ante preferences of Congress at all. So there’s no contradiction. Also, if Obama agrees to a deal raising the eligibility in the Medicare age (although there’s no real evidence that he supports such a deal) he should be harshly criticized, and fortunately every liberal other than Jon Chait (but including Ezra) seems to agree with me on this. And, also, as far as I can tell no real as opposed to hypothetical liberal thinks that Obama has little power here, given that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts makes the defensive powers of the presidency more effectual than usual. You’re welcome!