Obviously, it’s encouraging that the new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers is the kind of economist for whom empirical evidence trumps models. Brad Plumer does us a very useful service by looking more broadly at his academic work.
Tag: "Obama administration"
This argument — could President Obama have gotten progressive bills through? — is ultimately unknowable because he didn’t try. That’s the problem.
On his 3 big bills — the stimulus, health care, and financial reform — he failed to push what the country wanted and needed.
On the stimulus, he shot for a relatively small figure, partly because of a concern about deficits.
On health care, he dealt away the public option — the single thing that might have challenged the corporate stranglehold on health care.
On Wall Street reform, he killed the effort to break up the banks and opposed the tough measure on derivatives.
On the first one, I think it’s very plausible that Obama left some stimulus money on the table with a low opening bid. I think this was a more difficult problem than some do — there was almost certainly a point at which primary-fearing Republicans would have bailed on the whole thing — but I think he probably got less than he should. But it also seems pretty obvious to me that whether Obama had a successful first term or not doesn’t hinge on whether the stimulus was $770 million or $870 million. So let’s move on to the real key, the ACA.
Here, the most obvious problem with the argument is that conservative Democrats who were both ideologically hostile and had good interest-based reasons to oppose a public option held all of the cards. Nobody has explained what leverage Obama had to make the Nelsons and Liebermans support a public option, or explained how Obama forcefully advocating a public option somehow would have moved them to support it. Arguments that the optimal strategy would be been for Obama to forcefully advocate single payer make even less sense; empty threats don’t provide leverage, and associating health care reform with socialized medicine is about as bad a strategy for attracting support from red-state Democrats as can be imagined. Maximalism has real risks — especially when there are no votes to spare — and because there’s no reason to believe that the votes were there for the public option under any circumstances the approach is basically all downside.
And it’s also worth noting that it’s not as if we don’t have examples of a president trying exactly this negotiating strategy. At the time in his presidency where he had a political environment most similar to Obama’s first two years — immediately after his re-election — Bush engaged in precisely the same kind of tactics that we are assured would work brilliantly if only Obama used them. He took a maxmimalist position on Social Security, took to the bully pulpit for a year of messaging, and got…nothing. And as we know all too well, he didn’t fail because there aren’t any Democrats who are sympathetic to changing Social Security for the worse. Rather, by making it clear that his desired goal was destroying Social Security, he made compromise politically impossible, allowing the Democratic leadership in the House to keep the Blue Dogs in line. (And as for the Overtron Window, that was already moved in the 90s anyway — Obama is still to Clinton’s left – but that didn’t help Bush.) The end result of Bush forcefully pushing for maximalist conservative legislation is that he had the most favorable Republican legislative environment since the McKinley administration and ended up with almost nothing to show for it. If that’s success, I have to say I prefer Obama’s legislative failures.
On a more general level, if the ACA isn’t “progressive” legislation, than none of the New Deal counts either. The American welfare state has always advanced through incremental measures that buy off existing stakeholders. Note too that it’s not as if FDR fought loudly and publicly for a safety net that wasn’t grotesquely biased against African Americans and only gave in at the last minute; he knew perfectly well that segregationist Dems were no more likely to vote for racially egalitarian legislation than Ben Nelson or Blanche Lincoln were to take on the insurance industry, but they could certainly torpedo crucial legislation if the New Deal was strongly identified with civil rights. (And nor, for that matter, was FDR particularly progressive on civil rights anyway, but since he was almost certainly more liberal than the median votes in the Senate it doesn’t really matter much.) There are plenty of things Obama can be fairly criticized for, but to criticize him for succeeding where Truman and LBJ failed doesn’t make any sense to me. The chances of getting nothing were far higher than getting a significantly better bill. For that matter, we can consider Bill Clinton, who also pushed forcefully for a very particular version of health care reform and got bupkis. This is one area where second-guessing Obama is hard to justify.
I find myself in an unusual position of arguing that someone is underestimating presidential power. Armando asserts that I argue that we shouldn’t care who is president. So, working backward from my clearly stated position, he seems to be saying that we shouldn’t care about foreign policy and security policy (where presidential power is dominant or near-dominant), the appointment power, the enforcement of legislation, the ability to veto legislation, the power to set the agenda, and the real (if subordinate) power to influence domestic policy all don’t matter! I disagree — I think this stuff matters a great deal, and personally plan to follow the next presidential election with substantial interest.
It is true that I believe that claims about the power of presidential rhetoric are a massive bullshit dump, 95% of the time involving pundit’s fallacies that are either demonstrably false or implausible and unfalsifiable. A bizarre number of people seem to have willfully misinterpreted this into an argument that progressives should not in any respect be disappointed in Obama, which of course isn’t true. Even if we focus on domestic policy and the president’s real rather than imaginary powers, there are plenty of things Obama could have done better. I particularly agree with #6 — not only did Obama drop the ball in making appointments to the Fed, but like his Democratic predecessor he’s gone along with the idea that a Republican Daddy should be in charge, with consequences that may cost him re-election.
Scott of course is right about the Green Lantern theory of domestic politics. There’s just no way Obama is going to will Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe into supporting a given policy. Giving speeches aren’t going to do anything to change that, and in fact we’ve seen Obama’s speeches become progressively more ignored over time.
There are 2 bigger issues at play here. One is the fact that Republicans need 51 votes for legislation to clear the Senate and Democrats need 60. By this I mean that Republicans have united to filibuster everything and I am extremely skeptical that Democrats will do the same thing when they lose the Senate. Of course, it would only take 41 Democrats to make that work so it’s possible they could lose the Landrieus and Nelsons of the world and still make a go of it, but I don’t think Harry Reid is going to support it.
The second, and more relevant here, is that most legislators fear being attacked from the right than the left. Until that changes, Democrats from purple/red states are incentivized to be to the right of the party line. Here is where Obama might (though maybe not) have made a difference.
The fall of 2008 was a period like few in our lifetimes. For the first time since the election of Roosevelt, you had the left-of-center electorate united, organized, and pumped to do the bidding of a Democratic president. That is a rare species of events. Obama let this power slip through his fingers in favor of his preferred style of compromise centrist governance. The counterfactual question of interest is, what if he had made these people the shock troops of his policy agenda? What if Obama had openly called for rallies to support health care, immigration reform, EFCA, environmental legislation, etc?
At that point, the question becomes whether that public pressure would have scared politicians into falling into line behind Obama? I don’t know the answer. I am sure that FoxNews would have been outraged, talking about the threat to democracy, etc. Beltway insiders would have been equally apoplectic. But would 2000 people, let’s say, in Omaha outside Ben Nelson’s office have convinced him to vote for this or that law? It’s at least worth talking about what that might have been like.
Again, Obama absolutely cannot will senators into doing his bidding. What a president can do is have leverage over those politicians. Obama developed an amazing political machine that engaged millions of Americans. Could he have kept that machine operating into his administration and created the leverage necessary to make it in centrist politicians’ best interest to get behind him?
Maybe. Sadly, we’ll never know since Obama had no interest in this from day one.
I have more to say about what the presidency and what it can and can’t accomplish based on Jeff Shessol’s terrific book on FDR and the court-packing fight. But since I have a couple deadlines, I’ll make a point that should be more obvious first. Glenn Greenwald is impressed by this vastleft cartoon for some reason:
But, even leaving aside the fact that Obama’s staunchest critics from the left are rather more likely to make arguments that it doesn’t matter who wins presidential elections than his supporters, the point is silly. If I may be permitted to state the obvious, the fact that presidential powers in terms of getting new domestic policies enacted are relatively weak does not mean that the presidency is weak in all respects. In foreign policy, the president is the dominant figure, and much of Glenn’s criticism of Obama here has in fact been correct. The presidency also has more limited but substantial powers over executive and judicial appointments — and, whatever quibbles one may have about Obama’s slow pace and excessive moderation obviously his appointments have been very different and much better than those of his predecessor. The president also has substantial power in terms of implementing existing statutes — which is why, for example, environmental regulations have been strengthened rather than weakened. And the president can certainly prevent Congress from doing things. But the fact that the president has very substantial powers in some areas doesn’t change the fact that in terms of domestic policy presidential power is subordinate and highly contingent. The fact that the president can unilaterally decide to bomb Libya doesn’t mean that the president can get 60 Senate votes for single payer health care because he really wants to. And pointing this out doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether Barack Obama or Rick Perry sits in the oval office.
I’ve asked this before, but since I’ve never received a decent answer let me ask again: for people who believe in the Green Lantern theory of domestic presidential power, how do you explain the near-total lack of major legislation passed during George W. Bush’s second term, including a failure to even get a congressional vote on his signature initiative to privatize Social Security? He didn’t give enough speeches? He wasn’t ruthless enough? Help me out here.
Because of both Senate obstructionism and the relatively low priority placed on them by the Obama administration, the pace of appointments to the federal judiciary has been regrettably low. But quantity isn’t the only issue. Under current norms, Supreme Court justices tend to come from the federal appellate courts. Particularly since the Reagan administration, Republican presidents have been very conscious of trying to put young conservatives on the federal appellate bench. This is how you get John Roberts and Sam Alito appointed to the Court at a young age, in addition to federal courts stacked with your appointments for a long time. Obama, however, has yet to get a single appellate court judge under 45 appointed to the appellate courts. Since the inauguration of Reagan, “Republicans have appointed 41 federal appellate judges under age 45 to the Democrats’ 10.”
Appointments to the federal courts are one of the increasing number of areas in which there is increasing asymmetry between the parties. For 30 years, Republicans have placed a high priority on packing the federal courts with young conservatives, while the Democratic administrations during this time have not placed a commensurate priority on getting young liberal judges confirmed. This might be OK if Democrats were gaining institutional advantages in other areas, but I don’t see that they are.
It won’t surprise most readers to know that my reactions to some of the responses to Corey Robin’s informal roundtable are pretty similar to Matt’s. The idea that there’s not really any difference between Obama and Bush is only true to the extent that it’s not relevant to American electoral politics — yes, the Democratic Party is not (and has never been) a party of the left in a broad sense, and yet I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it actually matters that the New Deal and the Great Society were enacted. So while I agree with much of the criticism of Obama in one sense I also don’t have any sense of disillusionment, and I’m not sure what some people expected. The fact is that Obama is the second most progressive president since FDR*, and FDR wasn’t significantly more progressive – however much people like to quote the “I welcome their hatred” line, the key pillars of the New Deal were both skeletal half-a-loaf compromises and thoroughly racist. And the contemporary equivalent of the “there’s no difference between Obama and Irving Kristol” crowd also thought LBJ (the one clearly more progressive president) was unacceptable. FDR even embraced austerity (granting that this was more forgivable in 1937 than in 2011.) In addition, while Obama deserves every bit of criticism he gets for his civil liberties record (an area much more under his discretion than most domestic policy) it’s also worth noting that this is what was going to happen because there’s essentially no political constituency for civil liberties. To engage in some sad comparisons, whose record is better? Clinton, definitely not. LBJ, hard to make the case. Saint Roosevelt was infinitely worse.
To add one more point, Adolph Reed and several others are of course right about Obama’s anti-empirical commitment to “reasonableness” despite the lack of any partner willing to play the game. What remains unclear to me is how much difference a more clear-eyed approach would make in terms of policy outcomes. Whatever you can say about George W. Bush, you can’t accuse him of being adverse to going on the offensive, and yet his the domestic policies that passed under his watch consisted of 1)policies that united his party and didn’t require Democratic votes, and 2)policies that involved substantial policy compromises. For all of his toughness, his second term resulted in no legislation of central importance to his agenda passing. We don’t know if a better debt ceiling deal would have been possible had Obama not pre-emptively folded, and Obama doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt because he prevents us from assessing the counterfactual. But as long as Republicans control the House, any improvements were going to be marginal. There’s no set of strategic tools that can allow the president to do things on domestic policy that the median votes in Congress are strongly opposed to.
To be clear, none of these means that Obama should be exempt from extensive criticism. But I think it’s worth keeping some perspective.
*And no, I don’t go along with the fashionable, too-clever-by-half assertions that Nixon was more progressive, which are ahistorical. Yes, since Nixon didn’t care much about domestic policy, he was willing to acquiesce in good legislation passed by a liberal Congress, just as he would have been willing to collaborate with legislation passed by Newt Gingrich had he been president then. The fact remains that Obama is to the left of the median votes in the Senate and House (and is now way to the left of the median vote in the House); Nixon wasn’t. And however disappointed one might be in Elena Kagan, she ain’t William Rehnquist.
…I agree with this: while the extent of FDR’s leftism has been greatly exaggerated, in terms of audacity and innovation he certainly runs circles around Obama.
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Here I do think Obama’s unwillingness to consider the option reflects his preferences, or if not certainly reflects a serious misreading of what the Court is actually likely to do.
I’m not a generally a big fan of trying to determine what public officials “really want,” not least because there’s no way of extricating policy goals from political goals and perceptions of political viability. But I certainly agree in broad terms that Obama is a moderate Democrat of the Clinton school who cares inordinately about the deficit and would accept spending cuts to advance deficit cutting.
But it doesn’t follow from this that Obama didn’t blunder. After all, (as Glenn quietly concedes) he didn’t get much of a deficit-reduction bill; he got some spending cuts but not the revenue increases he wanted. The deal that he accepted addressed Republican priorities, not moderate Democratic priorities. It’s entirely possible to understand that Obama isn’t a left-winger and still think that he made negotiating mistakes that produced an even worse deal than was necessary.
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On the politics, I think Chait gets it right. The best defense you can make of Obama is that, given how the leverage was distributed, this deal is about as good as Obama could have gotten. It’s almost impossible to know what the optimal possible outcome of a political negotiation of this kind is, but I essentially agree; unlike Paul, I don’t think I would want the House to vote it down, because I think by far the most likely result would be a deal that’s as bad or worse plus default.
But, as Chait also correctly notes, this isn’t much of a defense of Obama because he played a major role in creating this extremely favorable context for the Republicans. I suppose we don’t know to a certainty if he could have gotten a ceiling increase when he had the leverage of the expiring Bush tax cuts and a still-Democratic House to work with, but we don’t know because he made no serious effort to do so, a massive blunder. And this central mistake was then compounded through preemptive capitulation on the Republican decision to engage in hostage-taking. Throughout the process, the unwarranted faith in Republican reasonableness that Obama has always been accused of was glaringly evident.
So, yes, the deal won’t be that bad if Obama and the congressional Dems are willing to use the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as leverage (or, better yet, just let them expire, which unlike defaulting on the debt would likely be a better policy option than any deal likely to emerge.) What basis there is for believing that Obama and the Dems would be willing to do this, however, I can’t tell you.
…John Judis makes the kill-the-bill case. I’m still not convinced — ultimately, I think it’s as over-optimistic from the left as Obama was from the center. I’d be happy to kill the bill if I thought that the kind of deal that Judis describes could be passed, but I don’t think it can.
Bill James once noted that the reason for doing research is to avoid paying the price for believing things that aren’t true. The apparently sincere belief of Obama and his political advisers that sending “messages” to the kind of voters Mark Penn makes up cute names to describe is more politically important that the actual state of the economy is a case in point. It’s simply not true, and this belief is not only bad for the country but bad for Obama’s re-election prospects. And this would be the case even if concrete spending cuts were actually popular, which they aren’t.