Needless to say, I don’t have much to add to Krugman and Rortybomb. The deal, once you accept that the cave-in on extending the Bush tax cuts was inevitable, was better than expected. But the caveat pretty much swallows the good news. The die on this cast in September, and while I would have preferred that Obama put the better long-term policy of letting all the tax cuts expire above his political self-interest, I’m not naive enough to think there was any chance of this happening. But let’s be clear — this isn’t a “temporary” extension of the Bush upper-class tax cuts. The chance to let them expire has vanished. The political context certainly won’t be better in 2012.
Tag: "Obama administration"
I’m not the kind of blogger to get furious about things like Obama’s tax cut cave-in (unnecessary and wrong on the merits though it certainly is) very often because my expectations of presidents also tend to be low. I will quibble with Matt on one point: Obama is clearly not “the greatest progressive president in 70 years.” Between his exceptional legislative achievements and being the only Democratic president of the 20th century to nominate nothing but strong liberals to the Supreme Court, LBJ is the clear winner. If he had initiated the Vietnam conflict, Matt might have a case, but JFK gets way less of the blame than he should. (I don’t think anyone who had a chance of being president in 1964 would have handled it much differently.) I also doubt that relative to the status quo of the time his record in civil liberties is significantly worse, and if you consider his federal court appointments it’s probably better. But, still, Obama is #2, and this does tell us something.
To me, the bottom line is that the importance of political skills of presidents is overrated. Obama, in terms of achievements, is probably the third most progressive president of the last eight decades. Not coincidentally, he also entered office with the third-most favorable congressional context. If Bill Clinton had entered office in 2008, he probably would have amassed the same kind of record. JFK underachieved, but didn’t even have a full term either. Carter probably underachieved, but his nominal congressional majorities were particularly nominal even by Democratic standards — a still-large Southern reactionary contingent at war with an unusually intransigent Naderite faction. LBJ is the only post-FDR president to have overachieved (his majorities, in particular, guaranteed nothing when it came to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and nothing could have stopped him from appointing a Byron White if he wanted to), and even that came with a steep price — brute force and bridge-burning are limited resources, and he was of course forced to resign from the Democratic primary with a botched attempt to replace Earl Warren and his legislative agenda a shambles.
So when we discuss the political abilities of presidents, we’re working (especially with domestic policy) within a pretty narrow band. Political skills are essentially a constant, but outcomes nevertheless vary greatly even within presidencies. I don’t think any set of presidential tactics could have gotten significantly better outcomes on health care or climate change. But that’s not to say that presidential policy preferences and strategy are irrelevant either. Had he listened to the Mark Penn faction, the outcome om health care could have been even worse. On tax cuts, conversely, there’s no way to defend Obama’s performance.
Without getting into the debate we’ve been having in comments about his merits as a columnist, I note that Frank Rich’s latest much-praised column makes no sense:
THOSE desperate to decipher the baffling Obama presidency could do worse than consult an article titled “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” in the online archive of The F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin. It explains that hostage takers are most successful at winning a victim’s loyalty if they temper their brutality with a bogus show of kindness.
My question: what shows of kindness? The Republicans have been nothing if not blunt about the fact that they have no interest in dealmaking on anything but the most favorable terms, and have swatted away olive branches with a refreshing lack of equivocation. And while I think that the majority of political observers greatly underestimate the leverage wielded by congressional conservatives, even I don’t think that the Republicans have the inherent leverage of captors. Tax cuts are an issue that Republicans really care about, but far from aggressively using his leverage Obama has been very clear about his plans to cave. There’s plenty of blame to go around — conservative Senate Democrats are probably the primary villains here — but Obama isn’t a prisoner on tax cuts either.
There’s nothing particularly complex here. The DOJ has no legal obligation to do appeal the DADT ruling, and there’s ample precedent for allowing a ruling of unconstitutionality to stand. And the case for making an exception here couldn’t be more compelling: the law unjustly burdens minority rights and lacks both popular support and the support of legislative majorities. (This case, therefore, can be easily distinguished from refusing to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.) Whether or not one agrees with me on this, however, when the administration claims it doesn’t have discretion here they’re not telling the truth.
I have some wonky thoughts about the possibility that a Republican Congress would impeach Obama over at TAPPED. The answer: maybe! Given prior assumptions about presidential politics it’s very unlikely, but it’s not clear that these assumptions still hold. Certainly, the conservative media is laying the groundwork.
On one point Chait is indisputably correct: no matter how feeble the pretext for an impeachment, Jonah Goldberg would enthusiastically support it.
Obama’s approach to judicial nominations has, indeed, been very weak. The legislative situation is about to get a lot worse, so now is the time to get as many nominees confirmed as he can. And it’s not as if failing to fill vacancies is making it more likely that other major legislation will be passed or anything.
In response to reports that Tim Geithner is trying to scotch Elizabeth Warren’s appointment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and presumably prefers someone who is sort of willing to overlook the whole “consumer protection” part of the mission), Yglesias and Fernholz point out that the sourcing for the claim is far from airtight.
The real key here, I think, is Tim’s point #1 — it’s Obama’s decision. As Krugman has been fond of pointing out recently (and as we recently discussed without the metaphor with respect to foreign policy), when it comes to appointments the Cossacks work for the czar. Even if the story is right, Obama is free to ignore Geithner’s advice and would have plenty of political support if he chose to pick Warren. So we’ll see if Obama picks Warren, somebody just as good, or somebody not as good, but no matter what the outcome the credit or blame should be directed at the top of the organizational chain. What Geithner thinks about Warren is largely beside the point.
Stephen Green asserts that to find a president criticizing the Supreme Court you have to go back to Old Hickory. (And his quote is actually apocryphal, although since it’s “fake but true” I’ll give him a pass.) But, of course, there are many more recent examples, some least of which come from Saint Reagan. And Roe was joined by the extra-unassailable Chief Justice — heavens to betsy! The other obvious problem is that Obama never said he wouldn’t comply with the Court’s ruling, making the analogy with Jackson null.
The remainder of his argument he delegates to Glenn Reynolds, who claims that responding to Roberts’s whining is bad politics for Obama while failing to mention that the Court’s decision is extremely unpopular. Unlike Reynolds, Obama knows exactly what he’s doing here.
The GOP essentially wins yet another procedural round in the Senate. It should be noted as well that using various tyranny-of-the-minority tactics to prevent presidents from staffing their administrations is indefensible even by Senate standards; the increase in recess appointments is a perfectly justified way of dealing with the situation.
CNN is reporting that Obama will ask Congress to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell legislation. Of course “asking” could mean everything from making this a legislative priority to engaging in a largely empty symbolic gesture. Given that Obama almost certainly has the authority to stop discharges based on sexual orientation by issuing an executive order, it will be interesting to see how seriously he pursues what up to now has been perhaps his most egregiously broken campaign promise.
I’ve been puzzling over the same questions Rob has — that why both the White House and the Raul Grijalva set among House progressives seem publicly committed to positions that are utterly irrational. And…I’m still not sure, but here are my guesses.
The House liberals suddenly against voting for the only viable health care reform option are the tough case, not least because there are probably a few groups. As Krugman says, there does seem to be a group of House Democrats who are just genuinely acting irrationally, convincing themselves that there’s some kind of underpants gnome theory that will translate the right kind of posturing into a better Senate bill even though the post-special election edition of the World’s Worst Deliberative Body couldn’t even pass something as good as the current bill. There’s not much to say about this except that it’s crazy. In addition to this, there are probably heighten-the-contradictions types: some who just don’t think the bill improves the status quo (pretty clearly erroneously, I think, and the argument is particularly indefensible if you voted for the House bill, which is hardly radically different than the Senate version), along with some who don’t actually think the status quo if preferable to the bill but are deluding themselves about how soon the next opportunity to reform health care will come along. Since the latter group are acting almost as irrationally as the underpants gnomes faction, this isn’t a very satisfying explanation, but I don’t see any others.
As for the White House, I see an intelligible but profoundly misguided logic to their actions. Unless the administration has hired Mark Penn while I wasn’t looking, I don’t think for a minute that Obama or his senior advisers really believe they can get Republican votes in the Senate for a health care reform measure. Rather, I think they consider the reform bill doomed, and are invoking bipartisanship as a way to try to transfer some blame for the likely failure to Republicans. The problem with this, of course, it’s that it can’t work. The White House needs to face up to a simple reality: they own health care. If nothing gets done, it will be blamed on them, not the GOP. The public doesn’t care about the labor pains; it wants to see the baby. It’s not entirely fair — yes, it’s awful that the Republican minority in the Senate has substantial power without responsibility, and yes if the United States had political institutions appropriate for a modern democracy a better bill would have passed months ago. But, you know, ugatz fair. You govern with the institutions you have, and Obama needs to be doing everything he can to get the Senate bill through the House and a reconciliation bill through the Senate, will making it clear that there’s no viable Plan B. It may not work, but if it doesn’t he’s in serious political trouble either way.
In short, there’s no way to assess the situation, I don’t think, without seeing horrible failures of leadership: Obama, Frank, Weiner, any number of others — even if they come around in the end, they’ve acted very irresponsibly at a crucial time, and it may be too late. It’s very hard to have any optimism left.