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Obama’s Political Skills, And How They Matter

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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.

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