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On Presidential Power Yet Again


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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