Embedded in a gag about the Obama presidential library that is, how shall I put this, not funny, Thomas Frank has some penetrating questions:
Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches?
Well, he accomplished at least one very important thing on this score, but we’ll return to it.
Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success?
What, precisely? And how?
Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got?
Um, because he wanted to pass comprehensive health care reform rather than attempt to impress a minority of pundits, and he understands the elementary point that opening proposals far outside the expected negotiating space are guaranteed to fail? And isn’t this a particularly sound choice, since when the “proper” proposal failed said critics would not give him credit for fighting but accuse him of “making soaring speeches” while doing nothing, which you just did?
Why not a proper stimulus package?
Well, he did — the stimulus package that passed was far larger than those passed by European countries that didn’t have Madisonian institutional constraints or a major party controlled by nihilist fanatics to deal with. I would also observe that while it’s fair to say that Obama had an excessive faith in bipartisanship and the possibility of consensus, his faith pales next to Frank’s, since Frank apparently thinks there were multiple Republican votes in the Senate for a trillion-dollar stimulus.
Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?
This is a real puzzle to anyone whose first day paying attention to American politics was today.
Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged!
The layers of sarcasm in the second sentence act to cancel out any discernible meaning, although I can understand Frank not wanting to come out and say that Republican control of the House is imaginary and/or irrelevant in so many words. On the third sentence, 1)dismissing gerrymandering as a thing would be more persuasive had the Republicans not just retained control of the House while receiving fewer votes, and 2)right, the first Democratic candidate to carry Indiana since Lyndon Johnson has no capacity to defeat right-wingers at the polls.
The Labyrinth of the Grand Bargain, it might be called, and it will teach how the president bravely put the fundamental achievements of his party—Social Security and Medicare—on the bargaining table in exchange for higher taxes and a smaller deficit.
We finally have something that Obama can be fairly criticized for, although suggesting that Obama put Social Security and Medicare “on the table” is highly misleading — Chained CPI is bad policy but it’s not a proposal to end Social Security, as the language seems to imply. Still, the proposed Grand Bargain was a terrible idea and Obama should indeed be criticized for it. I must observe, however, that according to Frank’s logic as there are no real constraints on Obama’s power and the failure of something to pass Congress is evidence that Obama didn’t want it, he couldn’t have really favored it. (Green Lantern critiques are inevitably selective, and proposals that go nowhere are part of Obama’s record only when the proposals are bad.)
There is, however, one core Great Society program that Frank doesn’t mention — Medicaid. If it weren’t retroactively written out of liberalism one might have to conclude that massively expanding the American single-payer program for the poor was a “proper” health care reform policy that addressed a major element of American economic inequality. One might also have to notice statehouses and courts controlled by Republicans and conclude that the constraints they put on federal policy are not figments of Barack Obama’s imagination.
And now, going back a little, the punchline:
In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all
Yes, Obama could have caused American conservatism to vanish entirely using his fearsome ability to Bully Pulpit the Overton Window on Steroids, but he didn’t. even. try. That’s the kind of hard-hitting truth the Obama presidential library won’t tell you! In conclusion, Obama is just too naive about American politics and thinks that you can just wish political conflict away.