Sunday, December 12, 2010

What went wrong?

We're still dealing with the aftermath of the deal Obama cut with Mitch McConnell the other day, even though it's really too early to tell if we're in the aftermath yet.

There's been quite a range of opinion, from overheated claims that Obama was always just a Republican in disguise or that he never planned to eliminate the millionaires' tax cut, end DADT, or promulgate real health care reform; to arguments that he actually made a good deal that we should all be celebrating, not criticizing, or that people need to understand that coming across as an angry black man won't help him get anywhere.

I think all of these claims are wrong, mainly because they're missing the point. People do feel betrayed, and with some justification. On the other hand, inspirational as his candidacy was, Candidate Obama was always just a moderately liberal centrist Democrat, and that is generally how he has governed. The sense of betrayal is more the result of disappointed supporters realizing that he didn't live up to their projections than his actual statements.

There are plenty of respectable liberal economists and analysts who make the point that the deal Obama made, given the circumstances, was the best he could have made; I suspect this is true, but there is some reason to question it.

The key phrase, though, is given the circumstances. To me, the question isn't why he made the deal he made, but why he let himself get maneuvered into such a position of weakness, and why he has repeatedly done that during his presidency.

What I've observed is that Obama has repeatedly failed or refused to take the initiative on issues that were important to him and to the Democratic base. For instance, take health care. In 1994, when Bill Clinton tried to pass health care reform he was attacked for setting up a shop in the White House to come up with a plan; it crashed and burned. Obama overlearned that lesson by deciding to just leave it all up to Congress. We know what happened: the Republicans spent the summer of 2009 lying about death panels; Senate leadership wasted their time trying to curry favor with people like Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Charles Grassley, who were never going to support anything; Obama tried to buy off special interests to get their support; but fundamentally Obama never changed his approach.

We have seen the same thing in the Middle East. Obama has failed to articulate a vision for peace in the Middle East and as a consequence he was forced to offer big payments to Israel in exchange for the hope at a token 90-day suspension of illegal settlements. We can actually be glad Netanyahu decided not to take the deal, even as it betrays Obama's weakness.

That's what happened with taxes. We're told that the polls still show that strong majorities of Americans don't support extending the millionaires' and billionaires' tax cut, but it's probably going to happen. It didn't have to, though. For months liberals have been saying that Obama should have introduced his own tax cut, he could even call it the Obama Tax Plan, that extended the tax cuts up to $250,000, lifted the FICA cap, and probably did a few other changes to make the tax system more progressive, and pushed it through Congress. It would have put the Republicans in the position of going into the election either voting for it or voting no on tax cuts for 98% of the American people. Back in September even Boehner said that if he had to he would have voted for that bill. So why not make the Republicans vote for it? Before the election is when he had some leverage, not after they won.

The same is true with the federal employees' pay freeze. I don't have an opinion on whether it was a good idea or not, but I'm sure it's something the Republicans would have wanted. They might have wanted it enough to trade something for it, but they didn't have to because Obama gave it up unilaterally. Would it have been worth enough for them to agree to extend unemployment? We'll never know, will we? For that matter, there are plenty of observers who think the Republicans, if forced to it, would have voted to extend unemployment benefits because they wouldn't have wanted to look like the economic royalists they are. I doubt that, but again, Obama never tried that, so we'll never know.

So where do we all stand? I'm not really sure. Obama has clearly mishandled this situation very badly. He will probably get the deal through, pretty much as written, but that remains to be seen. The price for the deal, though, is not just giving the Republicans the billionaires' tax cut. We've been hearing plenty of liberals who supported Obama who are now saying he has permanently lost their support. We also hear people saying it's time for a primary challenge.

I think this is misguided. History tells us that an incumbent president who gets a serious primary challenge loses, either during the primaries or in the general election. The list is a long one: Johnson, Ford, Carter, Bush. It could certainly happen to Obama in 2012, although much depends on how the economy is doing.

If that happens, though, we are not going to be trading an unsatisfactory President Obama for a preferable President Kucinich, Clinton, or some other liberal Democrat. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is not the strongest part of the party at the present time, so there's no guarantee that we will get a more liberal nominee. (If you'll remember, the only serious candidate in 2008 who was more liberal than Obama was John Edwards. I invite you to contemplate what a disaster that would have been.)

No. If Obama faces a serious primary challenge in 2012 the likeliest outcome is the election of Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, or some other vicious Republican. Do you seriously think that would be better than reelecting Obama?

If you do, please tell me what color the moon on your planet is.

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Blogger Greg said...

Sadly, I think you are right on all points. sigh....

December 12, 2010 10:15 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

A clear and articulate view from the mountains. This flatlander agrees with you and wishes more folks would look at the whole picture like you have.

December 14, 2010 8:39 AM  

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