Monday, March 04, 2013

The Obama/Republican Co-Dependency

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

I have, to put it mildly, been rather critical of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama over the years.  The case against Bill Clinton is an easy one, notwithstanding the inexplicable rock-star status that he now enjoys among liberals.  In a Dorf on Law post in mid-2011, I summarized only a portion of the damage that was wrought by Clinton's "triangulation" strategy -- a "murderer's row" of terrible policies adopted in the mid-1990's that we are still trying to undo (one part of which could, with luck, happen soon with the Defense of Marriage Act), but most of which we will probably never be able to reverse (truly terrible laws regarding criminal law, the death penalty, welfare, and immigration law).  I did not even mention "don't ask/don't tell," which took twenty years to fix.

As I (along with many other people) have observed, the Republicans never seemed to understand just how great Clinton was for them.  Notwithstanding some silly claims recently from Tea Party-backed members of Congress, who disparage Obama for being unable to solve budget issues that Clinton could supposedly have solved, Republicans hated Clinton with a fiery passion.  (They impeached him over a sexual affair, in case anyone has forgotten!)  There has always been the possibility that the Republicans were deliberately playing on Clinton's neediness, shrewdly withholding the love that he obviously craves, but there is simply too much evidence that the right simply believed its own hype about Clinton.

That is clearly even more true of their views of Obama.  Partially for racist reasons, partially because of the general anger generated by the Great Recession, and for a variety of other reasons (better gerrymandering, for example), the opposition to Obama is even more fierce than it was to Clinton.  Much of my writing over the life of this blog has been devoted to commenting on Obama's never-ending struggles in dealing with -- or, I have often argued, even identifying or understanding -- the implacability of those who oppose him.

Over the weekend, as a result of a brief email conversation with Bruce Bartlett, I came to understand this as a matter of what amounts to co-dependency between Obama and his enemies.  What has been most difficult to understand about Obama is (just as it was for Clinton) whether he is really a liberal who is doing the best he can to forge reasonable outcomes in a hostile environment, or a center-right guy whose real struggle is with his liberal allies.  My Dorf on Law post after Obama's Second Inaugural Address is a recent example of an attempt to figure out what is really going on.

Although I have refused to give up all hope, my sense from the very beginning was that Obama's core commitments are really conservative, at least on fiscal and economic issues.  Whereas Republicans like to portray their ongoing battle with Obama as a titanic struggle between latter-day Reagans and a reincarnated Che Guevara, and the mainstream pundits like to imagine that this is a battle between Reagan and some combination of FDR, JFK, and LBJ, the reality is quite different.  Obama is actually in the Reagan role (and is in many ways to Reagan's right, as even Obama has observed), while modern Republicans are charting new ground in utter insanity.  That makes it easy to root for Obama, but it also means that there is virtually zero chance of good economic policy being enacted going forward.

For example, as Professor Dorf suggested last week, the best alternative to the sequester-related spending cuts was simply to cancel the cuts.  A few days later, one of the all-time great economists, Robert Solow, wrote an excellent editorial in The New York Times, agreeing with that assessment.  Notably, Solow did so not from the standpoint of some unique, alternative economic theory, but simply by applying the most fundamental, well-known economic knowledge that we have accumulated over the post-Great Depression era.

Obama, however, was not suggesting that alternative.  For him, it was necessary to have a "balanced package" of spending cuts and tax increases, even though the object of his obsession -- the long-term budget picture -- would not have been meaningfully changed by canceling the sequester cuts.  As much as I agree with the wisdom of certain progressive tax increases, not getting those increases today would hardly have been a tragedy, whereas the spending cuts that Obama set in motion will be, for many vulnerable people. (See, for example, "As Automatic Budget Cuts Go Into Effect, Poor May Be Hit Particularly Hard," in today's New York Times.)

Meanwhile, Obama continues to believe in the possibility and wisdom of striking a "grand bargain" with Republicans on taxes and spending. Even though, as I pointed out in a Verdict column in December of last year, John Boehner and the Republicans keep saving Obama from his own instincts to undermine the New Deal and Great Society, a news article last week reported that Obama is "still interested in a big deficit-reduction deal and as evidence of his good faith has left on the table proposed Medicare and Social Security cuts that liberals hate."

The article continues, referring to "Mr. Obama’s continued willingness to swallow, over the intensifying objections of most of the left side of his party, a new way of calculating inflation adjustments for Social Security benefits that would reduce the growth of payments – in effect, a benefit cut. And Mr. Obama has alluded repeatedly to his willingness to re-engage with Republicans based on his last offer for $400 billion in Medicare cuts, made during the negotiations in December over the so-called fiscal cliff; that’s a level that gives heartburn to some Democrats in Congress who see no need to compromise at this point."

Obama, of course, is playing to the fake-centrist punditocracy, a great example of which was on full display in Bill Keller's op-ed in today's NYT: "Liberal Democrats have found silver linings [in the sequester], as Jonathan Weisman reported in The Times, [saying that] 'the process could take pressure off the Democratic Party, at least in the short run, to tamper with Social Security and Medicare.' (God forbid.)"  Note that the "God forbid" is Keller's comment, not mine.  Despite the lack of any apparent knowledge or expertise on his part, he has drunk the Kool-Aid.  He is simply amazed that anyone cannot see that "entitlements" have to be cut -- apparently just because they must!

And that is what is ultimately driving Obama, I think.  The "right people" all take it as a simple matter of fact that the problem is out-of-control spending.  They do not challenge Republicans on that talking point, even though it is clearly false.  Obama has never challenged that conventional wisdom -- not because he is hemmed in by politics, but because he obviously agrees.  He was willing to win re-election by posing as the great savior of Medicare and Social Security, but he keeps offering up both programs (without the Republicans even pushing him on Social Security, mind you) as a peace offering to a group of people who hate his guts.

The bizarre co-dependency, therefore, becomes still more bizarre.  Republicans hate Obama, and he tries to make them view him as a reasonable guy.  This simply makes them despise him more.  Meanwhile, he gives them more and more of what they want, so that even if they were responsive to this kind of political strategizing, Obama has given them no reason to think that they are losing anything by opposing him.  Meanwhile, Obama views his real battle as being with the majority of his party (and, ultimately, with the energized voters who made the difference in the swing states last November).  The Republicans look like the bad guys, and Obama gets to say that he tried, but gosh, look how crazy those guys are!

The only people who will be hurt are the people who will hurt the most.  Otherwise, it's great political theater.


Unknown said...

I was following you until this sentence: "Obama has never challenged that conventional wisdom -- not because he is hemmed in by politics, but because he obviously agrees." Why is it so obvious that he chose this center-right approach, and the political realities of Washington didn't force him there?

Joe said...

Clinton was opposed by Republicans for a variety of reasons. He was a real threat as Democrat that co-opted some of their tropes and some honestly thought him a heel. They also didn't merely impeach him for a sexual affair. They impeached him for how he handled it. This doesn't justify it, but you know, facts and all.

As with your distasteful post regarding Obama's inaugural address (how did that go? how did he not defend the values "at all" in it after, e.g., intervening in the Prop 8 battle to promote same sex equality?), you also provide a slanted view of his record.

DOMA wasn't "his" policy & if he tried to veto it, it would likely have been overridden given the sad broad acceptance, including by the likes of Paul Wellstone.

He did have a "triangulation" strategy, but ALSO continued usual liberal themes. There is a reason he was popular with Democrats, including feminists. Being anti-gay or against choice was not ultimately what he is about. Conservatives would find little "great" about that.

The same applies to the Obama discussion. He too is a centrist and this doesn't appeal to the writer, which is fine, but then he pushes the envelope.

The multiple things that made him and his party do things more progressive ever since the days of LBJ (people are then left to whining "I want a pony like" that isn't much), including a major expansion in health care, is diminished. This includes some real moves that deal with the environment that gets little press.

On a multiple number of issues, he remains different from the modern day Republican Party. The fact some wish for a more left leaning President is duly noted. Maybe, sometime such an animal will be elected.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Drew Levine's excellent question gets to the core issue that I (and many others) have struggled with from the very beginning with Obama. Because we can only see what Obama does in the real world that is inhabited by his implacable opposition, we cannot know directly what he would have done had he been faced with a somewhat relenting set of enemies. That's why I focus on "unforced errors," as I called them in a post last week. What does Obama do that he doesn't have to do?

As I noted in this post, he put the Social Security cuts on the table and kept them there, even though nobody was even talking about SS, and even after Republicans rejected his offer. (Consider how many rejected offers he does not stand by, citing political realism as an excuse.) In 2009, he turned the conversation from fighting unemployment to deficit reduction when unemployment was still over 9%, and when he could certainly have pushed a more expansionary policy in the face of continuing economic weakness. He chose not to do so.

Being faced with opponents who will say no to anything he proposes actually confers a certain kind of freedom, because he could decide to say what he really wants -- saying, in essence, "My opponents refuse to do everything and anything, so here's what I'm really all about." According to one of the NYT news articles that I quoted in this post, he's decided to look for "legacy-enhancing" grand compromises. He thus reveals that he views his legacy as being best served by cutting Social Security and Medicare, and playing small ball (and not a very aggressive game at that) on progressive tax increases. Like Clinton, he thinks statesmanship means fighting his own party, even though that party's supposed "left wing" is filled with people who are simply asking him to follow popular (and economically sound) policies on a pragmatic basis. There are no ideologues for him to face down.

This doesn't make him the worst president of all time, of course. Others might be more forgiving of one decision or another, but after watching him for over 5 years, I see him continually making political and policy choices that reinforce the center-right paradigm, even when opposing it appears to be either costless or possibly a net plus. Reasonable minds can still differ, I suppose, but the evidence is becoming pretty overwhelming.