Barack Hillary Obama

In October 2007, when Hillary Clinton was leading in the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, I posted "What if Hillary Clinton Wins?" here on Dorf on Law. In that post, I argued that the danger for Democrats of a possible Hillary Clinton presidency was that she would follow the pattern of her husband's presidency, regularly capitulating to the Right while being absurdly labeled as a lefty. When her policies inevitably failed, liberals would be blamed, even though it seemed certain that her policies would be anything but liberal.

We are not yet six months into Barack Obama's presidency, giving us hope that early patterns can yet be changed. At this point, however, it is difficult to avoid the gnawing feeling that Obama is turning out to be exactly what I feared Hillary Clinton would be. Notwithstanding his Chief of Staff's famous dictum that we should not let "a good crisis go to waste," there is precious little evidence that the Obama White House views this historical moment as transformative -- or even that they understand how much running room the Republicans' strategy gives them. If even the most watered-down policies (take health care reform, for an obvious example) are going to be labeled "socialist," then there is no point in watering down policies to avoid the socialist label. This is a lesson that the Clintonites never seemed to learn, and it is becoming distressingly clear that the Obamans are equally deluded in thinking that they can defuse their opposition by preemptively moving right on issue after issue.

Which issues? Start with economics. The inspiration for the title of this post is an article, "Barack Hoover Obama," in the June 2009 issue of Harper's, by Ken Silverstein. Silverstein points out that there are disturbing similarities between Herbert Hoover and Barack Obama, not only in terms of sheer intelligence and apparent understanding of the real problems underlying a crisis but also in terms of their unwillingness to do anything risky to try to change the course of history. On this blog, I have written at length (and will surely write at greater length in the future) about the Obama economics team's orthodoxy and unwillingness to propose policies to deal with the depth of the economic dangers facing the country. Their plans to improve the regulation of Wall Street are widely derided (even by financial writers) as laughably minimalist. There are good reasons that liberal economists like Paul Krugman are worrying about the parallels between FDR's return to Hooverism in 1937 and today's policy debate.

Obama's top domestic priority, health care reform, is more of the same. He started (as Hillary Clinton did in 1993) by eliminating single-payer from the discussion, thus giving away not only the most promising policy option (in my opinion) but also his best bargaining chip. With the threat of single-payer looming, his "public option" would look awfully good to his opponents right now. Instead, Obama proposed the public option and then immediately sent out signals that he might be willing to give that away, too.

On foreign policy, Maureen Dowd (in a May 19 column cleverly titled "Cheney Grabs a Third Term") assembled a devastating list of issues on which Obama has given in to the neocons. Perhaps the most disheartening of these is that we now have a Democratic president who is putting in place policies to continue indefinite detention without trial or even charges. When the Military Commissions Act gutted habeas, I had the sinking feeling that there would never be a time when Democrats thought it would be "safe" to undo that historic mistake. Obama has, if anything, made matters worse.

It is possible, however, that the narrative offered here is too generous. As was true of the Clintons, it is not only Obama's detractors who maintain a fervent belief that he is fundamentally liberal. My complaint here, after all, is that Obama seems to be willing to give in on his presumptively liberal beliefs in order to play a losing game of political compromise. At this point, it seems increasingly likely that many of us assumed quite incorrectly that he is a liberal trying to master the art of the possible. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Obama simply is not interested in being anything but a center-right president. As bad as that was in the 1990's under Bill Clinton, the lost opportunities during the current historic moment will harm us even more profoundly for years to come. And once again, when those policies fail, "Obama the liberal" will be part of the emerging conventional wisdom to the effect that liberalism cannot work.

As always, I hope that I am wrong and that Obama is doing more good than I am acknowledging here. At this point, however, I was hoping to have more than hope to go on.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan