One of the myths of this stunted political moment is that Barack Obama “tried to do too much,” and that purist, ungrateful liberals are mad at him over things like the absence of a public option in his heath bill. This is dangerous nonsense, and it matters because these widespread views among the pundit class will influence what lessons the media and Obama himself draw from what is likely to be an epic partisan defeat on Tuesday.
These views are not limited to thumb-sucking centrists. It pains me to quote as Exhibit A– a journalist whom I truly admire, Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and an occasional contributor to America’s premier weekly, The New Yorker. Here is Lemann in The New Yorker for October 25, summing up at the closing of his well- reported piece http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/25/101025fa_fact_lemann
on the Harry Reid-Sharron Angle Nevada Senate race:
“Obama, with his big Congressional majority and keen sense of the fleeting nature of political momentum, decided to be bold in his first two years in office. Although liberal voters are disappointed, the plain truth is that Obama, aided by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, passed much more liberal legislation at the outset of his term than his immediate Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Doing that has clearly alienated some of the centrists among his 2008 supporters.”
This view is the conventional wisdom, and just about every element of it is dead wrong.
For starters, liberals are dismayed with Obama not because this or that initiative was insufficiently lefty. They are mad at Obama for blowing what had to be a Roosevelt moment, and thereby ushering in a totally needless period of far-right resurgence, dominated by a lunatic right that makes Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove look like moderates.
Obama either had to succeed big, or it was guaranteed that he would fail big.
This is not Monday morning quarterbacking. I made this point, God help me, in two books, one on the eve of his presidency and the other after a year. And I was far from alone.
With all due respect to Lemann, Obama did not decide to be bold in his first two years in office. He decided to be timid and conciliatory. People on his own economics team, such as Christina Romer, were telling him that the stimulus was far too small, and that it was too tilted to tax cuts.
Even more important than the scale of the recovery program was Obama’s failure to be bold enough when it came to reorganizing failing banks. But his economic team, led by Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, opted for propping them up and disguising the big holes in their balance sheets rather than cleaning the banks out.
This approach, about as bold as Hank Paulson, had huge political and economic costs. Politically, it fed right wing populism by putting Obama in bed with Wall Street. Economically, it led to the Japan scenario that we are now suffering, in which even zero interest rates can’t pull the economy out of the ditch.
And this is not Monday morning quarterbacking either. Several of America’s best economists–Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Simon Johnson, Nouriel Roubini–were making these criticisms at the time. So was the Congressional Oversight Panel ably led by Elizabeth Warren, which explains why Tim Geithner keeps trying to do her in.
Lemann’s second claim, that Obama passed more liberal legislation than his predecessors, is also wrong. The problem is not how many bills he passed, but whether they were good bills. The health bill has some decent provisions in it, but the combination of a delayed implementation date (2014 for most provisions to disguise the budgetary impact), combined with an unpopular individual mandate and resented Medicare savings, make it lousy politics. The fact that the bill is unpopular in an election year was all too predictable–and was widely predicted at the time.
Contrary to Lemann’s third claim, it isn’t Obama’s putative boldness that alienated centrists, but that Obama let the economy slide far deeper into protracted stagnation. Boldness that put the economy on the road to recovery would have increased his support, left, right and center.
If, as widely expected, Democrats lose the House and barely hold the Senate, we will hear a lot more of this commentary. Obama supposedly governed too far to the left, liberals were insufficiently grateful, and now he needs to govern in coalition with the Republicans. How he might actually accomplish that is never quite specified, given that the Republicans’ main goal is to destroy his presidency and their electoral success will only whet their appetite.
The stakes are even higher now, because America is on the brink of a second banking crisis about to be triggered by the revelation that much of the securities on the books of America’s biggest banks can no longer be disguised as sound investments. One of the very few silver linings in a truly ugly turn of events is that some Republicans in line to assume key committee chairmanships, such as Rep. Darrell Issa who will likely chair the powerful Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, are no fans either of Wall Street or of the Federal Reserve.
The downside is that Obama and his orthodox economic team have ceded a moment of populist rage to a right wing that is not interested in governing or in problem solving, but only in tearing institutions down.
Obama will save his presidency and the economy by belatedly deciding to practice the boldness mistakenly ascribed to him–by putting forth a genuine recovery program, fighting for it, and exposing Republican obstructionism.
If he fails to do that, the best outcomes we can hope for are almost equally unappetizing. Obama, facing a lunatic-right opponent in 2012, could hang on to the presidency as the economy seeks deeper into prolonged stagnation. Democrats might even take back the House, but by too weak a margin to accomplish much.
Alternatively, Republicans could win the White House in 2012, fail to cure the broken economy, setting up a Democratic resurgence in 2014 and 2016. But both the polity and the economy are likely to worsen in the intervening years, and in a climate like this, six years is an eternity. Far better would be for Obama to draw the right lessons and surprise his critics now.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a Senior Fellow at Demos. He is author of A Presidency in Peril and Obama’s Challenge.