The Apologist for The Weakness

Jonathan Chait has been a long time supporter of Democrats like Barack Obama and basically no one else. He’s a senior editor of The New Republic which I didn’t even realize was still a thing. Jonathan doesn’t like so many people criticizing his hero, The Weakness, and I think is taking it personally. I can think of no other reason for someone to write such an asinine defense of The Weakness…

Obama’s image as a weakling and sellout on domestic issues now centers on his alleged resistance, from the very first days of his presidency, to do whatever was necessary to heal the economy. “The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history,” wrote the Emory professor Drew Westen in this newspaper, “was his handling of the stimulus.” Just as the conservative repudiation of George W. Bush boiled down to “he spent too much,” the liberal repudiation of Obama has settled on “he didn’t spend enough.”

There’s truth in that. President Obama underestimated the depth of the crisis in 2009 and left himself with bad options in the event the economy failed to recover as quickly as he hoped. And yet the wave of criticism from the left over the stimulus is fundamentally flawed: it ignores the real choices Obama faced (and the progressive decisions he made) and wishes away any constraints upon his power.

The most common hallmark of the left’s magical thinking is a failure to recognize that Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government consisting of members whose goals may differ from the president’s. Congressional Republicans pursued a strategy of denying Obama support for any major element of his agenda, on the correct assumption that this would make it less popular and help the party win the 2010 elections. Only for roughly four months during Obama’s term did Democrats have the 60 Senate votes they needed to overcome a filibuster. Moreover, Republican opposition has proved immune even to persistent and successful attempts by Obama to mobilize public opinion. Americans overwhelmingly favor deficit reduction that includes both spending and taxes and favor higher taxes on the rich in particular. Obama even made a series of crusading speeches on this theme. The result? Nada.

That kind of analysis, however, just feels wrong to liberals, who remember Bush steamrolling his agenda through Congress with no such complaints about obstructionism. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently invoked “the panoply of domestic legislation — including Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement — that Bush pushed through Congress in his first term.”

Yes, Bush passed his tax cuts — by using a method called reconciliation, which can avoid a filibuster but can be used only on budget issues. On No Child Left Behind and Medicare, he cut deals expanding government, which the right-wing equivalents of Greenwald denounced as a massive sellout. Bush did have one episode where he tried to force through a major domestic reform against a Senate filibuster: his crusade to privatize Social Security. Just as liberals urge Obama to do today, Bush barnstormed the country, pounding his message and pressuring Democrats, whom he cast as obstructionists. The result? Nada, beyond the collapse of Bush’s popularity.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I’m going to pick this apart piece by piece. This section turns, entirely, on the assertion made by many (including myself) that the President has far more power than many realize especially with substantial majorities in Congress. During a time of national crisis and emergency, would anyone have doubted the need to use reconciliation on any measure (since, let’s face facts, it’s pretty easy to turn anything the Federal Government does into a budget matter) should the Republicans have proved intractable (as they did)? Rather than chasing after Sen. Collins, why didn’t The Weakness listen to any of the smart people saying the stimulus was too small? Why didn’t any of the ‘people who matter’ (Chait included) warn The Weakness that anything less than a return to job growth and declines in unemployment would have a massively destabilizing effect on his Presidency?

I’ll hazard a guess… because they were too stupid to realize that this economics stuff actually, you know, matters.

As for the President’s meager attempt to use the bully pulpit to rally public opinion around deficit reduction, if that’s the best he’s got then 2012 is already lost. That was a pathetic attempt that was doomed to failure because, at this point, The Weakness has caved and capitulated so many times to the Republicans they know what cards he’s holding and aren’t at all scared of him. So what if their national popularity is in the toilet? They don’t get elected nationally. They can afford to be the villains over and over again which is why working with them is pure lunacy. You must be absolutely aggressive to the point of going into their districts and, sorry, but raising taxes ain’t the thing you bring up. It’s jobs. It’s the economy. It’s economic growth. And you say “Your Congressman is keeping the economy in the toilet by requiring nothing but cuts, starting with your Medicare”. Take THAT into Eric Cantor’s district and watch his numbers start to melt. Moreover, you send a message to everyone in the Republican caucus… ‘you either cooperate, or I tell your constituents what you’ve been doing’. Of course, the national press wouldn’t like it but, who cares? When the numbers shift, they’ll come around. Being right and winning tends to bring you many, many friends.

Could it backfire? Sure. But it wouldn’t because Cantor already voted to cut Medicare. But then there IS The Weakness’s attempt to ‘put everything on the table, including entitlements’. That’s another rhetorical hole The Weakness dug for himself as part of what I’m sure someone in the White House thought was a clever way to make it appear that the Weakness was willing to sacrifice something that was important to him (but that he’ll never need – sacrificing the entitlements of others is always sooo easy). Sad that no one saw the hole in that clever little plan and yet one more issue which thinking people, of all ideological stripes, will have with The Weakness.

Perhaps the oddest feature of the liberal indictment of Obama is its conclusion that Obama should have focused all his political capital on economic recovery. “He could likely have passed many small follow-up stimulative laws in 2009,” Jon Walker of the popular blog Firedoglake wrote last month. “Instead, he pivoted away from the economic crisis because he wrongly ignored those who warned the crisis was going to get worse.”

It’s worth recalling that several weeks before Obama proposed an $800 billion stimulus, House Democrats had floated a $500 billion stimulus. (Oddly, this never resulted in liberals portraying Nancy Pelosi as a congenitally timid right-wing enabler.) At the time, Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders — that is to say, just about everybody who mattered — as mind-bogglingly large. News reports invariably described it as “huge,” “massive” or other terms suggesting it was unrealistically large, even kind of pornographic. The favored cliché used to describe the reaction in Congress was “sticker shock.”

Compounding the problem, Obama proposed his stimulus shortly after the Congressional Budget Office predicted deficits topping a trillion dollars. Even before Obama took office, and for months afterward, “everybody who mattered” insisted that the crisis required Obama to scale back the domestic initiatives he campaigned on, especially health care reform, but also cap-and-trade, financial regulation and so on. Colin Powell, a reliable barometer of elite opinion, warned in July of 2009: “I think one of the cautions that has to be given to the president — and I’ve talked to some of his people about this — is that you can’t have so many things on the table that you can’t absorb it all. And we can’t pay for it all.”

Rather than deploy every ounce of his leverage to force moderate Republicans, whose votes he needed, to swallow a larger stimulus than they wanted, Obama clearly husbanded some of his political capital. Why? Because in the position of choosing between the agenda he came into office hoping to enact and the short-term imperative of economic rescue, he picked the former. At the time, this was the course liberals wanted and centrists opposed.

Jonathan doesn’t realize that the economy WAS, IS and WILL BE the ballgame in 2012. Without it, The Weakness has no chance. And passing a large enough stimulus, early on, was the requirement. To be clear, Krugman, Stiglitz and many others even within the Administration KNEW the stimulus was too small and said so. Instead, the President listened to Orszag and Geithner, two people who are dull even for conventional thinkers. And yes, I was one of those who said it was inadequate. I could see that and I certainly don’t have a Nobel.

Simply put, if ‘everyone who mattered’ was saying something different then they were fools who should have kept their mouths shut. In situations like this, you listen to experts and follow their advice, because THEY are the only people who matter.

As for the rest of the critique, there was the extension of the Bush tax cut deal (the failure of which would have prompted Democrats to pass something, quickly, before the end of the year) which provided no stimulus (it was already baked in so it wasn’t new money coming into the economy and was already, largely, being saved… in other words, removing it would have had a negligible effect on the economy) and didn’t include a deal on the debt limit. This was ALL when Democrats STILL controlled Congress. So, yeah, he got rolled. The problem is, he didn’t learn from the experience.

Liberal critics of Obama, just like conservative critics of Republican presidents, generally want both maximal partisan conflict and maximal legislative achievement. In the real world, those two things are often at odds. Hence the allure of magical thinking.

Well, not for nothing Jonathan, but false equivalencies (liberals are just as bad as conservatives) are foolish, especially in this case, BECAUSE WE’RE THE ONLY ONES WHO HAVE BEEN CONSISTENTLY RIGHT. And, just so it’s clear, we’re the people who actually got The Weakness elected. We’re the people who block walked, phone banked and lobbied our friends and family all over the country to vote for him (and don’t kid yourself, hundreds of millions in TV ads don’t elect candidates… personal contact does). We were enthusiastic because we thought he’d realize that now was the time for bold change and action, not incremental steps and compromise that mostly takes us back. Now, of course, we see he’s not that man and probably can never be. Now we have a choice… him or retaking Congress and right now, the odds are fully stacked against him. He should understand… like Chait, The Weakness is better at making excuses than actually doing anything.

None of us are pissed about any one thing, we’re pissed about the stubborn refusal of the President to DO SOMETHING and FIGHT. That’s what Jonathan and those like him don’t understand… we’re pissed at him for refusing to be the leader history required him to be. We’re mad because the man we elected to make decisions based on facts is doing everything but.

Make no mistake, the jobs speech is absolutely critical… if it doesn’t show a man who really believes in the future of this country, he’s done. He’d best serve the country by opting not to run for re-election.

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4 Responses to The Apologist for The Weakness

  1. jeffsalamon says:

    A few small errors you may want to fix: Jonathan (not Jonathon) Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic (which is a liberal-centrist magazine, except when Marty Peretz is writing, when it momentarily comes ideologically unhinged), not the editor of The National Review (which is a right-wing magazine, only slightly less unhinged than the Weekly Standard). And I hardly think Chait regards Barack Obama as his hero — he’s criticized him lots, but on different grounds than the people he’s disagreeing with here.

  2. mcblogger says:

    Wow… that’s what I get for giving up crack. Corrections made in the post and thank you for pointing them out.

    • jeffsalamon says:

      Happy to do my part. Still, at the risk of seeming pedantic — Chait is a senior editor at TNR, not “the editor.” Richard Just is the editor of TNR.

      • mcblogger says:

        LOL… you’re not at all. I’d rather make the corrections than leave up inaccurate information. Just wish those writing about the confidence fairy, austerity, etc. would admit their inaccuracies and correct.