Michael Tomasky at Democracy:
On the day in late April when Barack Obama gave his speech at Cooper Union urging financial regulation reform, The Huffington Post, one of the most important liberal websites we have, could hardly have made more clear to its readers what it thought about Obama’s appeal to his audience. “Two Presidents, Two Messages to Anti-Reform Bankers,” ran the headline over photographs of Obama and Franklin Roosevelt an hour or two after the President wrapped up his speech. Obama, the sub-headlines explained, urged bankers to “Join Us,” while Roosevelt had said: “I Welcome Their Hatred.”
Substantively, I can’t say I disagree with the editors’ assessment that Obama’s approach to the Wall Streeters in attendance at the Great Hall was more conciliatory than it should have been. And the reform bill itself, like much of what we have seen in the past year-and-a-half, contained several good and much-needed measures but fell short in significant ways. HuffPo, which I read daily, is right to point that out, just as it was right to cast the proverbial disinfecting sunlight on the White House’s deal with the pharmaceutical lobby during the health-care debate.
The juxtaposition and the wording struck me as representative of a kind of liberal stance that’s been common since Obama took office and that does not serve liberalism’s long-term interests, into the Obama years and beyond them. It’s one thing to be disappointed in policy outcomes, or even angry about them. But more and more it seems that we are in an age of liberal despair–as reflex and first instinct, as motif and explanation, even, it sometimes seems to me, as fashion. Criticism of legislation and proposals is always proper and necessary, as is the application of whatever pressure people can apply to try to produce more progressive outcomes. But I’ve read and heard many critiques that then race right past that into outright desolation. One noticed it in the days after the passage of the health-care bill in late March. There was a brief geyser of euphoria, and then, in two or three or at most five days, skirmishes broke out over why Obama didn’t make more recess appointments than the 15 he shoved through on March 27. By March 31–10 days after the House passed health-care reform–when Obama announced his since re-thought plan to open many coastal areas to offshore drilling, things on the liberal side were more or less back to the dour normal.
There are many answers. Occam’s Razor suggests the obvious one–that people are in fact disappointed, which is understandable, and they should say so. I don’t doubt, for example, Hamsher’s sincerity in wondering how working-class families are going to be able to afford the mandated coverage (progressives who don’t worry about that aren’t being honest with themselves about the possible problems that could arise from the bill). But I keep returning in my mind to another matter, one that The Huffington Post’s home page’s invocation of Roosevelt brought home to me: the way liberals interpret and talk about history today. The five-alarm political culture in which we live now forces upon us a certain kind of response to current events: Every little flare-up is elevated to roiling controversy, and every minor setback a potential death blow to the progressive cause, every departure from the sacred codex of Keynes not a mere delay or strategic feint or hindrance but an act of treachery. This much we know; who didn’t, during the last presidential campaign, think that some breathlessly reported development that turned out to be unimportant–the late revelation about Obama’s aunt in Boston who was an undocumented immigrant springs to mind–would be the back-breaking event that would sober up a besotted electorate and lift John McCain to the presidency? After 30 years of mostly defeats, liberals are quick to catastrophize.
But our political culture affects the way we think about the past as well. Too often, when progressives think of American history, we think only of the snapshots: those glorious moments when a historic bill is signed into law, or when the great progressive leader thunderingly confronts the forces of reaction. It’s good to remember those; they are our lodestars. But they are moments. Actual history is slower, more tedious, and certainly less uplifting. It’s not for Obama’s sake, but for liberalism’s over the long haul, that we need to consider this reality and proceed in full awareness of it. It’s only by seeing this fuller picture that we can know how history actually unfolds in real time and place our present experience within that context. We don’t do nearly enough of that. Cable news and op-ed pages and websites are a kind of modern-day camera obscura, giving us an image to be sure, accurate in a way, but upside-down.
The changes we want to see won’t happen in 18 months, or in two years, or four, or probably even eight. Indeed, the entire Obama era, if it lasts eight years, is best thought of not as a culmination, or a self-contained time frame that should be judged a failure if X, Y, and Z don’t happen. It’s the start of a process that may take 16 years, or 24; that may be along the way interrupted or undone; that will be fought tooth and nail, as we’ve plainly seen these recent months, by others whose idea of America is incomprehensible to us but who are citizens too, with the same rights we have. They (and by the way: no despair on their side! There is rage, to be sure, but judging from the Tea Party events I’ve been to and watched, it is a joyful rage) and the corporate interests and the elected representatives on their side have a lot of power. Liberal despair only reinforces their power and helps to ensure that whatever gains are made during the Obama term could quickly be rolled back. And if that happens, we are back, ten years from now, to fighting the usual rearguard battles. With this in mind, some perspective is in order.
Jonathan Chait at The New Republic:
A second reason for liberal despair is the cult of the presidency. Few people follow the arcana of Congressional debate. They attribute all political outcomes to the president, and thus when the outcome is unsatisfactory, the reason must be a failure of presidential willpower. I wrote about this phenomenon, with relation to the BP spill, in a recent TRB column.
Rachel Maddow offered a perfect example of the phenomenon the other night. She delivered her fantasy version of the speech President Obama should have given. It was filled with unequivocal liberal rhetoric. I was struck by this portion, explaining how she would pass an energy bill:
The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.
If Senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation, which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of the bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order.
In reality, you can’t pass any of the climate bill by reconciliation. Democrats didn’t write reconciliation instructions permitting them to do so, and very little of its could be passed through reconciliation, which only allows budgetary decisions. Maddow’s response is to pass the rest by executive order. But you can’t change those laws through executive order, either. That’s not how our system of government works, nor is it how our system should work.
If Maddow’s speech had to hew to the reality of Senate rules and the Constitution, she’d be left where Obama is: ineffectually pleading to get whatever she can get out of a Senate that has nowhere near enough votes to pass even a stripped-down cap and trade bill. It may be nice to imagine that all political difficulties could be swept away by a president who just spoke with enough force and determination. It’s a recurrent liberal fantasy —Michael Moore imagined such a speech a few months ago, Michael Douglas delivers such a speech in “The American President.” I would love to eliminate the filibuster and create more accountable parties. But even if that happens, there will be a legislative branch that has a strong say in what passes or doesn’t pass. And that’s good! We wouldn’t want to live in a world where a president can remake vast swaths of policy merely be decreeing it.
And that’s why Obama’s incrementalism, his refusal to pose as a presidential magician, and his resistance to taking the bait of the fetid right (he’s president – not a cable news host) seems to me to show not weakness, but a lethal and patient strength. And a resilient ambition.
What I want to add is that the more realistic version of this vision would be to imagine a system not where a president can remake vast swaths of policy merely be decreeing it, but rather a system in which a unicameral legislature can remake vast swaths of policy through majority vote. Such very real, totally non-tyrannical places as Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and many others operate in this way. And note that in the United States of America the House of Representatives already passed a comprehensive climate and energy bill that while by no means perfect or unmarred by compromise with special interests, does take a real bite out of a real problem at a very affordable cost. I didn’t like Obama’s speech, but it’s the structure of our government that leads to the deeper frustrations people are feeling about domestic policy.
Weighing in on Glenn Greenwald’s claims about Barack Obama, the Democrats, and the Lincoln/Halter primary:
What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we’ve been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders: namely, if the Senate doesn’t have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it’s not Obama’s fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators. It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable.
I don’t know how to respond to this nicely: this is ignorant nonsense that betrays a deep lack of understanding of how the government of the United States works.
Is the idea of an “Impotent, Helpless President” a joke? No, it’s basic American politics. As I usually do, I’ll go straight to Richard Neustadt:
In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays. In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks. Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything…But such acceptance does not signify that all the rest of government is at his feet. It merely signifies that other men have found it practically impossible to do their jobs without assurance of initiatives from him. Service for themselves, not power for the President, has brought them to accept his leadership in form…A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter.
Neustadt’s classic is all about how the presidency is a very weak office, and how influence (what he calls “power”) is, for presidents, only won through hard work and clever maneuvering. It’s weak because, as he says, that the other men (sic) in government are out to serve themselves, not him. And their interests diverge from his. In particular Democratic Senators from marginal states have very different constituencies than does a Democratic president, and they’re not likely to support all the liberal initiatives he supports.
So a clever and hard-working president can get some — some! — of the things he wants. As Matt Yglesias notes, all the pressure in the world on Blanche Lincoln wasn’t going to make much of a difference when it came to health care reform. That’s because she wasn’t the 60th vote — in fact, she and Mary Landrieu were probably votes numbers 56 and 57, something like that. More to the point, on the public option (which is presumably Greenwald’s complaint, since as he might recall the actual, landmark health care bill did, as a matter of historic record, actually pass), well, the public option only had somewhere around 51, 52, or 53 votes in the Senate. Oh, and that’s for a very weak public option, something that the actual policy experts believed was largely inconsequential. For better or worse, a “robust” public option didn’t have the votes in the House, and certainly didn’t have the votes in the Senate — a strong public option had somewhere between 45 and 48 votes in the Senate, by my count.
The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait — vocal Iraq War cheerleader (from a safe distance) who works for a magazine whose declared editorial mission is to have Joe Lieberman’s worldview “once again guide the Democratic Party” — has written yet another lecture chiding liberals for unfair and irrational discontent with his beloved leader. Peter Connolly — a D.C. lobbyist and telecom lawyer for Holland & Knight — published a screed this weekend at The Huffington Post condemning progressives who are mounting primary challenges against conservative Democratic incumbents for creating a terribly unjustified “civil war” in the Democratic Party, which, after all, is led by what he called that “unabashed liberal” Barack Obama. Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter — the first known mainstream pundit to explicitly call for torture in the wake of the 9/11 attack and one of the creepiest Obama loyalists around — has been running around the country promoting his book by spouting “the typical warmed over Village sentiments, particularly as it relates to liberal critics of the President.”
Lanny Davis published a column this weekend arguing that “the Left” is a threat to good Democratic principles and that Obama should “Sister Souljah” progressives who are criticizing him. The New York Times‘ conservative columnist Ross Douthat even adopts their script today by pronouncing liberal disenchantment with Obama to be “bizarrely disproportionate” and grounded in unrealistic expectations of Obama. And a whole slew of other, similar Obama-defending Democratic Party loyalists (Jon Chait, Ezra Klein, Jonathan Bernstein) — for whom the excuses of “not-enough-time-yet” and “Pragmatism” are now dry wells — have together invented a new one: none of this is Obama’s fault because the Presidency is so weak and powerless (though Klein, to his credit, accurately acknowledges that that excuse is “less true on foreign policy than on domestic policy”).
So the homogeneous Party loyalists who cheered for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, who spend their time privately railing together against those misguided liberal critics, have all magically come forward in unison, with the same script, to decree that The Left’s discontent with the President is so terribly shrill, unrealistic, unfair, and unSerious. The same trite pundits who reflexively ingest and advocate whatever the political establishment spits out are announcing that criticisms of the President are so unfair. Jon Chait, Jon Bernstein, Jon Alter, Lanny Davis, Peter Connolly, Ross Douthat and friends know what good Progressives must do — with their track record, who could possibly disagree? — and that’s be grateful for the President we have and to refrain from all this chattering, irrational, purist negativity. Meanwhile, the administration does one thing after the next along the lines of what it’s doing to Mohamed Hassan Odaini, rendering these You-Leftists-are-so-UnSerious sermons no more impressive or worthwhile than when the same unfailingly wrong establishment spokespeople, driven by exactly the same mentality, were spouting them back in 2003.
My blog post last week describing the liberal tendency to imagine that obstacles like, oh, a lack of votes for a bill in the Senate can be overcome by presidential willpower, a stirring speech, or even an executive order. Glenn Greenwald replies:
The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait — vocal Iraq War cheerleader (from a safe distance) who works for a magazine whose declared editorial mission is to have Joe Lieberman’s worldview “once again guide the Democratic Party” — has written yet another lecture chiding liberals for unfair and irrational discontent with his beloved leader.
This is, of course, the entirety of Greenwald’s rebuttal to my argument. So, he thinks I’m wrong to doubt that Obama could pass a climate bill through reconciliation or by executive order? He does not say. Greenwald is obsessed with the idea that moderates like me dismiss all left-wing criticism of the administration with buzzwords like “unserious and “shrill,” but he is the one who dismisses critics with personal insults rather than make an argument.
Anyway, today he describes me as being both eternally loyal to Joe Lieberman — for the record, I didn’t support Lieberman in 2004, and neither did most staffers at TNR — and a mindless sycophant of Obama. Rather than dig up examples of criticism I’ve made of those two politicians, which clearly has zero impact on Greenwald, I’m just wondering how I can simultaneously be a worshiper of McCain, Lieberman and Obama. How exactly does this religion work? What do you do when two politicians to whom you are slavishly loyal attack each other in public, or even run for president against each other?
Apparently — to hear Bernstein, Chait and their “weak presidency” excuse-makers tell it — the country, once every four years, spends twenty-four straight months completely fixated on who is going to be elected to a weak and powerless office. What a strange thing to do. And we probably all owe George Bush and Dick Cheney a huge apology for blaming so many of America’s problems on them when — as it turns out — they really had very little power over our political system (and were Bernstein, Chait and friends chiding Democrats during the Bush presidency for excessively blaming Bush and Cheney for problems that they couldn’t possibly solve [or cause] given their powerless positions?). And all Democratic anger at Ralph Nader for helping to elect Bush and defeat Al Gore surely must be misplaced, since the presidency is just a weak and impotent office without much influence anyway. And I guess all that stuff about the “imperial presidency” we heard so much about over the last decade was pure fantasy; it turns out the office is so weak it barely has any purpose beyond the purely symbolic. Who knew?
This “weak presidency” excuse-making rests on an incredibly naïve, Schoolhouse-Rock-level understanding of our political system. Yes, it’s theoretically true — just like we learn in the Sixth Grade — that the Congress is the body that introduces and enacts laws, while the President has no vote in that process. But the reality is that the President has vast and unfettered control over a sprawling Executive Branch. More important, he presides over the Democratic Party and exerts extreme influence over its fund-raising infrastructure on which virtually every Democratic incumbent relies. The means he has to exert influence over members of Congress when it’s important to him — as he just demonstrated in the Blanche Lincoln race and in other instances — are numerous and formidable, as set forth below.
None of this is to say that the President is omnipotent. It’s certainly possible that he could truly devote himself to inducing the Congress to do something he wants, but fail. The fact that the President fails to get something he wants is not proof that he failed to try. The complaints have never been that the Obama White House failed to force Congress to enact progressive legislation it claimed it wanted, but rather, that they never really tried using the substantial leverage and influence they have, thus illustrating that they never really wanted it in the first place.
Last week I pointed out that it’s folly to insist that President Obama could conjure a tough cap and trade bill through the Senate merely by giving a powerful speech, acting more determined, or using legislative procedures that turn out not to exist. In response, Glenn Greenwald pulled out a pure ad hominem argument. Now, having acknowledged this, he is turning to his next favorite argumentative device, the straw man:
Moderates who hail from right-leaning districts have an incentive to demonstrate independence from the administration. Picking a fight with them is as much a carrot as it is a stick. Greenwald cites as a positive example the GOP’s move to strip Arlen Specter of his chairmanship in 2004. That did work, although subsequent efforts to hold Specter’s feet to the fire resulted in Specter bolting the party and casting the decisive vote for the most important domestic reform in at least four decades. Likewise, Bill Clinton’s effort to punish conservative Democrat Richard Shelby resulted in Shelby switching parties.
I don’t agree with Greenwald’s positions on foreign policy and civil liberties, but he does have a valid beef with Obama in these areas. But when he insists that Obama secretly opposed the public option and has never wanted more stimulus, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the administration pushed the Senate as far left as it would go on those bills, he is revealing himself as a fanatic.
Glenn Greenwald has responded to my earlier reply to his comments surrounding the Blanche Lincoln runoff, in some detail, and with plenty of strong language, twice. Fair enough. I’ll leave the snark to Jonathan Chait — as John Sides said recently, he has the comparative advantage on that. And I’m afraid I’m boring everyone with this, since I’ve written a half a dozen times or so on the topic lately (for those new to it, I suppose I’ll put the links below). However, I suppose I should go through this one more time. I’m just going to discus the general point, not the specifics about Blanch Lincoln and the public option; I and others have covered that ground enough, I think.
First, of course, no one ever said that presidents were impotent. I’ve said repeatedly that the president is the single most influential person within the government; in fact, I said yesterday that the president’s chief-of-staff was likely to try to stick around because only a couple positions are more influential. At a basic level, this isn’t that complicated; the president cannot get whatever he wants, but does have plenty of influence. And, yes, I suppose I have to say, I would have been (and was) saying the same things during the Bush presidency.
Second, there’s a big conceptual issue here, which is that the president, the presidency, and the executive branch of the government are three very different things. The president is a single human being. That’s who I’m talking about when I talk about the president: Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton. Then there’s what I generally call, following John Hart, the presidential branch of government: the White House, or the Executive Office of the President. It consists of the White House staff, and various agencies — OMB, the Council of Economic Advisers — housed within the EOP. The president has direct control of the presidential branch on paper, and in fact has quite a bit of ability to influence , although in reality the president’s ability to influence all of what happens in his name is limited by his own time and energy, as well as the bureaucratic skills of those who may have their own agendas. I’m not going to be too upset about anyone who treats the White House as an extension of the president, although I’d caution them that it’s not always quite that way. And then, third, is the executive branch of the government — the various departments and agencies that actually carry out policy. The president can influence that branch, but he’s constantly competing with Congress, with interest groups, with courts, potentially with his political party, with state and local governments, and perhaps most of all with the civil servants who work in those agencies.