Obama On and Off Base

Obama On and Off Base

My object is to defend Barack Obama against attacks on him by what has been his liberal constituency. Again and again he is accused of timidity and excessive caution for not fighting for their agenda. The assumption is that his agenda and theirs coincide, and that he lacks the courage and force to fight for its enactment. Could it be that he simply differs from his critics about policy and strategy and that it may even take a kind of courage to resist the pressure of his liberal base? It is the habit of his critics to invoke liberal heroes of the past—Lincoln, FDR, and even LBJ as models for what a bold presidency can achieve—and contrast their performances with the timorousness of Obama’s. (“Be afraid, be very afraid,” Paul Krugman mocks Obama when he takes a tack that does not conform to what Krugman believes should and can be done.) Anyone who has read the history of the Lincoln and Roosevelt administrations has to be struck with the unfairness of the contrast. Their presidencies proceeded through fits and starts, hesitations and uncertainties. Rarely did they avoid making compromises to achieve results. Either unread in that history or willfully ignoring it, Obama’s critics express dismay and disbelief at every failure, every inconsistency, apparent and real, in his performance.

Obama is faulted for having compromised away the public option in health care reform, as if it lay in his power simply to enact it. He is viewed as having betrayed his promise to close Guantánamo by a certain date, as if the matter of releasing and relocating its inmates presented no problems. He should have deployed his magical gifts, apparently on display in his presidential campaign, to force the Senate to approve a larger stimulus package despite strong opposition to the smaller but still large package that he finally succeeded in getting approved. And so on. Every inaction and misstep by Obama (and there have been missteps, such as his saying before a meeting with bankers to solicit their support for financial regulation that he does not begrudge bank CEOs their large bonuses, having previously said the contrary) has in the eyes of his liberal critics a magnitude that to disinterested eyes should seem slight—especially in contrast to the actions and missteps of Lincoln and Roosevelt. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; appeared to be incompetent in the handling of his generals; and was slow to emancipate the slaves, whom he wished to return to Africa once they were freed. Roosevelt placed Japanese Americans in internment camps and waffled in his support of an anti-lynching bill, fearful of antagonizing Southern Democrats.

It is not hard to imagine what Paul Krugman’s columns or those of Frank Rich, both of the New York Times, would have been like when Lincoln and Roosevelt grossly violated the Constitution they had sworn to uphold. As contemporaries of Lincoln, Krugman and Rich probably would have joined the abolitionists in their contempt for his cautious, though as it turned out politically necessary, approach to ending slavery and for his incompetence in handling his generals, without acknowledging the decided advantage the South had in the quality of its military leadership. Lincoln, we should keep in mind, has been a model for Obama. He followed Lincoln in recruiting a team of rivals for his cabinet. His moderation, often berated by liberals, is very much in the spirit of Lincoln as represented in biographies and in Gore Vidal’s historically accurate novel Lincoln. When Senator Charles Sumner threatened to endorse an “out-and-out radical Republican like Mr. [Salmon] Chase,” the disloyal secretary of the treasury, to compete with Lincoln, who was seeking a second term, Lincoln responded, “You will split this two-headed party that I have done my best for years to hold together. The moderates—of which I am one—will desert you, while the peace-at-any-price folks will vote you down, and McClellan in.” When Lincoln was pressed to punish the rebels and officials who benefited from wartime corruption, he said (as Obama seems to be saying in response to pressure that he prosecute officials from the Bush administration for their misdeeds), “In politics, the statute of limitations must be short.”

It is FDR who is most frequently invoked as a standard in measuring Obama’s inadequacy in a time of economic crisis. Where FDR was the bold partisan of liberal programs, Obama is seen as the futile seeker of bipartisan compromise. William Leuchtenberg’s authoritative and sympathetic account of the Roosevelt presidency (Franklin D. Roosevelt: FDR and The New Deal 1932-1940) tells a different story. “By 1934, the pattern of the early New Deal was beginning to emerge. Its distinguishing characteristic was the attempt to redress the imbalances of the old order by creating a new equilibrium in which a variety of groups and classes would be represented. The New Dealers sought to effect a truce similar to that of wartime, when class and sectional animosities were sacrificed to the demands of national unity”—so much for holding up FDR as a model for partisanship against Obama’s effort to achieve bipartisanship. Obama, it is charged, has failed to take advantage of a supermajority of Democratic senators in advancing his agenda. Whereas Obama’s supermajority was the bare minimum of sixty (and is now no longer super at fifty-nine), including conservative Democrats, Roosevelt’s in 1934 was sixty-nine. In the House, Roosevelt had 322 Democrats and 10 Progressives and Farmer-Laborites against 103 Republicans. “Roosevelt was riding a tiger, for the new Congress threatened to push him in a direction far more radical than any he had originally contemplated.” FDR had a mass movement pressing him from the left and big majorities in Congress willing to enact big federal programs. Only in 1937 did the liberal wave begin to ebb. Obama has been riding a tiger going in the opposite conservative direction. The relationship between Obama and his Congress is the reverse of that of Roosevelt and his Congress, to Obama’s disadvantage. The Senate, decisive in these matters, has resisted every effort Obama has made in a liberal direction.

Roosevelt’s principled liberal stance is contrasted with Obama’s excessive willingness to compromise. And yet, Roosevelt, who “denounced lynching and was willing, after some urging, to support a vote on an anti-lynching measure, so long as it did not tie up other reform legislation…refused to make it ‘must’ legislation, for if he did, Southern committee chairmen might kill every economic proposal he asked them to advance.” Is this so different from Obama’s dilatory approach to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” in the interest of preparing the minds and hearts of the military for the change of policy? How does Obama compare with FDR in the handling of the economy? The Obama stimulus package has been found wanting, too little too late, whereas Roosevelt…? Leuchtenberg informs us that he “seemed less impressed with Keynes (the great advocate of government intervention in times of crisis) than the British economist was with the President’s grasp of economics.” According to Roosevelt, “the Keynesian formula for gaining prosperity by deliberately creating huge deficits year after year seemed to defy common sense. Roosevelt was willing to countenance limited, emergency spending, but halfway measures of this sort antagonized business and added to the public debt without giving a real fillip to the economy.” Obama’s name could be substituted for Roosevelt’s in an updated version with this qualification: even if Obama had tried for a larger stimulus package, the chance of passing it through a recalcitrant Congress was nil.

THE ARGUMENT that Obama should have learned from Roosevelt’s mistakes ignores the realities of contemporary American political culture. The Keynesian formula has never taken hold in the United States. It was the Second World War and massive government intervention in the economy that ended the Great Depression. Leuchtenberg notes that “the New Deal left many problems unsolved and even created some perplexing new ones. It never demonstrated that it could achieve prosperity in peacetime.” Would a massive Keynesian-inspired infusion in the economy have succeeded where the New Deal failed? It has never been put to the test, because American political culture has always been hostile to government intervention—hostility that only a world war could trump. With the advent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the conservative Milton Friedman became the leading economic theorist for decades. The result is that Obama has had to contend with powerful libertarian-inflected “populist” resistance to “big government” and conservative-inspired anxiety about large deficits and debts. Again Leuchtenberg: several years into his administration, “Roosevelt seemed to be uncertain where he was headed, barely able to manage an unruly Congress, and downright contrary in his refusal to indicate his main line of direction. In mid-March [of 1937], [Henry] Morgenthau [FDR’s secretary of the treasury] remarked: ‘As I see it, what you are doing now is just treading water…to see what happens this spring.’ ‘Absolutely’ Roosevelt replied.” As Leuchtenberg informs us, “Liberals were vexed with an indecisive Roosevelt.” So much for Roosevelt’s legendary decisiveness in contrast to Obama’s indecisiveness.

The differences in our media culture from that of the 1930s are rarely taken into account when we judge Obama’s performance. Roosevelt did not have to face the relentless bombardment of 24/7 media, consisting of radio, television, newsprint and the Internet, much of it hostile.

The New Deal “entailed a breathtaking extension of federal involvement in the economy” (H. W. Brands). It “humanized the industrial system” (Robert Dallek). It sought to mitigate, if not overcome, the competitive ethos of the marketplace in its vision of a “cooperative commonwealth” (Leuchtenberg). It achieved many great things, but only over time; FDR’s was the longest presidency of our history. Obama’s presidency is not yet two years old. His agenda is liberal, his intellectual temperament thoughtfully pragmatic, open to ideas from anywhere on the political spectrum. Like FDR, Obama is an unideological liberal. What great things might he accomplish? Health care reform is the first.

The complaint that Obama did not boldly insist upon the public option in health care and never fully inserted himself into congressional deliberations simply refuses to acknowledge the formidable, if not insuperable, obstacles of our political structure and its distribution of power. Both the House and the Senate have to agree on legislation; again, in the Senate, sixty votes are required to close off a filibuster. Members of Congress are more beholden to their constituencies and the lobbyists who fund their campaigns than to the leader of their party, even if the leader happens to be president.

THE INVOKING OF Lyndon Johnson as a model of how to compel Congress to enact desirable legislation fails to take into account historical as well as temperamental differences between Johnson and Obama. Johnson had been a masterful majority leader of the Senate for a long time. He had the book on every senator and the temperament of a bully, knowing how and when to twist arms to achieve results. It was a time when Republican support for legislation was possible, and Johnson received it. And yet with all his advantages, Johnson could not achieve the passage of Medicare until 1965, after his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, in which he won 61 percent of the vote. The Democrats gained forty-one seats in the House and won twenty-eight of the thirty-five seats up for election in the Senate. Throughout 1964, every effort of the Johnson administration to enact Medicare met with defeat as a result of a deadlock between the two houses of Congress. One commentator, basing his judgment on the LBJ White House tapes, faults the Johnson administration for “greedy overreaching.” When the bill finally passed the following year, Johnson learned for the first time from Representative Wilbur Mills, the powerful chair of the Ways and Means Committee, what the bill contained. Contrary to legend, Johnson was not the author of the bill. This fact takes nothing away from the passion, persistence, and ultimate effectiveness with which LBJ fought for Medicare. The recently enacted health care bill is not perfect; neither was Medicare, when it was enacted, or for that matter Social Security.

Even if Obama had Johnson’s long experience in the Senate, and even if he had the temperament of a bully, he has little, if any, leverage with senators who are in thrall to their conservative constituencies and the lobbyists who fund their campaigns. The conservative members of his own party in states hostile to liberal policies have little to gain in following their president. He cannot threaten to withhold support from them in states where he himself has little support. We need to remember that having the sixty Democratic senators of 2009 was the result of the controversial fifty-state strategy inaugurated by Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Convention. In order to achieve it, conservative Democrats had to be recruited as candidates in red states. It is ironic that Dean now criticizes the Obama administration for its failure to compel the conservative (so-called moderate) senators whom he was instrumental in having elected to vote Dean’s way on legislation. What in Obama’s arsenal would force these senators to vote against what they conceive to be their own interests, if not their principles? The “sausage making” of the Senate health care bill that passed was ugly, but it is hard to imagine a successful alternative in the current political climate.

This is hardly news, but it is not taken into consideration by “the liberal base,” which prefers to indulge in bitter disappointment. The majority of the American public tends to be phobic about “big government,” a cant phrase that ideologues on the Right invoke as a threat to individual liberty. Even in a time of economic crisis, when it has been reasonably argued that government intervention to stimulate the economy through vast expenditures of money is necessary to restore the economy and create jobs, the fear of big government and large deficits is an easy trump card to play. Since the results of such spending are not immediately visible to the electorate, the opposition to “spending” focuses public attention on the inevitable waste and misuse of funds and the increasing deficits. It is extremely difficult to counter with the argument that wasteful collateral damage does not offset the greater good of preventing depression and creating as well as preserving jobs. Note that populist outrage against the huge bonuses that banking CEOs give themselves is coupled with, or should I say contradicted by, outrage against government efforts to regulate the economy, which entails regulating corporations. Either way (tolerating the bonuses or regulating them) inflames populist outrage. What evidence is there that a liberal with the uncompromising temperament and disposition of Dean would have more practical success than Obama in resolving the contradiction in favor of a liberal agenda? Dean would, of course, be more successful in pleasing the liberal base, which is only a minority of the electorate.

THE DISAPPOINTMENT with Obama is largely fueled by a misunderstanding of what he promised in his campaign. Obama did not promise to be the president that his ideological liberal supporters expect him to be. It was the incandescent rhetoric of his speeches and his expressed desire to be a transformative president that have misled his critics. Among the candidates for the Democratic nomination, most commentators placed Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to the left of Obama. Unlike the others, for example, Obama did not support mandating universal coverage as part of health care reform. Persuaded that it was necessary if the reform was to be fiscally responsible, he became an advocate when he assumed office, a move to the left for which his liberal critics have not given him credit. Obama did campaign as a candidate wanting to transform political behavior in Washington and throughout the country, but his liberal critics seem not to have heard what he meant by transformation: the overcoming of the political polarization that has made any significant change virtually impossible.

We have a two-party system in which a single party alone can not accomplish much unless it possesses a secure and united senatorial supermajority. Such a majority is historically rare and does not exist today. The enacting of a bill no matter its magnitude is in itself not transformative; what would be transformative in the present circumstances would be bipartisan understanding and action, a revolution in political psychology in which politicians of differing ideologies would genuinely devote themselves to the common good, formulating complementary programs that reflect their different perspectives. Conservatives would, for instance, understand the necessity of heavily investing in the economy in a time of crisis and high unemployment. Liberals would appreciate the need for austerity measures once the crisis has passed to reduce dangerously high deficits. Obama’s naïve and admirable ambition is that reasonable discussion and debate would resolve itself in compromise and agreement to take necessary actions. Utopian perhaps, but the ideal should be in the DNA of every enlightened citizen of a democratic republic. Obama has not yet succeeded, he may not succeed in the future, but the fact is that unless rational bipartisanship becomes a possibility no amount of political passion and bold rhetoric will end the gridlock that paralyzes government. Yes, it is the Republican opposition that is to blame for the gridlock, but the idea that intransigent partisanship on the other side could end it is absurd. Because power in a democracy rotates, the passionate partisanship of the moment will only provoke passionate partisanship from the other side in the future. The only possibility for breaking gridlock is thoughtful negotiation with a view to combining ideas and policies in which both sides receive credit. (Republicans resist bipartisanship because its successful realization would reflect credit on the Obama administration. Some of the legislation proposed would probably have Republican support if they were in power. After all, the health care reform package is very close to that proposed by moderate Republicans years ago.)

Many of Obama’s critics go so far as to deny that he has accomplished anything of significance. He has in fact accomplished a great deal during the first year of his presidency, achievements comparable to those of Roosevelt and Johnson during the early years of their presidencies. Here is a list of what he has done on the domestic front, as itemized by Nathan Newman in TPMCafé on November 20, 2009.

  • Three major health bills (State Children’s Health Insurance Plan; tobacco regulation; and stimulus funds for Medicaid, COBRA subsidies, health information technology, and the National Institutes of Health) enacted even before comprehensive reform(132-3)
  • Comprehensive health care reform(132-3)
  • A stimulus package that prevented a depression, delivered key new funds for education, expanded state energy conservation programs and new transit programs, added new smart grid investments, funded high-speed Internet broadband programs, extended unemployment insurance for up to ninety-nine weeks for the unemployed and modernized state unemployment insurance programs to cover more of the unemployed, made large new investments in the safety net, from food stamps (SNAP) to affordable housing to child care(132-3)
  • Clean cars to take gas mileage requirements to thirty-five mpg(132-3)
  • Protection of two million acres of land against oil and gas drilling(132-3)
  • Executive orders protecting labor rights, from project labor agreements to protecting rights of contractor employees on federal jobs(132-3)
  • Stopping pay discrimination through the Lilly Ledbetter and equal pay laws(132-3)
  • Making it easier for airline and railway workers to unionize, while appointing National Labor Relations Board and other labor officials who will strengthen freedom to form unions(132-3)
  • Reversing the Bush ban on funding overseas family planning clinics(132-3)
  • Passing hate crimes protections for gays and lesbians(132-3)
  • Protecting stem cell research(132-3)
  • Financial reforms to protect homeowners and credit card holders(132-3)
  • Bailing out the auto industry and protecting unionized retirees and workers(132-3)
  • AND THAT IS NOT the entire story. Obama has begun what one commentator calls a “quiet revolution.” Exercising his executive authority, he has made major liberal changes in environmental policy. In an illuminating article in the New Republic, John B. Judis details Obama’s enactment of a new environmental policy. The subtitle of his article makes an extraordinary claim: “Obama has reinvented the state in more ways than you can imagine.” Obama has replaced the anti-environmentalist leadership of previous administrations with leaders devoted to a “return to scientific administration.” Even in the matter of cost-benefit analysis, usually the resource of conservatives when addressing environmental regulation, he has installed officials who are now scrutinizing the costs of deregulation as well as regulation; in the past only the costs of regulation were addressed. And he has increased the funding of the relevant agencies so that they can perform their functions. “The upshot of all this…is that the regulatory agencies are once again able to serve their intended purpose.…[The EPA has] granted California a waiver to impose greenhouse-gas standards for new automobiles.” The head of EPA has “declared that [it] would set standards for green-house gases under the Clean Air Act. [This means that, if Congress fails to pass cap-and-trade legislation, the EPA could act on its own to regulate carbon emissions.]” Why then is the revolution so quiet? Why doesn’t the administration boast of its accomplishments? Perhaps if Obama had trumpeted them, he would have aroused, even more than he has, the ire and resistance of anti-big-government populism and big business lobbyists.

    The disillusionment with Obama on the Left proceeds from what can only be characterized as a disappointed messianic expectation. Looking to great men alone to transform the world is bound to lead to disappointment. It is pressure from below that produces significant change. It was the civil rights movement that inspired the civil rights legislation during the Johnson administration. The actions of the Roosevelt administration cannot be understood without considering the pressure put upon it by the labor movement; the same holds for the effect of the abolitionist movement on the Lincoln administration. Obama lacks their advantages. Without a strong and effective labor movement, there is little pressure on Congress to address adequately the problems of unemployment and low wages. Such is the temper of contemporary American politics that populist anger has a conservative inflection, despite the fact that among its targets are Wall Street and the big banks.

    A clue to why this is the case is provided by Robert and Helen Lynd in their study of the impact of the Great Depression on “Middletown,” the fictional name of a real town that was the subject of their classic sociological study. Here is Leuchtenberg’s summary: “The more successful the New Deal was the more it undid itself. The more prosperous the country became, the more people returned to the only values they knew, those associated with an individualistic success-oriented society.” When the Lynds returned to Muncie to study the impact of the depression on “Middletown,” they concluded that essentially it had changed nothing. The inhabitants were living by the same values as in 1925. “The New Dealers were never able to develop a reform ideology to challenge the business rhetoricians. During the upturn of 1935-1937, conservatives argued that, since the crisis had passed, reforms were no longer appropriate. When the recession struck, this plea had even greater force; as the nerve of business opposition revived the old conviction that business could run the economy with greater efficiency than bureaucrats reappeared.”

    APPARENTLY, even an economic crisis cannot overcome a deeply ingrained individualism, graphically illustrated in the present crisis in the outburst of the participant in a town hall meeting who wanted the government to keep its hands off Medicare. The absurdity of the remark, compounded by his incredulity when he was told by the Republican congress member who ran the meeting that Medicare was a government program, should not deflect us from seeing it as a serious, if unfortunate, reflection of American anxiety about “big government.” Polls indicate that a majority would like to see health care reform, even a public option, but without the interventions of the federal government. Could it be that any effort to enact significant reform legislation has to conceal or deflect attention from the necessary actions of government? It has been the case in the past that important changes were brought about by parties on the political spectrum traditionally opposed to those changes. Nixon went to Communist China, an action that if taken by a Democrat would have provoked the ire of the Republicans. Reagan reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev in a way that would have been extremely difficult for a Democratic president. It took Bill Clinton, for better or worse, to realize what Republicans had advocated for years, welfare reform. Obama is in the paradoxically awkward position of having to enact in a time of crisis far-reaching legislation traditionally associated with his own party.

    The liberal base seems incapable of imagining how radical Obama is being made to seem to those on the other side of the political spectrum, given his color, his youth, and the extensive reforms he is proposing. His tone of sweet reasonableness, of temporizing and compromise, may be a necessity. He cannot move too far from his base and risk being tagged out, but he should be allowed some discretion in the interests of enacting a liberal agenda. He said when campaigning that if he had his druthers he would prefer a single-payer system to fund health care. Those druthers might become possible if there were mass pressure from below. Liberal critics need not cease and desist from exposing shortcomings in current policies, but they do need to refrain from expressions of bitter disappointment. Liberal disenchantment with Obama and the apathy that accompanies it only helps the Republicans and does a disservice to its own cause.


    Eugene Goodheart is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities, Emeritus at Brandeis University. He is the author of many books of literary and cultural criticism as well as a memoir, Confessions of a Secular Jew.