From Obamaphilia to Obamaphobia

“I know the Duke’s faults,” said Phineas [Finn], “but these men know nothing of his virtues and when I hear them abuse him I cannot stand it.” Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister

As a candidate for president, Obama was the darling of the media and a wide swathe of the political spectrum. All has changed. The motives of his adversaries differ, but he has become the object of disdain by both the Republican Right and the Democratic Left. When he speaks forcefully, as he did in his recent press conference, for increasing tax revenues as part of balanced approach to reduce the deficit and raise the debt ceiling, Republicans, who daily berate him as incompetent or radical or both, take offence at their having been criticized, one senator even suggesting that he should have taken a sedative before speaking. Attached as they are to the mantra of “tax and spending cuts,” no matter the circumstance, they feel no obligation to present reasoned and evidenced based arguments against Obama’s policies or for their own. Obama’s critics on the left invariably accuse him of timidity and at times of outright cowardice, convinced as they are that at critical moments he will “cave in.” Even Obama’s civil tone seems to offend.

There is little more to say of Obama’s tea party inspired Republican critics than that they are probably beyond redemption. David Brooks, a moderate Conservative, no longer regards The Republican Party as “a normal party,” declaring that it lacks “moral decency” in its apparent willingness to allow the government to default on its obligations if it doesn’t get its way. Its intransigence on taxation in behalf of “growing” the economy and job creation has no basis in economic reality. When it is pointed out that during the Clinton Administration higher taxes coexisted with prosperity and that even their favorite president Ronald Reagan raised taxes many times without hurting the economy, Republican spokesmen robotically “stay on message,” claiming that raising taxes on the wealthy is a job killer. Quarreling with the Republican right is a hopeless affair. Obama’s critics on the left, however, deserve to be taken seriously because their own interests are at stake in how they view him. A friend of mine on the left heard in Obama’s voice a note of surrender in his recent press conference. Why? Because he did not say “yes” to a reporter’s question whether increasing tax revenues was a line in the sand in the budget negotiations. Obama simply responded by repeating his statement that a balanced approach to reducing the deficit required tax increases or the closing of loopholes as well as cuts in spending. He was countering “the line in the sand” talk of the Republicans with an invitation to the give-and-take of compromise. In my friend’s view, which he shares with others on the left, the brief history of Obama’s presidency is a history of “caving in.”

Rather than express support and offer him encouragement at this time to continue to speak out and make his case, his critics on the left prefer to indulge their discontent with what they perceive as his incorrigible fecklessness, never for a moment pausing to acknowledge his accomplishments and the constraints under which he operates. They remember that he allowed the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to continue for another two years, forgetting or simply ignoring what he received in return: the extension of unemployment benefits, the elimination of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” ratification of the Start treaty. They continue to lament and blame Obama for the absence of a public option in the healthcare reform act, ignoring the enormous trouble he had with his own Democratic caucus on the matter and also ignoring the extraordinary achievement of a universal mandate covering millions of uninsured citizens. LBJ refused to go ahead with Civil Rights legislation without Republican support, which he finally did receive. The Republican Party at the time was a different creature from what it is today. Obama had the courage to press for the enactment of healthcare reform with the exclusive support of his own party, despite its unpopularity at the time of passage and he paid an enormous price, the loss of 60 seats in the House of Representatives. A number of his erstwhile supporters on the left now say in hindsight that the long battle for healthcare reform wasted his political capital. Perhaps, but it is a curious fact that they who urged boldness of action while the debate was raging become retrospectively prudential when confronting the price that Obama paid for his fight for healthcare reform. And against bitter opposition from banks and corporations, Obama presided over the Dodd-Frank Act devoted to reforming our financial system.

There is no question that Obama has too often failed to explain forcefully and persuasively his policies and achievements. Here his critics on the left have cause for disappointment. The current debt crisis is a predicament, partly of his own creation, but mostly that of a know-nothing, care-nothing reckless Republican opposition. Where Obama has failed is in successfully making the case to the public for the necessity of raising the debt ceiling—with pie charts if necessary. It is doubtful, however, that even if he had done so earlier, he would have changed the minds of Republicans in Congress, but he might have improved his chances by having aroused the public. In the time that remains Obama must speak out again and again about “the balanced approach” to the budget, emphasizing the asymmetry in his willingness to make compromises and the intransigence of Republicans to concede an inch. (Even the conservative Chris Wallace pointed to Republican intransigence in interviewing Texas Republican Senator Jon Kyl on the Fox channel.) More importantly, Obama needs to remind the public that tax increases under Reagan and Clinton did no harm to the economy.

So the question remains: what if Obama fails to get the Republicans to agree to tax increases at the 11th hour? What should he do? Here the left is hardly helpful. In a column in the Times, Paul Krugman sounds the alarm about the dire consequences that would ensue in the event that the debt ceiling is not raised, blames the Republicans and faults Obama for cow towing. Krugman rightly says that “it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that G.O.P. leaders actually want the economy to perform badly,” and are willing to permit default rather than concede anything. “Republicans believe, in short, that they’ve got Obama’s number, that he may still live in the White House but that for practical purposes his presidency is already over. It’s time—indeed, long past time—for him to prove them wrong.” Don’t give in and allow yourself to be held hostage to Republican blackmail. To give in would only strengthen the Republican hand. Easier said than done, that is, easier for Krugman whose job is saying than for Obama whose job is both saying and doing.

What would happen is DEFAULT (the word needs caps to dramatize the disastrous consequences: social security checks and unemployment benefits cease, markets collapse, the financial system suffers a meltdown worse than the one that occurred in 2008.) A second recession, possibly a depression, may occur. Refusing to budge, Obama would morph into Custer at Big Horn. Yes, Obama needs to go down to the wire in arguing for tax increases for the wealthy, but it is by no means clear what Obama should do if at the end he does not succeed in overcoming Republican intransigence. Let us say that there is finally some give on the Republican side: what then would count as acceptable by his critics on the left, the end of subsidies to the ethanol industry and the oil companies, closing the tax loophole on corporate jets, but keeping tax rates where they are? Would such concessions suffice? And what about spending cuts? Where exactly should Obama draw the line in the sand? Are his critics on the left in a position to say? There is a kind of schadenfreude in their expectation that Obama will not measure up, whatever he does.

The level of frustration of the Left with Obama is so high that commentary invariably views him as not acting boldly where boldness is required and assumes that in the future he will always cave in to his adversaries. Little effort is made to discover the reasons why the Administration acts as it does. We see this reflected in the quality of reporting. In the Business section of the NY Times, July 5, 2011, B7, a headline reads: “Waiting for Obama, [Elizabeth] Warren Pushes Ahead on Consumer Bureau” (by Jack Ewing, Landon Thomas Jr.). The thrust of the article is about Obama’s apparent unwillingness “to wage a battle with the Senate to actually nominate her to direct the new [Consumer Protection] bureau.” (The prose is puzzling: the battle is not with the Senate to actually nominate her, but rather with the Senate to confirm her appointment, should she be nominated.) The president of the Consumer Bankers Association is quoted as being “flabbergasted as to why the administration has not nominated somebody to head up this very important agency,” the obvious choice, of course, being Warren. Almost lost in the article is the following explanation. “Adminstration officials point out that if Ms. Warren had been nominated as the director last September instead of being appointed as an assistant to the president and special adviser to the Treasury secretary, she could not have worked on the bureau’s start-up until she was confirmed by the Senate—which looked unlikely last year… That would have let the person who came up with the idea for the bureau unable to talk about it for months.” Of course, the high probability is that she won’t be confirmed by the Senate. One would have never guessed from the scorn poured upon Obama by his critics that a perfectly wise motive might lay behind appointing her as an assistant to the president rather than sending her to the Senate torture chamber. Would the principled and courageous Ms. Warren accepted the appointment if she didn’t believe that Obama was acting wisely?

Obama has also been taken to task for the failure of his Administration to prosecute the torturers of the previous government. There is a curious asymmetry between what the government is capable of saying and what the media and those outside the government are free to say. The government does not feel free to say openly that it doesn’t believe that the chances for success in the courts are good, that prosecution would be extremely costly and time consuming, that it doesn’t want to exacerbate the political divisiveness that already exists and divert attention from the enormous problems that confront the country. A failed prosecution may even have effect of legitimizing torture. Such declarations suggest excessive caution, hesitation and uncertainty, not viewed as virtues in the conduct of government. While the pundit is free to say anything, the government must exercise discretion in what it says and what it admits to. Transparency of government is a democratic ideal, but like all ideals it can never be completely realized. We should judge the conduct of leaders by the degree of its transparency and by discriminating between events that need to see the light of day and, yes, those that benefit from not being disclosed.

The most serious complaint about Obama is that he has failed to provide a narrative to counter the Republican narrative of tax and spending cuts. Even worse, he has bought into the Republican narrative. What are the facts of the matter? Obama began his presidency with an aggressive Democratic agenda: healthcare reform, stimulus for the economy, bailout of the auto industry, financial reform, environmental reform—all watered down in varying degrees, because in a democracy, a narrative is not simply aspirational; it is composed of events that actually occur, and it does not have a single author: Congress, the legislative branch, is the co-author, if it chooses to collaborate. The narrative of aspiration precedes the narrative of events that actually occurs, and since events often disappoint aspiration, disillusionment sets in, especially when the aspiration is expressed as a promise. Indeed, it might be wise for candidates for office to speak of aspiration rather make promises since even politicians in good faith once in “power” find constraints on their capacity to deliver on them. Healthcare reform failed to generate popular support; the stimulus package had limited success, but did not produce all that it promised. In the election of 2010 Obama and the Democrats suffered a reversal of fortune: the Republican “cut taxes and reduce spending” narrative took over. All that Obama could do, or felt he could do, was appropriate elements from the Republican narrative and combine it with elements of his own narrative. He bought into the necessity of deficit reduction, while at the same time speaking of the need to invest in infrastructure, education and technology in order to energize the economy and increase employment.

Should he have conceded to the Republican argument for deficit reduction at a time when the immediate problem was a weak economy and high unemployment? There is the long-term problem of an out-of-control deficit. Given the notorious Congressional ineffectuality in dealing with fundamental problems, a long term problem can easily become short term, unless it is attended to earlier than one might wish. But what of the immediate problem of high unemployment, shouldn’t Obama be making that the priority in his narrative? Yes, but…Such a narrative would be one of words rather than events. Since a new stimulus package is at the present time not a possibility, all Obama can do is to resist the worst of the Republican narrative and argue, as he does, though not as effectively as he should, for investing in infrastructure, education, technology and the safety net. He needs to continue to expose the know-nothing destructiveness of the Republican way, while acting prudentially within the constraints of his presidency. Obama’s critics invoke presidents in the past, Roosevelt, Truman and LBJ among others, who fought hard and succeeded in implementing their programs against their Republican foes. What they fail to realize or acknowledge that neither Roosevelt nor Truman nor Johnson had to deal with such an adversary as the current abnormal Republican Party. Maybe another reversal of fortune, the reelection of Obama and a return of Democratic control of the House in 2012 , will allow him to fulfill some of his unfulfilled promises.

From July, 2011