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Two Critiques of Obama I Don't Understand

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

I'm coming a little late to yesterday's Politico piece about how Obama suffers from the absence of a well-articulated worldview, which is probably true to some extent, but I think overstated in the piece. (I'm in the camp that thinks 9.5 percent unemployment is, overwhelmingly, Obama's biggest political problem...)

Whatever you think of that argument, though, the piece highlighted two smaller critiques I find mystifying. The first comes from Eric Alterman, who wrote a much-discussed piece in The Nation last month about liberal disappointment with Obama. Alterman told Politico:

"The vision of progressive values that was enunciated by [Obama] disappeared the day after Inauguration Day.” This vision, he added, “would have provided much better context for a discussion of his policies — that’s really missing.”

It's true that Obama often spoke in transformational terms about the practice of politics. But if you listened to the way he and his campaign discussed policy, it was always clear that they preferred a relatively pragmatic, non-ideological approach to some sweeping progressive vision. Many of us in the press made this point repeatedly during the primary and general-election campaign, so it hardly seems like there was some massive flip-flop on Election Day. I wrote about this back in February 2008 (and, again, I was hardly the only one):

Despite Obama's reputation for grandiose rhetoric and utopian hope-mongering, the Obamanauts aren't radicals--far from it. They're pragmatists--people who, when an existing paradigm clashes with reality, opt to tweak that paradigm rather than replace it wholesale. As Thaler puts it, "Physics with friction is not as beautiful. But you need it to get rockets off the ground." It might as well be the motto for Obama's entire policy shop.

Ideology aside, it was equally clear back then that the Obama folks weren't particularly interested in fleshing out the sort of abstract policy vision that, say, Bill Clinton had cultivated:

Clinton favored what you might call a "deductive" approach--an all- encompassing, almost revolutionary idea, out of which fell lots of smaller proposals. In a series of speeches in 1991, he unveiled the product of all his late-night bull-sessions with people like Reich and Galston, which he called "The New Covenant." The old model held that government had certain unconditional obligations to its citizens. Under Clinton's reimagining, many of these obligations would disappear. The government would help only those who fulfilled their responsibilities as parents, workers, and taxpayers. For instance, the government would no longer provide unlimited welfare benefits. It would instead require recipients to work after two years of assistance.
For their part, the Obama wonks tend to be inductive--working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. ... Think of the contrast here as the difference between science-fiction writers and engineers. Reich and Galston are the kinds of people who'd sketch out the idea for time travel in a moment of inspiration. Goolsbee et al. could rig up the DeLorean that would actually get you back to 1955.

So, again, no false advertising here. We got the president we voted for--and, what's more, that non-ideological pragmatism was one of the things that really appealed to people after George W. Bush. 

The second strange critique in the Politico piece comes from the prominent progressive activist Bob Borosage. I confess that I understand this one even less:

[Borosage] said Obama has been willing to pursue big policies, but has focused too much on Washington deal-making at the expense of rallying a progressive coalition. “This combination of bold objectives and insider dealing, as opposed to outside mobilization politics ... confused everything,” Borosage argued. “The right went after the bold objectives, and the left focused on the special deals.”

Is the suggestion that it would have been preferable to have failed on health care (an ideologically modest but substantively far-reaching and historically momentous achievement) if that was the price of rallying progressives? I'm guessing Borosage would say it was possible to both rally progressives and pass health care--that, in fact, rallying progressives would have led to a better bill by shifting the debate leftward. And, at the margins, that might have been useful. But the idea that you were going to pass health care without a ton of Washington deal-making is just willfully blind to the realities of policymaking. Whatever the progressive mobilization, there was simply no way to pass a comprehensive bill without defanging the huge array of interests with the power to block it--doctors, hospitals, insurers, device-makers, pharmaceuticial manufacturers, etc., etc. (And the need for 60 votes in the Senate gave these interests even more power than they'd otherwise have.) 

Now, Borosage might say that a better outside game would have helped conceal the inevitable deal-making from public view. And, again at the margins, I think that might have had some effect. But the press loves deal-making stories, and would hardly have turned away from them. Given the magnitude of the deal-making that needed to happen, there was no way it wasn't going to pollute the coverage and the public debate. I still consider it something of a miracle that the bill passed at all.

P.S. A more legitimate critique would combine portions of the Alterman and Borosage gripes: Obama campaigned on a promise to transform politics, and clearly didn't do that when it came to big initiatives like health care. I'd argue that this wasn't realistic, and that the results speak for themselves. But it's a completely fair point.