Jonathan Bernstein and Jonathan Chait have had a little fight. Bernstein started it by writing, Barack Obama Is a Generic Brand. Basically, all he’s saying is this, “[A]lmost everything about Obama’s presidency can be explained by saying he’s a Democratic president.” In other words, Obama has acted the way any Democratic president would have acted. Bernstein gives him credit for perhaps being a better manager and even (although I think it’s laughable) a better negotiator. But otherwise, he’s a Democratic president—full stop.
I would go further. I would say that Barack Obama is a generic New Democrat. His brilliant idea coming into office was that if he offered the Republicans policies that they claimed to support, they would support those policies. For example, Obama offered the Republicans the exact same healthcare law that John McCain campaigned on. But the Republicans were never going to allow a Democrat—a black Democrat—to usher in a new era of politics where the two parties worked together on things they could agree on. So I think the difference between a Hillary Clinton administration and an Obama administration is only that she wouldn’t have been so naive. In terms of policy, Bernstein is right: no difference.
But Chait begs to differ, How Barack Obama Saved the Obama Administration. He says that there are two issues on which Obama really stuck his neck out. The first is the EPA regulation of existing power plants. And as proof that this was a gutsy move that most Democratic presidents wouldn’t have done, he notes that some pundits said he wouldn’t do it. Well, the fact that Matt Yglesias laid out the fact that it could be done and then covered himself from being criticized for being naive by saying that Obama wouldn’t do it, doesn’t mean very much. I’m sure that what actually happened was that Obama asked his advisers, “What can we do about global warming?” They mentioned coal-fired power plants and he said yes. Unless Chait’s memory is getting a little weak, a lot of people have been talking about this for years.
The second issue was pushing forward with Obamacare after Ted Kennedy died and it looked like the whole thing was going to fall apart. This one is hilarious. Chait wrote, “In late August of 2009… Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel wanted to pull the plug on comprehensive reform, but Obama overruled them.” Oh my! The Republican who claims to be a Democrat Rahm Emanuel wanted to pull back and Obama overruled him?! Maybe Chait is right, but not in the way he thinks. Your average Democrat wouldn’t have allowed Rahm Emanuel anywhere near his inner circle. Remember: he’s the guy who said that we liberals were “fucking retarded.”
I think it is more likely that Obama pushed ahead with the ACA because by that time he had figured out what a less naive president would have known all along: even if he dropped the ACA and gone with some minor healthcare reform, the Republicans would have killed it too. It doesn’t matter how minor it was, just as with the ACA, there would have been not a single Republican in Congress willing to vote for it.
I have no problem with Obama. He’s about as good a president as we are likely to get as long as half the country doesn’t vote. But there is nothing especially great about him either. He’s certainly not bold. If it weren’t for Joe Biden shooting his mouth off, Obama still would be against same sex marriage. He is an entirely typical New Democrat. That’s what we got last time and that’s probably what we’ll get next time. And there’s nothing especially terrible about that. But don’t let’s think that Obama stands out in terms of his leadership.