Frank and Drum View of Obama

Kevin DrumOver the weekend, Thomas Frank wrote, Right-Wing Obstruction Could Have Been Fought: an Ineffective and Gutless Presidency’s Legacy Is Failure. Nothing that Frank ever writes should be dismissed, but sadly, the article doesn’t live up to its title. It is actually about what Obama’s legacy will be, and he takes what I think is a rather naive view. Reading it, one would get the impression that Frank actually believed all Obama’s wonderful rhetoric during the 2008 campaign. And I don’t think that’s true; Frank is far too clearheaded a political observer.

In 2008, I was far too involved in creating devices to hung on airplanes to stream realtime video to a computer on the ground 15 km away to be paying too much attention to politics. Maybe it was because I wasn’t terribly involved that I could see that Obama was just another New Democrat—a centrist who was as revolutionary are George III. It was only in 2010 that we found out that Obama actually thought of himself as a “blue dog” Democrat—a conservative democrat, and given how conservative the Democratic Party has become over the last 25 years, that’s pretty conservative.

Thomas FrankWhat’s sad—tragic really—about Obama, is that in his mind, he probably really did think he could bring the parties together. After all, he truly was a centrist! Unlike with Frank who can’t be as naive as he implies, I do think Obama was that naive. But I could have told him before he got into office. During the Clinton years, I was a libertarian. And I was shocked, but amused, that conservatives ranted about how he was a socialist. It didn’t matter that Clinton was the most conservative Democratic President since Woodrow Wilson, the Republicans were going to pretend that he was Joseph Stalin, even as they would have embraced him had he been a Republican.

So I know just how Obama’s presidential library is going to talk about him. It will focus on Obamacare. It will focus on the huge deficit when he came in and how much lower it was when he got out. It will talk about how the economy improved. And there will be the other minor accomplishments like Dodd-Frank. What there won’t be is a lot of talk about fundamentally transforming Washington. And there won’t be that for two reasons. First, Obama never meant by that what the people who voted for him thought it meant. To him, the two parties were going to meet in between Obama who was already in the middle and the far right; no one voted for that, but that was what was in Obama’s mind. Second, Obama didn’t even manage to accomplish that because however lowly I may think of Obama, the Republicans really are just a crazy, power for power’s sake party.

Unfortunately, Kevin Drum responded to Frank’s article with his own, If the Left Wants Scapegoats, Just Look in the Mirror. Drum is a very good and insightful writer; I like him a lot. But as wrong as Frank is, Drum is even wronger. He argues that Obama did only what he could because America just isn’t that liberal, and the fault goes to people like Drum and Frank who couldn’t convince them of the rightness of our cause. Well, that’s an argument I hear a lot. And it just isn’t true. I care about economics, but let’s look at a social issue: same sex marriage. That’s an area where Obama just followed along behind public opinion. Thomas Frank is right to characterize the last six years as “an ineffective and gutless presidency.”

Then, after the 2010 election, Obama acted as though it were an indication of what “America” wanted. What it was, was what the conservative base wanted. Obama’s young and diverse base didn’t show up at the polls in high enough numbers. This is Political Science 101 stuff. But he at least pretended that he didn’t know this. He pretended that the nation had sent him a message. And he allowed the catastrophic Budget Control Act of 2011, which is a big reason our economic recovery is so anemic to this day.

Ultimately, by 2011, I don’t think that Obama was naive. He really did want a Grand Bargain. He really was a Blue Dog Democrat all along. He really was more concerned about the budget deficit in 2011 than he was 9% unemployment. But I think he did about as well as could be expected. And on bad days, I think he is about the best we can expect from a president in a time of billion dollar campaigns.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Obama will get his library and it will say he was great, just like all the other ones say that their presidents were great. And none of it matters. Because after he leaves office, Obama will have a great life. Why shouldn’t he? They all do. Bush the Younger had a catastrophic presidency, but he is still admired by huge numbers of people, he’s still invited to all the best parties, he’s still rich and powerful. All the same will be true of Obama. It won’t matter to him.

As for how “the people” will remember Obama? I wrote about this last year, Obama and Buono and Christie:

Obama’s lack of a Buono endorsement is unforgivable. And the funny thing is that he seems to do all of his work to shore up his reputation as a bipartisan leader who is the “adult in the room.” He wants people to look back on him like they now look back on Clinton and Reagan. But it ain’t gonna happen. People look back fondly on those presidents because the economies were really good when they left office. When Obama leaves office the economy will at best be continuing to struggle ahead. When most people look back on him, they will think, “Meh.” When people like me look back on him, we will think of him as a guy who talked pretty but wasn’t nearly as liberal as he claimed. We will regret the great opportunity cost of his presidency. And we will despise him for not giving a shit about the party that he ostensibly led.

And it’s because of that that Thomas Frank is mostly right about Obama and Kevin Drum is totally wrong.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “Frank and Drum View of Obama

  1. Barack Obama views or viewed dangerous and destructive extremism as nothing more or less than a normal facet of democracy, and if extremists get elected in one election in big numbers, then it’s just not a big deal to him. He fancies himself as in between the two parties and not really a Democrat except by designation.

    This country needs leadership that is boldly partisan on the left, just as the right has been adamantly partisan for the Republican Party and unwaveringly so. Swing voters and so-called "moderates" mostly go where the leadership is coming from and not so much where matching values are perceived- at least not as much as weak and gutless Democrats have by now long believed.

    Although you’re totally correct that the Republicans represent a smaller and narrower populace of the very rich and the Democrats have a larger and more diverse constituency, the GOP has succeeded in overwhelming ways in America that continue to effect our economic dynamics into the long term for sure. That’s because their leaders and operatives are partisan. Obama couldn’t seem to care less about getting Democrats elected. His Obama for America became Organizing for America and then Organizing for Action- and not of it has ever been about Democrats but instead only about him.

  2. @andrew markoff – Absolutely. I’ve been arguing for a long time that the Republicans great success has not been in winning elections (although they’ve done pretty well in that regard), but in pushing the entire political conversation to the right. It was, after all, Clinton who gutted welfare, not a Republican. It was Obama who gave us conservative healthcare reform, not a Republican.

  3. I loved your analysis about how the Republicans offer models for health care access based on the assumption that they will never be implemented, so Obama assuming that the GOP would go along with Obamacare based on a Heritage Foundation model and Romneycare was just foolish. We are dealing with nefarious extremists who would take the entire world to war continually if it meant profit for a few. But bear in mind that the Koch brothers, as only one example, are libertarians, and one of them ran for President on a third party ticket. They like other billionaire right-wingers as well as the evangelical set and the Tea Party have learned to focus entirely on the Republican Party in order to further their ends. When is the left going to get that??

  4. @andrew markoff – Having once been a fellow traveler, I write a lot about libertarians. The LP was founded by Republicans who were angry that Richard Nixon was too liberal. I don’t make much distinction. The conservative movement is made up of social conservatives and libertarians. The social conservatives don’t mind the libertarians, because they are too ignorant to know any better. The libertarians don’t mind the social conservatives because they know that when their daughters need an abortion, they can just fly them to Europe.

    And yes, David Koch ran for VP in the LP in 1980.

    The Republican Party is not conservative as the word normally implies. They are a revolutionary party. I recommend reading the introduction to Paul Krugman’s [i]The Great Unraveling[/i]. It’s quite an eye-opener.

  5. THanks, I love Krugman so I will read that for sure. The point is that all the business interest Republicans and libertarians and nihilists have converged into the Republican Party in their efforts to further their agendas. The left too often proclaims that we will only vote if there are candidates that meet ideological purity, or perhaps we’ll vote third party. Why has the right accepted that unifying under one party banner is most effective for their agendas while the left will call you out as a corporate-loving hack if you proclaim your support for the Democratic Party?

    By the way, the only way to know if there’s a response in the comments is to find the blog post again and look at the comments. Perhaps there could be some notification via email if anyone comments or responds under a post?

  6. @andrew markoff – Of course, there is the [i]other[/i] thing that keeps the Republicans together: racial resentment. I’m reading [i]Dog Whistle Politics[/i] right now and it is great. But I can’t answer why people on the far left don’t work within the Democratic Party. I am on the far left and I’ve been arguing for years that third parties are just a cop-out. Politics is about making things better, not about getting everything you want.

    I will look into it, but it may not be easy because I use some obscure software. But I will see. It would be good. I try to respond to all comments, but sometimes I don’t, and sometimes it takes a couple of days.

  7. If you converse with a "conservative," especially the kind that watches Fox News and/or listens to right-wing radio, and the conversation goes on for long enough, it will always come down to racial animosity towards African-Americans.

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