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