Obama Was Always a Milquetoast

Thomas FrankEven if I didn’t agree with him almost all the time, I would read Thomas Frank because he is a great writer. But the truth is that I very rarely disagree with him. We are both liberal populists who think that there is a very big problem with the Democratic Party: it has turned conservative on the issues that most matter to people — economic issues. And that means we both get attacks — from fellow Democrats — who think that we just don’t get it. They think that if the DLC hadn’t taken over the Democratic Party we wouldn’t have had a Democratic president since Carter. They are wrong, of course. Political science tells us they are wrong, but they are as resistant to evidence as conservatives are. That may be because they too are conservatives and want to hide under a cover of being slightly reasonable about abortion and same sex marriage.

But yesterday, Thomas Frank wrote an article that bothered me, Paul Krugman’s Sloppy, Wet Kiss. It is a response to Krugman’s Rolling Stone article, In Defense of Obama. I had read it when it first came out and my reaction to it was more or less the same as Frank’s: Krugman is putting the too positive a face the Obama presidency. And Frank did it using an important idea from economics: opportunity cost.

Let me put the Obama years into context like this: What the times called for was a second New Deal, for a wholesale makeover of the economic system. What Obama chose to deliver instead was a second round of ’90s-style bipartisanship. As I have written before, the president looked out over a nation laid low by epic white-collar misbehavior and decided that what we needed was for politicians in Washington to get along with one another…

So the crisis went to waste and our smart young president let an era of possibility slip through his fingers. The cost of missing this opportunity is impossible to measure.

I am completely with Frank on this. And I’m with him when he criticizes the fecklessness of the Obama administration in believing that the Republicans would want to work with him. Where I disagree with Frank is in thinking that Obama “seemed like exactly the right man for the job.” No! He never seemed like the right man for the job. During the 2008 primary, I wondered if Clinton mightn’t be the better president. For one thing, she had something to prove: that she wasn’t her husband. And she might be strong in standing up to the Republicans. There was never any doubt that Obama was a milquetoast politician and that once in power, he was going to yield to the same old power elite as ever.

Obama NopeIt seems kind of obvious now. Only Nixon could go to China because he was such a rabid anti-communist. Only Clinton could destroy welfare because he was labeled a liberal (and even a socialist). And only rich boy FDR could really take on the power elite. The last person for the job was a black man so nonthreatening that the Harvard Law Review allowed him to be president of it.

None of this is to say that Obama is bad. I admire him. I think he has been about as good a president as we are ever likely to have. I can say that because I am a pessimist. But no one who tells you he is going to bring “change” is actually going to bring change. People who bring change tell you what they are going to do. And that’s why any liberal bringing actual change would be cut to pieces. Our “liberal” media would never allow it. We’ve seen conservatives bringing change and they’ve delivered. Oh, how they’ve delivered! And we never learn. But all you have to do in this country is shout “Socialism!” and everyone cowers under our bridges that are falling down because of lack of infrastructure spending.

So I understand why Obama is the president he is. What I don’t understand is why someone as smart and insightful as Thomas Frank would ever have been fooled. Obama is an establishment man through and through. And he always was. He never meant “change” to be anything that would threaten (Even just a little!) the power elite.


See also: Obama’s Hope Is There’ll Be No Change

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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.

4 thoughts on “Obama Was Always a Milquetoast

  1. I agree with most of the points made in this article – all actually except the idea that Hillary Clinton would have been any better than Obama. I supported Obama for president in the general election because a conservative Democrat is less harmful to the public good than any Republican, especially the two we had to choose from. But Hillary was even more in the pocket of Wall Street than Obama and his AG Eric Holder. She was (along with Schumer) Wall Street’s Senator. All one has to do is look back to her support for the bankruptcy reform act of about 2000. That act was written by and for banks, and made discharging debt more expensive (dramatically increasing filing fees – for people who are broke) while specifying that some private debt was non-dischargeable.

    Beyond that, how could this author or any liberal or progressive support Hillary the Hawk. She is like Margaret Thatcher in that she – if elected president – would need to prove that a woman would not shy from war. She would take us to war to prove a point, which is just as amoral as Bush taking us to war to distract us from Enron, to distract us from the fact that he did not prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001, and because of his belief that only a wartime president cohld be considered a great president. (A belief belied by the fact that Ronald Reagan, a truly awful president, is considered the greatest president since Washington by the Right, and yet had no war.)

    • I must not have been clear: I didn’t support Clinton. I simply speculated at the time that Clinton might be better than Obama. And in the end, I voted for Obama. (In the primary, I voted for Edwards.) And now I am very much against Clinton. But again, in a general election, I will vote for her.

      I disagree with your point about Clinton having to prove herself. I don’t think that Thatcher went to war to prove herself. Your argument would seem to disqualify any woman from being president for at least a hundred years. I don’t think you really mean that. Would Warren go to war to prove herself?

  2. @Frank and Donald both —

    I actually wanted Hillary because I suspected that, like Bill, she had no principles whatsoever. If she’d been pressured by the left, she might have responded. Obama’s been pressured by both the left and the right and always responded to the right.

    Last week’s Thomas Frank post was an interview with Senator Warren, who Frank kept trying to get to commit to a presidential run. I do find Warren more appealing than any candidate we’ve heard mentioned so far. She’s not perfect. She responded to the stupendous idea of revitalizing the Post Office by allowing it to make short-term loans (and put payday check loan companies out of business) with a proposal suggesting the Post Office partner with an established bank to do this. Dead wrong; that would help the Post Office (which should be helped), not consumers in need of alternate banking services (who need help more.) And it would help whichever bank received the contract (no, no, no.)

    Ultimately anyone who even considers running for President is more than a little bit deranged . . .

    • It is probably the case that USPS would have to do that because of existing banking laws. But we’re liberals, so we don’t demand perfection! Just the same, I really don’t want her to run, unless she only does it as a message candidate. I already think that her Senate campaign massaged her political clarity. She is in a position in Massachusetts to be the soul of the party like Edward Kennedy was. I’d rather see that.

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