Monday, August 1, 2011

On the Liberal Bitterness About the Deal

Matthew Dickinson argues that Barack Obama did about as well as anyone should have expected him to do in negotiating the debt limit deal, regardless of how upset liberals are about it (as Greg Sargent documents). I think he's probably largely correct, although the details matter a lot...I don't have a sense yet about how to score this, one way or another. I would say that up until very recently I'd say that most liberals would be more interested in securing cuts in the Pentagon budget than in raising taxes, and in general I think that if those cuts are real -- and again, I can't emphasize strongly enough that it's very early to be judging winners or losers when we really don't know the answers to a lot of basic questions -- liberals are undervaluing the deal by quite a bit. Of course, to be sure, liberals and all those who embrace mainstream economics would rather have no deficit reduction at all until the economy is booming. I strongly agree; if I had my preferences enacted, we'd have Simulus III or whatever number we're on, and it would be substantial. However, as I've said, that wasn't in the cards after November 2010.

Dickinson ends by asking a great question:
[M]aybe some of you can tell me why so many very smart people have, since the day Obama was inaugurated, deluded themselves into thinking that this admittedly very smart man, albeit one with limited political experience at the national level, was somehow going to step into office and proceed to rewrite the political laws that have governed presidential politics for the last two centuries?
I have a two part answer.

Part one covers 2009-2010, and is pretty basic: lots of people just don't understand the limitations of the presidency within the political system. There's some of that now, too.

Part two covers this past few weeks, and is much more speculative, but perhaps therefore more interesting.

Here's what I think happened -- and I'm really mainly talking about elite-level Democrats, here.

In 1994, elite-level Democrats were absolutely stunned by the GOP landslide. They believed that it ushered in an era in which conservatives would dominate government for years, reversing most of the gains of the past sixty years. Bill Clinton was certainly toast, and Newt Gingrich was a genius. And then it didn't quite work out that way; Newt imploded, Clinton was re-elected and was very popular for the last five years of his presidency, and Clinton "won" the 1995-1996 showdown. Of course, there's an awful lot of fine print to that, including the GOP holding Congress for another decade, and very real policy gains by the Republicans in the settlement of that showdown.

But then, when history repeated itself in 2008-2010, I think a lot of liberals were a lot less stunned. Instead of expecting huge policy losses, they remembered the Clinton "win" and expected the Tea Partiers to be just as inept as Newt had been. In the event, I think the Tea Partiers were in fact pretty inept, while John Boehner could govern circles around Newt Gingrich...but that's not really what's important. What's important is that liberals in 1995 had unrealistically low expectations and were pleasantly surprised -- which produced liberals in 2011 who had unrealistically high expectations, and were bitterly disappointed.

Or, to put it another way: I think a lot of what's hitting liberals over the last couple of weeks is a delayed reaction to the severity of the Republican landslide of 2010. And I'm not at all convinced that the policy changes so far this year are any worse for Democrats than the policy changes in 1995-1996.

Of course, there's a long way to go with the 112th Congress, beginning with the uncertain votes to actually pass this thing today, and then continuing with FY 2012 appropriations this fall. So perhaps liberals will still turn out to be correct about the overall (lack of) effectiveness of the president. And no question: from a liberal point of view, this turn in policy is basically a disaster, and it's also a disaster from a mainstream economics point of view (although almost certainly not as big a disaster as two more weeks of stalemate would have been). Moreover, there's nothing at all wrong with realistic criticisms of the president's negotiating record. But to be realistic, those criticisms need to take into account the actual bargaining strength and positions of everyone involved, most of which has very little to do with Barack Obama.


  1. I saw a conservative somebody crowing about how we (liberals) are now going to support Bernie Sanders running in 2012 over Obama and I puked a little bit in my mouth. I appreciate your take on events over the past couple of days, and your insistence that Obama is reacting to the political reality post-'10 shellacking.

  2. You make a good point that there are a lot of outside factors that Obama had no control over. At the same time he over reached.

    He's the one who wanted the grand bargain which called for double the amount of cuts that this deal (in total) agrees to. He also wanted something to be done on the revenue side which won't happen anytime soon.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when the Tea Party starts to focus their efforts on the presidential campaign. Whoever the front runner is will have to go more to the right, in which case not only will moderates/independents be more likely to vote for the president, but liberals may not be as frustrated when they see the alternative.

  3. I don't understand why people think the 14th amendment would have given Obama more leverage. McConnel and especially Boehner would have been thrilled: they wouldn't have to make a deal and it would have strengthened their case that there is a debt crisis and Obama is to blame for it. As I see it, Obama kept insisting he could not use the "constitutional option" as a way of increasing his leverage, because if Republican leaders thought he would do so they would have less incentive to reach an agreement before the deadline.

  4. Jonathan, thanks for this thoughtful, modest and cool-headed post.

    I wonder if this situation is similar to Obama's December '09 negotiation with the Pentagon about the Afghanistan War.

    When Obama asked for options, the Pentagon presented three, as I recall: slow, large "surge" with indefinite withdrawal, larger "surge" with indefinite withdrawal, and endless war.

    Obama negotiated a quicker "surge", and pinned Petraeus, et al, on a deadline by which there would be sufficient "progress" (18 months). He then authorized the "surge" they wanted, and made them stand up in public with him and say that they could accomplish the mission in 18 months or less.

    Lo and behold, 18 months later the troop withdrawals have begun.

    So, when faced with a more powerful opposition, Obama negotiated a strategic retreat that left him in a better bargaining position for the next battle. Is that some of what's happening here? What do others think?

  5. I don't believe for a minute the cuts for the defense department mandated by the trigger will actually occur. Unless of course the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and nothing replaces them, in which case they would have happened anyway.

  6. Obama seems to sincerely believe that the people who voted in all those Republican House members deserve to have representation in the government too, and that he'll take their concerns seriously when crafting his proposals. We've seen that with the stimulus, health care, the debt ceiling... pretty much everything he's done.

    But he doesn't seem to understand that no matter how accommodating he is to these people, they're still going to hate him and call him a Kenyan socialist teleprompter community organizer. Or maybe he does understand that, and just wants to do the right thing.

    I think Obama needs to spend a couple of afternoons listening to right-wing talk radio, and clear his mind of the delusion that the Tea Partiers will ever be in any way reasonable toward his presidency.

  7. If you believe this "mainstream economics would rather have no deficit reduction at all until the economy is booming" as I do, then wouldn't it have been better to point out that congress has raised a clean debt limit 80 odd times in the past and just hold out until the Republicans pass that? Maybe the SS checks would have to stop going out before they would do it, but they would eventually have done it. They might have to pass it with more Democrats than Repulicains sort ala TARP. Tjis deal is bad for the economy, bad for Democrats, bad for the US.

  8. I don't think it's even really meaningful to say this policy is a disaster. Policies can only be judged relative to other policies; everything is a disaster relative to utopia and a victory relative to shooting our nuclear arsenal at ourselves. If it's better than the alternatives, then what else can we say? Politics is the art of the possible.

  9. You make an interesting point regarding liberal memories of the Clinton-Gingrich era and how Clinton "won".

    After hearing a friend complain about Obama's terrible negotiating skills and compare them unfavorably to Clinton's during the shutdown, I had to remind him of what Clinton was willing to give up in negotiations. He had to agree to Republican demands for a balanced budget, discretionary spending cuts, tax cuts, and changes to Medicare. Not only did he put the same things on the table as Obama, but Obama had a far greater incentive to avoid default than Clinton did to avoid a shutdown (and, of course, a shutdown wasn't even avoided).

    Yet somehow a meme has taken hold that Bill Clinton, the man who invented the playbook of purposefully and strategically infuriating the left, was a better champion of progressive principles than Barack Obama.

  10. This analysis is blending together two separate things--a belief circa 2007 that a skillful leader could "change politics", and a belief circa 2011 that Obama did a terrible job negotiating this deal. If the economy still looked like it did in 2007--not great, but not terrible, if we weren't constantly on the edge of double-digit unemployment, then it might have been more plausible for a center-left president to make peace with the center-right. Obama wouldn't push through as many policy changes as he did as quickly as he did, but in the absence of the recession we wouldn't need as many policy changes, and the country's political atmosphere wouldn't be taking a massive lurch to the right.

    By the time Obama was inaugurated, if not by the time he was elected, this was no longer plausible--the economy made massive change necessary. I think liberals abandoned the idea of changing politics, because in 2009 changing policy was much more important. From 2009 onward we know exactly what's the matter with Kansas--just like the rest of us, they're unemployed.

    The suspicion liberals have is that Obama still wants to be that guy from the 2004 convention speech. That guy made sense in 2004. But unemployment tends to make society look far more zero-sum.

    Also, Dickinson uses the words "political constraints and institutional barriers" to mean "people would saying mean things about you." Ultimately, if the president came into office and wanted nothing else but to stop military commissions, empty Guantanamo and not escalate Afghanistan, he could have. Congress can't force the president to detain people or deploy troops. Neither can generals.

    Taking a hard line on this might have made other priorities the president had (health care, financial regulation) impossible to achieve. So maybe caving on these issues was the right choice to make. But if you want to make that case, you have to admit that a choice was actually made.

  11. Nice try, no cigar.

    I know you don't like narrative as an explanation, but this is the third (fourth, fifth, sixth?) time Obama has folded. What began as a very minority meme is become very widespread. When the head of the CBC calls you a pussy, you know Obama is having a narrative problem. Does that translate into problems for the election?

    Yes. A long as a crazy runs against Obama, you can pull the base out. Anything less than a crazy and people will sit at home.

    The ones that will be hurt that that are downticket candidates, but the real issue with obama (besides being a pussy) is he doesn't understand that he needs to be a party leader. s the above comment says, he wants to be that guy from 2004. Good luck. Lead you party and vanquish your enemies.

    I'd say the chances of Obama being a one term president just jumped today.

  12. Its also possible that 2011 is different from 1995 in the extent to which special interest groups have clued into their ability to exploit the weakness of national politicians.

    Consider the elderly. The elderly will always tend to skew a bit conservative, if only because liberals tend to be progressive, and the opposite of progressive is get off my damn lawn. It is fascinating how overwhelmingly conservative the modern elderly are, particularly given their reliance on the Great Society. Which is precisely the point.

    If the goal is to exploit the weaknesses of cowardly, special-interest coddling politicians, the elderly skewing heavily conservative makes perfect sense. There's a limit to how much, in the abstract, a liberal will roll back the Great Society, as a result of the liberal's philosophical commitment to it. The conservative, in abstract, might be disposed to roll back the Great Society completely. Unless of course all the old people vote for her, in which case the modern conservative will fold like a house of cards.

    Analysts are amazed that the cuts are all discretionary, no entitlements. They should complement the elderly and their lobbyists for political shrewdness in this era of Great Washington Weakness.

    Getting back to Obama, this era of weakness works against him somewhat more than his predecessors. Because the left philosophically believes in initiatives that attempt to improve people's lives, there's no manipulative benefit to be had from groups supporting liberals.

    As a result, many groups, such as the elderly, are learning that it pays to lean the other way. Not a lot Obama can do about that.

  13. All of the previous occasions on which Obama has supposedly "folded" have actually resulted in him getting something he wanted out of a recalcitrant Congress--in many instances it was additional stimulus for the economy, and in one notable instance it was a universal health insurance plan.

    In this case, it is possible that all Obama has accomplished is preventing a significant reduction in stimulus, although with this Congress, that is a meaningful accomplishment. But I suspect that when all the details are revealed and numbers are crunched, it will turn out that Obama once again actually got a bit more stimulus. And I further predict that once again, very few people will notice, in part because it is against the interests of almost all public officials and most public commentators to notice such these things.

  14. Clinton did move to the right after the Republicans won Congress. But he lobbied(forced) the Democrats (his party), when they held Congress, to raise taxes to a level that was much more left than today before he made that move. (That is something a President should be able to do, push his own party). The Democrats lost Congress because they made the hard vote. That is how this stuff is supposed to work. You make the hard vote and then you move on.

    Obama never forced the Congress, when it was Democratically controlled, to make the hard vote. He negotiated with them on everything. Their President, and they pushed him to retreat from what he campaigned on. Yet, they still LOST control of Congress because his agenda was billed as socialist by the Republicans even though it wasn't. That is politics and he and his staff should have expected the Republicans to behave that way. He didn't and he is paying the price.

    As an aside, a friend of mine has the best explanation I have heard as to why Obama behaves as he does with respect to Republicans and Democrats: He is still trying to get his divorced parents back together again. It isn't gonna work with these guys either.

  15. I'm not sure that comparing Clinton's first two years with Obama's works to Clinton's advantage. Obama passed health reform, Clinton tried and failed. (A lot of people were sure Obama would cave when the Dems lost Ted's seat, but he and Reid pushed ahead.) Obama passed the largest stimulus in history (unfortunately, more was needed); Clinton dropped the stimulus he mentioned in his campaign after he was elected. Clinton passed DADT, Obama repealed it. Clinton continued with financial deregulation, Obama passed financial and consumer credit reform (the most sweeping in the last 30 years, if I recall correctly). As to tough votes, health reform got zero Repub support (as was also true of the stimulus). Essentially, Clinton got a tax increase and budget tightening before he lost Congress. Obama, Pelosi and Reid passed more progressive legislation than any administration since LBJ's, and then lost one house of Congress.

    When we talk about negotiating with the enemy, and Obama's frustrating belief that such negotiating is possible, I think we're forgetting about the rest of the Dem coalition. On HCR, and really everything else, Obama had to move right to get the Blue Dogs. He used the fact that he was moving to the right to make it appear that he was willing to listen to Repubs. But, all the concessions he made were necessary to get Lieberman, Nelson et al on board. He could have refused to negotiate with the Repubs, but HCR would have wound up in the same place (or possibly the Blue Dogs wouldn't have been willing to vote for the bill that ultimately passed, in which case, the bill wouldn't have passed). I would not be surprised if when the dust settles on this latest cave, we find that Obama did not have 50 votes in the Senate for a hardline "I'm not talking deficits in a slumping economy, and I'm sure as hell not going to be the first president who gives into lunatics who threaten to use the debt ceiling to destroy the country unless they achieve their objectives."

  16. Think about every fictional movie about a President: He makes a great speech and wins the day. The reality is that we have a system of checks and balances. Normally, not the end of the world, unless you need to pass a law to prevent the end of the world.

    The obvious problem for democrats is that it is hard to see a time when Republicans won't have a veto power over the debt ceiling.

  17. Well, ok, but why was there a GOP landslide in 2010? Because a too-small stimulus made for too-weak economic growth.

    (We know that it wasn't about the deficit, which the GOP created, nor about the "size and reach of government," in light of NCLB, Raich, the executive's power to wiretap citizens w/o warrants, the executive's power to indefinitely detain citizens w/o charges, Medicare Part D, poorly planned invasion and occupation of arbitrarily selected countries, Ashcroft's War on Porn, the Patriot Act, etc.)

    Every model tells us that weak growth and high unemployment = gains for the opposition party. That's what happened.

  18. reflection,

    I agree. The question is whether Obama was at fault for the too-small stimulus or not, and that's a very difficult question. I've generally believed that he got about what he could in early 2009, but I'm increasingly of the opinion that he should have pushed hard for, basically, a bailout of the states in fall 2009, when Dems had 60 votes.

  19. The problem is that objectively speaking, Republican victories do massive damage to the citizenry of the country. So by not standing up and fighting, it makes people lose hope that things will ever get better.

  20. "Of course, to be sure, liberals and all those who embrace mainstream economics would rather have no deficit reduction at all until the economy is booming. I strongly agree; if I had my preferences enacted, we'd have Simulus III or whatever number we're on, and it would be substantial."
    Political mavens, including qualified specialists like JB, are always reminding us to remain cognizant of the real institutional and other limitations affecting political actors, but they throw skepticism and intellectual caution aside the moment they turn away from their main subject.

    There is NO guarantee that any amount of Stimulus would have produced or would produce a "booming" economy, or for that matter that anything much resembling a "booming" economy is in the cards at all for quite some time, if ever (really). Not saying it's the most likely turn (or lack of a turn) of events, and I mean no disrespect, but there's a kind of vulgar Krugmanism at work on the "liberal and mainstream" left - including from Krugman himself, I think it must be said.

    In any event, it strikes me as an arbitrary if not highly parochial definition of "mainstream" to claim that some version of the Krugman narrative is consensual among leading economists (who often include all those people K-man is always railing against), or that it can be taken as a given that the multi-counter-factual of Super-Stimuli I through III and the configuration of political actors who could pass and implement them would lead inexorably, or bridge us comfortably, to full employment and a Gay 1990s Redux... or to some other Boom Period under whatever preferred ideological framing.

    As others have pointed out, BHO apparently sees himself as representing the whole country. He's also responsible for the bad what-ifs: What if he had tried for Super-Stimulus and it wasn't seen to have "worked" either - or was undermined by factors beyond the purview of vulgar Krugmanism? Or what if he had insisted on it, and hadn't gotten it? What would that have done for his presidency? Was he supposed to have been pushing hard for the state bailout in Fall 2009 and have given up on HCR? Or do we imagine that a system that could barely handle HCR and was already Tea Partying would also somehow have handled more and bigger bailouts even while Stimulus One was still hardly implemented?

    If the economy sucks as bad as K-man says it will - on this he may be right - then, and maybe only then, might it be possible to break with a faulty concept of the state, but nothing less makes anything along the lines of all of those possibly appealing counterfactuals (impossibilities) doable as well as imaginable.

  21. Would a larger stimulus - even double the size - have been enough to make the economy not-crappy? If unemployment were (say) 7+ percent instead of 9+ percent, objectively a lot fewer people would be hurting, but the overall economy would still feel like crap.

    And the resulting politics would be pretty much the same, whiny right wing old people saying "Get the government out of my Medicare."

  22. Since the first stimulus bill, Obama has managed to wring hundreds of billions in additional stimulus out of Congress, in chunks both large and small. He also proposed even more additional stimulus which got through the House but failed to pass the Senate. He also did his best to use this occasion to get more stimulus once again (I'll be interested to see how he did in the end).

    As always, it is possible to speculate that with some alternative strategy, Obama could have gotten even more stimulus. But such suggestions are inherently impossible to test, and such arguments tend to ignore the possibility that by trying and failing with an alternative strategy, he could well have ended up with a lot less stimulus.

  23. Thanks for replying, Jonathan.

    It's indeed hard to say whether he could have gotten more. Because "centrists" have no policy beliefs, instead choosing to split the difference no matter the policy arguments, my view is that the Snowes and Nelsons would have been happy to "cut down" a higher proposed number to a higher-than-what-we-actually-implemented number. But who knows.

    The larger issue is, taking a centrist position-- on health insurance reform, on the stimulus-- earned Pres. Obama next-to-zero GOP support, and an endless heaping of vociferous abuse. Also, in the case of the stimulus (and on the popular, debt-reducing public option), the policies he pursued were objectively too weak.

    At some point, you'd think he'd want to change his approach on the politics and the policy here.

  24. Let's take reflection & JB's point, and run with it.
    I'm thinking here of what the fundamental problem is, from a liberal's POV. That is: there are simply too many Republicans, many of whom are much more scared of their primary than their general electorates. In other words: there's no negotiating with these people. Look at the "deal" Obama got: in exchange for the GOP not blowing up the economy, they got to cut whatever they wanted. Win for the GOP, and really just avoiding a horrendous loss for the US. The only way to truly advance liberal or even moderate policies is to win elections, and that's essentially the economy.

    But, since this only avoids economic armageddon, it won't make the economy any better in 2012, so Obama is still increasingly likely to be a one termer, or at least it'll be close. House is out of reach. Senate is dicey.

    Honestly, one has to wonder if liberals wouldn't have been MUCH better off if McCain won in 2008. What does that story look like? First, nobody cares about the deficit. But, really, the economy doesn't even get stimulus in 2009, so we're boiling our shoes for soup by 2010. With it being a GOP economy, Dems pick up seats (including locking in Democratic control of a LOT of states for redistricting purposes!). Obama in 2012 will still get a few votes from people who think it's all Bush's fault, and because the GOP is likely to nominate a nutjob. But in the alternative 2012? The economy is ENTIRELY owned by the GOP, and a credible Dem challenger could win a landslide. In fact, 2008-2012 might have been so bad as to lead to 2012 to be a realigning election, leading to a Dem majority for decades.

    Grass is greener, pipe dream, sour grapes, gift horse in the mouth, etc.
    BUT, if we're going to insist on letting people vote, and they're going to base that vote on the state of the economy and the party of the president despite reality being DECIDEDLY more complex, why shouldn't we be hoping that reality paints a picture that leads sheep to graze where we want them to?
    Elitist? Yep.
    But, how many fellow liberals can't say they felt Obama's victory in 2008 was a little bittersweet: "Yay! We won the right to be blamed for the coming shitstorm!"

  25. NOTE: the opinion above comes from this liberal, and is hardly indicative of the opinions of most liberals.

  26. When I first heard about this deal, I was disappointed. I thought that the dems, Obama in particular, have caved again. They let the Republicans get just about everything they wanted. Everyone of us knows that this won't work to save this economy.

    Then I started thinking. Yes, everyone does know that, including the President. Could it be that he's setting up the re-election campaign right now? Could it be that he's going to say in 2012 during the campaign: "See - they got us into this mess. We tried their strategies to get out of this mess. It didn't work. Now it's time to try something else."

    Just food for thought.

  27. We've got a lot of action left on fiscal matters before the 2012 election, so I doubt Obama has resigned himself to just blaming the Republicans. Rather, I predict that over the next few fiscal battles Obama will continue to do what he has been doing so far, which is to take each occasion as an opportunity to try to get more stimulus out of Congress. I suspect, in fact, he is one of those people who thinks it doesn't really matter what people say now about what he is achieving, it just matters how it actually influences the economy. So even if no one in the commentariat is acknowledging his successful efforts to get more stimulus, that doesn't matter because what actually matters is getting more stimulus.

    As for why he isn't changing fundamental tactics: because while he hasn't been able to dictate his ideal policies to Congress, he has been getting stuff he wants out of them. The argument that he obviously should change tactics tends to depend on simply ignoring the downside, which would be that he would be getting less out of Congress in the end with a different strategy. In other words, his progressive critics tend to assume what he is getting is a floor, when in fact it is entirely possible that with different tactics he would have gotten less.

  28. @ CSH
    @ reflection.

    65+ voters voted +18R/+19R (CNN, ABC) in '10. The biggest R tilt since at least '92 (ABC only goes back that far.)

    How many House marginal seats does just a 8-10% uptick in this demo deliver? (+65 was +10 McCain)

    How much traction does the stimulus get in this demo v. "Obama is going to destroy Medicare!"

  29. We've been stimulating the economy since 9/11 and the tech bubble burst. But hey, let’s go for broke! I’m sure this time will be different ;)

  30. This post operates in a vacuum in which nothing happened during the Barack Obama presidency before the last several weeks of this idiotic "debate" on the budget/debt. It is an amnesiac attempt to justify "president give up"'s latest failure.

    Liberals are not mad because Obama folded yet again before he even saw the flop.

    Liberals are mad because we spent all of 2008 and part of 2007 campaigning for a liberal that was going to end the wars, end the elitist policies of Bush, bring sanity into economic policy and start working for the average working man. He was going to dig average Americans out of the depression-hole that Bush threw us in.

    Directly after election day, Obama started announcing appointments that immediately made liberals queasy: Giethner; Summers; Gates; Jones; the list goes on.

    This was then followed by a series of capitulations that started with the "stimulus" consisting of 40% tax cuts, and a stupid "holiday" for payroll taxes that continued the backstabbing of social security initiated by the buffoon that was in office from 2001-2009.

    This was followed by the laughable health insurance "reform" that was nothing more than a 1995 Republican wet dream before President Hope made it his own. He turned that into a reality and sent single payer and public option floating down the Delaware.

    This was followed by the extension of the Bush billionaire tax cuts--even though congress was COMPLETELY controlled by Democrats at the time.

    By this point, the liberal's luke-warm anger had turned into a slow simmer.

    And now we have this sham that was preceded by weeks of Obama failing to stand for the values of the voters that put him in office, and failing to fight for working America. Meantime, the unemployment is high, taxes for the rich are low, the banking reform has been completely castrated, Elizabeth Warren has been taken to the wood shed, Wall Street operates with the same impunity it operated under when it destroyed our economy.

    This isn't about the tea baggers taking over in 2010 and changing politics. Any idiot with a high school education knows when one one half of the congress is owned by the opposition, little will get done and the fight gets harder.

    The fury and the anger of the left is boiling over because we are absolutely sick and disgusted by the man in the White House that gamed liberal ideas to get into office and then proceeded to stab them in the back and invite the republicans over beat these ideas into a bloodied, demeaned pulp.

    The guy can't even say "tax the wealthy." It's "revenues." Or, in the last few days, "reforms."

    When the going get's tough, Obama sides with Republicans. That's what we are mad about.

    It is abundantly clear that liberals were sold a bill of goods. We are not just angry at Obama, to some extent we are angry with ourselves for being so thoroughly fooled.

  31. @ Davis X. Machina :

    (1) The null hypothesis here is that such scre tactics wouldn't have been as effective in less scary times.

    (2) If "gov't hands off my Medicare!" & "death panels!" & the like really did move opinion of old folks a bit further to the right than would have happened otherwise, this proves that Dems who count on the good faith of Republicans are dupes. The Dems passed a centrist health care plan of the sort GOP politicians like Lott, Dole, Helms, Hatch, Grassley, et al had supported for two decades. The political reward from the GOP: one vote in Congress (the highly anomalous Joseph Cao), and a whole bunch of shrieking.

    Then after that, instead of saying, "clean debt ceiling as we've done from time immemorial or constitutional option," we got the Dems saying, "why, what a delightful time for a grand bargain this debt ceiling vote is!" We knew what would happen, because the GOP is as the GOP does. They were willing to risk blowing up the world economy, the Dems weren't, so we get a deal that's tilted to the right (and, therefore, hostile to common sense and basic principles of sound governance).

  32. What an interesting discussion. Calls to mind those lines at the end of Springsteen's Jungleland ("The poets down here don't write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be"). Alas, I am neither a poet nor able to stand back and let it all be.

    First, big thanks to Davis for the data on the elderly voters. Somewhat contra reflection just above, I find that data terrifying. When one considers how catastrophic elderly poverty was before SS, and how bad it would be again if the Great Society were rolled up, has there ever been a demographic voting so ostensibly against their interest as the elderly in Davis' stat?

    Perhaps, as reflection suggested, the elderly are swayed by emotional manipulation. As a conservative, I'm more disposed to think that folks pretty effectively pursue their interests when voting in a democracy, such that the overwhelming bias toward Republicans among the elderly is likely reflective of their interests.

    Which can pretty much only be interpreted one way: elderly folks voting for Rand Paul en masse shuts him the f*** up. Sorta seems that way, doesn't it? A pretty clever ruse for the elderly. Pretty terrifying for the rest of us.

    If you see the world in a similar manner, that is, that old folks vote for libertarians en masse to turn them into socialists, hopefully you will also share the fear that such a system is hopelessly unsustainable, and that believing that our current deficit crisis is just the normal business cycle, that the budget will self-correct when the economy picks up the worst kind of pollyannaish thinking.

    This is bad. Real real bad.

  33. I feel how Tony feels and he is essentially correct in that either liberals were sold a bill of goods directly by Obama or that there is really no way in our system at the present time (maybe never again?) for a person to really govern as a liberal because the elites or somebody or something will not let them even try.

    I truly hope it was Obama that sold us a bill of goods because then we may still have a chance to save the country in my lifetime, the alternative is not something I want to think about.

  34. Tony thought he was voting for a Dictator, and all he got was a lousy President.

    During the last Congress, the people setting the constraints on legislation were the most moderate Republicans or most conservative Democrats in the Senate (depending on exactly when in time you are talking about). I'm not sure what to say to people who still think that means Obama could do whatever he wanted--I'm sure they have heard it all before, and they apparently are just not willing to accept what that means.

  35. Oh, and Obama promised during the campaign he was going to try to work with Republicans on his agenda. The aggrieved betrayal theme in that sense seems to depend on imagining an alternative world in which Obama promised instead to try to ram through his agenda on partisan lines.

    And ironically, that is exactly what ended up happening--Obama's major legislation tended to never get more Republican votes than he strictly needed for passage. But again, somehow the fact his legislation barely squeaked through means that he conceded more than he had to.

  36. The problem with this kind of exclusively poll-sci analysis is that it pays no attention to Obama's psychology, what is probably going on in his mind. Most political scientists are contemptuous of psychology, unfortunately.

    What can we read in Obama's mind at this point, given his record? His friends are rich folks, Wall St. types, the folks he vacations with and plays golf with on Martha's Vineyard. Does he have any poor friends? Does he act as though he even sympathizes with people at the bottom of the economy?

    He and his supporters claim that now that this unpleasant debt-ceiling business is over with he will "pivot" (don't you love that word?) to dealing with unemployment. Who seriously believes that will happen? Is there any evidence at all, based on what he has actually done and said since his inauguration, that he will do any such thing? There is no evidence that he has a particle of sympathy with the unemployed, the homeless, anyone down-and-out who probably dresses less nattily than he does and smells unattractively.

    And even if he had any sympathies for the poor, what could he do for them? Even if he proposed any serious deal for the poor and unemployed, his Republican friends would immediately go back to the "Socialist, Marxist, un-American Kenyan" refrain, which he seems to be deathly afraid of.

    What I see in him is basically a Herbert Hoover, not an FDR. And it's the latter that we need. In other words, its 1928 again, and it isn't going to be any more fun this time than it was the last time.

  37. I get the dealmaking, the limits on the president's power, the unhinged opposition, etc. To try to synthesize a few strains of thought in this uncommonly readable comment thread:

    While all of the above may be understandable, even inevitable, the way this went down POLITICALLY does not bode well for the man's re-election, or thus for progressive priorities going forward. While in good times class warfare is bad politics for Democrats, in this 2012 cycle, it is truly our only hope. The performance of the economy is going to be THE issue next year (god willing and worse events don't intervene), and Obama will have to account for some ugly numbers. Appealing to hopeful can-do spirit or whatever will be woefully inadequate. For Obama to make the progressive case on the economy, he's going to have to take a very critical stance toward the deal that's just been brokered--arguing in essence that austerity not only doesn't help the economy, it screws the little guy. It would take every ounce of Bill Clinton's joesixpack mojo to make this case effectively, and if Obama thinks he can calmly talk about shared sacrifice, shared values and miniscule green initiatives, he's cooked. He has to be prepared to go for the jugular in a way that he was notably unwilling to do in this instance, even after threatening to "take [his] case to the people."

  38. JonJ,

    "Most political scientists are contemptuous of psychology"? That's simply not true.

    Indeed, I'd say that this post is basically full of psychology, no?

    What is true is that many -- certainly not all, but many -- presidential actions are best explained by things other than the president's personality. Including most, although not necessarily all, of what happened in this latest episode.

    I think Obama had some (but not complete) freedom to decide which party priorities to fight for, and I pretty much think he put more emphasis on deficit reduction than some Democrats would have -- but certainly not all (Dems have been for what they see as "responsible" budgeting for at least thirty years, but there are dissenters). That might have had to do with strategic choices, which might have been smart or not. It might have had to do with personal preferences, which then could be studied to figure out whether that was about personal campaign incentives, or something else. And all of that is worth studying.

    But there are real limits to how much is going to be explained by that, and how much is going to be explained by party incentives, by the political context, and by other things that have nothing to do with Obama as a person.

  39. Hey Jonathan, kudos on the traffic. If this thread is any indication, hopefully these folks will stick around for awhile.

  40. Having studied Obama's tactics since he was a state legislator, which have remained remarkably consistent, here are a couple key things to keep in mind:

    (1) Obama thinks helpful legislation is often blocked for raw political reasons, so when engaged in legislative deal-making, Obama often looks to give the other side better optics in exchange for more of what he wants substantively;

    (2) Obama believes elections are largely decided in the last few weeks before voting, and he thus tends to wait until late in the campaign to make his arguments in their most forceful form, and he isn't particularly concerned about whether political commentators and the small minority of voters who stay in campaign mode throughout the political cycle think he is winning the debate many months or years in advance.

    Both of these tendencies can have the effect of frustrating certain sorts of people, but anyone interested in understanding Obama's behavior should really take into account these known things about Obama.

    Oh, and I think political scientists are all about taking into account psychology in a rigorous way. But they aren't particularly interested in people who want to engage in pop psychology of public figures for the purpose of pushing a pre-determined narrative, nor should they be. However, if you are looking for one, there is a big market for such "analysis" among the media.

  41. I'm not sure the deal is really that bad, or that it matters what's in the deal. I think the netroots are just incredibly livid at having "lost". Again. For the zillionth time. A deal passing (any deal passing) means the tea party won and Obama "caved", and that's just pouring salt in that same old wound all over again.

    And no, I don't think this exactly is delayed response to the severity of the 2010 losses, because that severity still has not sunk in. I don't think I've seen anyone going "wow! Maybe we should have taken 2010 seriously!". I've seen people going "wow! We need to sit out 2012!". No one seems to be taking the lesson that if you let the Republicans win an election, that means they can do things. If you let them win 2012, they'll do more things.

    Like everything the Republicans have done over the last five years, the netroots are blaming the Democrats, not the Republicans, for this thing that the Republicans did. We convinced ourselves the default wasn't a real threat because the President has magic platinum 14th amendment powers, right? So the horrible thing that happened here is not that the Republicans held the economy hostage until they got ideological cookies, but that the Democrats agreed to a deal. The only lesson learned here is that we need to be harder on Democrats who look like they're willing to agree to deals. I've had people outright telling me that in order to win against the tea party we needed to be as willing to default as the tea party was. That was our big mistake. That we weren't as willing to destroy the country as we should have been. This is the lesson we're going to take into the next fight.

  42. "Well, ok, but why was there a GOP landslide in 2010? Because a too-small stimulus made for too-weak economic growth."

    I just don't buy this. A larger stimulus - bigger, more activist, more liberal government - was not going to prevent a backlash against big, activist, liberal government. A larger stimulus would not have prevented Republicans from attacking cap and trade, a government takeover of health care, a radical socialist president who wants to fundamentally alter the American way of life, etc. A larger stimulus would not have driven more Democratic voters to the polls in a non-presidential election, it would not have assuaged elderly voters' fears that their Medicare was being taken away, and it would certainly not have countered the narrative that the Democratic Party is radically left-wing.

    More stimulus may have been necessary to improve the recovery, but I don't think that more government spending would have prevented the backlash against government spending.

  43. It's also worth recalling The Monkey Cage's analysis of which roll call votes hurt the Democrats: health care reform, cap and trade, TARP, and, yes, the stimulus:

    "What might have happened if vulnerable Democrats hadn’t voted for any of the four bills? I’ll define 'vulnerable' as any Democratic incumbent who lost. The graph below shows the balance of power as predicted by the regression, and then what it might have been if everything else was the same but these vulnerable Democrats had voted 'no' on everything. The result is stunning: The Democrats gain back 32 seats, enough to retain control of the House. The margin of error around that prediction crosses the majority control line, so we can’t be fully confident that Democrats would have maintained their majority, even with these predictions. But the difference between the actual result and the counterfactual is itself outside the margin of error, so the effect is large no matter how you slice it."

  44. The reason why people are mad is simple. Thirty years ago Ronald Reagan was considered extreme right wing and now his position is looked at as the center. Mad liberals don't care about pragmatism just now because they see how the radicalism of the right wing has worked to pull the center to the right. To hell with pragmatism, start pulling the center back to the left!


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