Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Question for Liberals

Nothing too creative this week...we've had a bunch of essays recently evaluating Barack Obama and his presidency (most of which are still on my To Read pile, alas...). So I want to do an Obama question.

Let's try this one: do you think Obama is getting better at being president? Worse? The same?

28 comments:

  1. I think he's getting better. The debt ceiling debacle was a turning point that finally made it sink in to the West Wing that all the GOP wants to do is defeat him. These are people who you can't make deals with that would be of any benefit to the public interest. Since then he has been proposing much better policies, has (mostly) stopped bending over backwards to appease Republicans in the hopes they will agree to compromise, and has started using the powers of his office to finally get people appointed to Executive jobs etc.

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  2. Better. Relative to the GOP leadership, infinitely better. The current GOP crop running for the nomination have no standing. They just don't.

    Shirt

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  3. I don't think he's getting any better. I think the situation is making it easier to look like he's getting better. Personally, I've always rated him as a pretty effective President.

    An intransigent House sure makes things easy for Obama. He can cast them as the villain and propose things that will appease the base (even if he doesn't agree them) because he knows the ideas are DOA. Conversely, when the Dems controlled the government, Obama had to contend with the fact that he's a moderate and so are many Democratic Congresspersons. The liberal base was going to be unhappy with most legislation since Obama was willing to compromise to get things passed.

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  4. Not only is he getting better, but unless you're David Brooks, I can't even imagine how you'd argue otherwise. He still doesn't represent, in Howard Dean's phrase, "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," but at least he seems to have discovered that this wing exists.

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  5. Maybe he's staying the same, but we're getting better.

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  6. I'm with Neil. Obama came in like gangbusters - the stimulus (plus the sheer fact that the economic free fall immediately stopped), and then health care, which has eluded Dems for 2 generations.

    Then after 2010 he was playing defense, and that never looks good. Even though he repeatedly sandbagged Republicans, who came away from the table getting much less than they thought.

    Now, with the economy turning up, Obama is starting to rack up obvious wins again. Probably he has improved, learning from experience. But compared to Bill Clinton, Obama came stronger out of the gate.

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  7. I don't really get the feeling that he's shaken off the idea that the President is Legislator-in-Chief. He's still not particularly adept at using his powers as an executive to get what he wants. Nearly everything he does, at least his big public initiatives, is about passing something through Congress or not doing it and blaming Republicans.

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  8. Same and steady, in my book. Possibly better on messaging as time goes on. But I think the President wouldn't change much of what he would have done, given a chance to go back in time. Certainly not the overall tone of governance, or his attempts to reach out to include the opposition. Going back to the '08 election, his style has been to expose the weakness in his opponents' arguments, in a calm, measured way.

    It's just that now that he's getting back in campaign mode, the "long game" starts to come into focus. It's why I've always thought Romney the weakest of the GOP candidates, because there's no substance under the 'will say anything for your vote' Flip-Flop Mitt persona. This guy is right in Obama's wheelhouse, whereas a true believer like Santorum, Perry or even Newt could rally the Republican base like 2010. (Which could still be beaten if the Dems rally their base as in 2008, but anyone but Romney is a tougher out, in my book.)

    It's like everyone forgot that Obama (The Man in Black) is the unsurpassed swordsman they saw before. And Obama is just waiting for the right moment to spring "I am not left-handed, either" on them.

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  9. The Fallows piece on Obama was surprising for the inside information he received on how Obama could be a poor manager and stuck too long with people who many others considered not best-of-the-best advisors. Fallows brought this up -- I imagine because he lends it some credence -- but then there was precious little expansion on the point. I would have liked to have heard more.

    One reason I think Obama can only get better in his second term is that whole slates of advisors will no longer use Clinton's 1990s triangulation terms as their experiential reference points, but rather Obama's first term.

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    1. The Fallows essay was both interesting and infuriating. He claims that all of these well-placed sources he spoke to (none on the record of course) are convinced that Obama suffered from his inability to choose the best people to surround him, and his reliance on Clinton administration personnel.

      I happen to agree that Obama's biggest failure has been in the area of appointments, but the problem isn't that he relied on too many Clinton-era people. For a Democratic president in 2008, you either appointed Clinton-era people, or people with zero experience in the executive branch. I don't blame Obama for largely choosing the former.

      In any case, all of the anonymous quotes Fallows pulls are typical Washington-cocktail-party-circuit bullshit about how Obama doesn't "connect" well with them and sometimes hurts their precious fee-fees. And that's what Fallows bases his first-term evaluation on. There's no discussion of little things like, you know, how many Americans were helped by the President's policy agenda.

      And then Fallows has the nerve to call out Obama for failing to "change the culture" in D.C. The way I see it, the culture has changed. It used to be that a President's primary job was to massage the egos of various D.C. power players in order to get the results he wanted. Now, Washington policymakers are finding out that cronyism is a thing of the past; and all they can do is lash out off-the-record to credulous journalists.

      (By the way, I think Obama has improved over the last 3+ years, though not dramatically. He was competent when he started; he's competent now. He made mistakes then; he'll make mistakes in the future. But if you, like Fallows, are expecting Obama to be a liberated progressive savior in his second term, you're going to be very disappointed. The second term will be more of the same. Which suits me, for one, just fine.)

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    2. I think I agree with you, except I'm less sure than you are that Fallows' sources are simply cocktail-party circuit BS-ers, if only because I find Fallows to be an above-average journalist with above-average judgment. The piece was infuriating because it was all so coy and thus hard to see what was being referenced.

      And don't worry, I don't see Obama as a progressive savior. But to the extent that his political coalition among Democratic congressmen and among outside pressure groups moves marginally more liberal/progressive in direction, I hope that Obama will let himself be led there. The de-emphasis on "centrist" "deficit hawk" talking points and re-emphasis of more progressive power and class-based language and policies is a relatively good sign, though it's too soon to say whether that outlasts some fleeting pre-election/Occupy-ish moment.

      I also agree with your point that he was competent then and he's competent now. I never found him embarrassingly outmatched, if only because it was hard to see who among other national politicians and policymakers would have cobbled together a more effective administration in the aggregate. In many ways, he was all one could expect, a particularly adept and symbolically resonant product of the Democratic Party as it has evolved and defined itself over the last 30 years. The question has always seemed to me whether that could ever be enough to meet the challenges of the moment.

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    3. Clearly, Fallows was talking to slighly younger Adminstration appointees...one step down from the Clinton names referenced in the article. Nobody from state though -- clearly HRC has been the best of the Clinton era appointees. And how is Geither a clinton appointee?

      They are the ones who knw best how badly Obama has blown it. Obama knows it as well...late night blog reading...but he has made up for it foriegn policy.

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  10. Here's a contrarian take -- he looks like he's doing better, partially because the left is doing worse (and of course the right is doing very much worse, but I want to discuss the left here). Despite two-plus years of great b*tching on the left's part about Obama's compromises, still very few signs of actual organization on their/our part.

    The sheer animal energy of the left exerted itself well and, in the long run, probably productively in the Occupy movement. Yet the Occupy movement fundamentally handicapped itself by its insistence on absolute non-representational democracy in action, leaving itself open to media criticism, hijacking by violent anarchists, and lack of follow-through. I understand why, check my article from Dec. '10, precisely because the American masses have so much experience with elite-guided, no-grass-roots-allowed type democracy, when we try to practice it on our own we insist on idealized forms of democracy that can handicap our effectiveness, sometimes very severely.

    Now it's time to put our heads together, get some minimal organization among competent people, help our brothers and sisters understand that endless unfocused meetings are not the way to get things done, take the basic lessons of people like Saul Alinsky, the early labor movement, the civil rights movement, and work both within and without the Democratic party to primary out the Baucuses and Landrieus and Nelsons and be able to think several years ahead about Presidential race strategies for '16 and '20, as opposed to allowing ourselves to fall in love with cultural heroes who are not viable Presidential candidates. The Presidency is the last office the left will take, we need to follow the example of the right and work on getting city and county officials, state legislators, lower-level judges, and Congress-critters. Start now for the 2014 races, get beyond our idealistic individualisms and get organized for serious reform. We'll never have one unified left ideology or set of perfect issues/responses, we do have the same goals: fundamental reform and keep the Koch Bros. out of power.

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  11. Better in that he has figured out how to handle this Congress. I think he's also gotten better at the mechanics and tug and pull with the other parts of government. But generally I'm with Neil. I think Obama has been effective from the beginning. We liberals tend to judge him against the ideal. But comparing him to actual presidents, and their actual records, I'll take Obama.

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  12. I think it depends what you mean by "better." If you mean better at addressing the challenges we face, probably not. If you mean better at navigating relative to the GOP, probably a little bit. If you mean in terms of being a little more aware of what he is up against, then probably so.

    I think part of the problem is that comparing now to the past ignores that he's addressing different concerns. His first two years were remarkable legislatively. He will not get another chance to have so much legislative achievement. Not by a long-shot. And what he accomplished was remarkable. I don't think many if any second term presidents can get more than he got in his first 2 years in office.

    However I think the best comparison may be how he fared in the first six to nine months after the 2010 elections and today since that's a more comparable time period. And on that front he's probably gotten a bit better. However he's benefited from so much attention on the GOP field and as Bob Schieffer put it, "you can't make this stuff up." I think it'll be easier for him between now and the election but get a little harder soon after that. Why? Because the budget numbers aren't going to look that much better and yet it will be harder for him to insist that its mostly Bush's fault and the GOP will be just as intransigent. That's, of course, assuming he is reelected.

    What is dissappointing is reading the stories of how he's not great at reaching out to Democratic lawmakers and it sounds like he's not getting all that much better at that. I suspect that he could really really use a Ted Kennedy to give him some perspective. There aren't many people who could do so. But he could have.

    My one disappointment lately is that while he took my advice in his state of the union (in response to your question prior to that speech) and asked for a 90-day period in which nominees were either approved automatically or a vote was taken on them, I haven't heard much about it since. And I think this is a good issue to push Romney on and also highlight the intransigence of the other side. It also looks much less partisan given the implications for the next president, whoever he may be.

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  13. Obama has gotten a lot better at playing President. If you watch him on national security issues -- espcially Iran -- he comes across and serious and considered.

    But what the profiles (Chiat and Fallows) reveals is a guy who just doesn't understand what has happened to the economy, and is being played. Look, we need about a trillion dollars in writedowns on mortages. That is a BIG DEAL. Obama doesn't want to touch it, and he isn't even really thinking about that. Very much in the mind of we fix the banks, that will fix the problems and the economy will start growing.

    Fallows is right that if Obama wins -- and he probably will - that will be water under the bridge. Perhaps not, since the Republican will be historically weak . It was three years from the smashing 1964 election to riots in Chicago.

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  14. He's a disaster. I left that voting booth in 2008 thinking 'Now that's done. Now we have our Bush. Son-of-a-bitch needs to start breaking things. Executive orders. Signing statements. Unleash the unitary executive on its creators.' Because that's how con-law professors roll.

    Three years plus on, property is still theft, the expropriators are not being expropriated, and not a single banker's had his head put on a pike.

    So I'm staying home in November with all the other true progressives. Those contradictions don't heighten themselves, you know.

    Nach Romney, wir!

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    1. "True progressives" withdraw when those they don't like don't get the same black eyes that they may have felt they got from a previous administration? I think the problem is not what Obama did but your expectation. Giving those one doesn't like a black eye may feel great. But I don't know how it serves the aims of progressives. We cannot operate as a mirror image of the other side. Why not? Because to do so is to serve their goal which is to tear down our collective institutions.

      I think its much much harder to push for efforts to address our problems via our collective institutions than to do the reverse. All the other side has to do is be against any and everything. I don't blame you for being dissappointed. Yet if you think relinquishing the pedestal to Mr. Romney is going to make things worse for those whose heads you wish to see on those pikes, well you might consider that he's not just friendly with them but one of them himself.

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  15. He's gotten worse, because he hasn't learned. I'm hopeful for his second term; some of this is surely just playing tough defense and waiting out November. But he hasn't learned from the way he and his Administration has been played by Wall Street and the country club.

    Obama's been a very good president for liberals in legislative terms (legislator in chief indeed). He's been a good president for the country in security terms. In terms of domestic administration he's been abysmal, just beyond terrible.

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    1. He's gotten better, but he seems to be a slow learner. He didn't learn how to bargain with/rein in the Democratic Congress when he had one (2009), and it took him 8 months to figure out how to hold his own with the new Congress (2011). I'd don't think he's the one who engineered the shift in leverage. I think it might have been Reid, but that's based on nothing more than an inkling.

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  16. Family member to the GOP authority, considerably better. The present GOP plants managing for the nomination have no status. They just don't.

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    1. That's perhaps the most prescient thing ever said by a spambot!

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  17. In terms of political response to political realities; better. Every thing else; too soon to tell.

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  18. Obama has been a good president, given the economic disaster he inherited and the rabid, treasonous obstructionism of the GOP. Plus, presidents don't get much credit for cleaning up after the other party's mess. He's done much better than Clinton legislatively, has unpicked Clinton's DADT mess, and has made progress on healthcare (and we'll start to see the benefits of that more clearly in 2014). He's still hampered by an unimpressive Democratic party and, minimally, by a left wing fringe of shrill, but not particularly useful idiots who are better at writing blog posts and comments than they are at organizing - which is where you win in politics. Has he been a miracle worker? No, but the earth has never seen such a creature, so I don't know why anybody would expect one to turn up in 2008, just to suit our convenience. Best president since LBJ.

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  19. Not my room, but its noteworthy how many responders focused on Obama's legislative activity or leadership failings; net of one comment in passing no one mentioned foreign policy.

    I love how Obama has improved in the foreign arena. I love how he has been reshaping our image globally. I think the Afghani surge was a terrible error of judgment born of misplaced bravado; since then I think Obama has mostly gotten the international stuff about right.

    In particular, I love how far we have shifted from the ridiculosity of the culture of "America F*** Yeah!" that permeated the chickenhawk Bush years. Not that America F*** Yeah isn't emotionally gratifying, mind you, its just a little too obvious in a world where you're the only superpower and a host of aspiring superpowers-to-be watch you closely for signs of weakness.

    Its weird to say, what with all the global involvements and the bloated defense budget, but there's almost something TR-ish about Obama, a bit of the speak softly and carry a big stick, which ostensibly keeps the rest of the littler nations (that is - every other nation) on their toes.

    As an Obamacon circa 2008, my biggest nervousness was that the lack of America F*** Yeah in Obama would hurt the country. Now I think it has mostly been a blessing.

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    1. Many people voted for Obama in 2008 precisely because he promised a more modest, more focused, and more competent foreign policy, not necessarily because he promised an end to all wars immediately (he didn't).

      I think the reason you're not seeing a lot of people talking about foreign policy in this thread is because reality has turned out to match pretty well with the campaign rhetoric.

      In four years, he has managed to (1) end the Iraq war, (2) implement a troop surge in Afghanistan, and (3) by the surge's manifest failure to improve conditions in Afghanistan, generate massive public (and military) support to disentangle from that theater.

      Pretty impressive, no doubt, but not necessarily unexpected.

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    2. >there's almost something TR-ish about Obama, a bit of the speak softly and carry a big stick

      Kind of ironic, huh?

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    3. Kylopod - that's an awesome link, I hope several people click it, because beyond the irony is the fact that McCain's explication of "speak softly..." embarrassingly misses TR's point, and yet Obama gets it exactly right (speak softly = create fear/uncertainty in one's arm's length frenemies). Then to top it off, Obama said he'd do a particular thing...and he did it! Fantastic Obama moment if anyone is curious, good add Kylopod.

      To Andrew's point, I agree that Obama is doing what he said he would, I'm just amazed/impressed how well its working. That may be sort of preaching to the choir over here, and over at Fox News they'd tell a different tale, but I think Obama's approach is paying massive dividends - and not the namby-pamby, stereotypically lefty "make the world a gentler place" way, I mean the National Review/Red State/Ambulatory Hamburger make America more powerful way.

      I mean, has anyone noticed the increasing calls for American intervention from the Syrian freedom fighters? Syria? Hezbollah Syria? Golan Heights Syria? Perhaps Obama is not as unflinchingly pro-Israel as some of his predecessors, but the differences are very slight, and surely not enough to cause one to think Syria would look to us for friendship...

      ...and they're surely not. Its just that post-Libya, we look tough. The kind of tough that the NRA-Right Wing would celebrate, if it didn't cause their heads to asplode first since its coming from Obama.

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