The Perils of Misjudging Obama

Judge the Democratic Party's agenda, not the president.
Three more years! Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

To begin with, attempting to assess how Barack Obama's presidency will be seen in history is a mug's game. I mean, putting aside the fact that it is dicey to predict how any presidency will be seen in the future. I'm willing to take the chance, regardless of the downsides, with Jimmy Carter, or Ronald Reagan, or Bill Clinton, or even the very recent George W. Bush. But Obama, with more than 30 percent of his tenure still to come? It's just silly. That's my first response to Stanley Renshon's attemptover at the Monkey Cage. It's just too early.

But Renshon's piece does give me an excuse to make a point about Obama that I've increasingly come to believe: He has really become a generic Democrat as president, and evaluating him on policy grounds really amounts to little more than evaluating the Democratic Party agenda.

To be sure: that actually does say something, I suppose, about Obama's skills, which is that he appears to be somewhere between adequate and fairly good at presidenting. Oh, sure, there have been areas where he seems to have done poorly or made clear mistakes: I've focused on his slow nomination of judges and executive-branch appointees, and I've seen arguments that he generally has paid too little attention to executive-branch administration. Still, there doesn't seem to be an unusually long list of examples of Obama getting rolled by the bureaucracy; the list of scandals is actually shorter and less impressive than in most administrations, and the most spectacular obvious botch, the launch, seems to have been addressed quickly and effectively.

(Notice all the "seems" and "appears"? We really don't know yet! Plenty of time for new, awful scandals to be unearthed, and some good and bad examples of behind-the-scenes presidenting take years, sometimes decades, to come to light. At a similar point in Reagan's second term, in 1986, we didn't know about Iran-Contra).

I think that means a few things. One is that most of Obama's actions in office can probably be explained more by party than by person. Or, to the extent that party doesn't explain them, then political or other context seems to. As president, for example, Obama has been less supportive of civil liberties than he was as a senator, but it's likely that any president would have shifted in that direction during wartime, and it isn't surprising that a president would be slower to move away from wartime footing than others within his party.

But mostly, it's just about being a Democrat elected in 2008. Hillary Clinton probably would have hired a very similar White House staff. Chris Dodd would have advanced a similar stimulus, and received about the same results in Congress. Bill Richardson would have pushed a similar ACA, with similar results. John Kerry would have likely finished the withdrawal from Iraq, and a surge, followed by withdrawal in Afghanistan. Joe Biden probably would have carried on the drone war. Almost any imaginable Democratic president would have either nominated Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan or two very similar justices, and advocated a cap-and-trade climate bill that failed to get through Congress.

Are all those things certain? No, but they all are likely.

Which means that at this point, it's very difficult to avoid judging the Democratic Party agenda of Obama's era, rather than Obama as president.

I think the more useful approach in evaluating Obama's presidenting skills is to ask whether he in fact did about as well as could be expected in those and other similar cases in carrying out his party's agenda - and whether there were any clear warning signs he should have heeded that the party's agenda was ill-fated in any of these areas. But that analysis isn't going to be worth anything if it ignores the political, including the partisan, context that Obama faced. And it's premature to even try in those areas where it's impossible to know whether the warning signs actually predicted policy failure because we don't yet know how the policy will work out: health care, Afghanistan and, for the most part, the economy, just for starters.

At any rate, what this suggests is that Renshon's impulse to look to psychological explanations for a president's actions is going to be even more of a bad idea for Obama (and for any president during this age of the partisan presidency) than it would have been for presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, who served during a much less partisan time. Obama just doesn't have a lot of choices about how to approach the office. He can be a good party political or a bad party politician, but he's going to be a party politician.

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