Barack Obama's Generic Democratic Presidency: Jonathan Bernstein

The Quinnipiac poll getting buzz today may be worthless, but the general topic of evaluating Barack Obama is another opportunity to make an important point: almost everything about Obama's presidency can be explained by saying he’s a Democratic president. He’s an interesting man, but as president he’s become about as generic as possible.

The positions Obama has taken, and his priorities, don't differ in any significant way from the kinds of decisions mainstream liberals might have come to. The most notable differences -- he’s relatively less dedicated to civil liberties and somewhat more hawkish than congressional Democrats -- are almost certainly a function not of Obama’s underlying beliefs, but of his position as president. They’re classic cases of where you sit determining what you do.

But on other issues, it’s very difficult to see any daylight. Any Democrat in 2009 would have sought a large stimulus package. Any Democrat in 2009 would have made health-care reform a key issue, and any Democrat who could have been nominated would have produced a health plan similar to the one Obama worked for. Any Democrat would have attempted to pass a cap-and-trade bill on climate change, and barring that, would have worked both legislatively, when possible, and administratively the rest of the time to address the issue.

Many liberal Democrats fault Obama for his moderation on financial issues. On some of those decisions, however, their complaints have more to do with Congress than the White House. In other cases, it’s very likely that Hillary Clinton or any other plausible nominee in 2009 would have wound up in the same place. In other words, the complaint is more with the Democratic Party than with Obama.

Yes, on the margins it’s possible to imagine slightly different results. A different Democrat in the White House might have had fewer scandals, but Obama is well below par on that measure.^1 Perhaps he could have been a better negotiator or manager, but he seems to have avoided the worst of managerial difficulties suffered by George W. Bush or Bill Clinton (let alone Jimmy Carter or, in a different way, Richard Nixon). By saying he’s a generic Democratic president, I’m not arguing that he’s performed perfectly; I’m saying that his performance is neither significantly above or below par.

Let's hear it, Obama critics or Obama supporters. Where have his particular skills, preferences or personality produced anything that sets him apart from the generic Democratic president?

1Yes, Republicans, he is. For example he has far fewer scandals, and less serious ones, than Bill Clinton.