Obama Stayed Out of the Swamp, and That Hurt Him
I’m not ashamed to say it: I cried when Barack Obama was inaugurated. OK, yes, I supported him. But a startling number of Republicans I know who didn't vote for him nonetheless felt their eyes dewing up as our nation’s first black president took the oath of office.
Of course, some people took things further. He was given a Nobel Peace Prize, hailed as the reincarnation of Lincoln or FDR, or as a “lightworker.” Even Obama himself occasionally got into the act, as with his speech accepting the Democratic nomination. People really expected a new and better sort of politics to attend his administration. And as he leaves us, it seems worth assessing how that went.
The obvious answer is, “Not nearly as well as Obama and his supporters expected.” The obvious question is, “Why not?” One answer is that Obama and his supporters were expecting too much from a single human being. Another, I think, is that many of the things that we loved about him -- those that seemed genuinely desirable, even admirable -- turned out not to be very good qualities in a president.
It seems safe to say that no other president in our lifetime has attracted quite the same frenzy of admiration from a certain professional class. We loved him because he is, well, us: bookish and somewhat introverted, fonder of white papers and technocratic planning than backroom dealmaking and rubber-chicken grip-and-grins. That gave him genuine strengths as a president.
Obama’s policy-making was, as these things go, extremely clean. I’m not saying it was good, mind you; that’s an argument for a different day. But there was a lot more evidence-based policy-making, and less wildly illogical “don’t just stand there, do something!” exhibitionism, than you normally see. And we saw far fewer "you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” trades.
As a result, most of his scandals were minor and at best weakly tied to the White House. Because where do scandals normally come from? Helping your political friends with either legislation or jobs. Obama rocketed upward through politics so fast that he didn’t pick up the faint residue of grimy dealmaking that glows from the skin of most politicians, nor the cadre of grasping hangers-on who usually surround them.
But to make policy work, you need politics. And politics is not about white papers. It is about making unsatisfactory deals and calling in favors from your friends, friends you usually made by helping them out with an unsatisfactory deal of their own. An intellectual approach to policy-making that tried to bypass those unseemly details, it turned out, didn't necessarily result in good policy.
Consider Obamacare. It started with a basic concept that has worked in other places, but Obama didn’t actually have the political juice to pass something that looked like those programs -- with a mandate and subsidies large enough to encourage healthy people to buy insurance. Even the badly weakened version they put together was hugely unpopular, and stubbornly refused to get more popular as the legislative process wore on.
Rahm Emanuel, who is a political operator before he is a policy wonk, advised the administration to delay or scale back the grand plans. Instead, they bulled ahead, and got it passed thanks to the congressional majorities they’d been bequeathed by the financial crisis.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that passing a badly flawed program, on a party-line vote, using a parliamentary trick, over the objections of the majority of the population, might not be a good start toward something better, but rather might leave them saddled with an albatross that could neither be killed nor made to fly. In other words, it never occurred to anyone that political legitimacy matters for policy-making, even beyond the risks of losing the next election.
Lose the next election they did, of course, thanks in part to Obamacare. And Republicans deserve a full share of blame for the pointless obstructionism that followed. But the president will also have to step up to the stage and take a bow for his share in the partisan breakdown.
Obama is the one who walked into a meeting with congressional Republicans and blithely said “elections have consequences.” Obama is the one who crafted a huge stimulus bill with little input from Republicans, then followed it with a controversial health-care program that also had no input from Republicans -- and thereby helped power a political backlash that led to the Tea Party.
Obama is the one who attempted no major bipartisan projects (in contrast to George W. Bush, who reached across the aisle to cooperate with Teddy Kennedy on No Child Left Behind), and instead argued that “bipartisanship” meant offering the Republicans some trivial concession to sign onto something that had already been decided by Democrats. Obama is the one who reacted to his midterm losses not by trying to triangulate to the center, as Bill Clinton had, but by aggressively using executive orders to achieve by executive fiat what he could not do by legislation.
Along the way, his administration often seemed to go out of its way to pick damaging fights with conservatives. Perhaps it was just trying to motivate the base with “wedge issues.” But I think it was often simply that the politically “clean,” ideological folks he put in key positions were also often politically inept.
A compromised old glad-hander of a political appointee would have quietly made some accommodation for the Little Sisters of the Poor, for example, no matter how many rules had to be bent, rather than give them a chance to go on television and ask why the administration was trying to force nuns to buy birth control.
A soulless party hack at the Office for Civil Rights would have known that regulatory guidelines that encouraged colleges to punish boys for drunk sex, and informally dictating that high school locker rooms across America must be open to transgender students, was going to trigger a backlash that could ultimately undermine the very rights they were trying to promote.
The Obama administration didn’t think that way; all it thought about was the principle. In some sense, that’s really admirable. In another, it’s completely lunatic.
Arguably, this is why we can all now enjoy the next four years of President Trump. Some of these rules convinced evangelical voters that they were under existential threat from the left. I’ve heard from a number of them who said that the only reason they voted for him, despite their loathing of everything he stands for, is that he, at least, would not actively try to legislate their communities, their schools, and their way of life out of existence.
I suspect that Obama fell prey to the worst delusion that we bookish intellectuals cherish, which is that History has a side, and we’re on it. Somehow, this Marxist chestnut survived its explosive refutation in the fall of the Soviet Union, and it has had a home in left-wing circles for the last eight years.
The culture wars were over, and their side had won; Republicans were on their way to becoming a regional rump party, confined to the South. When History is protecting your right flank, you don’t worry much about overextending your advance.
Now it is the Democrats who are looking like a regional rump party, confined mainly to the coasts. Below the Oval Office, they have suffered devastating losses at pretty much every level of government, losses that will take years to rebuild from.
And this political weakness threatens the policy legacy that Obama talks about so much. Obamacare, his signature program, is on life support, and is now under the control of an angry opposition that wants to destroy it. His executive orders can be undone with a stroke of Trump’s pen.
Five or 10 years hence, we may not be able to point to a single significant Obama innovation that’s still in existence. His leadership style won’t be the only reason for that: Partisanship has been getting steadily worse for decades, regardless of who’s president. But it sure didn’t help.
Politics is the art of creating winners and losers, and getting some of the losers to vote for you anyway. The basic tools of this trade are, for want of a better word, tawdry: shameless pandering and cheerful hypocrisy, sucking up and selling out.
The fact that Obama seemed above this made him an attractive figure to those of us who hated politics-as-usual. But as we enter our ninth year of politics-as-unusual, it’s fair to wonder which sort of politics really occupies the moral high ground.
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