As the Obama administration enters its seventh year, let us examine one of the era’s greatest peculiarities: That one of the most cherished rallying points of the president’s supporters is the idea of the president’s powerlessness.
Today, of course, the Democrats have completely lost control of Congress and it’s easy to make the case for the weakness of the White House. For example, when Frank Bruni sighed last Wednesday that presidents are merely “buoys on the tides of history,” not “mighty frigates parting the waters,” he scarcely made a ripple.
But the pundit fixation on Obama’s powerlessness goes back many years. Where it has always found its strongest expression is among a satisfied stratum of centrist commentators—people who are well pleased with the president’s record and who are determined to slap down liberals who find fault in Obama’s leadership. The purveyors of this fascinating species of political disgust always depict the dispute in the same way, with hard-headed men of science (i.e., themselves) facing off against dizzy idealists who cluelessly rallied to Obama’s talk of hope and change back in 2008.
It is, in other words, a classic apologetic. The pundit, a clear-thinking, reality-based fellow (and yes, they are almost always fellows), knows that if you paid attention back in 2008 you understood that Obama wasn’t promising anything great. Plus, the president has delivered all kinds of subtle but awesome stuff that his soft-headed fans overlook. Besides, there are those awful racist Republicans. Good Christ! Would we rather have one of them in the Oval Office?
This theme has been so elaborately developed over the last few years that it would be possible to write a decent history of the Obama administration entirely in terms of the various apologetics deployed on its behalf, savoring all the different grades of literary style, noting all the catch phrases and in-jokes the pundits share with one another, enumerating all the clever put-downs they use to deride the unrealistic liberal masses.
As a preface to any such future history, let me outline here the main points of the genre.
The first and most obvious excuse for all things Obama is, of course, the Republicans. Given their extreme intransigence and their many loathsome views, the steel-minded pundits say, we left-of-center citizens need to stand behind the president in complete, airtight unity. Criticism must not be permitted, lest our resolve be weakened and the hated Other prevail. In other lands, ideological enforcement of this kind is a task for a political party. But in the USA, where the Democratic president longs to achieve a Concert of K Street with the GOP, enforcing party discipline is a job for the punditry, and so I suggest we call this particular species of rationalization the MSNBC apologetic, after the network that is so famously reluctant to air any criticism of the president. It consists, in brief, of demanding a kind of solidarity with Democratic leaders that those Democratic leaders themselves only rarely show for their own rank and file.
Another line of rationalization is to insist that, given the iron logic of the left/right continuum, Obama is the best that progressives can hope for. As Jonathan Alter once put it, in the course of one of his many assaults on progressive whining, Obama is “the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow.” Maybe it’s true that the big stimulus package of 2009 wasn’t big enough, Alter acknowledges, but it was the absolute maximum our political system would permit. For other pundits, these conclusions are so obvious they scarcely require elaboration; instead, the writer in question can only shake his Beltway-hardened head in bewilderment that anyone could be to the left of Obama and his Dems. My favorite example of this species of outrage, a 2010 column by former Clinton adviser Lanny Davis, not only sputters about the off-the-spectrum views of the administration’s critics but goes on to suggest that their soft-headedness provides Obama a target-rich environment in which to stage his own “Sister Souljah Moment.”
A more sophisticated line of rationalization is to find any liberal president utterly powerless before certain ideological trends. Instead of the Republican Party itself, the chief culprit here is the trends propelling the GOP ever rightward, which are depicted as being akin to forces of nature, impossible for any Democrat to contest. You have a determined media mogul or two, an ever-more reactionary white working class, an incorrigible South, etc.
A fourth form of apologetic emphasizes the well-known structural obstacles to presidential clout, meaning mainly the power of money, which is impossible to overestimate and which stands in opposition to just about every item on the progressive wish list. There is a variation that emphasizes the insane backwardness of the U.S. Senate, which is not only tilted to favor sparsely populated areas but which confers enormous power on individual members. There are other pundits who focus on the gerrymandered districts that poison the House of Representatives and on the perennial Washington problem of the revolving door, which makes good and effective regulation difficult.
Obviously, some of these arguments have considerably more merit than others. The Republicans are genuinely bad, and it is true that they play the game in a different way than Democrats do. The structural obstacles to progressive change are also, indeed, enormous. Back in 2008, I myself wrote a book predicting that it would be difficult for liberals to do certain things in Washington thanks to the years of deliberate Republican sabotage and vandalism. And there is no denying the power of money or the allure of the revolving door or the unrepresentativeness of the U. S. Senate. We all know these things.
Still, it’s hard to square the extreme fatalism implied in most of these apologetic exercises with the liberal tradition of a confident faith in the public sector. In their deepest recesses, all these wised-up alibis for Obama’s cautious and appeasement-minded approach to governance raise a bleak but unstated question: If the obstacles to progress are really this insuperable—if the Washington game is really so completely and hermetically rigged that even a president is rendered mute and impassive by it—then why bother with the illusion that political change is possible at all?
One way in which certain pundits sidestep this paralyzing objection is to insist that, if you read the fine print, Obama never really promised to do awesome big things in the first place. Therefore, expecting him to do awesome big things is a category error, as awesomeness simply wasn’t in his contract. This species of rationalization is so sweeping that one could use it to get George W. Bush himself off the hook. And that, I suspect, is largely the point: The main thing at stake here isn’t the reputation of the defended president at all, but rather the clear-eyed shrewdness of the pundit making the argument. Unlike the suckers who bought the Obama sales pitch back in ’08, he wasn’t fooled and, like all good courtiers of our new millennial Versailles, he knows never to take politicians seriously.
There’s another weird undercurrent in all this exasperated berating of the disenchanted true believers. It’s hard to overlook the way in which all these tough-minded people of the press, in seeking to beat back the idealists they so clearly despise, must fall back on arguments that are patently soft-headed themselves. All of them insist, for example, on a view of the presidency in which the office is pretty much impotent and the real power is always elsewhere, far away from the grand but empty stage-set at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The scheming state legislators gerrymandering our House districts; the swaggering senior senators from states boasting more cattle than voters; hell, even the punditocracy itself—all of them seem to possess an occult ability to outwit and hoodwink our maximum executive leader.
As a sort of corollary to this upended federalism, certain Obama apologists ascribe political superpowers to the conservative opposition. In their analyses, the Republicans often come off as evil geniuses, possessed of powers of ratiocination far beyond anything Democrats can muster. And just as the tirelessly cunning GOP represents the outer limit of political evil, so must it follow that the purity of the president’s own intentions must be taken for granted. Hence the fanciful goal of this putatively tough-minded body of literature: To get Obama personally off the hook for the events of the last few years, and to absolve the larger Democratic Party leadership while they’re at it.
But let this pass. When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years, they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.
Think about Obama’s legacy in this context: The most consequential issue facing Americans these days is the gradual reversion of their economy to a 19th-century pattern. In a matter of 30 years, talking about this transformation has gone from being the kind of thing you hear at union strike meetings to something that wins the National Book Award and that almost everyone recognizes to be true—I mean, even George W. Bush acknowledged the problem of growing inequality back in 2007.
Yet the current leadership of the Democratic Party has been unable either to reverse the trend or to make political capital out of it.
Now, let’s bring this grand, overarching issue of inequality down to specifics. The recent episode in which the ugly reality of our new Gilded Age manifested itself most clearly was the financial crisis and the investment-bank bailouts. Together, these made up the greatest economic and political debacle of our time, the perfect expression of everything that has been going wrong with this country for decades.
Yes, everything that is wrong with the USA in one episode, and still the Democrats couldn’t figure out how to handle it in a way that was much different from how those despicable Republicans handled it. Not only did our Democratic administration leave Wall Street standing after Wall Street plunged the nation into a slump without parallel in most people’s lives—but our government allowed Wall Street to grow more concentrated and more powerful than ever. Our government made it plain that there are to be no consequences for Wall Street’s misbehavior—that the bonuses will always flow, that the obvious fraudsters will never be prosecuted, that this one industry essentially stands above the law.
To say that Obama fumbled this most critical issue is to understate the matter pretty dramatically. More to the point is the great unasked question of why he fumbled it so dramatically. Again, let’s review the historical record as it actually exists—not as Obama’s apologists like to imagine it:
* It was fully within Obama’s power to react to the financial crisis in a more aggressive and appropriate way—i.e., laws were in place, there was ample precedent, he wasn’t forced to choose Tim Geithner to run the bailouts or Eric Holder to (not) prosecute the bankers or Ben Bernanke to serve another term at the Fed.
* It would have been good policy had Obama reacted to the financial crisis in a more aggressive and appropriate way—i.e., the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced.
* It would have been massively popular had Obama reacted to the financial crisis in a more aggressive and appropriate way. Everyone admits this, at least tacitly, even the architects of Obama’s bailout policies, who like to think of themselves as having resisted the public’s mindless baying for banker blood. Acting aggressively might also have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.
But Obama did the opposite. He did everything he could to “foam the runways” and never showed any real interest in taking on the big banks. Shall I recite the dolorous list one more time? The bailouts he failed to unwind or even to question. The bad regulators he didn’t fire. The AIG bonuses that his team defended. The cramdown he never pushed for. The receivership of the zombie banks that never happened. The FBI agents who were never shifted over to white-collar crime. The criminal referral programs at the regulatory agencies that were never restored. The executives of bailed-out banks who were never fired. The standing outrage of too-big-to-fail institutions that was never truly addressed. The top bankers who were never prosecuted for anything on the long, sordid list of apparent frauds.
Obama didn’t play this greatest-of-all issues the way he did because the white working class rose up to defend its friends in the investment banking community. He didn’t play it this way because forcing the Republicans to defend Wall Street would have been really bad politics. Nor did he do it the way he did because the presidency lacks sufficient power. In fact, everything I just mentioned “can be done by the president,” says noted former bank regulator Bill Black. “It just requires some will and some imagination and a lot of planning and determination.”
What I am suggesting, in other words, is that the financial crisis worked out the way it did in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way.
That is the simplest and most direct explanation. We scientific, hard-headed types are fond of structural explanations for what goes on in Washington, but far too often we are drawn to complicated, roundabout theories whose main virtue is that they get our heroes off the hook.
I propose instead that we turn our scrutiny on those heroes as well. Let us seek to explain the power of money over the Democrats as well as over conservatism. Let us examine the historical victory of a determined free-market faction in the Democratic Party over the larger organization. Let us ask what became of the social movements of the left and why their allies in Washington failed them when their crisis came.
A bit of blunt class analysis might also help. Let us take into account the Democratic Party’s transformation in recent decades into a dutiful servant of the professional class and its every whim and prejudice. Let us acknowledge the Democratic leaders’ embarrassing faith in meritocracy, their amazing trust in the good intentions and right opinions of their fellow professionals from banking, law, economics and journalism—and their generally dismissive attitude toward the views of working people. While we’re at it, let us put the professional-class pundits under the microscope as well. After all, there is a term for the sort of myopia that allows someone to proclaim that their own political views are eminently practical if not natural and inevitable—and that the demands of the other guy are impossible dreams given the nature of the system and of reality itself.
The notion that Democrats might have agency is shocking, I know, since it means they bear some responsibility for our unhappy situation. However, once you acknowledge that it might be true, it occurs to you that this simple and direct explanation might also be the key to all kinds of Democratic betrayals and failures over the years, from the embrace of NAFTA to the abandonment of the Employee Free Choice Act. Maybe these episodes weren’t failures at all. Maybe it’s time we confronted the possibility that these disasters unfolded the way they did because Democratic leaders wanted them to work out that way.
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After this week, I am going on leave to write a book. I will be back to irritate you as always when it’s done.