Obama an Historic Leader?

Something is happening that is going under a lot of people’s radar.   Barack Obama is slowly showing himself to be one of the most effective Presidents in recent history, with a style likely to go down in history.   Remember: you heard it here first.

It doesn’t seem that way when you read the newspapers now.   The conservative press is falling over itself trying to sell a narrative to the public that Obama is ineffective.    As such, they may be fooling themselves into missing what should give them pause:  Obama is making changes that cannot be easily undone, and setting himself up for ongoing success.  His Presidency may end up more successful than even his campaign.

Since that doesn’t seem to be a common view right now — the left is sour that change hasn’t gone fast and far enough, and the right is pointing to low approval ratings and fantasizing about big gains in 2010.   But consider the issues that have dominated this year:

1.   A major economic stimulus of a size and proportion that has not been seen outside of war time.   This package saved states from insolvency, and probably will lead to a spurt of economic growth that will serve the President well come 2012.  Along with the repercussions from the unpopular bailouts, it also has re-defined the government’s role in the economy.    Who would have thought that the Executive Branch could demand lower pay for big financial executives?   That aspect won’t last, and banks are quickly paying the government back (which will also be good political news for Obama) to regain control, but as a whole the political economy will never be the same.

2.   Health care reform.   In the Democratic primary Clinton and Obama fell all over themselves in promising comprehensive and significant change.   Of course, that was never realistic.   Congress must pass health care reform, and those with a vested interest in the status quo have massive power and lobbying clout.   President Clinton was surprised by the blowback from his 1993-4 effort, and when it collapsed in defeat one got the sense that the President called his staff to the oval office and said “let us never speak of this again.”   Health care reform was dead.

It could still fall apart in the next week, but Obama seems to have cajoled and guided from afar a Congressional compromise that gets the most signficant reform possible to pass.  To those on the left who agree with Howard Dean that this is a farce and a gift to big health business, I’d say — yes, that’s how it appears now.   Those groups have so much power that you will NEVER ram anything through that will significantly undermine them.   Never.   Big money dominates in both parties, and corporations run America far more than bureaucracies.    Politics is the art of the possible.   But unlike Clinton, Obama kept the issue alive.   He likely will get reform.   And incrementally he can tweak the system, or when a crisis comes up take a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy to the various interest groups.   They might unite to defeat a big infrastructure change, but if he can lure them into accepting one they see as “not so bad,” he can later focus on one big interest group at a time.   It may take years, even beyond his administration, but Obama could be laying the framework for the most fundamental change in American politics since the new deal.    It looks like he’ll pull it off, persisting despite attacks from the right and left.   It’s pragmatic, persistent, Machiavellian, and the kind of leadership the Democrats haven’t had for a long time.

3.   Climate Change.   First the drama — the talks are falling apart in Copenhagen, and Obama flies in, holds late night meetings, and saves the conference with a “meaningful deal.”     Environmental groups are upset the deal doesn’t go far enough, and the right is relieved that it’s mostly a deal in principle.    But besides emerging with his reputation enhanced, Obama has kept the issue alive, able again to be built upon step by step.   Remember, the Senate in principle voted 95-5 against a climate change treaty back during the Clinton years.   This is another issue where strong, powerful interests and a massive well funded right wing disinformation strategy is attacking those wanting to aggressively cut CO2 emissions.   If the talks had failed completely, Obama would see this issue become mission impossible — he could have still talked a good game, but it would have gotten much harder to make anything happen.

The incremental approach is also seen in the recent EPA announcement that increased CO2 emissions is a health hazard, giving the EPA the capacity to regulate it.   That is just a first step — if it went too far and tried to impose harsh regulations right away, there would be a massive push back from Congress, and Obama would lose.   Now he can slowly coordinate global agreements and slight changes in US regulations, perhaps cajoling Congress to make its own regulations to make sure the EPA doesn’t go “too far.”   In any event, this issue has more landmines in the American political landscape than health care, yet Obama is shepherding in the only kind of change possible: gradual, incremental, and yet potentially foundational.

4.  Foreign Policy.   Obama sent a clear signal to the Pentagon and foreign policy establishment that he was not a push over.   They tried to send him a range of plans for an open ended mission on Afghanistan.   He rejected it, and ignored pressure to make his decision faster, even as the former Vice President said he was “dithering.”  He didn’t let that hurry his pace until he was satisfied with his decision.   He also didn’t go the easy route and appease the  left in his own party by simply removing the troops and dramatically redefining the mission.   Even as we continue apace to leave Iraq, Obama is setting lup a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On top of that, he’s undertaking new initiatives everywhere from the Mideast to our relationships with China and Russia, redesigning foreign policy gradually, but so far with impressive results.   He didn’t let the anticipated political backlash stop him from canceling a missile defense shield set for Poland and the Czech Republic.    He has signaled that the US is not going to provide defense for the world, and will work on more equal grounds with the EU, Russia and China.   On economic issues this has paid off — China has done things that made the economy in the US less in peril.  Russia has signaled new possibilities on START.   More importantly, there is a sense that all powers want to try to bring stability to troubled regions, a true multilateralism.

Seriously, step back and think about it.   A massive stimulus package with profound implications, a major health care reform act (still unfinished — if it fails this whole analysis is weakened), and small progress on climate change, but in a way that keeps the issue alive.   He’s embraced a foreign policy moving away from the kind of arrogant self-importance of the past to one that is cooperative and yet principled.    Issues that stymied Clinton, other Presidents and Democratic leaders, are being pushed effectively by Obama.

Those who thought Obama meant quick change are disappointed.   But as a political scientist, I find myself pleasantly surprised by his pragmatism, efficacy, and recognition that politics is not about short term “wins,” but long term change.    That gives me a real sense of optimism moving forward — more optimism now than in December 2008, even though the country as a whole was more optimistic about Obama at that point.   He’s accomplished a lot on issues that usually halt Democrats dead in their tracks.   And he’s slogging forward.   But if you’re one of those on the left disappointed in Obama so far, or on the right convinced that he’s already failed, you may want to withhold judgment a little longer.

  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on December 21, 2009 - 09:48

    Sorry, Scott, you’re completely out to lunch on this one. Rahm Emanuel, in the midst of this health care mess, perfectly outlined the m.o. of this administration to date when he told congressional Democrats to just pass anything, and we’ll call it a victory. Obama is very “effective” at that. But that’s not any kind of “effectiveness” to crow about.

    The disgust Obama increasingly draws from the liberals isn’t so much a matter of the liberals thinking change needs to be more significant or to occur at a faster pace as it is a matter of there being little positive change at all. Even in trying to write a laudatory article, you struggle to find anything noteworthy in Obama’s first year.

    The stimulus was a stupid waste of money that, while too small to be of any real effect (Krugman was right about that), absolutely exploded the deficit, and most of the spending won’t even kick in until well after the economies’ natural boom-bust cycle has fixed the problem anyway. You write it “probably will lead to a spurt of economic growth that will serve the President well come 2012,” but if the economy is still needing artificial stimulation by 2012, the matter of whether those paltry bucks would have any effect will be the least of our concerns.

    The health care “reform” effort has been converted into a monstrous thing, another handout to corporate America that WILL make everything worse for the rest of us, and pushing for passage of what’s on the table now is completely irresponsible, is not rendered any less so by continuing to mislabel it as “reform,” and I’ll even go further and say that no one can pimp for it in good conscience. It’s a HORRIBLE thing to do to one’s fellow citizens.

    Before I leave the subject, Scott, your continual portrayal of this as some sort of long-term chess game is actually becoming offensive. There’s absolutely nothing to support that characterization. There’s no indication of there being any plans for future reforms (and, in fact, the plan being considered would radically enrich the industry, making any real reform even more difficult). Contrary to your characterization of Obama’s “recognition that politics is not about short term ‘wins,’ but long term change,” Emanuel embraced exactly the opposite when he said just pass anything and we’ll declare victory, and the administration intentionally asked that the plan not be fully implemented–leaving us fully screwed–until after they’ve either been reelected or replaced, so it won’t be something they’ll have to deal with. After the mess it has turned into this year, they’ll never touch the subject again.

    While Obama radically escalates Afghanistan (presumably to fight the fewer than 100 al Qaida estimated to still be there), the alleged withdrawals from both there and Iraq are set in the far-flung future, dates that, if history is any guide, will be continually moved back whenever they approach (the administration began backing away from both as soon as they were announced). The continued presence in both countries could be justified only if there was some sort of obvious goal. There isn’t. Your right that he didn’t redefine the mission. It’s just more fodder for Bush’s meat-grinder.

    The climate-change business is about public relations. Emissions would have to be radically reduced–far more radically than anyone has even remotely suggested–then kept at that very low level for decades for it to matter. If the administration was at all serious about this, it would be putting some muscle behind new research and the development of new technology to deal with the problem by working changes in the human activities that cause the problem in the first place (that does NOT include arbitrary caps on emissions without working out those changes).

    Wow, I’m really exhausted. I shouldn’t rant when I’m this tired. You’re very wrong about this one, though, Scott.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on December 21, 2009 - 17:37

      Perhaps. But the way I see it, the corporate hold on American politics is such a vice-grip that if a politician tries to really make meaningful reform it will fail. The only possible way to change — and by no means is success guaranteed — is to do so gradually. You take on corporate interests head on, and you’ll lose. Even Howard Dean and others on the left now seem to recognize that changing the infrastructure creates a dramatic change that can be built upon. This is an interesting analysis: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/12/insidious-myth-of-reconciliation.html

      Since we probably are in agreement on a lot of what we’d prefer to see on health care and Afghanistan (probably not the stimulus — I am a bit afraid of the dollar collapsing, so I hope what was spent was enough — there are early signs in GDP growth and unemployment reduction that it could be), the issue becomes tactical. How best to get change? I look at the political landscape and, seeing the US in the grip of corporate socialism (a variant of fascism, as I think we discussed), I don’t see an alternative that could possibly be passed or be realistic. If politics is the art of the possible, we are disagreeing about what is possible.

      Enough people are saying “pass it, then change it” that I think we will see the reform altered dramatically in coming years. That will be far easier to do than to pass it as a whole — you can limit each change to taking fewer interest groups, and you can respond to a problem (e.g., a single payer option can be brought in later).

      Given the incremental nature of our political system, and the power of big business, then I can’t see a viable alternative.

  2. #3 by Lee on December 21, 2009 - 16:54

    I actually agree with you Scott. Added to your points is the fact that President Obama conducts himself when speaking with the dignity of the office. Sadly, I don’t think the most recent Bush was able to pull that off. Both his speaking style and his agenda did not serve us well on the world stage. I don’t agree with all of the decisions recently made, but I do agree that there is some reason for hope and a positive outlook.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on December 21, 2009 - 17:40

      From what I’ve read, Bush was advised to be “tough and blunt” on the world stage, because the neo-conservatives had the opinion that if the US really showed itself to be serious and unwilling to compromise, the rest of the world would whine and moan, but go along. It was a weird “if we act nice they’ll walk all over us, we have to be strong and in control.” That really causes me to wonder about the psychological state of some of those advisers.

  3. #5 by renaissanceguy on December 22, 2009 - 10:35

    I can’t believe that I actually agree with Classical Liberal. That’s unusual. Although we come at it from different political positions, I completely agree with him that your characterization of President Obama as “effective” is wrong.

    Name something concrete that he has accomplished. You did not do so in your post. It is basically that (1) he has proposed some things, (2) he has made a bit of progress on some things, (3) he inspires people, and (3) according to Lee, he is an eloquent speaker.

    During the campaign nobody could list his accomplishments, except that he had been a “community organizer” and had won some elections. When he won the Nobel Prize, nobody could point to any tangible accomplishments that would qualify him for it, except that he inspired hope in people. During his year in ofice there is still barely any notable achievement, except for ones that any president would have had to do in order to carry on his normal functions.

    If I were one of his supporters, I would be hugely disappointed in President Obama. Since I am one of his detractors, I am actually happy that he has not been very effective.


    Concerning the horrendous bills approved by the House and the Senate, I honestly would rather that they had passed a simple, single-payer, state-administered system than the monstrosities that they ended up with. (Of course, I would really rather they had freed the health care market and the health insurance market and ended the racket of malpractice lawsuits by passing tort reform.)

    If business controls our government, isn’t it the lack of integrity of the politicians that allows them to do it? A person cannot be bought if he or she doesn’t allow himself or herself to be sold. Don’t scold the insurance lobby for wanting the best deal possible; that’s to be expected. Scold the politicians on both sides of the aisle for playing along.

    It’s pretty bad when a bill is so bad that people on the right, on the left, and in the middle hate it.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on December 22, 2009 - 12:32

      People do fall victim to the “great man” fallacy in politics. Obama is part of a system. As such “he” alone cannot accomplish major things — no President can. Compared to past Presidents, he’s managed to push forward health care to an unprecedented point by managing a broad coalition, a pretty amazing political feat, even if you don’t like the result (people like or dislike it all across the spectrum). He’s also moved in a positive way on climate change, managed to pass a major stimulus bill by making compromises with Congress, and has engineered a real shift in US foreign policy which I think is his greatest accomplishment so far.

      No President can point to so much after one year. Some grab low hanging fruit like tax cuts, but Obama’s been making progress on a broad shift in US policy. Compared to any past President you’d need to go back to Nixon or LBJ for so much so fast. But time will ultimately be the judge — I suspect a lot of people who are taking pot shots at Obama now will see it much differently seven years from now. We’ll find out more in time.

      If the left and right oppose a change, that may be a sign it’s the best possible. Real world politics is built on compromise and deals. C’est la vie.

    • #7 by classicliberal2 on December 24, 2009 - 01:49

      “If business controls our government, isn’t it the lack of integrity of the politicians that allows them to do it? A person cannot be bought if he or she doesn’t allow himself or herself to be sold.”

      It’s systematic corruption. If you want to run for office in the U.S., you have to get the money for a campaign from somewhere. That money has strings attached. Campaign finance in the U.S. is a legalized system of bribery.

      “Don’t scold the insurance lobby for wanting the best deal possible; that’s to be expected. Scold the politicians on both sides of the aisle for playing along.”

      They don’t even get their foot in the door if they don’t toe the line of whatever interest looks to buy them. Without selling themselves on the free market, they wouldn’t even be a part of the political process. That doesn’t absolve the politicians from responsibility for their own actions, of course, but the problem is systemic, not one of individuals. It can’t be dealt with on an individual basis.

  4. #8 by Mike Lovell on December 22, 2009 - 15:19

    Your Honor, I’d like to object to this word usage: an unprecedented point

    It has been used in the political scene far too often, whether rightly, wrongly, or out of context more times in the past year or 2, than midwesterners end sentences with prepositions as a whole.

    Could we find a synonym to relace this word “unprecedented”?

    • #9 by Scott Erb on December 22, 2009 - 15:39

      Never before as anyone complained about my word use in such a unique manner. Yet try as I may, I’ve never been able to find a synonym for unprecedented. For the first time, I’m stymied. I’ve looked through past blog comments, and your concern is unmatched by any complaint or compliment made. Yet I cannot find a synonym. I usually can find synonyms easy, but this word is unparalleled in its aversion to any simple rewording. I’ll keep trying…

      • #10 by Mike Lovell on December 22, 2009 - 16:49

        LMAO!!! I’ll be sure to pat my own back as the reigning complaining mook!

  5. #11 by renaissanceguy on December 23, 2009 - 05:40

    Funny reply to Mike, Scott.

    Predictable reply to me.

    • #12 by Scott Erb on December 23, 2009 - 16:20

      Ultimately, it’s still guess work now on Obama. I think what people often miss is the limited impact a President has. A President can’t truly lead in a Napoleonic sense, he has to build coalitions and make pragmatic deals. Reagan was good at it, and Obama seems to be of that same mold. Like Obama, Reagan was elected in a wave of euphoria for change, and he also fell hard in approval ratings and lost support from independents and even many in his own party for awhile. Political winds shift quickly, I just have a sense that Obama is building coalitions and making compromises that he’ll build upon.

      • #13 by classicliberal2 on December 24, 2009 - 07:51

        “Ultimately, it’s still guess work now on Obama. I think what people often miss is the limited impact a President has. A President can’t truly lead in a Napoleonic sense, he has to build coalitions and make pragmatic deals.”

        …which is one of the best arguments against Obama, because he’s in the process of actively destroying the coalition that elected him. Rather than stake out a strong position, fight like hell for it, then compromise when he’s taken it as far as he can, his “pragmatism” has translated, in every instance, into giving away the store to the right before any debate has ever began. The problem, there, is, of course, that, no matter what he does, the right isn’t going to get in line behind him, never, not under any circumstances, and by, on the other hand, throwing the mainstream–which is to say, the liberals–overboard, instead of fighting for them, he alienates them, as well. Once you eliminate conservative-leaning people and liberal-leaning people, that’s everyone. There’s no “coalition” to build. His only “coalition,” so far, is with the health care industry, and he “coalesced” with them by getting behind their efforts to destroy health care reform, and turn it into another handout to them.

        “Political winds shift quickly, I just have a sense that Obama is building coalitions and making compromises that he’ll build upon.”

        Obama isn’t building any “coalition.” He is, instead, being set up as a one-termer by the likes of Rahm (“Don’t worry about the left”) Emanuel. Obama may not be worried about the liberals right now, but his “pragmatic” unworried ass is going to be wishing it hadn’t been his chosen receptacle for his head when, in 2012, he has to depend, for his reelection, on all the conservatives he’s won over with his “compromises” and “coalition-building,” and his winning personality.

  6. #14 by Scott Erb on December 24, 2009 - 12:48

    I have no idea how Obama could “fight like hell.” He’s not Congress. He’d have set himself up for an humiliating defeat, worse than Clinton in ’94. In terms of shaping the result he, like any President, has very limited impact. Moreover, he was elected on the notion of bringing the country together and pragmatism. The activists hoped for quick change — I noted before the election that such a thing is impossible, that’s not how the system functions.

    The idea that the President can “fight for liberals” makes no sense. He can give speeches, but he’s not Congress, and has a limited capacity to impact Congress. I think you’re over-estimating the popularity of the more “liberal” position and vastly over-estimating the capacity of Obama or any President to really shape the outcome. The lessons of 1994 should be clear. If he had tried, we’d have nothing, and health care reform would be severely delayed, and insurance companies would continue to be able to cut people at will, deny on existing conditions, etc. The GOP would be basking in the glow of stopping change.

    Now the GOP is angry. They are angry because they know this is a real change that will be built upon over time, and they didn’t stop it. They hoped the idealist liberals would say ‘all or nothing’ and give them a victory.

    All that said, the fight needs to go on. Obama needs to actively work for changes in the years ahead, and Congress needs to improve the system. To be a success, this has to be a first step at reform, not a final step.

    • #15 by classicliberal2 on December 28, 2009 - 21:18

      “I have no idea how Obama could ‘fight like hell.'”

      I’ve written about it here repeatedly. You start from strength, and weaken it over time as a means of compromise. You work congress the way Lyndon Johnson did. Carrots and sticks. Get on board and it can be a boon; stay off, and you’ll end up as road-pizza. Have the problem children over to the White House every day, if necessary. Rally the public. Go on television repeatedly. Have your underlings talking to the press about it every day. Explain what it’s about and how it would work, all the while putting the screws to those whose votes you need. Then, with all the ducks in a row, come in at the end with a magnanimous “compromise” and seal the deal.

      That’s hard work, but if Obama had been at all serious, that’s what he would have done. And he could have pulled it off, too–I don’t even see that as a controversial position. His popularity was over 60% when he set this in motion, and he did eventually dip his toe into exactly the sorts of things I’m talking about, but he did it at the end, when it was far too late to matter. He and the leadership bribed some Senators, threatened others, even talked to a few of the difficult ones, but it was all at the end, and for the purpose of passing a corporate handout, rather than health care reform.

      Before these paltry, misguided efforts, Obama did basically nothing on behalf of reform for months. He wasn’t even talking to potentially problematic members of congrress. As much trouble as Joe Lieberman has been, Obama never even spoke to him about this subject.

      September offered an illustration of the impact he could have had; he gave that address to congress about health care. While he’d sat on his ass, the teabagger astroturf campaign had spent the summer destroying support for reform (and for Obama), but his popularity was still fairly high when he finally made that speech (one of his only real contributions to the effort to pass anything). A few days before the speech, the CBS News poll demonstrated the damage that had been done. Only 40% said Obama had explained his reform plan; the same percentage approved of his handling of the issue, while the plurality–47%–disapproved. After the speech, 52% approved of his handling of reform, and disapproval had dropped to 38%. Of those who watched the speech, 58% said he had explained his plan.

      Imagine what the debate would have been like if he’d started really lobbying for the bill when the debate on it began back in April and May, and when he was riding high in public approval.

      Instead, he sat on his ass, and, worse, started backing away from the genuine reform elements (he backed away from the “public option” back in August, and now–disgracefully–lies and claims he never even campaigned on it at all). He let the organized interests destroy both the bill and public support for it, then had Rahm “don’t worry about the liberals” Emanuel tell congressional leaders “just pass anything, and we’ll declare victory.”

      “If he had tried, we’d have nothing, and health care reform would be severely delayed, and insurance companies would continue to be able to cut people at will, deny on existing conditions, etc.”

      And now we have WORSE than nothing. I can’t fathom how you can buy the false premise that what has just passed is “reform.” It isn’t. The Senate bill makes everything worse. I hammer on this a lot here, but I’m going to keep hammering on it until you get it through your head. When you eliminate damnable but profitable practices like recision and denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, it will make everyone else’s premiums soar. The Senate eliminated the provision removing the anti-trust exemption the industry has enjoyed for decades, and allows open collusion, price-fixing, and monopolistic practices. In forcing the public to buy health insurance, it’s no different, in any respect, than “reforming” homelessness by legally requiring that everyone buy a home. The subsidies for the poor are hilariously inadequate–they’ll be funneled right back into the coffers of those in congress to ensure no genuine future reform attempts. I am one of the primary targets of health care reform, and it wouldn’t do a thing for me except cost me even more money I don’t have paying a damn tax fine every year because I can’t afford insurance.

      The bill still has to go through reconciliation, but it’s VERY unlikely to be significantly improved there, because those problem-children in the Senate have already made it crystal clear they won’t support it if it is, and the Obama has offered no indication he’s willing to fight for anything worth having.

      “The GOP would be basking in the glow of stopping change.”

      It isn’t about the Republicans; it’s about the health insurance industry, and, as was widely reported earlier this month, it has already declared victory.

      “All that said, the fight needs to go on. Obama needs to actively work for changes in the years ahead, and Congress needs to improve the system. To be a success, this has to be a first step at reform, not a final step.”

      Emanuel’s answer: “Just give us anything, and we’ll declare victory.” And, in spite of the crisis, delay implementation until after we’ve either been reelected or defeated, so we don’t have to deal with it. Absent being forced by a severe crisis, they’ll never touch this issue again. Write it in stone. I don’t see how you (or anyone) could, in good conscience, support making things so much worse than they already are because of a “hope” based on nothing, one that, in fact, contradicts every fact on the table.

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