It has been suggested to me that I may want to weigh in on Andrew Sullivan’s big Barack Obama essay and David Frum’s response to it. It will be no surprise that I lean more toward Andrew’s views than David’s. But I have two criticisms of the president that neither of them makes and that I think are crucial to any full accounting of this presidency, mostly favorably disposed toward it though I am.
First of all, though, let me say that Sullivan’s critiques of Obama’s opponents are almost exactly right. I don’t think Frum countered very effectively here by charging that Sullivan was “shooting fish in a barrel.” The fact of the matter is that most of the president’s prominent critics on the right say pretty precisely the silly and content-free things that Andrew accuses them of saying. I mean, you can’t get much more prominent than the man who is (still, even after South Carolina) the presumptive favorite to capture the GOP presidential nomination. Mitt Romney’s attacks on Obama are exactly as inane as Andrew notes: hates free enterprise, apologizes for America, all the rest of it. Choose almost anything, and go as far back in time as you like—the stimulus was socialism, the attempt to close Gitmo was a furtive plan to let hardened terrorists loose on the “American mainland,” and so on. David happens to be in the most rarefied percentiles of conservatives in terms of both policy knowledge and hesitancy at being a stupid demagogue, but he should not confuse his estimable self with his quasi-erstwhile movement.
About the left, I think Sullivan is mostly correct. I’m not really a Glenn Greenwald guy, as Greenwald would, I’m sure, be the first to tell you. His criticisms are often completely valid, but I just take a broader view of Obama’s record. Aside from the civil-liberties arena, I think Andrew is about right that people on the left tended to see in the 2008 Obama a liberal warrior who was never there. (I, incidentally, had him sussed out back in late 2006, when I wrote in The New York Review of Books: “He really is not a political warrior by temperament. He is not even, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal.” Not bad, five-and-change years later.) In addition to overestimating Obama, many rank-and-file liberals overestimated the degree to which the country was ready to embrace a liberal agenda. Some people were saying some awfully silly things in the weeks after he was elected. What I said, also in the Review, was that voters had rejected conservatism but hadn’t necessarily embraced liberalism, and whether they would do so “would depend on what President Obama and the congressional Democrats did with their power.”
Frum thinks they have gone nearly mad with it. His concern that Obama is patiently building some kind of Leviathan state that will swallow initiative and crush freedom seems wildly overstated to me. I see Obama as pretty much a straight-ahead Keynesian at heart, which means that he does indeed believe the public sector should be there to invest in and propel activity when the private sector is laid waste—but also that he believes, as Keynes did, that when the private sector is humming along nicely, less government is called for and deficits should be brought under control.
So of course, administrative law judges are awarding more disability payments to people now. But as the jobless rate drops and people go back to work, won’t the urge to do that—indeed, won’t the number of petitions for such awards—lessen? Additionally, Obama said repeatedly that he wanted the government out of the banking and auto businesses, and for all intents and purposes, out we are. I also see little evidence that Obama (now that the worst of the crisis is behind us) is a spending zealot, and I think that if we do see a second term, we’ll see lower and perhaps far lower government spending as a share of GDP. Any big budget deal with the GOP—a deal the president indicated last summer that he was very willing to make—would be likely to involve at least an implied cap. Likewise on deficit reduction: David, I feel certain that a second-term Obama in a recovering economy will be more likely to please you on this topic than, say, your old NPR Marketplace counterpart, Bob Reich.
Now to my criticisms. Andrew praises Obama’s “long game,” and I can see that, especially with regard, for example, to how he handled the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But many have been the times these last three years when I’ve wished the guy had more of a short game. He can be so obsessed with being right in the long run that he gives up an awful lot before getting there. I think notably here of the midterm elections, when the White House (most people seem to have forgotten this now) did nothing to craft a message. It just studied the polls, decided it was going to get creamed, and let it happen. It was unconscionable not even to try to hold the House, and that wasn’t part of any long game (or if it was, it was an indefensible one). He just froze. Same with appointments, on which Frum has a very fair point.
Obama is sparing to a fault in the fights he picks, and one source of liberal frustration with him that I think Andrew may not have picked up, or may not care much about, is that for all he has accomplished, there is and always will be a feeling among liberals that he should and could have done more if he’d been willing to trade more punches with Republicans. Leaving those Fed seats empty, for example, has been inexcusable.
Which leads (well enough, anyway) into my second criticism of the long game, which is: when Obama holds his hand close to his chest, and holds onto it through three or four rounds of bets, it doesn’t always look like leadership. It often looks like the opposite. I refer here mostly to the debt-ceiling fiasco, the thought of which still gives me hives. Members of the administration say they’ve learned their lesson on that, and let’s hope so. But if Obama wins in November, he is diving immediately back into negotiations with what I presume for now will still be a Republican House. The stakes will be enormous, touching citizens’ lives in numerous direct ways (taxes, budget, possibly entitlements, etc.). The GOP House leaders have out-negotiated him already. They’re two for two, in fact (the spring government shutdown and the debt deal). So that’s an area in which his long game has not served him, or the people, well.
Obviously I hope he wins. As of now I think he will. But winning reelection is just the start. He’ll have four years, and lots to do, and not enough time left to rely solely on the long game.