Sunday, April 3, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Obama’s “Long Game”

Obama's recent decisions respecting Libya invite another iteration of an old argument:  does this guy have a plan or is he just being buffeted back and forth by unanticipated events.  On his inauguration day there was a widespread presumption, and not only among his supporters, that Obama is too smart not to know exactly what he's doing, even when we lack the acuity to see the plan.  So our perception of inconsistency and ineptitude on his part was to be taken as evidence, not of his, but of our limitations.

The class of people still making that presumption is shrinking, but it's far from empty (see, e.g., this piece in which David Brooks detects the wisdom of Obama's Libya policy despite the president's spectacular incapacity to explain himself.).  This (slightly revised) 3/30/10 post grappled with the same presumption in connection with the passage of ObamaCare:

Here’s some more magical thinking about Obama. Paul Waldman thinks that the enactment of ObamaCare shows that, while most everyone else in Washington was distracted by tactical skirmishes, Obama was calmly executing a visionary political strategy:
“That ability -- to see the entire contour of a lengthy political battle -- may be the most important factor in Obama's success. It got him to the White House, and it enabled him to achieve the most meaningful piece of social legislation in generations.

"Remember when August's town hall meetings on health-care reform changed everything? Remember when it all hinged on Max Baucus' ‘Gang of Six’? Remember when Olympia Snowe held the fate of reform in her hands? Remember when Scott Brown's election killed any chance the bill had? At the time, all these things seemed so important that nothing else mattered. But what really mattered was the willingness to look beyond them, to see each as one step in a long journey -- obstacles that could be maneuvered around if necessary. Looking back, none seem as significant as they did then. But it took a particular kind of calm to realize that at the time. ”
Let’s concede that Obama showed commendable determination and surprising tactical skill in getting his signature domestic proposal passed when Democrats around him were losing their nerve in the wake of Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts. But what evidence is there that the year-long battle over health care reform proceeded according to anybody's plan?

Not a lot. Recall that the original idea was to get the whole thing passed by the August congressional recess before the opposition got a chance to find its footing; when that didn’t happen Obama gave Max Baucus a chance to garner some Republican support through the Gang of Six; when that didn’t work he encouraged Harry Reid to make whatever deals were necessary to get 60 Senate Votes; when that didn’t generate an attractive bill Obama set to work brokering a deal that could survive a Conference Committee only to change course yet again when the Republicans secured a 41st vote in the Senate and so on.

By all means, admire Obama’s persistence and the courage he showed by putting all his chips on the table during the decisive hand. But the idea that the passage of ObamaCare proceeded according to some finely wrought master strategy is … well, a little ridiculous. Why do liberal intellectuals like Waldman and (as we saw here) Peter Beinart feel the need, against their better empirical judgment, to invest Obama with magical powers?

That’s a strange thing to do to someone you’re celebrating as a transformational democratic politician, especially when the ability to generate and sustain popular support for a political agenda isn’t one of magical powers you’re attributing to him. The strangeness is underscored by the comparison that both Waldman and Beinart draw between Obama and Reagan. When Reagan assumed the presidency, the marginal tax rate in the top bracket was 70%. By the end of his presidency, he’d managed to convince most Americans, including most liberals, that marginal rates over, say, 40% were a bad idea. The next Democratic president would be telling Americans that “the age of big government is over.” That's the sort of thing that counts as "transformational" in a democratic polity.

Obama chalked up a historical achievement without managing to convince most Americans of much of anything--indeed, the more he talked about health care reform over the last year, the less popular it became. It says something about the present state of liberalism that smart liberals like Waldman and Beinart have already forgotten that.

No comments: