The sound you hear is liberals gagging over the terms of the debt-ceiling deal. Some, like Paul Krugman, are fulminating about Obama selling them out. Others, like Jonathan Chait, are commenting wistfully at what might have been if Obama were a better poker player. Liberal political scientists like Jonathan Bernstein and Matthew Dickinson, are trying to assuage their comrades by persuading them that they had unreasonable expectations about Obama to begin with.
There’s surely a little truth in all of these liberal reactions, but they all leave something important out. Obama may not be world’s most steadfast liberal or its best political card player, and like all presidents, he can’t help being a creature of the political system he’s navigating his way through. But the way things turned out in the debt-ceiling negotiations has something to do with the deterioration of Obama's ideological stature over the last six months.
It’s not easy, probably not even possible, to reduce any presidency to a single ideological theme inasmuch as no president can help sending out mixed messages. But it’s an edifying exercise nonetheless because there's always an ideological forest behind all those public policy and electoral trees. We make global judgments about the success or failure of presidencies by measuring their performance against their ideologically conditioned aspirations.
If I had to put my finger on the main ideological theme of the Obama presidency, I’d go with something like this: with a little enlightened public administration, the political economy can be effectively micro-managed over the short term, and the modern welfare state can be sustained in something like its present form, and even prudently expanded, over the long term; I and the people with impressive resumes I've assembled around me are just the guys to do the job. Forget about the first two years of the Obama presidency. Is that a more or less compelling proposition than it was six months ago when Obama was gearing up for the budgetary negotiations with a Republican House?
When he proposed his budget in February, he was still expecting something like 3% GDP growth and a steadily diminishing unemployment rate. So, gearing up for 2012, it was still possible for Obama to claim a little credit for having pulled the economy out of the ditch where a Republican president had left it. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe wasn’t yet giving U.S. Treasury-holders noticeable jitters. And when Republicans passed the Paul Ryan budget, the public still seemed ready to rebel at the very idea of cutting Medicare benefits. Now everyone can see that, at best, the economic recovery has stalled, the bond market will soon run out of patience with our deficit spending, and the question isn’t whether to restructure and effectively cut Medicare and Social Security benefits, but by how much.
Granted, you can come up with innumerable explanations of these developments that, taken one at a time, don't cast substantial doubt on the main ideological theme of Obama's presidency. Taken together, however, they start painting a picture. Does anybody really think that its main theme (and if you don't like mine, pick your own) is as compelling from anybody's perspective as it was even six short months ago? Can anyone remember a single thing Obama has said in the last six months to make it more compelling?