Game of Moans
Obama’s failures in office might be easily explained as the result of a lack of experience, pure and simple. I don’t think there’s much evidence that Obama has ideologically switched gears or has covertly maintained a conservative ideology ever since he gave the keynote address in the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Instead, I think Obama has made pragmatic political choices and compromises at every turn, which has seemingly shifted his ideological goals somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon.
Whether you’re talking about conducting an illegal war in Libya, dragging his feet on Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, his evolving view of gay marriage in general, reenacting the Patriot Act after vowing to stop warrantless wiretaps, failing to end the Bush tax cuts, withdrawing the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, passing a universal health care bill that did not include a public option, his budget compromises or any other of failed promises that Obama once made on the campaign trail, Obama has been stalling or compromising left and right (but mostly in favor of the right).
Someone as idealistic as myself held out hope that a few quick executive orders would have made Obama a vast improvement on Bush. With a few quick signatures, Obama could have closed Guantanamo, ceased “advanced interrogation techniques” (i.e., torture), ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, stopped warrantless wiretaps, and so on. The institutions predictably resisted change and gave a litany of defensive justifications as to why they needed to continue doing what they’ve been doing for the last dozen years. Obama, however, quickly began taking the advice of those institutions he sought to change; he found it expedient to retain the executive power that he promised he would diminish. It’s a lot easier to listen to the CIA telling you that you need the wiretaps and to resign the Patriot Act, ostensibly in order to prevent terrorist attacks, than risk having blood on your hands. It’s easier to resign the Bush tax cuts than risk putting any kind of dent in GDP, “in these difficult economic times” (but when isn’t?). It’s easier to listen to your generals who ask for time to set up the proper institutional structures and culture in place than it is to abruptly end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and stop dreams from being deferred. Sure, these may have been people with more “expertise,” but that expertise necessarily comes packaged with institutional biases and budgets to defend. One is reminded of we have a civilian commander-in-chief: to countermand and temper the potentially overreaching military institution with the rule of law and popular opinion. And one would have thought that Obama’s background as a legal heavyweight would have given him some reason to respect the rule of law, even if inconvenient to him. But then there’s Libya, so who knows what Obama represents anymore.
Obama’s first two years of his presidency was marred with his failure to get sufficient consensus (whether that was congressional consensus or consensus of popular opinion that would put a fire under the congressional asses) to pass key legislation through a Democratically-controlled Congress. Obama’s ideas on the campaign trail appealed to the electorate because they spoke to the median voter’s common sensibilities by identifying broadly popular policies that have long resisted change. However, Obama failed to recognize that median voters are relevant only once (maybe twice) every four years. For the interim period, a president needs to have a caucus of backers and supporters lined up to shore up support against institutionalized interests that have significantly concentrated benefits that vastly outweigh the dispersed costs imposed on median voters. These supporters and organizational support are gained with experience. The concentrated benefits have plenty of experience and know how to mobilize DC’s lobbying firms to ensure that Congress “protects America” from Obama’s agenda of change.
See, e.g., the health care bill, widely acknowledged as primarily benefiting insurers. Obama was faced with widespread opposition from those who most benefited from the status quo (or were afraid of the inertial resistance to change). So Obama cobbled together a Frankenstein’s monster of a bill that sacrificed the public option in favor of political feasibility. Obama’s moves were patently motivated by practicality and legacy, not policy. Obama wanted the political victory; he wanted to pass a bill, regardless of whether or not it was the bill that made the most policy sense. Perhaps he was relying on the belief that any regulatory framework was better than none, that a baseline of benefits could provide the framework for future improvements by later, more cooperative legislatures. However, if that was the case, Obama has failed to heed the lessons of the Framers: when founding any political institution, one has to design with hopes for the best men but prepared to withstand the worst. This health care bill may even prove worse than the preceding status quo. Republicans, once they regain power, may dismantle the benefits, but claim that “universal health care remains intact, we just made it more ‘business-friendly.'” Never mind the fact that “business-friendly” almost always means “consumer-hostile” in an area with high inelasticity of demand.
With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives (which has always been ruled with an iron fist by the majority party), Obama has had to “come to the middle” time and time again, even when he starts at the middle. The Republicans are savvy enough to realize that the average voter only perceives the winner of the game as who blinks first, who causes their opponent to move from their perch, the party whose ideas are “vindicated” by the final results. Obama, having won the presidency by means of the median voter, has little institutional support (even among staunch ideological Democrats) to mobilize his supporters the way the Republicans utilized the Tea Party to their advantage (or eventual ideological breaking point; time will tell on that one).
Ironically, Obama is a pragmatic utopian. He has many, many positions that seem ideologically favorable. But he doesn’t have the political resources to fight all of these fights against institutional and political resistance. So Obama has been taking the “pragmatic” route at every controversial turn. Politically palatable solutions, even if flawed from an ideological perspective, may seem like the kind of policy this country was designed to produce. However, by demonstrating a willingness to make such compromises, Obama has created a perverse set of incentives for his opponents to take such extreme positions that any semblance of a middle has fallen out. Because Republicans (especially of the Tea Party variety) prefer the political tactic of demonizing Obama, there is little to no advantage in working with him; instead, they prefer the narrative of valiant struggle against him. Therefore, so long as they obstruct or deny Obama’s agenda, they have succeeded.
Republican strategy, combined with Obama’s utopian agenda, and relative inexperience in the nitty-gritty groundwork of politics (e.g., mobilizing caucuses and voters through the bully pulpit or otherwise) has caused Obama to compromise even further, thereby undermining his own pragmatic and utopian purposes. It would have been better for Obama to marshall his considerable logical and popular appeal by steadfastly concentrating on a few issue areas where progress can be made. Obama’s notion of simultaneous and widespread change has proven itself a shallow utopia. And like all utopias, this one is presently doomed to elude us.