Real Obama vs. Fantasy Obama

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 12:26 PM EDT

I've long had my issues with Drew Westen, and they're on striking display in an op-ed he wrote a few days ago for the Washington Post. He says Barack Obama made "three crucial errors" after he took office:

Obama’s first mistake was inviting the Republicans to the table. The GOP had just decimated the economy and had been repudiated by voters to such an extent that few Americans wanted to admit that they were registered Republicans. Yet Obama, with his penchant for unilateral bipartisanship, refused to speak ill of what they had done.

....The second mistake was squandering the goodwill that Americans felt toward the new president and their anxiety about an economy hemorrhaging three-quarters of a million jobs a month....Instead of designing a stimulus that reflected the thinking of the country’s best economic minds, he cut their recommended numbers by a third and turned another third into inert tax cuts designed to appease Republican legislators.

....The third way the administration created opportunities for Republican obstructionism will someday become a business-school case study: It let a popular idea — a family doctor for every family — be recast as a losing ideological battle between intrusive government and freedom. In the 2008 election, the American people were convinced that families should never have to choose between putting food on the table and taking the kids to the doctor. They were adamant that neither they nor their aging parents should have to choose between their medicine and their mortgage.

This kind of thing is intensely frustrating. I actually agree with Westen's broad point that Obama should have been more aggressive than he was. And yet, these three "errors" are so ahistorical that they make me crazy. First: Obama had to invite Republicans to the table. When he took office Democrats didn't have a filibuster-proof majority. Second: Obama couldn't get a bigger stimulus. The evidence on this score is voluminous. Whether he wanted a bigger stimulus is an open question, but it's also moot. He just didn't have the votes. Third: universal healthcare wasn't an especially popular idea and the American public was far from adamant that they wanted it. Oh, it polls decently in the abstract, getting roughly 60% support over the past decade, but that's nothing special. It's the worst kind of poll literalism to think this represents a genuine, intensely-held groundswell of support for national healthcare. In reality, it's a tenuous majority.

I really don't understand why people like Westen can't make their critiques of Obama's leadership in a way that takes into account obvious political realities. Not that it would be an easy critique. If you look at past presidents who made big changes, they were mostly surfing on waves that were already cresting: FDR and the New Deal, LBJ and civil rights, Reagan and taxes. Obama just didn't have that kind of wave to ride. It's an open question why he didn't have that — one that I tried to tackle here — but one way or another, he didn't. And while I think Obama has done a poor job as leader of his party, I say that tentatively. The fact is that modern presidents simply don't have the party leverage that some past presidents have had, and Obama in particular simply didn't have a big enough majority to get his way.

As it happens, I think Obama could have done better, and in particular he should have continued pushing for more stimulus in 2009 and 2010 in the form of jobs bills, housing legislation, and less pivoting to the deficit. Still, life in the White House is pretty difficult when you have to constantly concern yourself with getting a couple of Republican votes, or, at best, the 60th most liberal Democrat — especially when the 60th most liberal Democrat is a self-righteous showboat like Joe Lieberman or a Nebraska pol like Ben Nelson. Obama probably had leverage he could have used better, but if that's your criticism, then you need to explain exactly what he did wrong dealing with Congress, not whether he gave precisely the right kind of speeches.