Obama and His Discontents

David Brooks writes today that all the old left-right wars are back in full swing even though we were all promised differently back in 2008:

The country had just elected a man who vowed to move past the old polarities, who valued discussion and who clearly had some sympathy with both the Burkean and Hamiltonian impulses. He staffed his administration with brilliant pragmatists whose views overlapped with mine, who differed only in that they have more faith in technocratic planning.

Yet things have not worked out for those of us in the broad middle. Politics is more polarized than ever. The two parties have drifted further to the extremes. The center is drained and depressed. What happened?

History happened. The administration came into power at a time of economic crisis. This led it, in the first bloom of self-confidence, to attempt many big projects all at once. Each of these projects may have been defensible in isolation, but in combination they created the impression of a federal onslaught.

Given Brooks’ temperament and policy preferences, I’m not surprised that he’s discouraged. Still, I really don’t understand his basic complaint here. It’s true that Barack Obama has a cautious, pragmatic character, but he was also pretty clear during the campaign about what he wanted to do. Let’s roll the tape: Healthcare reform. Climate change. A drawdown in Iraq. A stimulus bill. A surge in Afghanistan. More drone attacks in the AfPak region. Ending DADT.

And what has he devoted most of his time to? Healthcare reform. Climate change. A drawdown in Iraq. A stimulus bill. A surge in Afghanistan. More drone attacks in the AfPak region. Ending DADT.

He’s also added financial reform to that list, which didn’t get a lot attention in 2008 for the obvious reason that we were right in the middle of a financial meltdown and it was too early to figure out what needed to be done on that score. But under the circumstances, surely Brooks doesn’t begrudge a focus on this? And surely he doesn’t think that it could have been put off much longer than it already has?

Not really. His real complaint, apparently, is this: “Each of these projects may have been defensible in isolation, but in combination they created the impression of a federal onslaught.” But I don’t think that’s true. Remember: Rick Santelli’s famous tea party rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was broadcast 30 days after Obama’s inauguration and the movement was in full swing a couple of months later. There was no “federal onslaught” at that point, there were just a bunch of smallish things working their way through Congress plus two big ticket items that Obama was pushing hard for: the stimulus bill and healthcare reform.1 The first — compromised in size and including plenty of tax cuts — was, surely, something that no responsible president could have avoided and that any responsible opposition should have accepted. The second was the cornerstone of Obama’s campaign, and it was — by a good margin — the most moderate healthcare overhaul that any Democratic president had ever proposed.

So yes: the impression of a federal onslaught was “created.” But beware the passive voice. It was created very deliberately by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Republican opposition. Which is fine. That’s their role. But they created it not over an “onslaught,” but practically before Obama had even done anything. The only way for Obama to have avoided this fight, then, would have been to almost literally give up his entire domestic agenda. And even that probably wouldn’t have done it.

The nature of the opposition to a liberal domestic agenda was always clear, and there was never much Obama could do about it. If you don’t like that agenda, that’s fine. But it’s wrong to pretend that the hysterical opposition it’s produced is somehow uniquely Obama’s fault. It was inevitable from the day he was elected, and its source has always been perfectly clear.

1The Waxman-Markey climate bill passed the House in June, but then stalled and went nowhere for the next year. It never got the kind of attention that healthcare or the stimulus did.

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