Obama’s First Year

It’s late January and Scott Brown will be the next senator from Massachusetts, which means it’s time for critical retrospectives on Obama’s first year in office. I’m not going to try my own, but simply point you to two I found worthwhile. One, not surprisingly, is by Ezra Klein, who says this is Obama’s problem:

“Obama’s presidency has tried to show, not tell. He’s not given speeches about how government can work. He’s not tried to change minds about the theoretical possibility of government working. He’s tried to make government work. Winning achievements, not arguments, has been at the center of the administration’s agenda.”

Klein realizes the irony, of course; a president who is doing what we say we want presidents to do–govern–is being stonewalled by a right wing intent on winning the next elections, and sniped at by a left wing for compromising too much and for not scoring enough political points. But, as Klein says, whether the fault is Obama’s, Congress’s, or ours, it’s not working.

The other retrospective is by Nate Silver, who picks up on David Leonhardt’s insight that Obama’s policies have been “politically partisan and substantively bipartisan”–that is, they are extremely centrist in content (center-right, some would even call health care reform, given how much it depends on private insurers), yet perceived as extremely partisan. In Silver’s words, “what Obama has wound up with is an unpopular, liberal sheen on a relatively centrist agenda.” His advice to the administration:

“The best case is when you can simultaneously achieve both a policy and a political victory. More often, especially given the structural constraints imposed by the Congress, you’ll have to settle for one or the other. But I would be very careful about any course of action which concedes victory to Republicans on both levels. Mistakes were made along the way to health care reform, but you’ve paid the political price for health care: now pass the f—ing thing.

“As for the rest of the policies in your portfolio, take an inventory and figure out which have the votes to pass right now (through reconciliation where prudent), which can’t be passed no matter what, and which could be achieved but will require some expenditure of political capital. And then on the other axis, wargame everything and figure which it would be to your benefit to have an extended public debate about (this would almost always be for political theater rather than policy reasons), which you should put up to vote, but as quickly as possible, and which ought not to see the light of day.”

I think this week has shown at least that the administration has decided that real reform of Wall Street is something that they want an extended public debate about; I don’t think they have the votes to pass it. Now they need Tim Geithner to stick with the team–although, in Geithner’s partial defense, the proposal is pretty vague, and there are disturbing hints that the size component will only cap future growth rather than break up the current big banks.

Some of you know that I initially supported John Edwards in the Democratic primary because I thought he was a progressive dressed up in moderate’s clothing. I didn’t support Obama at first because of the opposite reason: I thought he was a moderate (all that talk about bridging divides and moving beyond partisanship) that many people thought was a progressive. (I don’t blame Obama for this; I think it was more people projecting onto him what they wanted to project.) Obviously Edwards would have been catastrophic; had he won the nomination, the most important person in the country would be John McCain’s doctor.

But I’m not particularly surprised by Obama’s first year. I would have preferred a bigger stimulus, but the one he got was a step in the right direction; I would have preferred a different health care bill, but the one he got (almost) was far better than nothing; and I think he has been far too soft on Wall Street, both during the crisis and after. I don’t like Waxman-Markey (I prefer Cantwell-Collins), but it wouldn’t surprise me if Obama went with it (assuming it could pass the Senate, which is a long shot at this point).

This is basically what we voted for, like it or not.

About James Kwak 133 Articles

James Kwak is a former McKinsey consultant, a co-founder of Guidewire Software, and currently a student at the Yale Law School. He is a co-founder of The Baseline Scenario.

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