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December 20, 2009


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I figured we'd always be disappointed. As scary as "Yes We Can" was for the teabaggers who cringe at an America with a black President and a Latina Supreme Court Justice and so on, a lot of the corresponding pent up liberal-progressive agenda and expectations of the last decade rose higher when Obama offered them a nice confection of style and substance that everyone could love without complaining, because the campaign was a performance, and politics is a business of brass knuckles.

Offhand, I'm amused by Dean's antics, but making him a Senator wouldn't really help all that much; Leahy's staff is more effective than the one Dean could build, and Bernie Sanders is a nice counterweight to Lieberman.

I understand a lot of the weird raw rage directed at Rahm Emmanuel, and how people presume that he's somehow letting down the President by pushing a DLC agenda, is a seeecret eevil Clintonite, or whatever it is this week.

But Ezra Klein's original analysis holds: the President pursued a "legislator-in-chief" model in assembling his WH staff with an eye towards getting to 218 and 60 votes, respectively. Which is why Phil Schilero runs Legislative Liaison, and why Emmanuel is CoS.

A lot of the angry people out there seem to have gotten their impression of how politics works from "The West Wing" in which the President is the Prime Mover in some Neo-Platonic scheme. It's also quite striking to see them seek betrayal or cowardice, and to snap so quickly. The President is, and has always been, playing a much longer game than this day, this week, this month.

Yet another way to approach the problem people are having is to think of Obama in contrast to other relatively recent President's first years in office. You campaign for the office for two years, but there's really nothing like it in the world, and even with the best staff and the least challenging domestic and international scene, there's still a hell of a learning curve. In this case, that's made worse by the array of challenges, as well as fact that the opposition has kept executive branch staff below two-thirds total.

I think that a lot of the disappointment with Obama has been that people have tended to project their own hopes and desires onto him. My favorite example has to do with the Thing That We're No Longer Calling The Global War on Terror. He's been busy killing terrorists and trying to win in Afghanistan and otherwise rectify the more disastrous errors of the Rumsfeld Pentagon, and this is exactly what he said he would do in his campaign. But the idiots who were beating their drums on 9/12/01 demanding Stop The War thought that they were in on a big secret. They thought that Obama was lying, telling the rubes in flyover country what they needed to hear.

In the same way, folks are upset that he's not uprooting capitalism root and branch. Even though he never claimed that he would do so, that doesn't stop folks from muttering darkly about how he's turned out to be a tool of The Man.

Seriously, half the disappointment seems to be with folks who thought that they were voting for Dennis Kucinich.

Luke: I didn't mean to convey that I think having Dean in the Senate would make much difference, except inasmuch as Senator Dean would certainly not oppose the current compromise bill.

"Howard Dean isn't a senator" was very confusing shorthand for: "If Howard Dean were a senator, then it would be perplexing if the President would scold him but not Lieberman. Except Dean is not a senator, and Lieberman holds a veto over the whole goddamned thing. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the President would scold a very weak Dean for trying to sink the compromise, and not scold a very strong Lieberman for trying to do the same thing ... even if the President would prefer a stronger bill."

I'm perfectly happy if people are dissatisfied with the President because he is too conservative. There are policy fields (frex, detention, financial reform and China's exchange rate) where I am unhappy with the President because I think he is being too conservative. (I may be wrong.)

My only point above is that health care reform is a field where anything more radical than the bill on the table was impossible, ex post. The Obama-sold-us-out people would shoot themselves in the head if they got their way --- the alternative is the status quo, not more radical reform.

Shooting yourself in the head to spite your face seems to me to be pretty stupid.

So, yeah, of course the President approves of how it's playing out. That's because the President of the United States is not the Tsar ... his actual preferred bill is fairly irrelevant to what we're getting from the process.

I phrased it badly. Honest apologies.

Andrew: there is a sort of useful website, for those who worry about campaign promises. It's at:


Ah, I understand your point re: Dean now. I was pointing towards the new model of the Senate requiring a supermajority, which returns to your earlier veto points problem.

But to return to your question about disappointment with Obama and how conservative, or not, he is, on points of policy, I think that Doug took away from the article that Obama's tendency to reach accommodations with established institutions, and the way that that would disappoint folks looking for "change."

Health Care, I think, is a more interesting case than other campaign promises or policy issues. He did advocate the least progressive, comprehensive plan in Iowa, but the price to Senator Kennedy's endorsement (which tied up Super Tsunami Tuesday, and buffered a lot of the campaign's issues with Hispanics) came at the expense of a commitment to a more expansive healthcare bill and making it a legislative priority. Of course, I'd have preferred this whole process with Uncle Teddy in the mix, but the bill would still have landed more or less here.

Though I'm vaguely worried about the delay in financial reform missing the window of populist rage to lock down the votes for good, thorough reform, given the time it took to get health care done, I doubt it'd have been much better; it's mind boggling that the biggest piece of domestic policy since the Great Society will pass on a party line vote.

And once health care gets signed, the fights to pass Cap and Trade or the House Jobs bill will be even uglier.

I actually wrote a long-ish response to this, which got lost in the ether. Or, more likely, lost because I didn't hit the right button, because I was sitting in that McDonalds in Charles DeGaulle Airport, terminal 2A, sleepless after an overnight flight from Kinshasa.

Briefly, then. Obama is a small-c conservative. This has nothing to do with being a "centrist" (whatever that means in American politics today). Rather, it's that his instincts are incremental, his tactics tip towards avoiding loss rather than doubling down, he takes a long view on policy, and he will never ever let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Three specific examples: DADT, Gitmo, and land mines. All big disappointments for progressives this past year. But what are the odds of DADT's repeal, Gitmo closing (for reasonable values of "closing") and the US joining the land mines convention, by January 2013? I'd say about 90%, 60% and 40%, respectively. (That 40% is astonishingly high, BTW -- I can't think of another plausible candidate in the last three cycles for whom it would be higher.)

Other-other hand, I'd be startled if any of these happened in the next six months, and surprised if they happened within a year. So Dan Savage will continue to be very unhappy.

Chicago: one salient feature of most Chicago politicians is sensitivity to large corporate interests. Arguably this goes back to the days of McCormick, when the Chicago Tribune filled roughly the niche that the WSJ editorial page does today. Whatever the reason, Chicago politicians are acutely aware of these interests, even when they're working against them.

Long view: I do think Obama is the most strategically minded President we've seen since at least Richard Nixon. That said, it's important to keep in mind that he's a relative tyro as a political tactician; a partial term in the Senate (mostly spent running for President) and a few years in the Illinois legislature were, it's true, not great preparation. Native intelligence, a cool head and good advisors can take you a long way; he's not Jimmy Carter. But he's not LBJ either.

I have a tentative working theory that Obama really shines when it's a question of simply stepping back, thinking clearly and adding up the numbers -- i.e., during the Democratic primary race last year. The flip side is, I suspect he's vulnerable to being blindsided by certain types of irrationality. Counting up the numbers doesn't take into account such political phenomenon as "people working against their own self-interest", "people acting out of blind fear, wounded pride, or spite", or just "people behaving like total dicks".

The long view thing is really interesting to watch. Mind, we must beware falling into the Andrew Sullivan trap of attributing every one of his actions to wise brilliant prescient chess grandmaster strategic planning.

Ugh, clunky comment. Still working off a sleep deficit. More perhaps anon.

Doug M.

Looking forward to more, since the idea isn't fully developed; I'd be happy to put it in a guest post, if you can provide a small snappy headshot a la the one's Jussi and I use.

I hope you get home safe. Amma and I have had unplanned overnights, and I have had unplanned overnights. The former are better. Are things so uncertain that you can't get out of the airport and wait for the airlines to contact you?

I have been leery of replying to this, but what the Hell.

It seems to me you are asking two different, albeit related questions:

1) Was this the most progressive health care bill we could've gotten?

2) How has the president disappointed, for want of a better term, progressives?

In order to answer this question, I would like to begin with a quote from Obama about his presidency:

"I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Okay, when you campaign on being a turning point in history, you are going to set your followers up for disappointment; I remember being in Greenwich Village in Election Day, which became a bacchanalian celebration of Change; a good friend was in Hyde Park, which, not surprisingly, was the same. Obama's entire campaign of what Luke referred to as "nice confection of style and substance " was obviously going to disappoint some people. But Obama has no one but himself to blame for that.

Now, turning to health care, I think there are two extreme views playing out: Obama as The Shadow of God on Earth, capable of passing whatever he pleased, and an Obama who sat down in the White House, realized Congress crafts legislation, and decided shucks, he's powerless to influence the Democrats in Congress.

Now, I recognize that the Democrats lack the rigid uniformity of the Republicans (which raises some interesting questions of its own), but as the Prseident, it's undeniable that he is capable of stumping for legislation. Yet poll after poll shows most Americans are unhappy with health care reform. This suggests a few possibilities:

a) It's awful legislation, because it's too radical and progressive.

b) It's good legislation, but the Democratic Party has done a poor job explaining what it's about.

c) It's good legislation, but Americans are too polarized and afraid, and the Republicans preyed on this in a way the Democrats couldn't respond.

Or am I missing another proposal?

So, let me offer a counter-hypo, where the health care "reform" is supported by, oh, 60% of the nation. Would Snowe feel more pressure? Would Lieberman?

How well have the Democrats sold and explained the health care legislation? You ask the average person on the street, and they have trouble explaining. Hell, you ask law school professors who have some cognizance of politics, they are clueless.

Now, as to the public option itself? Well. According to Lieberman and Feingold, among others, Obama wasn't a big proponent of it.
Now is this a case of Obama being a savant and recognizing it wasn't gonna happen? Or was it, as others have proposed, that he didn't care overmuch? And where should we put the deal that the Obama Administration cut with the pharmaceutical industry in the scheme of things?

Here we see a Democrat majority in Congress, with a Democratic president, and the summer sees enormous rallies by... teabaggers, who find healthcare unconstitutional. How did we even get to the point where the Republicans are the ones capitalizing by rage over bailouts for big business?

In short, it looks to me like the administration's been listless, caught alienating progressives, the right, and America's independents.

Finally, on DADT: I would be astonished if it's repealed by 2013. First, it's not gonna be touched next year, whatever promises are being made (despite between 2/3 and 3/4 of the nation supporting its repeal). And once the GOP makes huge gains in 2010... well. And, of course, there's the fact that quite a few people involved in gay rights find this administration little better than Bush. (I don't just mean a few fringe "pajama wearing bloggers", to quote a White House source. I'm talking about some pretty important people in a few gay rights groups, although obviously my perspective might be skewed by knowing more people in civil rights litigation than in, say, lobbying).

Final comment: Andrew Sullivan is a hack.

"Democratic majority," sir. "Democrat majority" is insulting.

You can find poll data to shed light on your hypotheses here. But be warned; consider the fact that support for reform has jumped now that there is a bill. My own personal model of people would expect the numbers to dance as debate continued, which is what happened.

My post, as apparently was not clear, is only about question (1). Question (2) is assumed to be correct; I ask Doug a question about the details at the end, but don't ever pose any doubt about the basic assumption. It seems I am a bad blog-writer.

Clueless law professors are pendejos who have no excuse. The bare-bones of the legislation are not hard to learn about or explain; if they don't know, then they're not interested. Which is fine; the assholery comes from blaming "complexity" rather than disinterest. (Frex: I am currently at a loss as to what's in the House financial reform legislation. Why? Because I will have time to form an opinion when it is more formed, and I am very busy, and I have given what free time I have to health care. No problem there. I am not bullshitting you about complexity.) So go punch your apocryphal professor in the nose.

The confusion of the man-on-the-street is something we can debate ... pointlessly, I would think. That said ...

... your question about a counterfactual world where the bill had 60% percent support is a good one. David Moss of HBS posed the same counterfactual to me last week. My objection, which he found convincing, is that there is a no small amount of empirical evidence showing that presidents have little ability to move public opinion. If you accept that, then you have to change your opinion about question (1). (See below; I have one more thing to add on this question.)

Lieberman and Feingold ... hmm. I don't know what to say. There is plenty of evidence that the President wanted to avoid having the bill die over the public option. We know that Lieberman changed his mind after a meeting in which other Senators say the President voiced his support for the measure. We know that the President publicly voiced support, but said (with five swing senators, including the ones from Maine, vocally opposed) that he would not let the bill go down over that. If you believe that three of the five could be persuaded, more power to you. I have no reason to believe that. In addition, we know that a public option can be introduced in the future fairly easily, perhaps even via reconciliation. No smoking gun, it is true, but to conclude from the above that the President killed the public option is quite a stretch.

In short, you're asking the wrong questions. The President got Democrats in Congress to take big risks on health care legislation, but realized that in a 60-vote senate (something new in American history, Scott) he couldn't get everything he wanted. Fairly simple story, and one not made less convincing by rephrasing it in a sardonic tone.

The right question comes at the end of your post, which is whether the President could have mobilized popular anger to pressure Congress and pass bills. Let's accept, for the sake of argument, the academic findings that additional presidential exhortation absent anything else would not have moved the polls more than they did.

(After all, I watched him on TV on multiple occasions with my high-school-dropout sister and some Army buddies, who seemed to understand perfectly well. You know, I really think that apocryphal professor needs a punch right in the nose. Blau! It will be good for him. Yeah, I'm hoping it is an apocryphal male, because otherwise it is no fun to imagine the nose-punching, however deserved.)

Mobilizing popular anger a la left-wing tea parties strikes me as a very high risk strategy, which seems unlikely to work. Why do you disagree? What would non-listless Administration behavior consist of?

P.S. How about $1200 on DADT by 2013? 3:1 odds sound good? Your own final argument is why I'm so sure of this. It doesn't require Congressional approval, despite the President's (understandable) buck-passing claim.

Heh. And lo, Nate Silver chimes in on this very topic:



Some interesting reading, though he's been wrong before.

" The bare-bones of the legislation are not hard to learn about or explain; if they don't know, then they're not interested."

Oh, I don't know. Tell most Americans the Bill has an individual mandate, and I suspect that'll matter. The fact that quite a few of the Senators involved in the bill have stated they aren't sure what it entails isn't a good sign from the point of view of selling it, either.

And sure, some of the bare-bones are clear. But otherwise? Strong public option? Weak? No public option? Medicare expansion?

Now yes, I suppose the man on the street (Or tax law professor) is lazy, but these are the things you gotta sell it to if you want your legislation to have support.

And it's a female, so feel bad, but tis a female who supports a consumption tax, so feel better.

"In addition, we know that a public option can be introduced in the future fairly easily, perhaps even via reconciliation."

Except it's already been established that if it's introduced via reconciliation, it goes down in flames, no? And the Democrats won't be gaining seats in the next election cycle.

Of course, Obama's stance now is that he never campaigned for the public option.

Obama said the public option "has become a source of ideological contention between the left and right." But, he added, "I didn't campaign on the public option."


So I dunno, man. Lieberman, Feingold, and Obama are now pretty clear on the fact that the President wasn't a big supporter of the public option. Would the 3 senators have been persuadable? I'm not sure we can say "I see no evidence they could have been." After all, enough pork made Nelson accept it, no?

Moreover, if the White House didn't think pressure on those Senators was possible, why was it demanding that progressive groups stop placing ads gainst Senators who were on the fence, regardless of their political party?


"Mobilizing popular anger a la left-wing tea parties strikes me as a very high risk strategy, which seems unlikely to work."

I'm not sure if it would or wouldn't, TBH. But how would it be high risk, exactly? What, will we see millions of more people out in the streets against him over it? I'm not saying I know what the solution is; I mereyl find it amazing that Obama dorpped the ball so thoroughly that the Democrats are the ones perceived as selling out to Wall Street.

"P.S. How about $1200 on DADT by 2013? 3:1 odds sound good? Your own final argument is why I'm so sure of this. It doesn't require Congressional approval, despite the President's (understandable) buck-passing claim."

Sure, I'll take that bet.

Free Christmas advice: never take any bets in the internet.

The very first internet bet that I made was on the prediction that there will still be more Orthodox Christians than Muslims in Finland in 2030. My only hope of winning that would be for the present numbers to remain absolutely steady.

The second one was that there will be a massive, gut-wrenching social change, a "revolution" of sorts in Finland by 2025. Right now, with racism and populism in steady rise everywhere in Europe in the aftermath of the financial crisis, this bet looks promising, but quite frankly, I don't really want to win it anymore.

(Although, given the stated goals of those political movements, odds are that if I win the second bet, I'll win the first one, by default. But, you know, it's not worth it.)


J. J.

This made me smile.

But you shouldn't be stuck with a bet you don't want to win. Can I offer you an out?

Doug M.

Douglas Muir wrote:

This made me smile. But you shouldn't be stuck with a bet you don't want to win. Can I offer you an out?

It's even more problematic. Because, in a manner of speaking, I've suddenly, by chance, found myself in a position where I'm actually trying to ensure that I wouldn't win my own bet.

Considering that, I should probably be recused. But, as an honest man, I admit that there has to be a compensation. What's your address, so I can send you that bottle of vodka? Polish or Finnish brand?


J. J.

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