Few things are more difficult in politics than confronting failure and learning from it. It is especially difficult when a leader you have championed, and in whom you have placed your highest hopes, turns out to be less than he seemed.
Such is the dilemma facing liberals in the age of Obama. Barack Obama entered the presidency with his sights and standards very high, and many liberals believed he could be the transformative figure they had been awaiting for generations. But by now it is clear that, by any reasonable measure (including those set out by Obama himself at the beginning of his term), his presidency has been a failure.
Consider the economy. President Obama has overseen the weakest recovery on record. He is on track to have the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era. The standard of living for Americans has fallen more dramatically during his presidency than during any since the government began recording it five decades ago. As of this writing, unemployment has been above 8 percent for 38 consecutive months, the longest such stretch since the Great Depression. Home values are nearly 35 percent lower than they were five years ago. A record 46 million Americans are now living in poverty.
The economist Michael Boskin has listed some of the post–World War II records set during the Obama years: among them, federal spending as a percentage of GDP at 25 percent, the federal debt as a percentage of GDP at 67 percent, and the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP at 10 percent. The United States has amassed more than $5 trillion in debt since January 2009, with the president having submitted four budgets with trillion-dollar-plus deficits. (Prior to Obama, no president had submitted even a single budget with deficits in excess of a trillion dollars.) In addition, government dependency, defined as the percentage of persons receiving one or more federal benefit payments, is the highest in American history.
Add to this the fact that the president’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is among the most unpopular major domestic policies passed in the last century; and that the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, widely known as Obama’s stimulus package, is so unpopular that his aides have virtually expelled the word stimulus from their lexicon.
The president’s critics are eager to offer their explanations of his shortcomings, but what can his supporters say?
Three new books, each by authors favorably disposed to Obama, attempt to explain the declining arc of his presidency. Noam Scheiber’s The Escape Artists (Simon & Schuster, 368 pages) and David Corn’s Showdown (William Morrow, 432 pages) offer a behind-the-scenes look at the Obama White House. Scheiber focuses exclusively on the president’s economic team, and Corn covers everything from debt-ceiling negotiations to the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the third book, Overreach (Princeton University Press, 248 pages), presidential scholar George C. Edwards III provides a more academic and detached analysis of Obama’s failures and tries to put them in perspective.
Taken together, these books offer a sense of what the president’s champions and defenders think has gone wrong, with Scheiber and Corn in particular beginning to suggest how liberals will rationalize Obama’s first term should his failures prove fatal to his securing a second.
First, these supporters of the president accuse him of the same sin they themselves committed: expecting too much from Barack Obama. Scheiber writes that there was a “strain of messianism” in Obama, a “determination to change the course of history.” When soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told president-elect Obama that his signature accomplishment would be preventing a Great Depression, Obama said, “That’s not enough for me.”
“If you don’t do that,” Geithner responded, “nothing else is possible.” Obama repeated, “Yeah, but that’s not enough.”
The problem, in Edwards’s view, is that Obama did not enjoy an especially favorable environment for making major changes in public policy. His victory in 2008 was impressive, but it did not mark an ideological turning point in America. “The president proposed sweeping policy changes in an environment characterized by high levels of concern about the expansion of government, fiscal responsibility, government spending, and the rapidly expanding federal deficit,” Edwards writes.
More fundamental, Edwards argues, is that Obama fell into a trap that ensnared many past presidents: He overestimated his own influence. “Presidents cannot reshape the contours of the political landscape to pave the way for change,” Edwards insists. Obama thought he could be an exception to that rule, and the results are an alienated public and a significantly weakened Democratic Party.
Obama’s second mistake, we are told, was a kind of mirror image of the first: Having set ambitious goals, he denied himself the means to achieve them. He laid out broad liberal agendas but was then too timid to pursue them through concerted liberal policymaking. In this telling, the almost-$800-billion stimulus package Congress passed in February 2009 was roughly $1 trillion too low. The administration failed to prepare the ground for another substantial round of spending or make the case for Keynesian economics more generally.
The cause of this problem, according to Scheiber, was the “West Wing’s preoccupation with the deficit.” We learn from one top administration figure that “the president really hates the deficit and wants to deal with the long-term problem.” Too many of his economic advisers—among them Geithner and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag—shared this deficit obsession. The heroine combating these misguided spendthrifts was Christina Romer, the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, who “stood alone among Obama’s top economic officials in resisting the preoccupation with deficits.”
Among the errors the White House committed, Scheiber writes, is that it “based its strategy…on the political and economic imperative to cut the deficit, when in fact the imperative was to boost the economy.” He insists the two are mutually exclusive and that Obama chose the wrong one. So, in Scheiber’s telling, the president was too fiscally responsible for his own good. Who knew?
A third problem plaguing Obama, in the views of all three authors, is that the president has been simply too pure of heart, too reasonable, and insufficiently ruthless to enact his agenda. For example, in his failure to close Guantánamo Bay, Corn writes, “Obama never figured out how to counter and overcome demagoguery from both parties.” He is “unwilling to go for the cheap political point,” Obama’s top political aide, David Axelrod, is quoted as saying. “He cares more about the larger result and that’s antithetical to the gestalt of Washington. We take a lot of hits for that.”
Obama, we further learn from Corn, is a “consensus seeker, even when confronted with ferocious political and ideological opponents.” Axelrod and other White House aides “were proud of Obama for placing policy and concern for struggling citizens ahead of politics and partisan demands.”
“You’re too nice,” Joe Hansen, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, reportedly told the president at one meeting.
According to Edwards, meanwhile, Obama “wants to transcend partisan distinctions, rather than make them permanent.” To Scheiber, Obama is a “fierce anti-partisan” who “shunned ideology,” considers partisanship “parochial” and “corrupt,” and has a “real hunger for a more redemptive form of politics.”
“Against all evidence to the contrary, the president was still determined to show that Republicans could be reasoned with,” we read in Scheiber’s book. “It would be a troubling omen of things to come.”
Too ambitious yet too fiscally conservative; too reasonable and nice—these are the essential outlines that emerge from three liberal portraits of Obama as president. How could these outlines be so different from the public perception of the man? Here we come to Obama’s fourth major problem: his failure to communicate.
Corn informs us that after the 2010 midterm debacle, Obama and his advisers “readily acknowledged they had flopped as marketers.” The president and his strategists “were repeatedly bested by the Republicans in the struggle to control the political narrative of the moment.” In his conversations with advisers, Obama “acknowledged that the broader narrative had been lost.” One Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee strategist told Corn, “We had no economic narrative.” Axelrod added, “We were so enmeshed with trying to solve some significant challenges that we didn’t get to tell a story in the first couple of years.”
In a meeting with key advisers, Corn writes, a befuddled Obama asked: “Why was it so much easier during the campaign to drive the message? We did it every day and it got through.”
Hailed by some during the campaign as the greatest orator since Lincoln, Obama cannot sell to the public his remarkable achievements, we are now asked to believe.
Some of these critiques are plausible. Edwards, for example, provides historically informed, data-driven arguments to fortify his claim that Obama overreached in attempting to impose an ambitious liberal agenda on a center-right nation. Then Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously articulated the Obama strategy when he said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” But the public was less malleable and persuadable than Obama and his top aides believed. His victory in 2008 was not a mandate for wholesale change.
The other explanations for Obama’s failures are simply wrongheaded, however. The charge that the stimulus bill was not large enough is strangely beside the point. It was a failure because of its very design. Less than 15 percent of the stimulus was spent in fiscal year 2009—and only about 5 percent of the money appropriated was intended to fund items such as roads and bridges. Even Obama later chuckled that his much-hyped “shovel-ready projects” were “not as shovel-ready as we expected.” The bill actually served as the legislative embodiment of a 40-year liberal wish list. Had it been twice the size, it would simply have included more wish-list items.
The stimulus package was based on a flawed economic theory called the multiplier effect, according to which a dollar spent by government increases consumer spending by far more than a single dollar. A January 2009 report by Romer and fellow Obama economic adviser Jared Bernstein predicted that the $800 billion stimulus package would hold unemployment at 8 percent or lower. (Unemployment has been at 9 percent or above for 28 of the 39 months of Obama’s presidency, and not once during his tenure has it dropped below 8 percent.) An even larger bill along these lines would have been equally ineffectual.
And still other explanations are just plain silly. The portrait of Obama as upholding the highest standards of civilized public discourse—a reluctant political warrior, a nonpartisan, technocratic, and pragmatic consensus-builder—is belied by the plain facts of the president’s words and actions.
Obama has routinely used rhetoric that is, by presidential standards, hyper-partisan and splenetic. He has accused Republicans of being members of the Flat Earth Society, of being “social Darwinists,” and of putting “party ahead of country.” He has portrayed them as cruelly indifferent to the suffering of autistic and Down syndrome children and the elderly. And as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel has pointed out, the administration has gone so far as to engage in implicit intimidation and threats against private citizens in order to frighten them away from giving money to Mitt Romney. To believe that Obama is at heart an irenic, unifying political figure requires an almost clinical level of self-delusion.
As for laying the blame for Obama’s failures on a communications problem, that is the usual refuge for all White Houses that find themselves buffeted by events. “If only we made our case louder, more often, and to more audiences,” the thinking goes, “the scales would fall from the eyes of the public.” But this, too, is a species of self-delusion. Holding this view is more a source of Obama’s failures than an excuse for them.
In assessing the unpopularity of his health-care reform, Obama offered this explanation: “I totally neglected how to get the public informed….I have to get more involved in crafting my message—in getting across my core concerns.” Yet, as Edwards documents, the White House was highly aggressive in its public advocacy for reform. In the summer of 2009, for example, it was “all Obama, all the time,” in the words of the Washington Post. He tried several public-relations offensives. In fact, the president was “so active in advocating health-care reform in September that some commentators suggested he was in danger of overexposure,” according to Edwards. But nothing seemed to work. The more Obama spoke about his health-care plan, and the more the public knew about it, the less popular it became.
In fact, rather than an insufficient focus on “messaging,” it seems that the Obama White House has put far too much emphasis on telling stories to the public. In October 2011, in an interview with Emmett Miller of BET, the president was asked what he would have done differently in the last three years. The first thing Obama said was that if he had had “better information,” he would have better prepared the American people for how difficult the recession would be. And then Obama said this:
The other thing that you know as I reflect on it is that in the first year or so we spent a lot of time just doing the right thing and not worrying about selling what we were doing. And I think that the more you’re in this office, the more you have to say to yourself that telling a story to the American people is just as important as the actual policies that you’re implementing. And they’ve got to have a sense of where it is that we’re going to go, particularly during hard times.
No one serving in the West Wing should dismiss the importance of effective communications. But for Obama to make the narrative co-equal to a governing agenda is astonishing.
The American people are not like chained prisoners watching shadows on the wall. They are able to distinguish illusion from reality. They can distinguish between stories and policies. And they are quite willing and able to judge their political leaders based on objective outcomes rather than on narratives and wordplay.
Even now, though, Barack Obama doesn’t seem to understand that, nor do his supporters.
All of this suggests that Obama and his supporters will have a great deal of trouble learning from the mistakes of these four years. They are more likely to see in Obama’s failures confirmation of their low view of the public.
Perhaps the most unattractive personality trait that emerges from the various descriptions of the president is that he constantly feels underappreciated and is prone to bouts of self-pity. Obama complained that “events had conspired against him,” we read in Showdown. “He would routinely note that he had been handed ‘a real shitty deal’ when he entered the White House.” Prior to the 2010 election, a former senior White House official recalls to Corn: “The world seemed to be going to shit. The president was doing his best, but it was impossible to get credit.”
A senior administration official lamented that, in Corn’s words, “being responsible for preventing adverse consequences was [a] lonely duty in Washington.” The president and members of his economic team “believed they had not received sufficient credit for having passed a variety of modest-sized job measures.” In speaking about the business community, Obama complained:
“I saved these guys when the economy was falling off a cliff. Now I get nothing but their venom.”
And Corn relays an even more extraordinary episode: “We’re losing white males,” Obama said to a private gathering of labor leaders. “Fed by Fox News, they hear Obama is a Muslim 24/7, and it begins to seep in….The Republicans have been at this for 40 years. They have new resources, but the strategy is old.” This line of thinking is something conjured up in a Manichean, make-believe world. One gets the sense that Obama really believes it, and that he is not alone.
Corn and Scheiber’s books in particular are most illuminating not in the reporting they do, the internal documents they cite, or the critiques they offer, but in the window they provide into the psychological state of liberalism in the Obama era.
We know that Americans are tired and pessimistic, that the economy is weak, and that the president and his policies are unpopular. To explain this, Obama and his supporters offer the policies of his predecessors, Wall Street greed, acts of God, just plain bad luck, and of course the malevolence and obstructionism of the GOP. What they cannot abide is the possibility that liberalism itself has failed.
For the first two years of his presidency, Obama had his way with the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the GM-Chrysler bailouts, “cash for clunkers,” financial regulations, release of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, credit-card price controls, the endless extension of jobless benefits, and more. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Mr. Obama has been the least obstructed president since LBJ in 1965 or FDR in 1933.”
The results have been parlous for the country and created cognitive dissonance for progressives. The election of Obama was supposed to be a liberal apotheosis. Democratic strategist James Carville proclaimed his belief that the changes wrought by that election would “guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.” Capturing the spirit of the left, the theorist Michael Lind said: “The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.”
No Fourth Republic has emerged. Carville’s prediction of a 40-year majority fell 38 years short. And liberalism has not supplanted conservatism. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans described their views as conservative last year, 35 percent as moderate, and only 21 percent as liberal. This marked the third straight year that conservatives outnumbered moderates—and after more than a decade in which moderates mostly tied or outnumbered conservatives.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans picked up more House seats than in any election since 1938 and controlled more seats than they had since 1946. In addition, Republicans picked up more than 720 seats in state legislatures, the most in the modern era. The GOP has not enjoyed this much power in state capitals since the 1920s. To be a Democrat in the age of Obama is a dangerous thing.
If Obama goes on to lose his bid for reelection, it would be yet another crushing blow to liberalism. And in reading these books, it is hard to avoid the impression that the effort to explain a 2012 defeat is already under way.
“Obama ran for president because he believed there was a confluence of problems that were a long time in the making, a consequence of rapid changes in communications, technology, and the economy,” Axelrod is quoted as saying in Showdown. “And the real question was, Are we mature enough as a country to deal with that in a way that works for most Americans?”
Axelrod then summed up the case for Obama: “This may not be entirely satisfying, but he believes his highest responsibility is to get things done.” Axelrod’s own job, as he understands it, has been to “find a way to convey this, to politically monetize character.” He added, “It’s not entirely apparent you can do that.”
If the president loses in November, the left, ever in search of narratives, will settle on this one: Barack Obama was simply too good for America.