20120117

Why Andrew Sullivan is Wrong About Obama

Andrew Sullivan has been blowing up the internet with an article about how Obama has outsmarted his critics on the Left and on the Right, by playing a long game that has allowed him to achieve meaningful policy advances without grandstanding or drama. Yet while Obama has achieved policy successes, he has failed to establish the government as a credible force for good. Andrew Sullivan misses the cultural forest for the policy trees. I didn’t want Obama to be FDR; I just wanted him to reverse the worst parts of the Reagan revolution. Instead, at this rate Obama is going to wind up looking more like Richard Nixon than Ronald Reagan.

In Sullivan’s words:

Obama was not elected, despite liberal fantasies, to be a left-wing crusader. He was elected as a pragmatic, unifying reformist who would be more responsible than Bush.

And what have we seen? A recurring pattern. To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.

This is essentially correct. Obama has achieved some notable policy successes, and I for one have greatly enjoyed the frothy fury of the Republican primary, but come November, the election will be over, and somebody will have to govern. And the fact is they’ll do so with a population that trusts the government less than ever before. It’s what David Brooks calls the instrument problem; 10% of Americans trust the government to do the right thing, even as they rely on the government to secure the borders, ensure the safety of food and drugs, and provide healthcare, social security, and unemployment insurance. Suzanne Mettler identifies the problem as the submerged state. Most of the government programs that benefit the middle class are either invisible or run so smoothly that more than half the people who use them don’t think they’re using a government program. If you don’t think the government supports you, why would you support the government?

I’d like to compare two Republican presidents, not on their conservative credentials, but on their legacy. By conventional measures, Nixon is a far better president. He founded the EPA, opened relations with China, unilaterally renounced the development of biological weapons, negotiated the first arms control treaty with the USSR, ended the Vietnam War (eventually), got American off the gold standard, reduced inflation, launched the War on Cancer, and saw American land on the moon. Reagan presided over ballooning budget deficits, used government power to crush the unions, cut taxes only to raise them, ignored AIDS for several years, supervised the Iran-Contra affair, presided over a massive arms race, slashed anti-poverty programs, pushed the war on drugs, and saw the Challenger explode.

Yet for all this, Nixon’s legacy is “I am not a crook,” and Reagan’s legacy is “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’” Sure, Nixon was a paranoid lowlife with the moral instincts of a hammerhead shark, but he led many initiatives which America is rightfully proud of. Reagan’s accomplishments are far thinner, but he was the Great Communicator, and he established a political dialogue that is with us today, an undead ideology that flows through the Tea Party and cripples the ability to govern.

Sullivan thinks that Obama’s opponents will be punished for their carelessness with the truth, but I’m not so sure. Paul Krugman believes that Mitt Romney is running a post-truth campaign, and he’s the most reasonable of the Republican candidates, or at least the least insane. Being elected today requires that you believe a dozen contradictory things before breakfast (to link to Krugman again). I’ve not seen any backlash towards public figures for spouting obvious falsehoods, and even the New York Times is wondering if it should challenge people who lie in its articles.

I supported Obama because I believed that he could articulate a vision for American democracy in the 21st century. I thought that the author of Dreams from my Father, the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote, and the speech on Reverend Wright, would be somebody who could inspire America in the same way that Kennedy and Reagan did. We needed, and still need, inspiration more than any specific policy solution. I believed that roused to action, the American people would find their own solutions to major problems, like healthcare, energy, education, and the war.

Instead, Barack Obama has presided over an ugly and secretive government. It is a government that uses drones to kill terrorists on the other side of the world, while making the absurd claim that “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” (according to senior counter-terrorism official John O. Brennan) despite ample evidence to the contrary. It is a government that has failed to address basic concerns about hidden risks and ‘shadow banks’ in the financial system. And while the rancor and insanity of the 112th Congress is not Obama’s fault, the White House is little better. On the Keystone XL pipeline, and Plan B birth control pill, the Obama administration has given the impression that it does not make decisions based on evidence, or what he believes would be right for the country, but what is most politically expedient. It is a short-sighted tactic that reduces his own credibility.

David Brooks, at the end of his editorial on the instrument problem, says:

“If Democrats can’t restore Americans’ trust in government, it really doesn’t matter what problems they identify and what plans they propose. No one will believe in the instrument they rely on for solutions.”

I do not want people to uncritically trust Big Government, but American has passed the point of reasonable skepticism to the point of political solipsism. Congress is less popular than polygamy, the BP oil spill and Maoism. If Obama cannot restore some basic faith in government, then he will be a failure, no matter how many policy successes he manages.


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