Answering Molly Ball’s Critique of the President

I was surprised by the strongly-critical tone Atlantic political affairs contributor Molly Ball took in her September 21st column against President Obama’s passivity towards the Legislative Branch.  I agree with her reading of the President’s style–best described as either poker-faced or deferential depending on the institutional context–and I even agree that this can be a politically-dissatisfying approach for a President to take to policymaking which has sometimes produced suboptimal policy outcomes.  I do not, however, think this has been so disastrous from either a political or a policy standpoint as she does.  The statement Ms. Ball took as inspiration for this column was one the President made in a recent interview with Univision:

“…(T)he most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That’s how we were able to cut taxes for middle-class families. So something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people…”

Ball notes that Governor Romney took the statement out-of-context, claiming that the President was pleading impotence.  But she then went on to claim that the President hasn’t learned from his first 3 1/2 years in office about the rough-and-tumble of American politics, particularly about the need for leadership from the Executive Branch: “You often hear Democrats pining for an Obama more in the mold of LBJ — a horse-trading legislative master who got things done by hook or by crook, the opposite of the aloof Obama.  Ugly as it is, this line of thinking goes, you have to play the inside game.  Remaining above the fray, as Obama tends to do, just doesn’t work.  This is one of Romney’s strongest arguments — that rather than making excuses about the other side not being willing to work with him, he’ll find ways to bring Republicans and Democrats together and get things done.  Unfortunately for Romney, he doesn’t propose any concrete ways of doing that, and his track record in Massachusetts, where legislators recall him as removed from the process, doesn’t lend the idea much credence.”

Governor Romney, looking for an angle, scolded President Obama for the confessional admission that “you can’t change Washington from the inside,” asserting that the President has thrown his hands up and concluded he cannot deliver change. Touting his executive experience, Governor Romney claims he will be decisive. Generally in-house Republican grumbling suggests many of his supporters disagree, and his decidedly-weak poll numbers at current suggest that independent voters think there are worse things than a deferential executive.

Ball finds fault with the President, I think, for the right reason; however, I think she darkens the picture considerably, either to highlight a source of Democratic frustration or, perhaps, as an escaped embodiment of her own.  During the 111th Congress, which met from January 2009 to January 2011, the President was able to accomplish most of his 1st term agenda by taking more of a parliamentary rather than a presidential approach to politics.  (By this I mean that President Obama handled domestic policy with his 1st Congress, which was heavily-Democratic, more as the leader of the Democratic Party than as a President with a clearly-separate agenda.)  It’s actually hard to speculate whether this made President Obama’s first 2 years more or less legislatively productive; in terms of his 2 most-controversial and farthest-reaching accomplishments, the $833 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February 2009 and the Affordable Care Act passed in March 2010, his deference towards Congress probably increased the prospects for passage considerably although it brought both items of legislation closer to the center in different ways.  President Clinton probably finally lost his push for health care reform 16 years earlier when he vowed to veto any Congressional proposal that didn’t institute single-payer health insurance; and President Obama had to assuage Conservative Democrats concerned about the expense of the ARRA and the prospect of Federal funding for abortion in the Affordable Care Act to maintain discipline in the somewhat-contentious ranks of his party.  On the other hand, considering the limitations it imposed on both overall expenditure and the strategic nature of capital spending issued under the Stimulus, one could just as easily argue in the case of the ARRA that the President made a serious miscalculation when he left legislative particulars up to Congressional discretion.  Since almost no Republicans supported the legislation in the 1st place, the President probably could have taken his message to the public that only a much larger stimulus (say, twice the size of the ARRA, about what Paul Krugman argued would be needed) could propel our economy back toward positive economic growth.

President Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, heretofore and eternally known as the “Stimulus,” on Tuesday, February 17, 2009 under Vice President Biden’s bemusedly-watchful eye. The President let Congressional Democrats, with a full complement of “Blue-Dog” Conservatives, set the general terms for the size and shape of the ARRA, rather than setting-out clearer terms about what sort of stimulus was needed for the public. After it became clear that the President’s 10-year economic forecast gravely-underestimated the rise in and stickiness of unemployment over the course of that summer, the President did not issue a course correction and call for further stimulus until after his party’s catastrophic losses in the historic 2010 Midterm elections. Associated Press photo by Gerald Herbert.

I’ve encountered arguments that the President is blameless for the political fallout over the weak economy because he couldn’t convince Congressional Democrats to support a larger stimulus; frankly, barring positive evidence I’m inclined to find this argument disingenuous.  It may assuage the ambivalence of some Democrats about President Obama’s political skills and visions (“What’s that? you’re saying the President has failed to balance conflicting political interests and concerns perfectly?!”) but it also denies any potential of the bully pulpit to move Congress the President’s way, especially following a wave election.  George W. Bush was able to shepherd the No Child Left Behind Act, principally written by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the Prescription Drug Benefit (projected 2009-2018 cost: about $720 billion), and about $15 billion in funding for HIV/AIDS treatment for Africa through a Republican Congress; are we to believe that, if Congressional Democrats resist initial proposals by President Obama as too expensive, that is the end of the story?  If the President had taken the bully pulpit and demanded Congressional action on his agenda, Congressional Democrats would be going out on a limb to break ranks.  (President Obama probably had less of a capacity to impose discipline on Congressional Democrats than President Bush did on his Republicans, as Republican party discipline is simply habitually higher and many Democrats in the 111th Congress represented Congressional Districts with a Republican-leaning partisan voting index, but we don’t really know because he tended to let them set the agenda.)  There were other successes in President Obama’s 1st term, of course; in years 1 and 2 there were many.  In addition to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, there was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the additions of gays and lesbians to the groups protected by Federal hate crimes legislation, the successful Federally-led restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler, the Federal takeover of student loans from the banks, Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, and after a deal worked-out with Congressional Republicans in the lame-duck session, the James Zadroga Health Act to provide Federal coverage for the health care needs of September 11th rescue workers who became sick from breathing toxic dust at Ground Zero, new FDA oversight of food safety and hygene practices at American farms, the New START Treaty that established bilateral reductions in our and the Russians’ nuclear arsenals, and the repeal of President Clinton’s failed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” restriction on gays in the military.  In addition, President Obama was able to obtain a 1-year payroll tax cut that gave the average American family about $1,000; this tax cut was extended through 2012 in a later agreement with Congressional Republicans.  Some Congressional Democrats, particularly in the more-progressive House Democratic Caucus, felt undercut by the President; in exchange for Republican agreement to relent on their filibusters (which they did with every active proposal except the somewhat more-controversial DREAM Act) President Obama had to agree to extend George W. Bush’s income tax cuts for the rich and most of his estate tax cut for another 2 years, until the end of 2012.  I for one took the frustration of House Democrats as a good sign: As his party would shortly lose control of the House of Representatives completely, President Obama wasn’t going to let Congressional Democrats set the agenda, and he intended to focus on policy goals that were still feasible and on what his own re-election in 2 years required.  I also saw this deal as a down payment on future cooperation between the President and the House and Senate Republican Conferences. This expectation was largely disappointed, and I’m still not entirely sure who’s to blame.  I remain unsure because there is more than 1 way to interpret the known facts about legislative action over the past 2 years.   We know that in late-October 2010–less than 2 weeks before the Midterm Elections–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) rather stupidly told reporters that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”  If one has any doubt that this was a stupid thing for the Senate Minority Leader to say, note that 1) McConnell didn’t know how well Republicans would do in the Senate elections, and indeed Democrats were able to maintain a diminished majority, 2) soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner told reporters–after House Republicans did fantastically well in their elections–that “that’s the Minority Leader’s opinion,” and 3) Democrats featured McConnell’s declaration of war prominently during the 112th Congress, and in particular during their Convention a few weeks back, as fair evidence that Republicans are more interested in partisan gain than they are in taking any action to address an anemic economy.  Yet whose chamber has given President Obama more headaches?  Clearly, it is the House of Representatives.  Speaker Boehner, who indicated a desire to work with President Obama, agreed to a deal for about $38 billion in mostly-nominal cuts to the unfinished fiscal year 2011 Federal Budget in February 2011; after many House Conservatives balked, the Republican Congressional leadership vowed to fight to cut Federal spending…resulting in about $38 billion in mostly-nominal cuts to Federal spending.  (The Washington Post reported that the final 2011 Federal Budget amounted to about $350 million in actual spending cuts.)  This left Conservatives in Congress, and in particular about 1/2 of the recently-elected “Tea Partiers,” disappointed and increasingly suspicious of their own leadership.  Soon Speaker Boehner promised that he would not endorse legislation “opposed by the majority of the majority”–simply-put, he would not support legislative compromise if it significantly-divided the 242-member House Republican Conference.  Mitch McConnell’s Senate Republican Conference, on the other hand, has often blocked Democratic legislative action in the Senate but has worked-out many significant legislative compromises with the Senate Democratic Caucus as well, and has passed many bills with greater than 80% majorities in the Senate.  While the Senate has been a much less-active chamber than the House, due to its slow-moving, consensus-driven parliamentary rules that tend to defy control by 1 party its members from both sides of the aisle have signed on to more legislation that has actually passed.  The Senate has a more-important role in governing.

Following the Republican Party’s successes in the 2010 Midterms, new House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) took pains to strike conciliatory notes towards President Obama; the President reciprocated. But in the end, probably due to the Speaker’s fear that he would be replaced by the Conservative and restive House Republican Conference, the Speaker has spent most of the 112th Congress trying feebly to hold his party together while pulling the President and the Senate to the right. His “majority of the majority,” however, has proved so undisciplined that it has failed to pass much coveted legislation that could even clear the Senate. The July 2011 deal that raised the national debt limit and cut Federal spending required many votes from House Democrats and split the House Republican Conference, a surprising squeaker of a political victory for Democrats ironically enabled by a Republican faction that was unwilling to compromise. In this episode, the President’s refusal to take a clear stand on deficit reduction allowed him to dodge a political controversy and foreshadowed a small but permanent rise in his approval ratings; judge whether political skill or a lack of resolve was at issue for yourself. Photo from the Speaker’s Congressional website.

Ms. Ball’s dread at the President’s community-organizing strategy may turn out to be misplaced in substance anyway.  On balance I agree that, after everything we have seen from the opposition in the 112th Congress, President Obama should simply move ahead with the brass-knuckle politics.  But what if the President has actually issued a low-key promise to do that?  Consider the end of the notorious statement:

“…You can only change (Washington) from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That’s how we were able to cut taxes for middle-class families. So something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward.”

Now, as Ms. Ball rightly notes with almost audible trepidation, it is strange that the President thinks he got the Affordable Care Act passed because he “mobilized the American people.”  That sounds nice, but I’ll be the 1st to admit that it was the Republicans who “mobilized the American people” (read: a critical plurality of the American public) in opposition to the Affordable Care Act in the months before it was finally passed into law in March 2010.  When he mentions “cut(ting) taxes for middle-class families,” however, he must be referring to the shaming campaign against Senate Republicans who were filibustering the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act for sick Ground Zero 1st responders–along with much of the other business from the 111th Congress–to try to force President Obama to extend George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.  If I understand him right, then what he is proposing to do sounds kinda smart.

He may not be talking about yet-more town hall meetings designed to “start a conversation” that could be appropriated by implacable ideologues; he may simply be referring to the bully pulpit.  If you meet with resistance, make your appeal directly to the people and let them decide who is really trying to get the nation’s business done.  This appeal is always easier for the President to make than it is for the 535 members of Congress.  If a President has political capital to spend and an agenda left to pursue, discrete and well-staged uses of public appeals are a worthwhile expenditure.  Although the President has often taken a deferential role to Congress in the crafting of legislation, when he has given a public address–without discussion–on a timely political subject the response has typically been favorable.  As he will almost certainly still be dealing with a hostile House of Representatives (which now has a damaged reputation), a clear settlement of the 2012 Presidential Election in his favor could leave Congressional Republicans thinking more about their own situation.  Particularly if Republicans descend into the proverbial circular firing squad (again) as they seek to identify (and shame) whatever party elements robbed them of the electoral victory which they seem to think was theirs by right this year, a message-focused President Obama freed from the shadow of further elections would have an unmatched platform for setting the national agenda, at least for a while.  Perfect timing.

If you’ll grant me another cliché: Better late than never…

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One thought on “Answering Molly Ball’s Critique of the President

  1. Pingback: Live-Blogging 2012 Presidential Debate #1: In Denver, with Jim Lehrer | The Liberal Ironist

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