Balkinization  

Monday, April 29, 2013

It’s time for liberals to stop making excuses for Obama

Mary L. Dudziak

Sandy Levinson took Maureen Dowd to task for her column last week, “No Bully in the Pulpit,” which criticized President Obama for failing to pull the votes together to get the gun control bill through the Senate.  “Now it's Maureen Dowd who can't connect the dots,” he said. 
She thinks he should have played hardball with the holdout Democrats and attempted to recruit more Republican support.  In particular, he shouldn't have left the cajoling up to Joe Biden.  For her, it's always personalities, and never structures, that explain the American political system.  So she's my latest candidate among Times' columnists who simply cannot connect the dots between political outcomes and the structures established in the Constitution.
For Sandy, “the egregious outcome is best explained by our egregious Constitution and the allocation of voting power in the Senate.”

Sandy is, of course, right that structure matters.  But Dowd is also right that a president’s effectiveness in using the powers of his office also matters.  Other presidents have faced structural barriers to achieving their goals.  Some presidents have been more successful than others at moving forward in the face of opposition. Structure alone does not determine political outcomes. 

The more we explain away failures during Obama’s presidency as the inevitable consequence of political structures, the more we put off an urgent analysis of the failures of the president himself.  And the more we put off the political work that liberals and progressives need to engage in: marshaling our own efforts against a president we once supported. 

We have a liberal president who has used his powers to institutionalize and legitimize targeted killing, but who was unable to use a powerful political moment – the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings – to get gun control through the senate, who has escalated the rate of deportations, and who is silent as prisoners appear to try to kill themselves at Guantánamo, a prison he promised to close.  With no substantial push-back from the left, the direction of compromise is of course toward the right.  And so, if we are to focus on structure, the absence of more powerful progressive opposition becomes its own feature of the broader political structure.  As liberals remain hopeful and wait, the only meaningful political push-back is from the right.
   
In his second term, Obama won’t need to worry about electoral consequences, of course, but he should be worrying about his legacy.  It won’t be long after the 2016 election that we will turn to assessing the Obama presidency.  At that point, we will tally up the successes and the failures, of which gun control is surely one.  But the time for liberal and progressive pundits and intellectuals to voice their disappointment in this presidency is now, when a chorus of criticism from formerly loyal supporters might serve as a wake-up call before this truly becomes a lame-duck administration.  It’s time for liberals to stop making excuses for Obama, but instead to hold him accountable.

Comments:

I am, given my politics, mostly glad that Obama is so incompetent at everything except actually getting elected. He could have caused much more damage by now were he not.

But I think I have to defend him, in a sense, on his failure to get gun control through the Senate. It was, essentially, a hopeless task.

Bill Clinton, who whatever I may think of his morals, was considerably more competent than Obama at the actual task of governing, just barely got the '94 'assault weapon' ban through Congress, at a time when the gun control movement was much more powerful, still bloated with foundation money. It is no surprise that gun control failed now, where it's movement has been defunded, and public opinion, (Despite some deceptive polling) has shifted my way. It was just political reality.

Other than that, I don't know why you'd be surprised by anything about Obama, except that you had your ears clamped shut, and were going "neener neener!" for all you were worth, during the election. It's not as though there was any reason to think Mr. "Present" was going to be any different from this.
 

What is the bigger threat here, "put[ting] off" consideration of structural problems or "put[ting] off" consideration of the competence of Presidents? If political commentary was dominated by talk of structural determinism, I would be much more sympathetic to your argument. But much more pervasive, it seems to me, is the thought that, if we could just elect the right President, our situation would improve dramatically. What I take to be Sandy's point is just that this hope for a Hero in Chief has become a serious distraction. Of course Presidents matter. But is what one should take away from the Obama presidency that Obama is not the hero we thought he was, or that Presidents do not matter as much as we (or at least some) thought? I go more with the latter than the former.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

President Obama has shown his abilities as a President in various ways and those with ideological differences understand he is not "so incompetent" except to be elected.

For instance, he was not "incompetent" at ending DADT. But, Brett's selective libertarianism doesn't keep track of such things. Obama helped pass a range of legislation. But, Brett is so focused on guns, Clinton's passage of a limited gun law is much more important to him.

This failure to see the forest for the trees is present in critics on all sides, which perhaps justifies my focus on one person. He's just representative.

Looking at the things passed, the level of opposition (major Great Society programs were passed with less than 60 votes in the Senate) and the ideological make-up (liberal Republicans were not the way of the dodo in the past) brings forth a perspective here.

We don't have "liberal" President on various issues. We have a centrist one, particularly on economic and national security matters. But, what special alchemy is supposed to occur to get gun regulation passed in the face of a filibuster (ignored by the post) and a Republican House. BTW, who controlled Congress in 1994?

On Gitmo, not only were many people shipped out, but Obama repeatedly tried to close it and try more in the U.S. Congress blocked him. What in the heck does the author expect him to do there?

Liberals have criticized his national security policy. It is just unfair to expect miracles. As to electoral consequences, the head of the Democratic Party has things to worry about. But, Obama is not the prime minister. He is not a dictator. The people to blame for not passing the gun legislation is more the Senate, which did after all pass it with a majority vote, in one case 58-42 and though we cannot know for sure, I doubt with a simple majority it would not pass.










 

"On Gitmo, not only were many people shipped out, but Obama repeatedly tried to close it and try more in the U.S. Congress blocked him. What in the heck does the author expect him to do there?"

First of all, Obama did not try to close Gitmo in a real sense; he sought to move its prisoners to the U.S. to remain imprisoned without due process.

What can Obama do? Obama took an oath to uphold the Constitution. He can announce that the Constitution takes priority over congressional enactments, and the Constitution precludes him from denying any person liberty without due process of law. Therefore, he will immediately either put on trial or free the prisoners at Guantanamo. He can tell Congress that it may impeach him for obeying the Constitution if it wishes.
 

I lean towards Prof. Levinson in this debate. Obama certainly has failings and his presidency is disappointing in light of what seemed possible in 2008. Clinton's presidency was disappointing in many ways too.

And it's that similarity to Clinton which leads me to identify structural issues as more important. Equal representation in the Senate, gerrymandering in the House, and other factors serve to block the policies a majority of Americans actually want. The fact is, we don't live in a republic, we live in an oligarchy, and the reasons for that are structural.

Yes, at the margins Obama could have done much better. But real long term progress requires the structural change which will support that progress. Changing the structure changes the probability of future success so we don't have to worry so much about the strengths and weaknesses of individuals.
 

First of all, Obama did not try to close Gitmo in a real sense; he sought to move its prisoners to the U.S. to remain imprisoned without due process.

Actually closing a prison is not "real" since the prisoners (at least some of whom are detained legally) will be put elsewhere?

Those detained will have "due process" [it is also likely a federal prison in let's say Illinois has stricter rules per the Insular Cases, putting aside it is easier for lawyers, family members and others to have access] and Obama rejected the House national security bill which would have provided less. He also sought to try even KSM in NYC.

Why this continual selective concern of actual facts?

Therefore, he will immediately either put on trial or free the prisoners at Guantanamo.

As a one man "I am the Constitution" he would override acts of Congress regarding rights of detainees that the courts have not clearly determined even exist yet, including regarding the power of the purse. This furthers his oath to uphold the Constitution.

Just letting them go, including people likely dangerous while being blocked by treaty obligations not merely to send them back to places they might be abused (or he can just let them go with some money and a backpack in NY or something, I guess), is both unrealistic and irresponsible.

He can tell Congress that it may impeach him for obeying the Constitution if it wishes.

This sort of let the heaven fall stuff sounds fun and all, but in the real world, it isn't how things actually work. But, like some, Obama is put to this unattainable standard others were not.

Anyway, I don't know what seemed possible in 2008. Given the limited results of the Clinton Presidency, the end of DADT, his support of GLBT people, health care legislation that will help the well being and at times save the lives of lots of people alone made things worth it. And, there are other things. I didn't expect miracles from Obama. I expected he was a middle of the road moderate, not my first choice though better than the other realistic available options. I honestly don't know what people really expected. Seems more faith based at times.

Leave the miracles to the hockey rink
 

Lyndon Johnson story: Wichita Falls was dragging its feet on integration. So one day, Lyndon phones the mayor and says, "Tom, do y'all really want to keep Sheppard (Air Force base)?"

So: this one is old and unsourced and probably didn't happen, at least not in the exact way it is recounted. But the point remains: sometimes a President has to use his power.

Now: Obama has stood up and used his power. DADT, Libya, health care reform, dead bin Laden; he doesn't just phone it in. But: he didn't do it here. There were things he could have done on gun control. Yes it is a mistake for liberals to pretend otherwise.
 

I object to the premise of this entire argument.

President Obama is not a liberal. He is a moderate/very-slightly-left-of-dead-centrist who, given the restricted choices available in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, was substantially the less-bad choice. That, however, does not mean that he is obligated by some form of intellectual honesty* to pursue an agenda that differs from the one he presented during the campaign... which was, in the cold harsh light of actually reading his bloody speeches, a centrist dream. Just try reading some non-US papers for their evaluations of what's going on!

Merely because Obama's politics do not get the approval of the William F. Buckleys and Pat Buchanans of this world does not make him a "liberal."

All of that said, I think Obama's primary failing has been related to GITMO... but there are institutional pressures there that (as a former military officer attached to the intelligence community) I expected would cause at least some retreat from his very welcome rhetoric on GITMO. Bluntly, I see violating the Geneva Conventions as a sign of weakness, and not something we should be aspiring to.

* Presuming, of course, that "intellectual honesty" and "partisan politics" can ever appear in the same essay, let alone the same policy statement.
 

Obama did not use his "power" to end DADT. As he did with health care, as well as the rest of his legislative agenda, he delegated the heavy lifting to the Democratic Caucus and advocacy groups.

If you watch the HBO documentary "The Strange History of Don't Ask Don't Tell" you will see that he refused to invoke his authority to end DADT through an executive Order. Supporting legislation is not the same as being responsible for enacting it into law.

Obama has failed at virtually everything he had promised to accomplish, including health care reform, which has been now delayed by at least a year due to his administration's gross incompetence in its implementation.

It's time for liberals to recognize the fact that their emperor is not wearing any clothes.
 

Top military officials spoke in support of ending DADT, part of the very big institutional efforts that advanced things here, just one way "the Democratic Caucus and advocacy groups" alone did not do the "heavy lifting."

Since legislative policy was at issue here, a permanent end would come by legislative action. Failure to do some very activist liberal thing yet again is exaggerated to be "virtually nothing." If we want to appeal to authority, I weekly watch the show "Gay USA," and the hosts do not pretend Obama has done "virtually nothing" on this issue.

Various aspects of ACA has been in practice since the beginning. You know, the major health reform that no President was able to sign in to law as far back as the TRUMAN administration.

I find this whole thing particularly annoying since on various issues, I am to the left or more libertarian than the President. I am not some Obamabot. But, such poorly reasoned stuff that would make Lincoln and FDR also "emperors with no clothes," is so damn tiresome. Actual change requires perspective. Some people simply don't have enough of it.
 

"There were things he could have done on gun control."

What? He is currently doing various things using executive control over enforcement and other things. He used the bully pulpit and very sympathetic voices to push for it. What could he have done exactly to get Republicans in the Senate and House to pass the legislation? The four Dems that voted against it were not the deciding votes.


 

I am a libertarian conservative and thus the antithesis of a progressive, but I would offer two observations from outside the fishbowl:

1) Progressives still smart from being blamed for losing the Vietnam War and thus being assumed to be incompetent to serve as a wartime CiC. This is why there were large bipartisan majorities to enact the AUMF/declarations of war and the Patriot Act and why Obama has adopted nearly all of the Bush war policies. Obama DOES NOT want to get blamed for losing Afghanistan.

2) Obama owes the fact that he is the second most successful president of the left after FDR to the fact that he enjoyed a Democrat supermajority in Congress to enact legislation and did everything else through executive order or bureaucratic regulation using the TARP and later "stimulus" slush funds. However, Obama has proven completely inept at enacting policy in a divided government because he refuses to engage in the necessary stroking, bribing and arm twisting to obtain the Congress critter votes he needs. Instead, Obama spends his time giving counterproductive speeches attacking those Congress critters.

Obama treats governing as a form of community agitating and this is by intent. When he started his political career and campaigned as a fusion candidate of the Democratic and socialist New Party, Obama gave an lengthy interview to a minor Chicago paper, allowing them to attend one of his Alinsky-style training sessions for ACORN and then opining at length about his theories of governance. The Illinois senate candidate said he viewed political office simply as a position of power to extend the reach of his community organizing. This explains a great deal of his governing style - agitprop over politics.

 

I don't think President Obama is worrying about his legacy, nor should he. His goal should be to do the best with the political ammunition he has. He lacks FDR's heavily democratic Congress. Obama faces a House controlled by the GOP that is against just about everything Obama may be for. The Senate under control of Democrats suffers from the filibuster. As Joe has noted, Obama has significant legislative accomplishments despite this.

As for Maureen Dowd, she can be entertaining sometimes even twice a week with her column. But Sandy was on target with his criticism. Maureen can select her targets with her weekly columns, but she is no fount of wisdom. At Sandy's post, I commented on Maureen's next column on the reactions to the Marathon Bombings favorable. But graphing Maureen would show many peaks and valleys. Maureen does not realistically specify what Obama should have done regarding gun control. The Senate opposition politics, as Sandy pointed out, was available, with the help of the NRA's money and political influence over many Senators.

Some suggest that Obama should twist ams like LBJ. But recall LBJ's recognition of how southern Democrats would convert to Republicans for many years to come. The South is the base of the GOP as a result. What LBJ did was the right thing. But it gave us Richard Nixon and his Southern Strategy remnants of which continue today. America is not post-racial because of the election and re-election of Obama. As I have commented frequently, no one today openly, directly challenges Brown v. Bd. of Education. But the Tea Party, the GOP base and many Republicans challenged just about everything else from the 1960s civil rights movement that flowed from Brown. In my view there would be no Federalist Society but for Brown v. Bd. of Education and the civil rights movement that followed.

Obama lacks the ammunition politically to push through Congress a progressive agenda. He can't run for a third term. So he must do what he can, including baby and giant steps.

Just prior to the Marathon Bombings, there was the international threat of North Korea that busied the media. Is that threat no longer important enough? Obama drew a red line if Syria used chemical weapons. Evidence surfaced that the line had been crossed and the hawks challenged Obama to do something. While the hawks don't want (so they say) to put troops on the ground, they have no course of action that America can undertake on its own that would be effective. Some hawks apparently want Obama to do something and then they will criticize whatever he does. These hawks want to have the mistakes of Bush/Cheney with Iraq become a trap for Obama, as they recognized that the "legacy" of Bush/Cheney continues to be the monkey on the back of the GOP. (LBJ gave us "guns and butter" while Bush/Cheney gave us "guns, butter and tax cuts for the wealthy.)

[More to come.]
 

"Progressives still smart from being blamed for losing the Vietnam War"

That's an odd thing considering the war ended, without success, with a GOP President in the White House. It's also ironic considering that Progressives in the White House oversaw our war victories in WWI and II. But I don't disagree with Bart overall, liberals have been attacked as "soft on defense," and with success, so much that they often try very hard to show they are otherwise.

"Obama has proven completely inept at enacting policy in a divided government because he refuses to engage in the necessary stroking, bribing and arm twisting to obtain the Congress critter votes he needs"

It's hard to say how much is ineptness and how much is some pretty impressive obstructionism (there seems to be some quantifiable data in support of the latter argument), but I agree it's pretty bad when you can't get Snowe and Collins more often. One thing that cannot be disputed is Obama has become an incredibly polarizing figure: if you look at Obama's wins he lost rather big where he did lose: the Congresscritters from those districts and states have nothing to gain and much to lose by working with him in any way...

"campaigned as a fusion candidate of the Democratic and socialist New Party"

I seem to remember once challenging you for evidence for this claim that he "campaigned" as a New Party candidate rather than being endorsed by them. Do you have that available?

"he viewed political office simply as a position of power to extend the reach of his community organizing. This explains a great deal of his governing style - agitprop over politics."

I'm curious as to what the deep antipathy from a movement conservative is for these "agitprop community organizing" techniques. How different is what they are from what movement conservatives do, other than with the former the mobilized are more often poor and not online?



 

"he refused to invoke his authority to end DADT through an executive Order"

Could he do that by EO? I thought DADT was statutory.
 

"That's an odd thing considering the war ended, without success, with a GOP President in the White House."

For the last 7 years of the War.
 

And Republican President Ike (with Richard Nixon as his VP) had a tad of an involvement getting America into Vietnam in the first place and then in his farewell address warning America of the military-industrial complex - perhaps as a mea culpa?

Let's give Obama credit for not being sucked into Iraq and for taking steps to exit from Afghanistan. But as I noted above, the GOP hawks want voters to forget Bush/Cheney's 8 years of tax cuts (for the wealthy-twice), unpaid wars, spending the Clinton surplus, the Great Recession of 2008, hoping that Obama makes a mistake to get the Bush/Cheney monkey off their backs.

By the Bybee [expletives deleted], is a "libertarian conservative an oxymoron?
 

There is an informatiove, recent paper regarding filibuster, which is helpful in understanding congressional dynamics; the article goes into historical depth and is 66 pags length.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2221712

T. Jacobi, J Van Dam. filibuster and budget reconciliation.
 

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BD: "campaigned as a fusion candidate of the Democratic and socialist New Party"

Mr. W: I seem to remember once challenging you for evidence for this claim that he "campaigned" as a New Party candidate rather than being endorsed by them. Do you have that available?


I have all the cites to New Party news papers and interviews in Chapter 4 of my book Never Allow A Crisis To Go To Waste. In sum, to join and obtain the campaign assistance of the New Party, political candidates had to make a campaign presentation to New Party members from a variety of groups, primarily from the Democratic Socialists of America and ACORN, as well as groups ranging from the Communist Party USA and the Committees of Correspondence. A communist from the CoC gave an interview saying the Obama campaigned on their issues and was very enthusiastically accepted. Obama later thanked the New Party members for helping him get elected. These same folks have been assisting his campaigns in the shadows through 2012. The post-2012 election CPUSA mag had a headline screaming: WE WON!

BD: "he viewed political office simply as a position of power to extend the reach of his community organizing. This explains a great deal of his governing style - agitprop over politics."

Mr. W: I'm curious as to what the deep antipathy from a movement conservative is for these "agitprop community organizing" techniques. How different is what they are from what movement conservatives do, other than with the former the mobilized are more often poor and not online?


I am unsure to whom you refer when you say "movement conservative." Conservatives come in a variety of flavors and use different organizational techniques.

Saul Alinsky's American version of classic Soviet agitprop is most easily accessed in his Playboy interview just before his death.

http://www.progress.org/2003/alinsky2.htm

You will immediately recognize the Obama campaign and governance styles (which are nearly interchangeable). Indeed, Obama stole "hope and change" in its entirety from Alinsky.

I do not see these techniques used by the major conservative groups. Do you?

I do not hold an antipathy for agitprop. I am simply observing that, while it might work to start a revolution, it does not work in assembling democratic coalitions.
 

I do not hold an antipathy for agitprop. I am simply observing that, while it might work to start a revolution, it does not work in assembling democratic coalitions.
# posted by Bart DePalma : 12:15 PM


That would definitely explain why Obama lost the last 2 elections.
 

President Obama has failed in his constitutionally-based duty faithfully to execute the Laws, including treaty-based and customary international laws that require initiation of prosecution of all who are reasonable accused of war crimes (such as waterborading and other forms of torture), crimes against humanity (such as secret detention), and crimes under the CAT.
 

Bart
The fact that the New Party may have endorsed Obama and worked to get him elected strikes me as being as unremarkable as the fact that I'm sure many extremist groups on the right have likely at times opposed him and worked to defeat him. So New Party articles or releases supporting or praising Obama seem unremarkable to me, as does the fact that they, as a 'fusionist' party, endorsed him. Is there anything other than that which you can point to? Iirc you pointed to this document which all the people supposedly present in producing have disputed.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/rosiegray/in-chicago-no-memory-of-new-party-membership

I'm also not sure the New Party is any more 'Marxist' than, say, the Green Party or the Working Families Party which have cross-endorsed a fairly wide swath of people where fusion tickets are allowed.

"You will immediately recognize the Obama campaign and governance styles"

That's a fairly long interview with lots in it, what apsects are you specifically referring to?
 

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We don't have "liberal" President on various issues. We have a centrist one, particularly on economic and national security matters. But, what special alchemy is supposed to occur to get gun regulation passed in the face of a filibuster (ignored by the post) and a Republican House. BTW, who controlled Congress in 1994?
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