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What Jonathan Chait Doesn’t Understand About Obama

Jonathan Chait

Jonathan Chait

I suppose we should be grateful that TNR’s Jonathan Chait voluteered to write an apologia for President Obama as a way to explain to those he identifies with “the left” why Obama’s not such a bad President and to remind the “left” there were extenuating circumstances that explain the President’s failure, or refusal, to achieve what the left wanted and the country needed.

But one has to wonder: is Chait’s defense all the President’s supporters have left?  Because when Chait leaves out what really matters to Obama’s liberal critics, the piece comes off as an argument for Obama announcing “I shall not seek, and I will not accept . . .”

To assess the President’s performance, one must start with a more coherent story of what Obama and the country faced in January 2009 and what those conditions called for after eight disastrous years of the Bush presidency.  Some of us said both before and after the election that the devastation wrought by Bush on the Constitution, on the idea of government, on the rule of law and on the economy was so crippling and massive, it would likely take years to reverse it. But some things were clearly priorities and needed to be addressed immediately.

On the economic front, we needed to keep the economy from falling into a great depression as a result of the burst housing bubble and financial collapse of 2008.  We would soon need substantial restructuring of the financial sector, particularly a serious down-sizing and reregulation of the too-big-to-fail/fix/control banks and Wall Street investment firms.  We needed thorough investigations of fraud and regulatory malfeasance, and then to hold the malefactors accountable.  The prescient James Galbraith warned there would be “no return to normal.” We’re still waiting.

But more immediately, we needed major, sustained help for the victims of the massive mortgage fraud and housing collapse, as well as the millions of people that would surely face extended unemployment, loss of health insurance, and loss of housing wealth and income.  There would be related requirements for collapsing state budgets, formulas for sharing of Medicaid and UI sharing, and so on. That effort would need to be massive, sustained, and securely funded.

Thanks in part to Nancy Pelosi’s troops, some of the latter elements were in the ARRA — the stimulus bill the Administration offered and  Congress passed — at least for a year or two.  Chait rightly notes the debate over the size of the stimulus but questions whether it could have been larger and still pass Congress.

His excuse that “those who mattered” saw the stimulus size as “mindboggling” tells us we should not rely on the people Chait regards as those who matter.  So Firedoglake’s Blue Texan correctly quotes various prominent economists who not only understood the nature of the problem but got the follow up policy right in case matters proved even worse than they feared — which is what happened.  All of these “didn’t matter” people who got it right were ignored or worse by the Obama White House.  But Chait seems unaware that the initial size issue was not the most important liberal/left critique of the President’s failed economic leadership.

The economists the President ignored were saying publicly what, according to Brad DeLong, some on the President’s economic team were telling the President privately: you’re going to need a bigger boat.  See, e.g., Dean Baker in 2009.  Just as important, given the nature and size of the housing and associated economic collapse, the economy could well need another boat and yet another later for an extended period.  So you’d best be preparing the public for what might be needed, given the depth of the recession.  Instead, as DeLong notes, we got one “unforced error” after another.

The President and his incompetent political advisers insisted that all was well and that we just needed patience.  And they continued to say that long after the data showed the Administration had badly underestimated the seriousness of what we now call the “lesser depression.” They are still doing that.

But the story gets worse.  Soon after Congress passed the first stimulus, the President resurrected the notion, partly ignored from his campaign, that what the economy needed was substantial budget reductions, including “reforms” — benefit cuts — to make Social Security and Medicare sustainable.  Obama strongly pivoted to budget cutting even though the recovery was not assured and unemployment was persistent, and even though his economic advisers knew, as Krugman et al were saying, that we could face a long and uncertain recovery with lingering and unacceptable levels of unemployment.

So it wasn’t just the not really mindboggling size of the first stimulus that was problematic; it was the deliberate policy of ignoring evidence and credible advice that much more would be needed and for an extended period, probably years.  Even worse was the rhetoric about budget cuts that would undermine any effort to achieve further fiscal stimulus. Again, highly credible voices warned this was a serious problem, but Obama ignored them.

As many of us warned, Obama’s pivot to deficit reduction proved to be devastating.  Not only did it completely undermine any ability to argue persuasively for more supportive federal spending; it poured the foundation for the right wing’s radical anti-government attacks on funding all of the beneficial public programs enacted since the New Deal.

Instead of mounting a vigorous defense of these programs and government’s role in protecting the public interest, the President’s budget rhetoric repeatedly undermined them.  In statement after statement, Obama falsely equated a household budget and the supposed need to tighten family belts with the federal budget and the need for government to cut back on spending.

Obama’s austerity message was dead wrong; every responsible economist knew that massive deficit spending was the one thing keeping the economy afloat while the private sector reduced its debts, and such deficits might be needed for years.

Liberal economists were practically screaming their dismay as the President repeatedly embraced false, economically backwards right wing talking points.  It was those right wing positions, imposed by radical GOP governors on state government and carried into the deficit/debt debates in Congress, that were hurting the economy, exacerbating unemployment, stalling recovery, and preventing rescues for state budgets, unemployment insurance and Medicaid.  But instead of using his bully pulpit to correct the GOP’s cynical misinformation campaign, the White House echoed and enabled it. And the President went out of his way to praise and legitimize budget charlatans like Paul Ryan.

Thus, by 2010, on economic policy Obama was governing — or revealed himself — as a moderately conservative Republican President embracing flawed economic analysis and harmful right wing rhetoric.  And that pattern was repeated with other policy issues.

The financial sector needed fairly radical downsizing and re-regulation. Instead, the White House sheparded a watered down financial “reform” bill through Congress that left the TBTF banks still in power — just ask Jamie Dimon —  failed to rein in executive compensation, watered down derivatives regulation, and left other regulatory matters to be decided by bank-friendly Tim Geithner.

After the US Treasury and the Fed bailed out dozens of large banks and financial firms during 2008-2009, the Administration pushed a “reform” bill that left in charge most of the major malefactors that tanked the economy only three years ago. Nothing came of the Crisis Commission’s investigations, nor Levin’s Committee reports, and little is expected from the Administration on investigating and prosecuting the sector’s massive mortgage fraud.

Health “reform” also followed the pattern of leaving the malefactors in charge.  What the country needed was a plan to disengage from the corrupt private insurance system and move to some type of government-sponsored health care system like that in every other advanced nation.  These are the systems that have reduced escalating health care costs.

Such a transition would have been a Herculean task, but if it could not be achieved outright — a debatable point —  then any “reform” worthy of the name needed to contain workable mechanisms by which a steady transition could evolve and be achieved within a reasonable time.  Instead, Obama’s “reform” bill imposed the private insurance system over tens of millions of Americans, killed even a weakened version of the transition mechanism, and left funding of the expanded public health system vulnerable to the predictable onslaught on government budgets.  Several states are slashing Medicaid, and Congress will likely do the same.

Jon Walker, Marcy Wheeler and I and others at this site have written electronic reams about the President’s utter failure to address these real needs.  Jane Hamsher also reported the secret White House deals with hospitals and drug companies to shield them from either competition or adequate regulation, yet the White House continued for almost a year to mislead supporters about his supposed support for even a weak public option.  The entire process reeked of Obama’s bad faith.

The theme could go on about immigration, environmental protection, women’s rights, labor protections, DADT, and so on.  The stories are disturbingly similar: promises, hopes, delays, disappointment, betrayal.

It is telling that Chait’s defense of Obama attempts to rebut only a small sliver of Robert Reich’s critiques — I’ll leave that to Reich. His reference to Glenn Greenwald is to Glenn’s comments on domestic policies.  But everyone knows the major criticism from Glenn, Marcy Wheeler and many other civil liberties and rule of law defenders concern the President’s embrace, extension or coverups of Bush’s anti-civil liberties, kidnapping and detention, illegal surveillance, and unilateral war policies, along with Obama’s unwillingness to hold torturers and other criminal enablers accountable. Chait offers no defense here, because there is none.

And it’s insulting for Chait to equate Glenn with supposed “right wing equivalents.”  Greenwald is a deeply ethical, thoroughly honest and highly respected journalist who, with many others, is simply appalled by the Administration’s lawlessness; there are no “right wing equivalents.”

Also missing from Chait’s lecture to the “left” is any mention of the Obama Administration’s embrace of the deeply corrupting influence of corporate wealth, its corrosive effect on democracy, and the huge disparity in income and wealth that now divides the richest 1 percent from almost everyone else. Every week we read of the White House adopting some position advocated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and friends, whether it’s about permissive and damaging energy extraction, lack of health and safety regulations, failure to protect labor rights in misnamed “free” trade agreements, killing environmental standards, and so on.  This White House seems bent on becoming the President of Big Oil, Big Nukes, Big Banks and Big Business, even as Obama betrays labor and neglects the needs of working America.

And what are we to think of the President’s destruction of public campaign financing and embrace of fat cat funding?  Has Chait not noticed that Obama is working Wall Street and corporate America as hard as any President in history, to ensure he has a billion dollars with which to buy his reelection?  Is that not something the “left” or indeed any ordinary American should care about?

Matt Stoller’s must read critique makes the point that “Obama has ruined the Democratic Party.”  I and others here warned about this over a year ago.  By now, some may not care, having given up on Democrats.   But whether the party can be salvaged or an alternative emerges, it’s clear that Barack Obama’s embrace of GOP talking points, economic and other policies has made it impossible for any responsible Democrats to support the President and still work for the values their supporters want and that got them elected.

So I have to wonder if Chait is serious, whether he and the White House believe this is a credible defense of President Obama.  Chait either doesn’t know, or chose to ignore the many and far more serious reasons why liberals/progressives are in varying stages of disappointment, dismay, disgust or outright contempt for this President.  But I should have suspected a lack of seriousness when Chait’s piece gave us this:

The most common hallmark of the left’s magical thinking is a failure to recognize that Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government consisting of members whose goals may differ from the president’s.

Does he really expect anyone to believe that?

Photo by Aqualung under Creative Comments License

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

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