Posted by: Jeff | October 28, 2010

Glum Thoughts On Obama, the Mid-Terms, and the American Circumstance

Got into a political debate on FaceBook today (as I often do) and Joe suggested I transmute my thoughts over to The Regimen.

So. The question before the jury is a two-parter: Did Barack Obama deliver on his promise of change, and does it make sense for the American public to now punish him and the Democrats at the ballot box, as they appear poised to do? My answer? The Obama Administration performed as well as could be expected given the situation they were handed upon entering office. Between the stimulus, health care reform, and financial regulation, Obama and the Democrats have done more to change America for the better than any government in any two-year stint in decades. In the context of history, and the size of our current problems, it’s really a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

Yes, the administration could’ve done better on eliminating DADT or reversing the Bush-era wiretapping and detention policies. (As Obama promised to do, let’s not forget.) I’d also add climate change and energy policy, one of my personal hobby horses, to the list of things that got shoved to the sidelines. But an executive branch, and the government writ large, only has so much attention, energy and resources to spread around. Concentrating more on one of those issues would almost certainly have meant neglecting one of the things that did get done. So I don’t think these criticisms can avoid relying on unspoken and entirely subjective assumptions about which of these issues deserve priority. For myself, I think the administration prioritized pretty well.

These criticisms also rely on a lot of “Me the People” thinking. Sure, my FaceBook friends may care about DADT or reversing Bush’s “war on terror” policies, but what we care about doesn’t move elections. What the broad statistical majority cares about moves election. And while majorities support repealing DADT, it’s not clear how intense that support is. How upset are they that it hasn’t happened yet? Not very, as far as I can tell. (By contrast, I suspect the minorities that still support DADT — especially the Pentagon brass — would be very upset if it was repealed.) As for reversing Bush’s terror policies, I think it’s obvious most Americans support those programs, and Obama’s approval would be doing even worse had he stuck to his guns on that issue.

Mostly though, I think every issue is simply being overwhelmed by the economy. The public’s concern about any other issue doesn’t even come close to matching their anxiety over that.

So how did Obama do on the economy? Again, about as well as anyone could have, I think. Remember that the first thing he and the Democrats tackled upon arriving in Washington in early 2009 was the stimulus — a measure specifically aimed at boosting the economy. We know from inside sources that the administration wanted a stimulus on the order of $1.2 to $1.4 trillion. But after dissension in the House and the bottleneck of the Senate, we were left with something slightly under $800 billion. And this was at the height of Obama’s popularity, with the momentum from his win still very fresh. In other words, even under the most optimal circumstances, Obama was only able to get around two thirds of what he wanted.

I think that speaks to two things: The nature of our political system and the nature of the American people. On the first point, the arguments here a well-trod by now: The filibuster and other aspect of the Senate make our legislature unusually biased towards broad consensus in order to get anything done. And even if your party does have the necessary 60 votes to break a filibuster, because our legislators are also unusually autonomous from their party leadership, you still have to cut all sorts of deals and compromises to hold that coalition together.

That gets us to the nature of the American people. We want the economy fixed, but modern economics tells us that massive government spending (I mean spending that would dwarf what we’re doing now) would be needed to really plug the hole in our economy. That means massive debt, and we’re also terrified of massive debt. We want economic security and good health care, but that means large-scale government programs and high taxes. And we’re opposed to those things to. Suffice to say, we’re not terribly rational or coherent, and that means our politicians aren’t going to be terribly rational or coherent either. You can’t expect politicians to lead — if leading means doing what’s right but not popular — if they have to maintain voters’ approval in order to stay in office. Last I checked, there’s no way to get around that impasse without scraping democracy. Another of my Facebook commenters expressed disgust with the choice of either Obama or McCain, and suggested we need to give ourselves better choices. But navigating the contradictory forces and desires we impose on politicians would be difficult for any real-world president and legislature, be they liberal or conservative. The problem is not our politicians. The problem is us.

I’m starting to chase multiple threads here, but I think the picture that emerges is pretty straightforward: Our government is not terribly well designed — if rapid, effective and large-scale policy-making is a high priority for you. Obama squeezed about as much progress as he could out of a largely broken system. (For myself, I think this indicates that some serious rewriting of the Constitution is necessary — changes that would bring the structure of our legislature more in line with the European parliamentary system.)

Next, “We the People” don’t make it terribly easy on our politicians. We demand that they fix our problems, but then freak out over the dramatic steps that are usually required to bring about said fix. We’re also terrible about appropriately assigning blame and responsibility. The public’s thinking on November 2nd doesn’t really extend beyond “Obama and the Democrats have been in office the last two years, the economy has sucked the last two years, ergo they need to go.” Which is rather like assuming that, since you’ve been taking chemotherapy the whole time you’ve had cancer, the former must be responsible for the latter.

I’d add one more particularly depressing thought. (Because clearly we’ve had too much sunshine and ponies in this post so far.) A $1.4 trillion stimulus bill — what Obama and his team originally wanted — might, might have knocked the unemployment rate down to eight percent. Getting down to five percent unemployment, which is more what we’re used to, would’ve probably required another $3 or $4 trillion slapped on top — so something in the range of a $5 trillion bill, total. Such a package would’ve increased our national debt by 25 percent 30 percent, all in one shot. Even if such a thing could’ve passed, would it have been responsible to do it? I’m a big-government liberal (so they tell me) but even I’ve got to say almost certainly not.

So perhaps there are times, like now, when our problems become so large that no conceivable government or collection of politicians — no matter how wise or virtuous, and no matter how smart their policies — could solve them in a fashion even remotely satisfactory by the standards of most voters. Maybe we’re just stuck.

(I suppose you could also argue that Obama’s “hope and change” rhetoric set the public’s expectations too high, and now he’s suffering for that. I guess that’s true, so far as it goes. But since when did the problem of overly optimistic rhetoric in American politics begin with Obama?)

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