YOU DON'T have to look very far these days to find a lot of disappointment, and sometimes digust and depression, about the job Barack Obama is doing as President. And I'm just talking about how Democrats and other of his natural supporters feel.
To a point, you can count me in. I've still not forgiven him for his inexplicable acquiesence to Congressional Republicans over allowing the tax cuts for wealthy Americans to expire at the end of last year. Those tax cuts never made sense when the Bush Administration and Republican Congress enacted them in 2001; they have not, as promised, led to anything close to widespread economic prosperity, and they contributed to the soaring debt that Republicans themselves are now saying is the most important problem in America. And, of course, Republicans are blaming that problem on the Democrats and Obama in particular, which seems chilingly Orwellian.
Mostly, I was furious that the President indulged the bullying tactics of the Republicans, and I can't fathom why he apparently (what do I really know?) did the same in the debt-ceiling negotiations.
I understand his problem and sympathize. He enters these negotiations trying to exercise good faith, to be a statesmen for all the people and a pragmatist. But it's like he and most of the Democrats who've been battling the extreme postions of the Republican Party are bringing a racquet to a tennis match, as one does when playing tennis. The problem is their opponents are bringing heavy artillery to the game and using it without hesitation. Somehow, the Republicans are getting away with that and have for many years now.
But, as I said above, I'm disappointed only to a point. I absolutely refuse to pile on or abandon President Obama right now, not because I'm one of those staunchly loyal partisans who won't dare to acknolwedge that the Emperor just might not have clothes. Nor am I so in love with him (I voted for Hillary in the primary), though I like him. I'm keeping my patience for two reasons:
First, beating up on Obama right now is yet another way to give a victory to the truly bad actors in our political system and to the way they've twisted reality. I'm so weary of Republicans who accuse the President and the Democrats of the very partisan recalcitrance and intellectual dishonesty that Republicans practice themselves. It's just not true. But they get away with it most of the time.
Indeed, we're constantly hearing public commentators say that both political parties share equal blame for the chaos and pessimism that now encumbers the nation. Paul Krugman was absolutely right when he wrote last week that:
The facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren’t complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats — who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether — have, in fact, gone a long way toward meeting those Republican demands....
Yet many people in the news media apparently can’t bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality. News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.... when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.
If it's any consolation, a New York Times poll released today found that more Americans (72 percent) disapproved of the way Republicans handled the debt-ceiling negotiations than of the way Democrats (62 percent) and Obama (47 percent) did. That said, a record proportion of Americans (82 percent) told that same poll that they disapprove of how Congress is doing its job. That's all of Congress, which (for now) still includes a lot of Democrats.
The second reason I'm not piling on Obama right now is because I remain completely convinced that his more pragmatic, post-ideological impluses are exactly what the United States needs in a President right now. Prior to his taking office, we had eight years of an administration that was driven -- most of the time -- by ideology and not by pragmatism. It did so openly and without apology, and the result of the 2008 election was, as far as I'm concerned, more a rejection of that style of governing than of any great affection for Obama and the Democrats. I think people were just sick and tired of the inflexibility, especially when it led to disastrous outcomes.
I'm just sorry that Obama hasn't been able to act more on his pragmatic, post-ideological impulses. What came out of the debt ceiling bill is not pragmatic policy, let alone a good framework for governing. What emerged is an agreement to put the ball at the Democrats' 20 yard line; deep in their own territory with their heels near their own end zone. The ultra-extreme Republicans voted against the agreement because the ball isn't on the Democrats' 1 yard line. (Sorry for all the sports allusions, but they're working for me right now.)
How did Obama and the Democrats let that happen? Why is it that he and the Congressional Democrats essentially conceded the highly dubious assertion that what this country needs right now is to slash government spending and taxes? Why did they allow Republicans to determine the frame of the discussion?
Why didn't they take the offensive and simply say, 'Look, everyone, up is not down, black is not white, and we simply can't keep the economy moving the right direction if we suddenly take huge sums of money out of it. Indeed, we need to do just the opposite and pump more cash into the economy via government programs.'
I mean, if the Republicans can prattle on and on about what they think is good policy (and, to be fair to them, I believe most really do think that starving the government beast is good policy), why can't the Dems and the President mount the same sort of offensive to the contrary?
I know: things aren't as simple as all that, and it's not easy being President, especially when outrage from an extremist element of our electorate has gained momentum just as we're facing some of the most serious problems we've seen in generations. The timing is terrible. And he can disagree with the extemists, but it's hard to ignore them completely.
Notwithstanding the sound of all the hand-wringing on the left and knife-sharping on the right, I think -- hope -- Obama has the sense and sensibility to break the inertia of the course we're on right now. Let's give him the room to work, and let's see how I feel in about six months.