Political Animal


February 10, 2012 5:24 PM The Crisis Manager

By Ed Kilgore

It’s quite the time for big, thumb-sucking evaluations of the presidency, so far, of Barack Obama. Last month arrived Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker meditation on Obama’s losing battle with “post-partisanship.” There’s an even longer and much more sweeping piece by James Fallows up at The Atlantic, focusing on Obama’s likely place in history, which I’m still re-reading and trying to absorb.

At TNR, we are offered an excerpt from an upcoming book by Noam Scheiber on Obama’s economic policies, which will apparently be quite critical.

All three writers, from relatively progressive perspectives, are wrestling with the strategic and tactical decisions—and indecisions—of Obama’s first three years in office which seem particularly odd in retrospect, such as the persistence in pursuing compromise with a Republican Party determined to oppose him on every front; the constant shifts between a focus on economic recovery and a focus on deficit reduction; and the president’s own difficulty in rallying public support to his side. All struggle to place his undoubted accomplishments in the context of the defeats and lost opportunities he has suffered, and Lizza and Fallows, at least, are a bit ambivalent as to whether his recent move towards a more confident and confrontational posture reflect a long-planned “pivot” or just the maneuvers of a politician who is up for re-election and has exhausted every other approach.

On this last point, Scheiber is very clear in his own opinion: Obama acts when he has to, often quite brilliantly, but rarely before disaster seems imminent. Having documented the many occasions when the president held back and let warring factions of his advisors grab at the policymaking wheel, leading to a predictably erratic course, Scheiber thinks it’s just the way Obama operates, at least so far.

For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.
Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.

But as Fallows points out again and again in his essay, perceptions of presidents vary enormously over time and in hindsight: every one of Obama’s recent predecessors had moments of seeming omnipotent, and moments of seeming hopelessly feckless. All of them, he stresses, at one point or another exasperated their party’s activist “base” and struck historians as unworthy successors to the great figures of the past. And even Scheiber’s clear indictment of Obama as an invariably passive crisis manager raises the question of how any president inheriting the situation he faced—not just the economic crisis, but the strange and historically unprecedented decision of the opposition party to deal with consecutive electoral debacles by moving away from the political center—would have been more “proactive” without clairvoyance.

You can read these and other evaluations of Obama and reach your own conclusions. I know some readers think it’s a simple story of a corporate-lackey “centrist” betraying his party, and a lot of people on the other side of the barricades who wouldn’t touch this magazine’s pages without oven mitts subscribe to equally simple, if diametrically opposed, narratives. But Fallows is probably right: we’d better read the next chapter before writing too many reviews.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • hells littlest angel on February 10, 2012 5:40 PM:

    The characterizations of Obama sound pretty much the same as what we heard about Bill Clinton. Maybe all black presidents are alike.

  • T2 on February 10, 2012 5:44 PM:

    at this point in Obama's first term, I've about had all the Progressive harping I want to hear. They griped themselves into a House of Representatives full of lunatics in 2010, and if they'd prefer to sit on their hands this year and get Rick Santorum for a "leader", then they'd deserve it.
    For anyone on the Left who wants to carp on Obama.....well, he's gonna be the Dem nominee. Either vote for him or accept the consequences....which won't be pretty for a long time. 2016 you say? Yeah, just who do we see out there in Progressive Land that would step up? I don't see anybody now.

  • Danp on February 10, 2012 5:50 PM:

    Comparing Hillary or Rev. Wright to Iran's nukes is truly absurd. If Scheiber's greatest criticism of Obama is that he works behind the scenes to look for compromise before berating his opponents publicly, that's okay. But their argument doesn't seem to be that civility is a waste of time. Maybe their argument should be that Obama is dealing with a lot of kooks.

  • Lev @ LibraryGrape.com on February 10, 2012 6:03 PM:

    Technically, Ed, the Democrats moved away from the center after two straight electoral debacles in 2006. Well, three I suppose.

    I think if I had to identify one area of improvement for Pres. Obama, it would have to be that he not cede the initiative so often. A lot of his problems were due to his letting someone else carry the ball, or didn't define his policies well enough, and let the other side do it for him.

  • wvng on February 10, 2012 6:14 PM:

    In his first two years, Obama had to craft policies and carefully speak about those policies in a way that didn't send the very conservative Dems holding all the leverage in the middle into the waiting arms of the republicans who were united in opposition to anything he did. His first two years were remarkably successful. The last year was fighting rearguard actions because a bunch of liberals didn't get their pony, stayed home from the polls, and ceded the House majority to insane people. I am amazed at what he has accomplished given the constraints. The idea that he wouldn't act on a crisis on the international stage, where he can act largely without republicans getting in the way, is absurd. The only thing that really pissed me off was when he needlessly adopted republicans narratives on the economy and debt.

    As for ceding the initiative, remember that one of his projects was to make the Congress take initiative again rather than always make the administrative branch go first.

  • Danny on February 10, 2012 6:40 PM:

    Some say liberals whine too little. Some say liberals whine too much. I'll leave it to the reader to reject both of these extremist positions.

  • jjm on February 10, 2012 6:57 PM:

    Boy, the way they can look a gift horse in the mouth!

    Progressives complaining about Obama? I simply do not recall them complaining about Clinton, who permitted a great many GOP policies to become enacted under his term, whereas I've yet to see ONE GOP policy instituted under Obama. Oh wait, he did take in their proposal for the individual mandate in ACA, didn't he?

    The man is an amazingly skilled politician and a very good president, indeed.

  • Brenna on February 10, 2012 7:46 PM:

    or just the maneuvers of a politician who is up for re-election and has exhausted every other approach

    More likely, I think that's what's happened to Obama. That debt ceiling/austerity phase was sure scary though.

  • barkleyg on February 10, 2012 7:59 PM:

    The way I see Obama, and I am very prejudice as PRO-Obama.

    Noam Scheiber on Obamaís economic policies,

    "Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats.

    But, in every case, the adjustments didnít come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.

    Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that canít be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obamaís newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? "

    I heard this analogy early in 2008, and I have been a great believer in it ever since, with a few disappointments thrown in for reacting too slowly. Obama plays "ROPE A DOPE" with his opposition. He allows them to punch first, often, and many time wildly.

    As with Ali, he allows his opponents to punch themselves out, and asks the public to see the results. He floats like a bee, constantly stressing compromise, while his opponents swing wildly with the call of Coach Tom Caughlan of the N.Y. Giants( how's that for a current reference)in their ears.

    What the last couple of months show to me is that Obama will start swinging back a little earlier; he don't have to exhaust them before going offensive. The Republicans are their own worst enemy, and the passive Obama allows this to come through by the crazy things they call him, such as socialist, Marxist, Communist, or worst of all, KENYAN COLONIALIST, like any knows or gives a poop what that is, but it sure sounds good.

    Fallows punch line, in a quick read, was that the 2 term is what separates the men from the boys, and how history reacts to him is greatly influenced by getting elected to a second term. Obama has done a ton, but No second term, and the credit he might deserve is harder to get. Get the second term, and Obama could be looked at as one of the Great ones. That's what I remember of Fallows punch line from yesterday's reading. Unlike Republicans, who are NEVER wrong, I could be wrong on Fallows's conclusion, and am uup for correction.


  • pj in jesusland on February 10, 2012 9:06 PM:

    The critiquing class understands very little about what it takes to actually govern.

  • John on February 10, 2012 10:34 PM:

    This, by Scheiber, strikes me as idiotic:

    For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition.

    What is he talking about? Who are these voters? Because we're not holding a plebiscite in which we vote "Obama: Yes or No." In November we'll get to decide whether we want Obama to be president for four more years, or if we'd rather let Mitt Romney be president for four years. In such a context, I could give a flying fuck about Obama's "basic disposition," especially when that disposition really hasn't been the most important cause of all the shit that's gone down over the last three years.

    Beyond that, the Monday morning quarterbacking gets annoying.

  • Maroc on February 10, 2012 10:49 PM:

    In Dreams From My Father, Obama talked about the lessons in effectiveness he learned in the course of his early community-organizing work in Chicago. Those lessons -- about the need to craft coalitions with people who had power bases in the relevant communities, whether you agreed with them or not, about the utility of finding axes of mutual interest -- resonate with anybody who's been involved with local politics. Also, I suspect, with anyone who's worked in state or even federal politics at any point before the past ten years of radicalization on the right.

    My own hypothesis is simply that all his experience of how to work effectively within political institutions pushed him in the direction of assuming that if he worked at it hard enough, eventually he would find ways in which coalitions could be built, and reasonable compromises made, with some or all of a Republican congress. (Which would have been true, if only they were interested in constructive governance rather than in destroying his presidency at all costs, including all costs to the nation as a whole.) And it's taken him three years to fully internalize the fact that he's dealing with bitter and committed enemies rather than opponents, and that like it or not, the only way forward is to treat them as such.

    It's to Obama's credit, in a way, that he had to try to treat them as colleagues until it was clear as the summer sun to one and all that doing so would only create disaster. And it does have this much benefit: by pushing it to the bitter end, he's made it impossible for the country not to know it too, however the Village media tries to spin matters.

  • Mithrandir on February 11, 2012 3:37 AM:

    I simply do not recall them complaining about Clinton, who permitted a great many GOP policies to become enacted under his term, whereas I've yet to see ONE GOP policy instituted under Obama.

    I wasn't as active in politics in the 90's, but as far as I can recall, plenty on the left did complain about Clinton. Have you never heard people refer to Bill Clinton as "the best Republican president since Eisenhower"?

    Also, although Obama has not instituted many Republican policies, he has maintained a goodly number, not the least of which was the Bush tax cuts. (No, I can't think of anything else he could have done about that that wouldn't have screwed a whole bunch of unemployed Americans.)

  • max on February 11, 2012 8:35 AM:

    I haven't read Lizza's latest piece and frankly after the first two I find his motives suspect. He has a knack to locating and spending time with people, especially in Chicago, who have personal beefs with the President. Fallows is always more measured and fair and his writing is always worth reading. Anyone can be a Monday morning quarterback on economic issues. Given the scale of the crisis the administration inherited and the entrenched interests involved, and the steady GOP opposition to actual progress, I think the administration did as well as it could have under the circumstances. That said, hiring Larry Summers was obviously a big mistake, not prosecuting the banksters was another, the generous AIG settlement was foolish, and waiting too long to deal with the foreclosure crisis was yet another. Too bad they don;t have a Way back machine in the White House. I have an open question to modern journalists: is giving any credit for success too boring for print nowadays?

  • max on February 11, 2012 8:40 AM:

    I forgot to mention, relative to Lizza, is anyone else tired of the President being tacitly accused of being the cause of partisan rancor? What a ridiculous premise.

  • kabiddle on February 11, 2012 8:48 AM:

    Obama's got to let the narrative play itself out before he acts. This isn't 1920. I don't care how fast your 4G spews info around the globe: this is real time and it goes no faster than it did before. He's got my back. And if you are a basic hater of him, he's got your back as well. Whether you like it or not.

  • jrosen on February 11, 2012 9:30 AM:

    I think of Obama less as Ali (but it's not a bad metaphor) than as the good poker player he is reputed to be. The only criterion for who is the winner is who gets up from the table with the most money. Not who won the biggest hand, or had the best cards, or talked the best game. A fellow who made a lot of money playing the game told me that it is above all a test of character: the game will call on all your strengths and reveal all your flaws. The strengths required are: ability to calculate win-lose expectation (in the mathematical sense), the sense to fold in bad circumstances (don't throw good money after bad), patience (an absolute must!) and the capability to sense what the other players are thinking and feeling. It also takes time playing against others to get a feel for their patterns of behavior and "tells". Weaknesses are: easily discouraged, plunging to make up a loss, not seeing your cards through the other's eyes, greed, and impulsiveness, sticking with a bad hand when the odds are long against improvement.
    I don't think Obama is perfect on all these counts, but he has many of the strengths and he seems to be improving. The one area in which he might resemble Ali is the Rope-a-dope; in poker the expression is "hooking a fish". It takes time to set up a poor player so that when he sticks his head in the hole, you can make him pay. You might even have to lose a few smaller pots to do this.

    I look forward to watching Obama hook Romney in the debates.

  • zeitgeist on February 11, 2012 1:14 PM:

    While many people ignored his words and instead heard what they wanted to hear, Obama has been exactly who and what he has over time told us he is. He has said that his administration will not let the media rush his decisions, that he will not play to news cycles, that he isn't one to brag or taunt, that he would prefer to see a less partisan Washington.

    The problem with some of these attempts to write a first draft of history is the same problem that has wrecked the economy. In the case of business, once Wall Street took over decision were increasingly made based on quarterly earnings calls without regard to the long term or the broader good. Pundits wanting to "keep score" every Sunday morning, or every time they are short on cash and want to write another book, try and force the same short-view on governing. Obama, to his credit, has taken a longer, steadier course punctuated by boldness when a short-term crisis or opportunity must be addressed and when he has the power to act without Republican obstruction (Maersk Alabama, bin Laden, Somalian hostages).

    Obama is a bit more centrist than I am, so we wont agree on every policy or political fight. But the way to a more progressive future will inevitably be incremental. If Obama fails - or is allowed to be defined by writers as a failure -- it will be harder, not easier, to elect an incrementally more progressive president in the near term. Obama has done well with the cards he has been dealt, and his own long view makes it hard to force a short-term grade on him. His economic policies, for example, might have worked better and faster had they been more bold, but he got them through, he has kept adding around the margins, and lo and behold the economy is turning around just in time for re-election. Perhaps he isn't has clueless as his critics (what have they ever governed?) believe.