Thursday, November 01, 2012

Obama as Passive Failure

The WSJ has a complete body slam of tiny JournOList agitator Ezra Klein's inability to escape his own ideological strait jacket:
We're not referring, except via apophasis, to Ezra Klein's constitutional illiteracy but rather to his latest attempt to make excuses for Barack Obama. Klein has been reading endorsements of Mitt Romney from newspapers that backed Obama four years ago, as well as a pro-Romney column by the New York Times's David Brooks. He seems worried (though he doesn't spell this out) that swing voters will shift to Romney for the same reasons that these writers have--because Obama has failed, as Klein puts it, "to break the gridlock and overcome the partisanship that paralyzes Washington." Is it the president's fault? Ohhhhh NOOOOO!, Klein insists: "It wasn't up to him. The minority won't cooperate with the majority unless they see it's in their interests. And the Republican minority didn't see it that way." Obama's loss of the Des Moines Register's support, and of the support of like-minded swing voters, and perhaps of the election, "all say the same thing: Mitch McConnell and John Boehner's strategy worked." "There are good reasons to endorse Mitt Romney for president," Klein concludes, a magnanimous concession if perhaps an insincere one. "But if you want the political system to work more smoothly, endorsing McConnell and Boehner's strategy over the last four years"--that is, supporting Romney on the grounds that Obama has not worked across party lines--"is folly." In Klein's account of the past four years, the president plays a completely passive role. It somehow never occurs to him that Obama had a strategy too, and that if McConnell and Boehner's strategy succeeded, that means Obama's failed. Washington's current "partisan gridlock" is the product of the clash between these two strategies, not of the GOP strategy alone. Matt Bai has a piece in the New York Times magazine that, while mostly a repetition of the cliché that Obama's problem is a lack of "narrative mojo," nonetheless manages to get at the trouble with Obama's approach to Congress:
Obama emerged from the election as only the fourth Democrat in history to break the 51 percent barrier, with Rooseveltian majorities in Congress and an approval rating above 70 percent. Both Obama's campaign strategists and his former colleagues on Capitol Hill congratulated themselves on having earned a clear mandate from the voters. And suddenly the president, rather than interpreting his approval ratings as a sign that hopeful voters were waiting to hear what he had to say, seemed to proceed as if he already had the public's enthusiastic endorsement for whatever steps he and his allies felt they needed to take.
This ignores the substantive problems with Obama's policies: Would anyone have supported the "stimulus" if his team had predicted, accurately, that its passage would lead to unemployment above 8%, and as high as 10%, for almost four years? But Bai does capture the hubris at the heart of the early Obama months. Obama thought he was an irresistible force; now, his supporters complain the Republicans are an immovable object. But as even Klein acknowledges in passing, an opposition party will cooperate if "they see it's in their interests." They would have seen it that way if the public had been on the president's side in wanting higher spending or "comprehensive health-care reform." Obama's inability to move public opinion and his unwillingness to yield to it, especially in the ObamaCare debate, made opposition a winning position for the GOP. Of course if you're in favor of Obama's leftist agenda, it makes sense to regard this trade-off as having been worth it--and to support Obama's re-election in order to consolidate those legislative victories. With major ObamaCare provisions and massive tax increases scheduled to kick in two months from now absent congressional action, a re-elected Obama would be in a strong position, at least in the short run, to force some concessions from congressional Republicans, such as limiting tax increases to the upper brackets. It's debatable whether, as Klein claims, a Romney endorsement on gridlock-breaking grounds amounts to a statement of approval for the successful McConnell-Boehner political strategy. After all, Romney has never served in Congress and has held no public office since 2007. One could argue that he is the passive beneficiary of congressional Republicans' work. But if you want serious bipartisan reform, the past four years give every reason to think Obama lacks the political skills to deliver it, and considerable reason to doubt whether he is even so inclined.

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