Alter for the Defense

Jonathan Alter mounts a spirited defense of the Obama presidency:

Tell me again why Barack Obama has been such a bad president? I’m not talking here about him as a tactician and communicator. We can agree that he has played some bad poker with Congress. And let’s stipulate that at the moment he’s falling short in the intangibles of leadership.

I’m thinking instead of that opening sequence in the show “Mission Impossible,” the one where Jim Phelps, played by Peter Graves, gets his instructions.

Your mission, Jim (and readers named something else), should you decide to accept it, is to identify where Obama has been a poor decision-maker. What, specifically, has he done wrong on policy? What, specifically, would you have done differently to create jobs? And what can any of the current Republican candidates offer that would be an improvement on the employment front?

Rhetorically, this is called “burden shifting”. The burden of proof is on the affirmative and in this case the affirmative position is that President Obama should be re-elected and it’s up to the president to make his case. The case against him can be observed just by looking around.

In general second term elections are referenda on the incumbent rather than on the challengers or their predecessors. There have been exceptions. Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign used the slogan “Don’t change horses in midstream” and Roosevelt’s 1936 “Remember Hoover!” theme come to mind. And Republicans are the president’s best allies in this regard. If Republican primary voters insist on nominating a candidate who can easily be painted as frightening, as LBJ’s 1964 re-election campaign tarred Goldwater, running as the lesser evil can be successful.

But in most U. S. elections the candidate best able to paint a bright, optimistic picture of America and its future wins.

For my case I have been somewhat disappointed in the Obama presidency to date. Not catastrophically so but disappointed largely on two grounds.

First and most importantly in foreign policy he has been too interventionist and military in his approach. Why are we still in Iraq and why do Pentagon officials persistently float trial balloons for a longer stay there?

Counter-insurgency is rather obviously an ineffective strategy for Afghanistan. We should never have built up the force there that we have. I suppose I can hardly be surprised by this since Candidate Obama ran on expanding the efforts in 2008.

I continue to believe that our intervention in Libya was wrong but I also believe that intelligent people can differ on this subject. Like that of the “Arab Spring” generally, it remains far too early to see its outcome.

Multi-lateral trade talks and already-negotiated bilateral trade deals have languished.

Secondly, domestically I think that the president has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. He had the opportunity of producing a more effective stimulus of practically any size he desired. He relied too heavily on his advisors and delegated the outcome too much to the Congress. The end result was a grab bag from the progressive hot list.

He had the opportunity to produce the reform in the healthcare system we continue to need so desperately. Instead he elected to delegate the outcome too much to the Congress. Contrary to the prevailing narrative, I think this state of affairs can be laid squarely on the shoulders of Congressional Democrats. The ACA was passed without Republican votes in the Senate and with only a single Republican vote in the House. That the bill is as feeble as it is is unquestionably because more could not be extracted from Democrats. More and more effective leadership from the president might have changed that.

In other economic policy from dealing with the Wall Street banks to the GM bailout the Obama Administration has followed the lead of the Bush Administration. If the Bush Administration was so horrible, why emulate it?

1 comment… add one
  • steve Link

    “The ACA was passed without Republican votes in the Senate and with only a single Republican vote in the House.”

    We will probably just have to disagree on this issue, but I would point out a few things. First, no GOP president has spent significant capital on health care reform. The party only comes up with plans when they need to oppose the Dems. Next, the 2008 elections were quite a sweep. The GOP members who remained in office did so because they had completely safe, jerrymandered constituencies who put them in office. The GOP could crash the economy, put us in multiple bad war efforts and still remain in office. There was zero motivation for any kind of cooperation. Just the hint of any moderation meant facing a Tea Party challenge in a primary. Even co-opting the prior GOP health plan was not good enough to gather support. Last of all, I think McConnell was serious about the GOPs goal.


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