Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Bookends of Obama's Presidency

Both Ezra Klein and Josh Marshall have taken up the task of writing about President Obama's recent successes. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at their analysis.

Klein starts out with a big title to his piece: The Unexpected and Ingenious Strategy of Obama's Second Term. But the content sure doesn't live up to that title.
Presidents often turn more moderate to make gains in their final years. Think of Bill Clinton's 1997 budget deal, or George W. Bush's 2007 (failed) immigration reform effort, or Ronald Reagan's 1986 tax reforms. Second terms can feel like new presidencies.

President Obama's increasingly successful second term has been the exception to that rule. It's been a concentrated, and arguably jaded, version of his first term. The candidate who was elected to bring the country together has found he can get more done if he acts alone — and if he lets Congress do the same.

That has been the big, quiet surprise of Obama's second term. Congress has become, if anything, more productive. And that speaks to a broader lesson Obama has learned about polarization in Congress: Since he's part of the problem, ignoring Congress can be part of the solution.
While it's true that President Obama's "pen and phone" strategy has been all about doing things that don't require Congressional action, I guess that I'm just not willing to give this Congress that much credit. Compared to the last few years, they're a bit more productive. But by historical standards, they still have a long way to go.

It's important to remember that Republicans now control BOTH houses of Congress. That means that they can't simply obstruct President Obama and Democrats. But as I've written before, Senate Minority Leader McConnell's initial strategy following the 2014 midterms was to pass bills that would undermine the President's accomplishments, force him to veto them, and then label him the obstructionist. That strategy hasn't worked out too well.

I'd suggest that Josh Marshall makes a much more cogent point.
When I look at Obama I don't see a President desperately trying to cram legacy achievements into the declining months of his presidency. I see achievements coming to fruition that were usually years in the making but often seemed errant or quixotic and uncertain in their outcome. This is what for many was so bracing about the end of June. This has been a long long seven years. What seemed like an uncertain list of achievements, long on promise but hacked apart by mid-term election reverses and Obama's sometimes over-desire for accommodation, suddenly appeared closer to profound, like a novel or a play which seems scattered or unresolved until all the pieces fall into place, clearly planned all along, at the end.
When I read that one the picture that came to my mind about Obama's presidency was bookends. During the first 2 years, with a Democratically controlled Congress, he was able to pass big progressive legislation, i.e., stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank. Over the next 4 years, Congress obstructed as the White House went about working on the economic recovery, getting out of two wars, dealing with all the hostage crises created by Republicans, and ensuring that the big three pieces of legislation passed in the first two years were implemented effectively - all while laying the groundwork for some of their recent accomplishments.

President Obama has said several times that 2014 was a "breakthrough year." Here's how he talked about it with NPR's Steve Inkeep.
I have spent six years now in this office. We have dealt with the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. We have dealt with international turmoil that we haven't seen in a lot of years.

And I said at the beginning of this year that 2014 would be a breakthrough year, and it was a bumpy path.

But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we've done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn't always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.
So we're now in the final 2 years - which will be the closing bookend. I kinda like how Marshall described it.
As the budget deficit has receded from public view, Obama's fucks deficit has come to the forefront. After six and a half years in office, he may have a small stockpile of fucks left. But he has none left to give. He is increasingly indifferent to the complaints and anger of his political foes and focused on what he can do on his own or with reliable political supporters. You can see it too in the more frequent lean-in-on-the-lectern moments during press conferences and speeches. He's truly out of fucks to give. But it's more a product of focus on finishing aspects of his presidency in motion for years than of cramming at the end.
A lot of people have decided that the President's "fucks deficit" is a result of not having to face any more elections. But that would be irresponsible for someone who has been so thoughtful about succession planning. I think it's more about being freed up from the weight of fixing messes left to him by the previous administration (wars and the Great Recession) as well as how liberating it must be to see his initial efforts in the first two years begin to bear fruit. It's like he's finally able to answer the question, "Are we having fun yet?" with a resounding "YES!!!"


  1. I can't help thinking that 2014 was the year that PBO finally came to believe the evidence of who his friends really are.

  2. Ezra Klein has always had a very hard time giving President Obama credit for anything. And I don't believe PBO is naive enough not to know who his real friends were all along. I think it's closer to John Marshall's view. President Obama always takes the long view, so many of these things have been shaping up for years. And, as he said in an interview with John Stewart (and I've heard him say before), he and his team have looked at many, many different issues and have always looked for ways to "advance the ball down the field.". I think he had big goals for his presidency, and a lot of his first term was sucked up with averting disasters. Now he wants to move as many of those balls down the field as he can, to make us as good a society as he can.


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