Monday, August 8, 2011

Is Obama A Leader?

After the passage of legislation to raise the debt ceiling, President Obama faced a round of criticism, primarily from his liberal base. Progressives and liberals, for example, condemned the deal because it focuses exclusively on cutting governmental spending, while it contains no provision regarding taxation.

The legislation cuts one trillion dollars in spending, and requires the creation of a bipartisan committee in Congress to make an additional two trillion dollars in cuts. The legislation, however, does not require the committee to consider raising revenue as a means of lowering the deficit -- even though, currently, tax revenue is historically low and spending is historically high. Both of these factors have combined to create the historically high deficit and debt.

Other liberals argued that in terms of spending cuts versus revenue increases, the former is a better choice during a recession. Because consumers and businesses are spending less, government spending provides a needed boost to the economy. Indeed, immediately after the passage of the debt deal, the stock market tumbled. Several analysts said that investors were worried that cuts in government spending would put downward pressure on an already sluggish economy.

Obama: A Lack of Leadership?

Since the passage of the debt deal, several critics have begun to question Obama's leadership. Progressives, for example, argued that Obama too eagerly conceded the liberal position on tax increases in order to reach a consensus with Republicans. Others argued that Obama himself is a moderate-to-conservative president and that he accomplished the very outcome he desired during the debt-ceiling negotiations.

Critics have made similar types of arguments throughout Obama's presidency. For example, liberals argued that Obama caved to Republicans on the stimulus (agreeing to a much smaller package) and healthcare reform (not pursuing the public option or a single-payer system). Still others argued that he is a moderate who desired the specific outcomes in these political battles.

In response to these critiques, Obama's defenders have invariably portrayed him as a "pragmatic" politician. On the other hand, they have depicted his progressive critics as politically naive. This blowback, in turn, has generated a healthy amount of debate.

Interestingly, fewer media and political commentators have defended Obama's handling of the debt crisis. Also, a broader base of individuals -- rather than the far left -- have begun to criticize his political leadership. Rather than defending Obama as a pragmatist, much of the commentary following the debt-ceiling negotiations questions his ability to lead.

Drew Westen: New York Times Op-Ed

For example, yesterday, the New York Times published a lengthy op-ed written by Drew Westen, a professor at Emory University. Westen, an Obama supporter, admits that he was "bewitched by [Obama's] eloquence on the campaign trail. . . ." Now, however, Westen wonders "what happened to Obama."

Westen links Obama's handling of the debt crisis to a string of political moments beginning with the debate over the stimulus. Westen argues that during these moments, Obama has failed to produce a compelling narrative to sell his values (whatever they might be):
[W]hen faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it.
Westen also criticizes Obama for trying to speak to all sides of political debates. In fairness to Obama, however, he ran for president as the candidate who would bring all perspectives to the table. He portrayed himself as a conciliatory candidate who would unify the country. He, unlike his challengers, was a "new" political candidate, who could move the nation from the divisiveness of the past. Consensus and bridge-building were his hallmarks. Accordingly, criticizing Obama for doing just this seems to overlook the way he portrayed himself as a candidate.

Nonetheless, as Westen observes, Obama's effort to please all sides makes his message incoherent:
Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling.
Surprisingly, Obama tries to please all sides even when the public largely supports liberal positions and when the conservative position could undermine the nation's well-being. During the debt negotiations, numerous polls showed that the public favored spending cuts and tax increases as a way of reducing the deficit. Obama stated that he agreed with this position.

Rather than capitalizing on public opinion, however, Obama only offered tepid support for a tax increase and ultimately signed a plan that mandates spending cuts exclusively. After liberals criticized the agreement, Obama said that lawmakers would be motivated to increase taxes. But if that were true, they would also feel pressure to cut spending without a statutory mandate.

Consequently, Obama's view on taxes is confusing. It is unclear whether Obama -- who agreed with the extension of tax cuts implemented during the Bush administration -- actually favors increasing revenue or not. If he really values tax increases, he could have used public support to his advantage. If he thought that lawmakers would be motivated to raise taxes this fall, then he could have promoted legislation that generally mandated deficit reduction, rather than specifically singling out spending cuts.

Furthermore, after the debt deal passed, Obama said that Congress should turn its attention to creating jobs. Obama, however, never told the public what this should involve. More importantly, most economists would probably agree that creating jobs will require additional government spending -- but, alas, the debt deal mandates the opposite path. Yet, Obama favors both the debt compromise and a jobs bill.

Zelizer: CNN Column

Today, Julian Zelizer, a Professor at Princeton and a CNN columnist, has written an article that raises similar criticisms of Obama (and the Democrats generally). Zelizer criticizes the Democrats for not putting forth a cohesive message and for failing to capitalize on public support (e.g., raising taxes on the wealthy) in order to advance their goals.

Zelinzer argues that if Obama does not develop and take a firm position on some coherent agenda, he will lose the next election. Voters, Zelinzer argues, want someone who fights for a set of defined values. Another way of saying this is that voters want a political leader. In this regard, Obama has failed miserably.

Final Thoughts

Obama could absolutely lose the next election if he does not build a cohesive message and develop the stamina to advocate a set of defined political goals. Obama's lack of leadership has become deeply troubling, and it risks making the Democrats virtually ineffective.


I am not dismissing the possibility that Obama actually desires centrist and right-leaning policy. Indeed, I have argued many times on this blog that Obama is a moderate and that progressives mistakenly viewed him as an ally. Either way, he is not leading the Democratic Party -- certainly not the progressives and disempowered people who staunchly supported his candidacy.


Jon said...

Don't hold your breath waiting for a cohesive message from the Democrats. The majority of Democrats have all but abandoned many of the areas that truly distinguish them from Republicans -- that is the creation and continued support of entitlement programs over the years. Their tune has shifted and twisted over the years to the point that they are now looking to undo the very programs they created. The true difference between the two major parties that I can see is more related to abortion (and this they have been back tracking on, as well) and LGBT rights.

The Republicans have a clear platform, destroy entitlement programs, weaken government, restrict or eliminate abortion, shift welath upward, let the market rule. The Democrats have become a less coherent version version of the Republican platform with a few important tweaks.

Matt P. said...

Obama isn't a leader IMO. He didn't even lead on healthcare. Instead he left it up to Nancy and then he tried to sell it.

On the debt crap it seems to me that the Dems are in a bind. Tax cuts and stimulus spending are two sides of the same coin. As you point out early in your piece, most mainstream liberal economists are against spending cuts in this environment.

The whole debt thing is BS IMO and the party out of power exploits it. It has gotten this bad as an issue because Obama is relatively weak, the stimulus he sold severely under performed, Obamacare is incredibly unpopular, etc.

What you are missing is that even mainstream liberal Dem party is now a deficit hawk and this is a huge mistake and not progressive at all. True progressives are trying to push Modern Monetary Theory.

It is a real alternative which the left wing needs to adopt. IMO it is the correct policy as well. Instead we are left with the two parties bickering over small potatoes but always on the debt reduction side.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Matt: the essay asks a question, but I answered it. :)

I would also say that the things you point to as failures (stimulus, healthcare) result from horrible messaging. Government spending is one way of helping the nation survive/get out of a recession. Interestingly, the public agreed with many things the stimulus did (pay for schools/teachers, unemployment benefits, etc). Yet, they hate "the stimulus" (not even knowing what it is). I had a debate recently with a man who didn't even know that 40% of the stimulus was tax cuts. He is still scratching his head, even after reading several articles on the subject.

The public also agreed with the terms of healthcare reform. Yet, they only know about it as "Obamacare." Scary thing like that is unpopular, but not being denied insurance for preexisting conditions, staying on your parents' plan until 25, having the option of shopping for cheaper plans, etc., are things the public favors. Clearly, the rightwing is winning the messaging war.

I'll check out the website you linked. Thanks for commenting.

Lynn E said...

I'm sick and tired of this alleging that only "Progressives" and "Liberals" as in Democrats are disappointed in Obama. Some of us are ordinary Democrats who never saw the charm of Obama and saw "Progressives" and "Liberals" run after Obama like he was Justin Bieber in concert.

Joyce L. Arnold said...

Obama does what Obama wants to do. Not lack of courage. Not lack of intellect. And not surprising.

The two party front for the oligarchy is also doing what it wants to do. And it isn't to serve "we the people."

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Lynn -- what do you think a "liberal" or "progressive" versus an "ordinary" person is? Furthermore, I guess I have not seen commentary by people who identify themselves in the "ordinary" bloc. Regardless, a lot of folks who are definitely progressive or liberal had strong reservations about Obama - not just the "ordinary" folks.

Real Time Analytics