Wow, if this isn’t a perfectly correct critique of the President, from of all people, David Frum.
He’s not an alien, he’s not a radical. He’s just not the person the country needs. He’s not tough enough, he’s not imaginative enough, and he’s not determined enough.
In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the president ran out of ideas sometime back in 2009.
In the face of opposition, Obama goes passive. The mean Republicans refused votes on his Federal Reserve nominees and Obama … did nothing. Would Ronald Reagan have done nothing? FDR? Lyndon Johnson?
With unemployment at 10% and interest rates at 1%, the president got persuaded that it was debt and interest that trumped growth and jobs as Public Issue #1.
Frum adds a very important point. Obama has kept to no two campaign promises more steadfastly than the surge in Afghanistan and the vow not to raise taxes for anyone making under $250,000 a year. The first has been a foreign policy mistake with almost no reward, one that he is now belatedly trying to rectify in a completely passive way. The latter hamstrung him in the tax cut negotiations and led to an extension of the Bush tax cuts, a central unifying issue for Democrats in previous years. This drove the decision to put 40% tax cuts in the stimulus as well, and future stimulus measures were mostly tax-based, ensuring their ineffectiveness. As Frum says, the only reason he took these on as points of principle was because he was worried about conservative critiques. And conservatives made the exact same critiques anyway, that he was a weak-on-defense tax-raiser.
Now you can pile onto this a lot of other critiques: assumptions of bad faith, or the facility with looking the other way at corporate crimes and crimes of torture, or the need to feed at the Wall Street trough, or whatever else. The point is that this pretty well sums up the man: someone too cautious to lead in a time desperate for leadership. I think Nate Silver gets at that in his piece distinguishing the styles of Obama and Andrew Cuomo with respect to marriage equality. I’m no fan of Cuomo, who’s far more of a triangulator than Obama; given what I know right now I wouldn’t vote for Cuomo over Obama in a primary. But this is instructive:
Suppose that Mr. Cuomo had expressed his desire to pass a marriage bill on the campaign trail, as he in fact did last year. But when he got to Albany, he decided to punt on the issue.
What would Mr. Cuomo have said? He would have mentioned that Republicans had taken over control of the Senate, something he had not necessarily anticipated. He would have reminded voters that the bill had been well short of passage the last time around. He might suggest that he thought he could round up a few more votes — but neither he nor the Republicans saw much point in bringing up a bill that was probably going to fail. He might tell his supporters that the prospects looked pretty bright for 2013.
It seems to me that this would have been an entirely reasonable-sounding argument. When there were some annoyed posts from liberal and gay and lesbian bloggers expressing disappointment with Mr. Cuomo’s decision, perhaps someone like Mr. Yglesias would have weighed in by saying that politics is the art of the possible — and sorry, but it just wasn’t going to be possible to get a gay marriage bill through a Republican majority.
The point is that it isn’t always such a simple matter to know exactly what is possible and what isn’t. Passing a same-sex marriage through the New York Senate might have seemed impossible this year — until Mr. Cuomo actually did it.
Silver contrasts this with Obama, who on a host of issues has seen similar obstacles to Cuomo and declined to make the fight. Obama likes to posit his conception of the world of the possible as the only world available. He has almost never taken a lead on a piece of legislation that he thought would fail, choosing his battles He has seen the world as it is, and then called that the best world on which we can live. The Cuomo story is instructive because it shows a different way, one where grassroots advocacy and leadership combine to produce results.
I don’t want this to veer too much into the “Obama should push harder” territory. There’s an entire political party on the other side which aligns themselves in opposition to him no matter what he proposes. But there’s more than one leadership style that exists, and whatever you want to say about Obama’s, I don’t think you can say that it’s working. There’s no risk, and as a result, no reward.