So Much for the Art of the Possible: Obama's Pragmatism Refutes Itself

Now that the election is over and the Democrats have officially abdicated control of the House of Representatives, is it too much to hope that we can have a candid national debate about what has gone wrong with the Obama Administration?
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Now that the election is over and the Democrats have officially abdicated control of the House of Representatives, is it too much to hope that we can have a candid national debate about what has gone wrong with the Obama Administration?

In the run-up to the midterms, an honest conversation on the subject was virtually impossible given the abject terror that any criticism of the president and his policies immediately conjured up among many Democrats. Don't criticize Obama! You'll help the Republicans! Granted that many political operatives will insist on trying to blame liberal critics of the administration for the electoral debacle on November 2, but such efforts are unlikely to be persuasive. The time for excuses is over.

As painful as the exercise might be for Obamaphiles, it's important to achieve some clarity about the president's failures, because his shortcomings as a party leader are in large part responsible for our current predicament. Of course it is no doubt true that the single most important factor in this election was the weak economy -- and for this both parties share responsibility, because they both helped bring about the culture of casino capitalism that led to the financial crisis. Even so, the party in power always receives most of the blame for a bad economy, and in this election the blame was well deserved.

In the face of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama and his economic advisors refused to consider actions proportionate to the danger. Fearful of a difficult congressional fight, the administration lowballed its own stimulus package, and though the stimulus was better than nothing its meager success had the effect of discrediting further such measures. Obama bailed out Wall Street and the banks, which now enjoy all the benefits of federally funded single-payer insurance, and asked for nothing in return but continued campaign contributions. Then, instead of trying to push through an ambitious jobs program or a substantive mortgage relief program to help ordinary Americans (i.e. voters), the president chose to pursue an unpopular health-care reform bill that included an individual mandate of questionable constitutionality. Liberal critics who derided the health bill for being yet another corporate bailout were assailed for their inability to count to sixty, for making the perfect the enemy of the good, for neglecting the wisdom of political clichés, otherwise known as the art of the possible. Their compassionate humanity was called into question for wishing to deny cancer-ridden children the succor of health insurance.

Yet in no small part because of disgust at the administration's pragmatically corrupt back-room deal making, an ungrateful electorate has now delivered the House of Representatives into the hands of a Republican Party that threatens to undo as much of that health bill as it can. Millions of Americans--including a large portion of the Democratic base--who voted for Obama in 2008 simply did not turn out on November 2. In this respect, the Massachusetts special election was directly predictive of the midterms. Moreover, the Obama Administration can now look forward to endless hearings and subpoenas from hostile congressional committees, perhaps even to impeachment proceedings. And, tragically, one of the few honest and independent lawmakers in Washington, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was turned out of office after 18 years. So much for the art of the possible; Obama's pragmatism has succeeded in refuting itself.

The majority of Obama's former supporters who stayed home or cast protest votes for Republican congressmen and senators may not understand the complexities of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, but they can smell a rat, and determined Republican propagandists exploited their disgust. Perversely, the stench of one corrupt corporate bailout after another has resulted in the empowerment of a party that is even more mendacious than the Democrats.

It's not as if Obama and the Democrats were not warned -- independent polls showed the basic outline of the Republican surge almost a year ago -- but the leadership refused to listen to their "leftist" critics and instead took refuge in their own virtuous self-regard, their technocratic sense of superiority, their faith that the voters would soon forget the revolting details of Rahm Emanuel's sausage making. And now, having helped create this mess, Emanuel has gone home to seek his fortune in Chicago; his partner in incompetence Lawrence Summers will be back at Harvard come spring, where perhaps he can make some phone calls to help some of those newly unemployed Blue Dog Democrats find work as Wall Street lobbyists.

For those of us who lost our jobs the old-fashioned way during this recession, however, things aren't looking so good. The lesson drawn from the midterms by many Washingtonians will no doubt be that the Democrats were punished because Obama governed from the far left; that even more centrism and compromise and corrupt deal making will somehow save a beleaguered presidency. Within a few weeks, the president's deficit commission will reveal its recommendations, and we can look forward to a long argument concerning the best way to further depress aggregate demand by cutting government spending. The spectacle of millionaires debating how to eliminate services to the poor and middle class is by now such a commonplace that it hardly deserves comment.

Meanwhile, as if in a parallel universe, America's war machine continues to hum along, the perfect product of a bipartisan establishment, even as airplanes laden with explosives once again prove the folly of spending trillions of dollars fighting interminable Asiatic wars when underwear or printer bombs can be sent forth to kill Americans from any location on the globe.

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