Thomas Frank on Obama
|HARPER’S MAGAZINE/ September 2012
By Thomas Frank
LET US review. Barack Obama, who was lifted to the presidency four
years ago on a great wave of progressive fantasy, likes to say that
the national budget is like a family budget: that when times are
tough, government has to tighten its belt. This is a Republican simile
of very long standing, and the president is a Democrat. He is in fact
the leader of the party that is supposed to believe in deficit
spending during hard times. Yet Obama has enthusiastically adopted the
belt-tightening trope, and all the terrible ideas that go with it.
Another thing the president likes to say—or liked to say, back in the
days when his administration was new and “hope” hadn’t started to
stink yet—was that “we should be looking forward and not backwards.”
More recently, he has ar gued that we should not “relitigate the
past.” What Obama has meant is that he and his colleagues won’t look
too closely into the Bush Administration’s torture policies or the
causes of the financial disaster of 2008. No, they will focus on
“getting things right in the future.” It’s a kind of intellectual
amnesty program that has absolved in one fell swoop the nation’s
failed political leadership and pundit corps.
A truly dedicated Obama watcher could pile up dozens of similar
examples. Such an observer might note that big chunks of the
president’s signature health-care reform effort were borrowed from the
conservative Heritage Foundation and a certain Republican governor of
Massachusetts. That Obama’s bank bailouts were no different from
George W. Bush’s bank bailouts. That his Fed chairman was Bush’s Fed
chairman. That his 2009 stimulus package was, in large part, made up
of tax cuts—just like Bush’s stimulus package of the previous year.
And that by February 2010, when he create d the Simpson–Bowles
commission, Obama had pretty much given up on stimulus anyway,
choosing instead to lend his gravitas to the worldwide push for
That same observer might remind us that President Obama has pursued
governmental secrecy to a degree even the Bush Administration never
dared, and that he has arrogated to himself the right to kill American
citizens overseas who have not been convicted of any crime. President
Obama likes (or used to like) to extend the hand of kindness to the
nation’s bankers: “Help me help you,” he implored them back in 2009.
When he decided to go populist and snarl at the One Percent, he took
care to dispatch an emissary to New York to let the finance industry
know he didn’t mean it. (Just as he didn’t mean it when he badmouthed
NAFTA or promised to revisit the Patriot Act.) And what of the
bureaucratic red tape that haunts the Republican imagination? Obama,
too, loves to moan about it. In 2011, he even launched a review of
federal rule-making—one part of the past he was happy to relitigate—in
order to zap the regulations that unduly impeded private-sector
And yet, in the great electoral contest that has now commenced in
earnest, it is Barack Obama the would-be socialist dictator who stands
on trial. Back in 2010, a leaked Republican presentation identified
“sav[ing] the country from trending toward Socialism” as the G.O.P.’s
strongest fund-raising appeal. Obama’s White House is “a radical
left-wing administration,” says Senate Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell, “full of people who want to police all of America—the
private sector, political speech.” It is a “secular-socialist
machine,” per Newt Gingrich; its health-care program is “the crown
jewel of socialism,” per Michele Bachmann. The s-word has become the
G.O.P.’s political talisman, spat out the window of a
champagne-colored Mercedes, howled from the podium at CPAC. If the
nominal Democrat Obama is beaten this fall, it is as an accused Red
that he will go down to defeat.
For the Obama years to be terminated on such grounds would furnish
future historians with vast deposits of irony. The president is a man
whose every instinct is conciliatory. He is not merely a casual seeker
of bipartisan consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in
it. He simply cannot imagine a dispute in which one antagonist is
right and the other is wrong. No, there is always something honorable
about both sides, some concession to be made by each. His presidency
has been one long quest for a “grand bargain,” as he has sometimes put
it, between red and blue.
This was the case long before he entered the White House. Bipartisan
conciliation was the theme of Obama’s famous keynote speech at the
2004 Democratic convention. It was the theme of his best-selling 2006
book, The Audacity of Hope, a lengthy salute to consensus that is
distinguished from hundreds of similarly centrist tracts only by the
intellectual pirouettes its author performs around his deeply boring
subject. Read the book and you will find Obama’s pronouncements to be
standard-issue let’s-all-getalong stuff of the sort that Beltway
thinkers have been cranking out for decades.
For example, Obama declares in Audacity that “we need a new kind of
politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared
understandings that pull us together as Americans.” He takes pains to
blame Democrats as well as Republicans for the sin of partisanship.
(Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was really on to something with his
“Third Way” and all.) The forces of globalization, Obama contends, are
irresistible. He argues that education and retraining are the keys to
solving just about every blue-collar problem. He explains why Robert
Rubin’s economic views are worthier than those of organized labor. And
also why it is daring—even audacious— for him to subscribe to these
profoundly conventional ideas.
Indeed, centrism is built into the very structure of the book. Again
and again, the president-to-be tells readers how he originally
supposed one conventional thing, but was challenged by some other
really ordinary idea, then eventually concluded that his original,
trite position was correct, with a few modifications. In other words,
his platitudes are hard won from the comfy clash of thesis and
antithesis. It’s the sort of dialectical centrism that not only
confirms the base prejudices of the Chevy Chase set but also makes
them feel sophisticated in the bargain.
How have conservatives transformed this born compromiser into the Red
Menace? Well, there is the fact that Obama is a politician of unusual
plumage. Not only does he have a Muslim name and African ancestry—both
automatic disqualifications for the presidency in olden times—but he
spent several years trying to help out the extremely poor inhabitants
of housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.
Now, it is permissible in American political life to watch movies
about the plucky doings of such beaten-down people. You may even
pretend to have their interests at heart, especially if you’re
proposing to “empower” them with enterprise zones or school vouchers.
But to actually care about these untouchables as individuals, to
immerse yourself in their lives and spend your days helping them
obtain, say, better housing or access to a jobtraining program—this
is, according to the norms of Washington, highly suspicious behavior.
It marks the president as a radical, regardless of the Niagara of
soggy political clichés he has spouted in the intervening years.
There is another reason the right loves to label Obama an extremist
and iron partisan: because he is so manifestly the opposite. That he
longs so earnestly for consensus is the precise reason consensus will
be denied him. Conservative strategists learned long ago to attack an
opponent at his or her point of greatest strength. The way to
discredit a decorated veteran like Senator John Kerry was to depict
him as a coward. Similarly, labor leaders must be referred to as
“bosses,” intellectuals must be derided for their cluelessness, and
figures with the sort of immense popularity Obama enjoyed in early
2008 must be mocked for being too distant, glacially disconnected from
the sweating masses.
The trump card of centrism has always been its practicality. Pivoting
to the magic middle, as we have all heard many thousands of times, is
the way elections are won. Making reasonable concessions to the other
side is the way laws are passed. Taking off the partisan blinders and
looking at things as they really are is the way policy is crafted.
During the years of the Obama presidency, however, everything has gone
in the opposite direction. Centrism has become a virtual guarantee of
electoral defeat, thinning the ranks of moderate Republicans and “Blue
Dog” Democrats alike. And even while Obama still had a Democratic
Congress to work with, bipartisanship was the altar on which quality
legislation was repeatedly sacrificed.
In one telling passage from Audacity, Obama inveighs against the fake,
manipulative bipartisanship of conservative strategists like Karl
Rove. Such lip service to opposing views allows the majority party to
“begin every negotiation by asking for 100 percent of what it wants,
go on to concede 10 percent, and then accuse any member of the
minority party who fails to support this ‘compromise’ of being
‘obstructionist.’ ” In Obama’s view, this is truly despicable, the
opposite of how a statesman conducts himself.
What he fails to consider, however, is the inverse problem: the
consequences of handing a vanquished but utterly intransigent foe a
veto over your own agenda out of some dreamy sense of civility. By
now, no doubt, Obama could write a whole book about that subject. In
2009, he diluted his stimulus package with tax cuts in order to live
up to his noble ideals and woo a bloc of Republican legislators. (He
got absolutely no Republican votes in the House, and three in the
Senate.) He later allowed the negotiations on health-care reform to
drag on for months, refusing to start from a “100 percent” position
because that wouldn’t be, you know, fair, and yet still conceding
point after point after point. The bill got no Republican votes in the
House or Senate, and we have the highly partisan former House speaker
Nancy Pelosi to thank for the fact that anything was salvaged from the
disaster at all.
And then, in 2011, after his midterm shellacking, Obama got his
Democrats to renew the Republicans’ precious Bush tax cuts in exchange
for close to nothing. In this way he fumbled away a bargaining chip
that might have proved useful several months later, when those same
Republicans contrived to hold the nation’s credit rating hostage.
But it was the right thing to do, I guess.
Let’s not overlook centrism’s perennial promise: that it is the only
way to reach the coveted swing voter, who resides, per D.C.
superstition, in the very middle of the political spectrum. That
committing yourself heart and soul to a bipartisan approach might
allow an opposing party to completely reconfigure the political
spectrum is not, as far as I know, a part of accepted poli-sci game
And yet that is exactly what has happened over the past four years.
When the president said and did all the things I have listed here, he
no doubt thought he was reaching across the aisle, as the expression
goes. Everyone could see that he had adopted many of the other party’s
positions, that he was using their rhetoric, that he was showing
respect for their values and bowing to their household gods.
Back in the Clinton years, such moves were hailed as a kind of
advanced political judo, throwing Republicans off balance. This time,
though, the skills are all on the other side. Republicans have grasped
that if the contest is not about issues but the relative position of
the two parties, then they are free to move ever rightward, dragging
the center with them, always keeping it a few inches away from the
president’s anxious, conciliatory grasp.
And why not? Since what they say and demand today will probably be
what he (or his centrist successor) says and demands tomorrow, the
obvious choice is to keep escalating those demands and that rhetoric.
And by insisting with such unanimity on the absurd charge of
“socialism,” they have actually done a very canny thing: they have
defined whatever Obama embraces—bank bailouts, kill lists, herding the
public into the arms of private insurers—not as the Democratic
mainstream, but as the outermost fringe of the party.
Historians often say of Franklin Roosevelt that he “saved capitalism”
by steering the nation through the Great Depression with relatively
little upheaval. Sure, he reformed the banking system, built strong
regulatory agencies, and saw to it that organized labor flourished,
but compared with what might have happened, FDR’s New Deal was mild.
What Barack Obama has saved is a bankrupt elite that by all rights
should have met its end back in 2009. He came to the White House amid
circumstances similar to those of 1933, but proceeded to rule like
Herbert Hoover. Today the banks are as big as ever, and he has done
precious little about it. The regulatory system is falling apart, and
he is too ideologically demure to tell us why. Organized labor is
crumbling, and he has done almost nothing to help it recover.
Meanwhile, the people who told us that finance was king, that the “new
economy” changed all the rules, that we didn’t really need a strong
supervisory state—those people are still riding high, still making
their pronouncements from the heights of the op-ed page and the
And while Obama and his fellow Democrats have been off chasing
postpartisan soap bubbles, the right has seized the opportunity to
make itself into the great expression of hard-times protest. When
unemployment is high this time around, it is the right—with its
mythology of heroic “job creators”—that we ask to rescue us. It is the
right that talks about the little people, about smashing the cozy
Beltway consensus, about bringing in a whole new crop of leaders.
As I watched this upside-down unrest emerge, I used to wonder how long
it would take Obama to switch on his inner FDR and start grappling
with the nation’s problems the way they obviously needed to be
grappled with. The years passed, and I finally realized that this was
never going to happen. Then a different possibility started to dawn on
me: Maybe a second New Deal is precisely what Obama was here to
prevent. Maybe that was the hope all along.
*Obama ran afoul of the truth squad at PolitiFact for claiming this
ho-hum effort was “unprecedented.” Bill Clinton did the same thing
with much more fanfare, as did Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.
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