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Grand Unified Obama Critique

One of these people must be wrong! But is it Paul Krugman?

[T]here are some good reasons for the prominence of the public option in our debate. […] One is […] what the option debate says about Obama.

If progressives had real trust in Obama’s commitment to doing the right thing, the administration would have broad leeway to do deals. But the president doesn’t command that kind of trust.

Partly it’s a matter of style — as many people have noted, he has been weirdly reluctant to make the moral case for universal care, weirdly unable to show passion on the issue, weirdly diffident even about the blatant lies from the right. Partly it’s a spillover from his other policies: by appointing an economic team that’s Rubin redux, by taking such a kindly attitude to the banks, he has squandered a lot of progressive enthusiasm.

…or is it Jay Cost?

For whatever reason, the Obama administration has acted as if those hagiographical comparisons to FDR were apt. It let its liberal allies from the coasts drive the agenda and write the key bills, and it’s played straw man semantic games to marginalize the opposition. For all the President’s moaning in The Audacity of Hope about how the Bush administration was railroading the minority into accepting far right proposals – he was prepared to let his Northeastern and Pacific Western liberal allies do exactly the same thing: write bills that excite the left, infuriate the right, and scare the center; insist on speedy passage through the Congress; and use budget reconciliation to ram it through in case the expected super majority did not emerge.

This might have flown during FDR’s 100 Days. But this is not 1933 and Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

If liberals are convinced that the President is too conservative and conservatives are convinced that he’s too liberal then either the President must be doing everything right or everything wrong. Lately, granted, it has seemed more like the latter.

But actually, these critiques are not so incompatible.

Cost suggests that Obama misunderstood how difficult it would be to get his agenda passed in a 60-vote Senate in which the swing vote was a conservative Democrat from a state that John McCain carried by 17 points. Therefore, he should have bowed to reality and pursued a more modest agenda.

There are a few of Obama’s liberal critics who could stand to recognize this. The Senate, with its filibuster rule, small-state bias, and committee and seniority structure, is a slow-moving, change-resistant, lower-case “c” conservative institution. It’s not obvious that if you put — I don’t know — Dennis Kucinich in the Oval Office that he’d have been able to accomplish a whole heck of a lot more. And Obama’s achievements are not insignificant: he signed an $800 billion stimulus package, expanded children’s health care, seems to have rescued the economy from a complete meltdown (although not necessarily from an extended recession), and has generally gotten good reviews on his foreign policy. And it’s a little early to write the obituary on health care, which is still more likely to pass than to fail.

The more intelligent liberal critique of Obama, however — and the one that Krugman is echoing — is that he’s left too much up to the whims of Congress, and particularly the Senate. Yes, Obama let his “Northeastern and Pacific Western liberal allies” write the health care, climate and stimulus bills. But he also let Blue Dogs and Committee Chairs mark them up. As a result, the climate bill that passed the House was significantly watered-down, the stimulus package was less than what economists like Krugman was calling for, and the public option is in grave trouble in the Senate.

What I think people were hoping for is that Obama would, somehow or another, be able to overcome the institutional barriers to change, probably through a hands-on approach involving a lot of public persuasion. And by “institutional barriers”, I mean the Senate, among other things. The public option is a good example of this. It’s fairly popular and would probably lower the net cost of the bill to taxpayers, but it likely won’t pass because 10-12 Senate Democrats who take a lot of money from the health care industry are against it. Yes, some of these people are folks like Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu who hail from states where Obama was never popular. But of the Democrats who have yet to endorse the public option, about half are from states that Obama carried.

To some fairly large extent, this was probably a vain hope. I think Cost is right that people have tended to overstate how much the country had changed last November 4th. Some 46 percent of the nation voted against Barack Obama, and we’re still mostly the same country that elected George W. Bush twice.

Nevertheless, although his numbers have slipped significantly now, Obama had approval ratings of 50 percent or higher in all but two states throughout the first half of the year. We can debate the semantics of what a “mandate” is — the fact is, Obama had a lot of political capital to burn. Obama could have used that political capital in either of two ways. He might have used it to bludgeon the Blue Dogs and moderate Republicans, or alternatively, he could have used it to quell liberal impatience and play more for the long term, perhaps limiting his policy advocacy to popular issues like education after getting the stimulus passed.

It’s not clear that Obama has done either. Although Obama has put a lot of cars on the policy train, he’s also let the Congress drive it. This is arguably the worst of all worlds. A slowgoing, more passive approach might be fine — there are good arguments that Obama should have chosen to preserve his political capital once unemployment shot up from the 7’s to the 9’s within the first few months of his administration. If so, then perhaps Cost is right that the train should never have been allowed to leave the station. Alternatively, if you conclude that the Democrats’ policy window was narrow, then full-speed-ahead was the right approach. But then Obama needed to play conductor, when instead he’s often seemed happy enough to be along for the ride.

Now, let me pause here and stipulate how easy it is to play Monday Morning Quarterback. Obama passed one of the largest spending bills in history, a lot of which was directed toward traditionally liberal priorities. He’s gotten farther on universal health care than any President has in the last 50 years and may well still get across the finish line. If a public-option-less bill passes the Congress, then liberals have every right to critique it as a matter of policy. But as a matter of politics, it will have been an enormous accomplishment.

For my money, the problem has not been that Obama is insufficiently committed to the progressive cause (which, by the way, is not necessarily his job). Nor is it that he’s tried to ram liberal policies down the country’s throat. Almost all of of the reforms that the Democrats have been advancing — the stimulus, health care, global warming regulation, etc. — began as fairly popular programs (although they didn’t necessarily end up they once the Congress got done with them). Rather, it’s that in trying to split the difference between these two extremes, he’s sometimes failed to make the tough choices that define successful Presidencies. Obama will probably get this figured out — in fact, he’ll almost certainly get it figured out by 2012 (take a look at where Reagan and Clinton were at this point in their first terms). But if Democrats want to survive 2010 and the health care debate largely intact, he will need to do so sooner rather than later.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.