Obama, So Far
Above the Fold
On the eve of the most important foreign policy speech of his presidency, pundits are more divided than ever over what Barack Obama has or has not accomplished in the first ten months of his presidency.
FCP’s common-sense-of-the-week-award goes to Jacob Weisberg. Writing in Slate, Weisberg makes a series of extremely sensible observations.
* This conventional wisdom about Obama’s first year isn’t just premature—it’s sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.
* Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.
* If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ.
* Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone. There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter.
That’s all true. The other side of the coin, which Weisberg ignores, is best expressed by Glenn Greenwald, who has become the conscience of America on all questions of torture and civil liberties. Greenwald takes Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Yglesisas to task for giving Obama more or less of a free pass for his failure to reverse many of Bush’s policies in these areas. Yglesias, for example, wrote “I agree that the civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted, but I’m continually surprised that people are disappointed in this turn. Of all the things for an incumbent President of the United States to take political risks fighting for, obviously reducing the power of the executive branch is going to be dead last on the list. If you want to see civil liberties championed, that’s going to have to come from congress.”
For Greenwald, and for anyone who shares George Orwell’s conviction that one’s own side must live up to its own principles, Yglesias’ analysis simply won’t do.
“It’s interesting how what was once lambasted as ‘Constitution-shredding’ under George Bush is now nothing more than: Obama’s ‘civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted,’ writes Greenwald. “Also, the premise implicitly embedded in Matt’s argument is the standard Beltway dogma that there would be serious political costs from reversing the Bush/Cheney abuses of the Constitution and civil liberties. The success of Obama’s campaign – which emphatically and repeatedly vowed to do exactly that – ought to have permanently retired that excuse.”
“Whatever else is true,” Greenwald continues, “watching Obama embrace extremist policies can still be ‘disappointing’ even if one isn’t surprised that he’s doing it. I could understand and accept a lot more easily this blithe acquiescence to Obama’s record if it weren’t for the fact that progressives and Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush’s use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy – policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own.”
FCP shares all of Greenwald’s disappointment over Obama’s failure to repeal all of Bush’s extra-consitutional policies. So far, the only major act of the administration on the other side of this argument–besides the outright banning of torture–has been the appointment of Michael Posner as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Posner, who headed Human Rights First for three decades, has as good a record of fighting the Bush administration’s torture policies as anyone else in America, so his selection was extremely encouraging. It has also gone almost completely unreported by the MSM and the blogosphere alike.
Meanwhile, holding up the radical fringe this week is Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, with a piece which could easily make him even more of a laughing-stock than he was before. So far, Meacham is the only “mainstream” pundit I know to take Liz Cheney seriously, after she suggested her father really ought to run for president.
Ignoring the fact that Cheney was the author of almost all of the foreign policy decisions which have brought the nation to the edge of catastrophe, Meacham heartily endorses Liz Cheney’s suggestion–“Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people. The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting. A contest between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama would offer us a bracing referendum on competing visions.”
Bracing indeed. Apparently, the plight of Newsweek is now so desperate, Meacham will do literallyanything to try to bring attention to his magazine.
Update: For a shameful example of the non-journalism so often favored by Washington journalists, don’t miss this morning’s appalling interview with Meacham’s would-be Republican presidential nominee in Politico. Conducted by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, the 90-minute exchange does not include a single tough question. It also contains absolutely zero news, just an endless repetition of the same Cheney rant we have heard over and over again this year. I guess that’s why Politico is leading with it today.
The intrepid Politico reporters reported:
“Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. ‘I basically don’t,’ he replied without elaborating.”
Follow up, gentlemen? Naturally, there was none.
If either of these reporters knew any of the details about this subject, they might have asked the former vice president why reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 to 37,000 in Cheney’s final year of office–and slashing aid to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense from $9.6 billion to $5.4 billion during the same period– had nothing to do with the current meltdown over there. But the pristine ignorance of these reporters insures an utterly free ride for the their subject.
As the indispensable Steve Benen points out at The Washington Monthly this morning, “there’s no real journalism to be found. No fact-checking, no pushback, no scrutiny. Just an uninterrupted string of predictable, misguided nonsense. Cheney could have just written a blog post/screed, and had Politico publish it. This would have saved Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei the trouble of adding quote marks to their stenography.”