"The political system is “broken” all right, as commentators keep saying, but it is not broken in the way they contend. The problem is not that Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on enough deficit reduction. It is that one party has been taken over by extremists who seem to enjoy watching things burn, while the other party is in the hands of a president who seems clinically depressed and can’t bring himself to lead the country in a direction that defies the conventional wisdom."
I want to look at this in the context of our political discourse on race for the past three years or so, during which many conservatives have put forth a narrative of white victimhood in which the Obama policy agenda consists entirely of “reparations” and the sluggish recovery is Obama’s racial “payback” for past grievances. As silly as the idea that Obama is a racist who is singlehandedly effecting a widespread redistribution of wealth on racial terms, it’s clear that on some level this narrative of anti-white oppression is gaining some traction as an explanation for ongoing economic misery, given that a non-trivialnumber of whites, conservatives in particular, seem to think that anti-white racism is a big problem.
Yet, to paraphrase something Matthew Yglesias once said, the numbers look more like a white racist conspiracy to deprive minorities of what little wealth they’ve attained than a ruthless plan for gouging John Galt.
Barack Obama is one of the most intelligent and eloquent people to grace the White House, which makes his abject failure to tell the story of our era all the more disappointing. Many who were drawn to him in 2008 were dazzled by the power of his words—his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, his autobiography and subsequent policy book, his insights about race and other divisive issues during the campaign—and were excited by the prospect of an “educator in chief” who would use the bully pulpit to explain what has happened to the United States in recent decades and to mobilize Americans to do what must be done.
But the man who has occupied the Oval Office since January 2009 is some-one entirely different—a man seemingly without a compass, a tactician who veers rightward one day and leftward the next, an inside-the-Beltway deal-maker who does not explain his compromises in light of larger goals. Americans have no idea why we’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that Osama bin Laden has been killed and most of the remaining leadership of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan.
Progressives don’t need more reasons to be disappointed with President Barack Obama’s handling of the deficit talks, but here’s another failing that has not gotten much play: The administration has been so timid on defense cuts that some leading Republicans are now well to the president’s left on this issue.
It’s not hard to find signs that President Barack Obama is destined for a single term. Unemployment continues to hover at 9 percent, and a June poll from American Research Group says 39 percent of Americans disapprove of how he has handled the economy, which 71 percent of registered voters say will be “extremely or very important.” When asked whom they’d vote for in the 2012 presidential election, 47 percent said the “Republican Party’s candidate for president,” as opposed to the 39 percent who would support Obama.
Obama isn’t the only incumbent to start a re-election campaign with low approval ratings, but others enjoyed the advantage of a growing economy. Ronald Reagan might not have earned the reputation for political genius he’s been credited with had the economy stalled in 1984 instead of growing at a rapid clip. Likewise, Bill Clinton might not have regained his title as the “comeback kid” if the economy hadn’t begun to supercharge in 1995 and 1996. For Obama, even if the economy grows quickly in 2012, unemployment will still top 8 percent, and per-capita income growth (a major predictor of presidential elections) is projected to stagnate.
Taken together, this is bad news for the White House. Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism.
It would have been easy to scoff at the fact that the president of the United States sat down last week to field questions delivered via a social network that limits all messages to 140 characters or less. But the “Twitter town hall” was much more substantive than you might have expected. The questions President Barack Obama answered (which were selected by Twitter executives from the thousands that came in) mostly concerned the economy, but also covered such topics as energy, education, taxes, and our various wars. In other words, it turned out largely as Obama intended, and no one should have been surprised.
It might seem counter-intuitive, given how little Americans (on average) know about politics, and how many of us believe ridiculous things - that aliens are abducting people, or that whether you’ll meet an old friend today is determined by the position of the zodiac. But town halls have been with us since before we were an independent nation. That, of course, is part of the appeal: by conducting something like the Twitter town hall, we are updating a hallowed tradition of American democracy to the electronic age.
If we miss the August 2 deadline, and the dollar starts wobbling and the bond-market goes haywire, that might finally put some salutary pressure on the Republicans to meet the Democrats more than halfway. They control just one house. The Democrats have the Senate and the White House. They should start acting like it.
Alternatively, if Obama “succeeds” this weekend in brokering an austerity deal, the Democrats, American progressivism and the economy will all be the losers.