By Matt Stoller, who worked on the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and Federal Reserve transparency issues as a staffer for Rep. Alan Grayson (on Twitter at @matthewstoller)
If you have only one rule in politics, I suggest the following – get your head of out your television set, and start paying attention to government. The narrow intense focus of TV can constrain us so powerfully that we are blinded by technicolor.
To explain – there’s an endless stream of musings on our current political problems, with an attempt to apportion “blame” for what’s going on. One argument, fleshed out by Paul Krugman and Amanda Marcotte is that of truculent Republican extremists are at the root dysfunction. In Krugman’s words, “The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse. ” In this formulation, the President, though he does not fight hard enough, is drawn to poor policy-making by the dynamic imposed by far right ideologues. Another argument suggests that Republicans are making clear arguments about what they want, and it is the lack of a clear alternative that leads to our current morass. In this formulation, it is a betrayal by Obama that is the primary issue at hand.
This type of dispute reveals an interesting dynamic about the limits of how liberals see government, and in particular, the Presidency. It’s something I encountered often, when there was a desperate under-the-radar policy fight between an alliance of Republicans and Obama versus liberals in Congress that Democrats simply didn’t pay attention to, like war funding, or perhaps more currently, free trade pending agreements. The focus, almost entirely, is on what is on TV
This comes down to how you see government, and the Presidency. The President is both a symbol of the country and party, monarchical in his ceremonial role. He is also a legislator in that he has use of a very powerful weapon – the veto. And finally, he is the executor of the laws and the commander-in-chief, the wielder of a three trillion dollar budget and enormous military and diplomatic power.
It’s worth laying out how people see the Presidency, because the criticisms that one makes are often targeted at different aspects of the role.
Legislator-in-Chief – Many people think that the President’s role is as the legislator in chief. He cannot do very much without Congress, and therefore, it is Congressional cooperation or obstruction that constrains and dictates his power or lack thereof. Though he might have wanted a larger stimulus, or might want a job creation program now, or any number of other priorities, it does not matter. Congress, with House Republicans in charge (and prior to them, Blue Dogs or the Senate), are in the way. As legislator-in-chief, he is not great, but he is better than a Republican (so goes the theory for liberals, anyway). And it’s not entirely his fault.
Narrator-in-Chief - Some people see Obama’s role as the country’s spiritual and political leader. He should use the “bully pulpit” to advocate, and to educate. He should head the Democratic Party and help his party by pinning the blame for poor policies on Republicans, and boosting Democrats in every way possible. In this formulation, it is his adoption of conservative “framing” on economic issues and validation of compromise as a core value that is the main problem. In this formulation, the Republicans have an up-is-down set of ideas about how the country works, and the press plays along with a faux-balance posture. In this posture, he is not great, but he is better than a Republican (so goes the theory for liberals, anyway). And it’s not entirely his fault.
Governor-in-Chief – Some people think that Obama runs the country, as he is the head of the executive branch of government and the Commander in Chief. Here his record is clear. His law enforcement chief, Eric Holder, has engaged in a policy of legalizing control fraud on the part of large banking institutions and gone after whistleblowers more aggressively than Bush did. Obama has launched secret wars and enlarged at least one overt war in Afghanistan. His stewardship of the BP spill was problematic to say the least, his foreclosure program has been a disaster, and his small business lending program passed in late 2010 and framed as a key job creator has lent out almost no money.
As narrator-in-chief and legislator-in-chief, the President has not been particularly effective, but one could at least argue that it is not his “fault”. Perhaps he made poor choices, but it could simply be a strategic disagreement. He could not get a liberal health care plan through, he couldn’t achieve a big enough stimulus, etc. But on how he actually governs, which is actually a pretty big part of the job, there is no debate. He has pursued a governing strategy that is both radical in its lawlessness and authoritarian in its structure around civil liberties, war, and deference to big finance while destroying faith in government through nearly unprecedented incompetence in the millions of people touched by the HAMP program. And what, pray tell, explains the ongoing Libya fiasco?
So why, if his Presidency has been such an unmitigated disaster, is he continuing to pursue this reckless course. My theory is that the key to the Obama administration’s political strategy is not compromise or incrementalism. It is, quite simply, fooling liberals. When you look at Obama’s governing role, he is clearly a servant of American oligarchs. But obviously he can’t explicitly tell liberals this (unlike Republicans, who are explicit in saying they favor “job creators”), because liberals like to think of themselves as favoring economic justice. So how do you acquire support from liberals, as he did in the primaries in 2008 and will need to do again in 2012, while pursuing oligarch-friendly policies?
You do it by ensuring that liberals only focus on the ceremonial non-governmental aspects of the Presidency. You do it by making sure that they focus only on the televised aspects of the Presidency.
When Obama is criticized as not fighting Republicans hard enough, it’s an implicit endorsement of the “legislator-in-chief” role. As such, the blame for illiberal policies like bailouts, poorly designed health care plans, cuts to entitlements – well, these are the Republicans fault. Obama is simply helpless before the onslaught. Similarly, every time an establishment liberal says in the newspaper that “Obama’s policy choices are jeopardizing his reelection chances”, they are implicitly endorsing the narrator-in-chief role, and ignoring his role as an incompetent and highly radical President causing enormous damage to millions of people. Again, he’s helpless before a mean-spirited press corps and Republican establishment bent on his destruction. This is easy to show on TV – just pop up some video of mean Republicans.
It is only by focusing on the governor-in-chief role that one sees a different focus of the Presidency. It is absolutely the case, as Krugman notes, that Republican detachment from reality is a threat to democracy. But it is worth noting that in ascribing to this the sole cause of our political situation is to diminish the notion that creatively using power can achieve good things for people. For instance, it’s true that having a press corps with more balance about the goals of Republicans and Democrats would create a healthier democratic society – but then, it’s probably also true that a real foreclosure prevention plan in 2009 would have dramatically restored faith in government by touching the lives of millions of people in an affirmatively positive instead of malevolent way.
All of this is to say that how one sees government is critical to how one judges Obama. And if the only consideration is the boundaries of television, then of course, Obama is going to look like a mediocre narrator-in-chief constrained by wild forces he cannot control. Of course, Congress will make him seem like a somewhat inept but well-meaning legislative leader or party leader. It is only in turning off the boundaries set by a narrow TV-dominated discourse that one truly sees Obama’s real handiwork – the wars, the bailouts, and most tragically, what could have been but never was.