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Matt Stoller: What Presidency?

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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.

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76 comments

  1. sandra

    And I had just written this and posted it at The Washington Post before I read your column:
    “The immorality is staggering. And to think everyone thinks Obama is weak, and here in his moment of triumph he has gone against the wishes of over 80 percent of America, handing the decision making in this country over to some of the most dishonest and uneducated and vicious characters we have seen on our public stage in my lifetime.
    Obama proposes that hundreds of thousands of people should lose heath care coverage, and many will die, but Bank of America and General Electric and Exxon will not be required to pay any taxes.
    It is warfare by drone — the target is America– the sickest first, and then affecting every man, woman and child in the country.
    I will never vote for anyone who signs on to this monstrosity. It presupposes that our democracy is dead and buried and no longer functions. Ahem, and that is what it proves.”

    1. Dog Days

      It’s great to see the comments “blow away”, or completely demolish the relentless, pendantic politic-newspeak sludge. Well done – indeed, we have a war criminal, human rights destroying speech maker up in da’ house.

      1. rafael bolero

        He’s not in da’ house, he’s in da’ cabin, an his name is Tom, not Barack…Sandra is right on, too. The guy’s rapidly approaching Anti-Christ status, you know?

        1. psychohistorain

          While Obama gives new meaning to the old Uncle Tom phrase, lets get real here.

          Obama is a puppet and his strings are being pulled but the true anti-humanists, the global inherited rich who have been in control behind the scenes for centuries.

          Lets not conflate things with religious myth mongering, please.

          1. ambrit

            Dear Psychohistorian;
            This is perplexing. the rightwing political aparatchiks are using quasi mythologizing to push their agenda. (Regan died for your sins etc…) When debunking doesn’t work, (see the MSM meme of late,) it’s only natural to analyze the oppositions tactics and adopt those that are working. It’s Pragmatism, I know, but it’s also Fungiblism. [Sic?] Political speech is traded everywhere. They specialize in Futures, too.

          2. Nikhil

            Seriously. The left was strongest in this country when it had a quasi religious belief system on its side: Marxism. The right realized this and created its own. Ironically using the tools of the left. Namely a ethically bankrupt version of post-structuralist critique.

            The rights ability to use the anti-essentialist ideas to create a space to legitimize their views is something people on the left should be paying attention to. Its about time we started using the language of the right to push left/progressive ideas.

        2. Anonymous

          This ethnicity bullshit is beneath the usual quality of this site. Is there a study somewhere that says if you’re Kenyan American, you’re predisposed to being a genuine leftist? And if the president’s an Uncle Tom, what cute, racist epithet do you have for Jamie Dimon, or Lloyd Blanfein, or Sarah Palin, all of whom make a living by pimping primarily Euro Americans?

          The president is just your run of the mill, lying, incompetent politician. You don’t have to go simplistic and reductionist on ethnicity to make that simple point.

  2. Middle Seaman

    Like TV, this post obscures the real problem. The American people have to fight against their nemesis president Obama in order to survive. Dividing the presidency into classes is of no use.

    True, Obama represents the oligarchs. But he is also inept, not very smart and a real reactionary. I am not even sure that yesterday’s deal serves the oligarchs well. Destroying the country even more serves only the Tea Party; oligarchs do not make more money off ruins.

    1. Eureka Springs

      It’s called disaster capitalism. The oligarchs are increasing their percent of the pie at every step.

  3. Moopheus

    I am depressed. I agree with your basic premise. I believe that Obama has been very good at getting more or less what he wants, but convincing people otherwise. It’s probably pretty easy to do when his political enemies are calling him socialist and worse on a daily basis; it makes whatever Obama does look positively sane in comparison. (And I have no doubt that if McCain had been elected in his place, we really would be in a repeat of the Depression.)

    So it seems pretty likely that the choice next year will come down to Obama vs. someone even worse than Obama. Someone who would not only push a similar economic agenda but would also have stronger ties to the right-wing theocrat wing of the BananaRepublican party.

    So how do we make some lemonade out of this lemon?

  4. James

    Let the discussions of “worst President ever” begin! Assuming Obama is even an honest broker in the first place (by no means a given), he makes the Shrub look like a strategic and tactical genius in comparison. Four more years of this crap? I’m not sure we’ll make it through 2011. Which was all probably by design in the first place. Good work Impostor in Chief Barry! Hope the payoff was worth it for you.

  5. Franz

    I have to applaud the MSM for doing a splendid job for
    their corporate masters. Never one mention of that filthy
    word ‘austerity,’ either. LOL

  6. sharonsj

    If you read a bunch of sites and the comments, you will soon learn that a huge segment of Dems are totally fed up with Obama and the rest of the Dems. You’d think that in several decades the Dems would have learned something from the Rethugs–such as how to frame a fight in one sentence.

    Unfortunately I watch a lot of TV news every morning just to see who says what. The media only focuses on the conflict of the moment, never gives context, and usually omits facts. In the debt ceiling fight, almost no Dem ever explained what not raising the limit would mean until the week before the deadline…and neither did the media.

    In the Dem primary next year, I plan to write in Bernie Sanders’ name. After that, I’m not sure what to do. I might end up voting for “none of the above.”

    1. readerOfTeaLeaves

      Weird. That makes two of us seriously considering writing in Sen Bernie Sanders’ name; in my case, as a protest vote because I seriously doubt that Sanders is even interested in being President.

      But while I agree that people judge Obama based on the lens with which they view him, where I think the media have **completely** dropped the ball is their failure to report on the structural and institutional failures of Congress as a whole.

      I think there are some good members of Congress, who are engaged in issues and want to make a difference. But then I think of Sen Richard Shelby, who held up judicial nominations over budget allocations that favored Airbus over Boeing.

      The work of Open Secrets is hugely important, yet we see it too little reported in the media. (So far, Dylan Ratigan is the only person that I’ve seen highlight this organization, which seeks to make campaign contributions more transparent. Just go look at Rep McHenry’s funders, or at Sen Richard Shelby’s funders at http://www.opensecrets.org, and it explains a great deal more about US politics than most ‘news’ reports.)

      The other factor that makes any kind of federal legislation increasingly untenable is the US Senate’s Filibuster Rule.

      Once up upon a time, there were 13 colonies of roughly equal populations, and the Founding Fathers decided to weight state governments by assigning 2 senators from each state. That seemed design to allow for ‘one man, one vote’ and a form of ‘democracy’ based on relatively equal shares of power.

      Over the 200+ years of national life, the state populations have shifted beyond what the Constitution ever envisioned or imagined. Heck, they never foresaw Arizona, California, or Alaska as part of the U.S.

      Today, California — a single state — has nearly 12% of the US population ((37,000,000+).
      Meanwhile, a state like Alabama is the 23rd most populous state, with fewer than 2% of the US population (4,779,736 pop).

      And then we could look at Wyoming, whose .02% of the US population (you read that accurately, 1/5th of 1% of the US population) has 2 senate seats. It’s population of 600,456 — which is smaller than the average Congressional district (!).

      In other words, we have senators who represent less than half the population of some House members. Yet even Boehner represents 1/300th of the population that Obama represents.

      While ‘the media’ portrays Obama as narrator, or legislator, or whatever, no one in the media pays attention to the underlying population shifts that have made the US Senate, with its filibuster structure, untenable. (Sen Michael Bennet, DO and Sen ?Mark Udall, NM have both pointed to the filibuster rule as a structural problem in the Senate, but so far their colleagues have not approved their recommended changes — meaning that Shelby continues to hold the entire US hostage, while screwing Boeing, so that an EU airplane company can fill a few more non-union jobs in his state. )

      So this is a great post, but I think Obama is in a system that is so fundamentally dysfunctional and misaligned that there have to be more institutional changes to the whole campaign funding structure and also to Senate rules before we really have a serious conversation about how to improve governance in the US.

      ———————

      http://2010.census.gov/2010census/data/apportionment-data.php
      In 2000, each member of the House of Representatives represented a population of about 647,000.

      US State Populations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_populations

    2. Yearning to Learn

      I write in Denis Kucinich every year.
      Perhaps I’ll look into Bernie Sanders.

      what our country needs is a political enema.
      barring that (won’t happen) I guess a primary challenge to B.O. couldn’t hurt.

    3. jd

      I have already decided to vote for Bernie Sanders, and then write my name in for all the rest of the selections. That way I have exercised my right to vote. Dem/Rep there are no differences. They are all the same.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        I can sympathize with frustration, but there is a wide gulf between the Tea Partiers, the GOP, and the most of the Dems.

        The Tea Partiers don’t appear to value or understand the importance of good government. If they gain power, we’ll end up like Namibia, or worse.

        The GOP controlled both House and Senate when most of the legislation that led to the Meltdown was enacted. They claim that ‘government is the problem’ — while accepting government paychecks and benefits plans. Not a lot of credibility there.

        Meanwhile, Sen Sanders is the most articulate, insightful elected that I’ve heard explain the long term trends and their implications for civil society, as well as decent quality of life. And he understands that in a complex, modern society there is a role for government, and that the quality of government has a direct bearing on the quality of life for most of us. (Personally, I like having a Health Dept and a Food & Drug Admin, etc.)

        1. skippy

          Has the American government_ever_been more than the Floor Managers, too the gilded class, except for a brief period.

          Skippy…Go Vote..suckers…when they have used all of their energy…they will accept nearly anything as a respite.

          PS. rescind the alcohol laws on election days…eh…the least the bastards could do is buy ya a drink before the voter date rape ensues…dull the senses…if more could be done in that regard…sigh.

        2. Nathanael

          Namibia’s not so bad. The Republicans are actually planning a repeat of Nazi Germany — let’s be quite clear on this. The really pathetic part is that Obama is helping them out. Even though he’ll probably be one of the ones sent to the gas chambers.

    4. Marie

      All angry Democrats should register as Independents. Why vote in the primary, all the candidates lie anyway.
      Vote your heart, I don’t think we can stop the slide to the bottom. We have to stop supporting those who betray us at every turn.

    5. jim

      Just speculation here, bu I think the right wing thugs work closely with coorporate owned media and think tanks. That probably explains why the GOP seem more organized.

      The media is stage managed and Barack is manipulated. I have no idea to what extent Barack is manipulated. Is he really doing the american people, or is he just terribly manipulated?(question to all readers)

  7. No Know

    Matt Stoller wrote recently that the Republicans are living in an “alternate universe”. I don’t disagree. But possibly he is looking at trees and not the forest. I suggest that both parties and particularly Obama are living in an “alternate universe” and it is precisely the TV world that Matt now decries. He is right on the money when he says that the TV world has become detached from the reality of governing. In my life, I have seen us put on a slippery slope by that damned box when Nixon’s first presidential fortunes were dramatically reversed by his awful appearance in the debate with Kennedy (I was too young to vote but I did not know one adult who was for Nixon, so it was fine with us). No matter how much you were for Kennedy or against Nixon (like my clan), think about it, the boob tube put Kennedy into office because of his television persona. Like it or not, had Nixon won, Kennedy would not have gone to Dallas and who knows what history would be like. I don’t have a solution, but I strongly believe that the boob tube has done as much or more to destroy politics and governing than all other factors combined.

    1. BAJ

      Both Nixon and Kennedy were fairly articulate and nuanced in that debate (compared to today’s standard). It’s sad that the takeaway was Nixon’s sweat and not one or more of their ideas.

      Watching the presidential debates in succession is a good proxy for observing the degeneration of our national discourse.

      1. Jessica

        At the time, I had an Irish-American young girl’s one-sided perspective on that debate. (JFK was our Obama after all.)
        But when I listened to it decades later, I was stunned. The caliber of discussion was way above anything that happens in presidential debates now. And Nixon was as far to the left as Obama is to the right.

  8. K Ackermann

    Matt, not to be critical of what you wrote, but this is pretty basic stuff for bloggers. I think most of us are aware of the filters the MSM uses.

    In fact, a good number have bullshit detectors that are exceptionally fine tuned. Training under Bush was Delta Force, Navy Seals, and Green Berets all rolled into one.

    We know that every politician must be vetted by AIPAC.
    We know that no real military general would ever occupy a foreign country without clear objectives and a clear endgame.
    We know manufactured fear when we hear it.
    We know many things that we’ll never hear in the MSM.

    We all read 1984, too.

    1. Peter Pan

      No, he’s the Democrat’s version of George W. Bush. An incompetent leader that promotes incompetence (L.Summers, T. Geithner, B. Bernanke, etc.). I’m just waiting for his “heck of a job, Brownie” moment.

      1. FlatBaroque

        The Brownie moment has come and gone.

        Speaking of Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein: “I know these guys, they’re friends of mine. They’re savvy businessmen. I, like most Americans, do not begrudge them their bonuses.” (I’m going by memory).

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      You make awfully confident assertions. German generals did invade Russia, some of them were ones who had argued against it. You invade first, so any invasion presupposes occupation. It was nuts for the Germans to think they could hold Russia.

  9. attempter

    It’s amazing that so many liberals can be so stupid that they don’t understand the simple arithmetical fact that for two years the Democrats had a de facto one-party dictatorship, while the Republicans were impotent.

    So it’s a fact that for two years the Democrats did exactly what they wanted to do, no more, no less, while anything they didn’t do they didn’t want to do. Meanwhile the Republicans never did anything the Dems didn’t let them do.

    Let’s fix Thugman’s lie:

    “The problem with American politics right now is elite extremisms, with both Democrats and Republicans equally extreme. If you’re not willing to say that, if you lie and say one is worse than the other, you’re helping make that problem worse. ”

    As far as the descriptions above, “governor-in-chief” is closest to reality (the other two are frauds, as the post says). But I’d amend it to flunkey-in-chief. Obama takes his orders, explicitly or implicitly, from the corporate elite, and is then as dictatorial as he wants to be in carrying out those orders. He only pretends to be constrained by congress or the courts where that’s convenient.

    (The other two branches operate the same way, but have far less power.)

    1. Maximilien

      Speaking of “Thugman”, he was interviewed on CBC TV this afternoon. He said if he had a magic wand that could create 20% inflation overnight, he would use it. Discourage saving and encourage spending, you know.

      After the failure of all the bailouts, all the stimulus, all the QE, now he wants to try draining Grandma’s saving account through inflation. The poor man. He seems to be losing his mind.

  10. Philip Pilkington

    Might be time to vote Republican. Non-Tea Party Republican, that is.

    I reckon if you gave them a few years in power dealing with a double-dip they’d pull a Nixon and launch a stimulus program. There’s no way Obama would ever dare do such a thing. But, as long as there weren’t too many Tea Partiers clogging up the system, I could imagine a Republican president taking the ‘necessary steps’.

    Would they cut benefits? Maybe. But Obama will do that anyway. So, maybe its time to ask: do you want a functioning economy with benefit cuts or a dysfunctional economy with benefit cuts?

    1. Tertium Squid

      The only good thing about Republicans taking power would be the Democrats would start to care about the Constitution, War Powers, civil liberties, and the poor again.

      That’s the only good thing.

      1. Philip Pilkington

        Dunno about that. Republicans are very ‘bottom line’ when they’re in power. I could see them dropping a lot of the deficit cutting rhetoric as the economy further deteriorated and turning out another stimulus.

        Besides, imagine if loads of the liberal base started voting Republican. Okay, that’s a bit much to ask… it would be brilliant though. In those circumstances Obama wouldn’t have to wait for history to chalk him up as one of the biggest losers of the past century, the writing would be right there on the wall.

  11. TC

    You neglected to mention, as Wall Street – City of London tool: “Fascist-in-Chief.” Here, the “boundaries set by a narrow TV-dominated discourse” implode. In terse language “Obama’s real handiwork – the wars, the bailouts, and most tragically, what could have been but never was” are laid bare in truth.

  12. DWN

    Yes, you have a good point.

    Turn off TV, and Obama looks even worse. However, even with TV, he is looking very very bad, by whatever measure.

    And, if you want to relate to 90% of the electorate, you should assume the TV is on.

    DWN

  13. MB

    http://www.americanselect.org
    Check it out. Answer the questions.

    Of course now per todays reportage:

    A last-minute rewrite of the bill expands the information that commercial Internet providers are required to store to include customers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses.

    Everything you say and do ~ every condom, coffee and thought will be recorded. my proposal: go to cash and go to barter.

    1. b.

      Agreed. GG also doesn’t push a bogus “not that bad as Narrator-in-Chief” line – implicitly, all the discussion of having Warren take to the public square is about Oh-Blah-Blah’s staggering success in echoing, endorsing and amplifying Repug faux narratives.

      What is not redundant in the Matt Stoller summary is wrong. I know he means well, but the comparison to GG is illuminating. Greenwald – like everybody – has his weaknesses, but he has a sharper mind and a sharper pen, I am afraid.

      And TV is not the issue here. GG claims it is “tribal”, but I sometimes wonder whether the basic drive here is one of affirmation and herd: the “independent” and affiliated voters both want to be seen backing a winner, or opposing the clear looser, and their lives would be much simpler if there was only one 20% hard core kernel to follow, not two competing ones. A third option would make the most pressing concern of the American voter almost impossible – a near-majority already opts out, because it is better to not cast a vote then to cast the wrong one.

      1. PQS

        Agree. TV isn’t the issue. Many voters STILL read the papers, and often there are good stories there to propel the information. Lots of folks skim the web and the blogs, too.

        My corollary to GG’s assertion is “Watch What Obama DOES to SEE what he BELIEVES; do not imagine you THINK you know what he believes based on his speeches.”

        If Obama didn’t think cutting SS and Medicare was a worthy goal, (for whatever reason – politics, appealing to “centrists”, actual personal conviction -) he wouldn’t have put together the Catfood Commission. Nor would he have stacked it with ideologues like Alan Simpson. It was clear to me that Obama BELIEVES that cutting SS and Medicare are worthy goals, given his actions.

        Which is why it drives me up the wall to hear people like Krugman or others say they “don’t think Obama really wants X” because they don’t want to think he’s capable of it.

  14. Angry Panda

    Couple of comments.

    Disclaimer – I have not paid much attention to, nor pretend to have great knowledge of, any ongoing discussions of Obama’s Administration within the American “liberal community”. Hence, I have to view this column “in a vacuum” rather than “in context”.

    1. I distinctly recall regarding Obama, his statements, and his policy team, back during the 2008 election, and saying that this looks an awful lot like a rerun of the Clinton Administration. Which, if anyone cares to recall, was very much center-right particularly on matters of economic and financial (and, to some degree, fiscal) policy. Hell, does anyone remember the “Social Security private accounts” idea, circa 1997-1998?

    So from that standpoint, you could have foreseen the policy decisions ultimately taken by the Obama Administration. Why anyone continues to be surprised by their center-right skew at this point is beyond me.

    2. If there is anything to take away from “Obama’s Wars”, it’s the overall narrative of Woodward’s piece. Obama professes to favor Option A for Afghanistan. Biden (and a few others) advocate forcefully for Option A. The Pentagon, crafty and wily, presents Options A, B and C, painting A and B as complete non-starters and Option C (which it favors) as the only reasonable solution. Obama, after much prevarication, agrees to Option C (favored by the Pentagon), while issuing a stern verbal warning that this will be the “last time”. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Irrespective of the man himself (and here, it is useful to examine his record at the Harvard Law Review) – if this does not paint a picture of an Administration beholden to certain interests, I don’t know what does.

    3. Speaking of.

    Why have “mainstream Democrats” – which Obama ostensibly represents, never mind his occasional “soaring liberal rhetoric” (because no politician should ever be judged by what he says in a speech) – gone so far to the right over the past two decades or so (i.e. starting with the Clinton generation)?

    Objectively, any political party requires several things to perpetuate itself: money; political cadres; propaganda; and a constituency of the electorate to make “its own”. It is possible to trace the collapse of American industry, the sharp decline in unionization, and the “dying out” of the old generation of operatives – as well as the effective shifting of “mainstream” public discourse towards the post-1982 “free market” platform – to the shift in priorities for the Democratic Party. At this point, should we really be surprised that the Party’s interests are not dissimilar to those of its sponsors, whether on Wall Street or wherever else, or that its talking points fall within the “mainstream”?

    In this sense, Obama is merely a more…charismatic member of the same political class. And one who, whether because of his abilities (or perhaps because he really believes such things), can appeal to the “liberals” rhetorically (when he wants to) even as it is plainly obvious there is no way to politically execute some of the things that he was promising.

    So? When a governor assumes control of a state, you look at his prior record, his socio-economic class, and his “sponsors”, if you will. How is Obama different?

    More importantly, who would benefit from an “Obama is good, it’s the evil so-and-so’s” narrative?

  15. Elizabeth

    I agree with this article. And then some. I want to know just who is controlling Obama — who IS this guy, aside from some phony-baloney story about single moms in Hawaii and community organizers in Chicago?

    Apparently you don’t have to look very far to find out what’s behind him. You just have to, as this writer suggests, turn off the TV long enough to look it up on the Interwebs.

    The short answer is Zbigniew Brzezinski and his “left wing” of the CIA. (And “left wing” does NOT mean Marxist. Hello? Bzezinski is a refugee from all that.) From there, you get Bill Ayers and the theory that the Weather Underground was so obvously an attempt to disrupt SDS in the ’60s and ’70s. All the same guys, and international banking and “economic hitmen” cartels. So dismally boring by now that even calling it a “conspiracy” begs the question of just how public actions have to be before they’re not secret plots anymore.

    All this play-acting for the masses, when it’s really just a couple of rival street gangs. All weekend, when Congress is seriously debating an end-of-the-world scenario, we’re all just enjoying the weekend because C-SPAN is just another entertainment channel anyway. I honestly learned more listening to Ashley go on about Bentley on “The Bachelorette” last night.

    I can always pick out the tube-head in any cocktail party — he or she is the person who suddenly goes off on “big government” and all the other TV memes with no connection reality at all, in a country where big banks are making off with literally trillions of dollars. And I’m supposed to defend it all with my own version of “liberal” memes like protecting the poor, which also has no connection to reality, so I don’t bother.

    It’s as if we’re talking to each other with hand puppets. Who’s really talking?

  16. steelhead23

    It seems to me that a better frame through which to view Obama is relationships. As he came into office, he hired a bunch of neo-liberal thinkers and has relentlessly pursued neo-liberal policies. Is it he who has fooled the American People? In one of the weirdest bit of propaganda in my lifetime, Obama is often castigated for being liberal, even (gasp) socialist. Bizarrely, The latter is often given for his fawning treatment of Wall Street and the bailout of GM. Yes, I know, its Orwellian to term Obama a socialist, but take a look at a right-wing blog – Obama is a socialist there, even as we see him for what he is, as a pandering plutocrat. And it gives him cover to move ever-further to the right – this claim that he is a socialist, which in the U.S. has about the same appeal as pedophile, perhaps less. I wonder if this misnomer is strategic?

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      I can’t judge a presidential candidate until I know who he will have in his Cabinet.

      If you want my vote, that’s one of the things I need for you have to tell me before the election.

  17. Eric

    HAMP? When are people going to stop beating this dead horse for goodness sakes? The country does not want and effective mortgage program. The most sympathetic group are those that lost jobs and can’t find new ones, but they are nearly impossible to help since they can’t afford the mortgage post-mod anyway. The rest are mostly of the variety that they no longer like the financial opportunity that they thought their loan was affording them (i.e. bubble-sized appreciation) but would be willing to keep paying provided it was $600/month less (or whatever). No one, apart from the borrower and his/her creditors, really wants to spend a dime to help out this category. Give it a break, please.

    1. Elizabeth

      Actually, I’m curious to find out exactly what happened with HAMP. Not from the angle of compassionate liberal values like helping people stay in their homes–always good for scoring a few points in Obama-illusion-land and hey, how much could it cost to let Grandma keep her shack, anyway? But what effect it was supposed to have on the housing market and where it went wrong. Maybe even why it was cynically planned to go wrong. I admit I haven’t looked into this. But I’m still interested and won’t really give it a rest. Nope. I’ll beat that dead horse, sure. I’ve got some property in the Detroit area that’s kind of riding on the question of relative property values, so there’s a little bias there. But indulge me. Show me what happened with HAMP.

      1. No Know

        Rest assured that whatever little was accomplished with HAMP will be undone times 10 when the new 3.8% tax on the gross proceeds of all home sales goes into effect in 2013 (compliments of the Health Care Bill). That is not a trivial amount and it will do enormous damage to the very ill housing market. Obama is all about “doing things”. He just persistently does them with smoke and mirrors.

        1. Yearning to Learn

          You are misinformed.

          the 3.8% tax is NOT a tax on all home sales.

          it is a tax only on the profit that exceeds $250k individual and $500k married filing jointly.

          Thus, if you purchase your house as a single person for $300k and sell for $549k, no tax.

          if you buy for $300k and sell for $600k, you would pay 3.8% on the $50k, or $1900.

          1. Nathanael

            That’s still a demented market distortion. Profits on home sales are capital gains. Tax them just like all other income. Why have a special “You get hit if you sell your house, but speculators in stocks don’t get hit” tax? What the hell is wrong with this country? (Rhetorical question.)

  18. Goat Cheese

    HAMP was/is the following: a way to help the Banksters return to profitability, while lying, cheating and scheming against consumers.

    Now if HAMP was a weapon system that Obummer could sell to both Saudi Arabia and a slightly better version to Isreal – we would know for sure who’s going to be selected in 2012.
    Ta ta!

  19. We won't get fooled again!

    Well at least with this phony crisis and his capitulation President Barry has assured himself to be a one term history lesson. It is astounding on how many liberals were fooled into thinking that this was a black Kennedy. Even Caroline thought that he was the real deal.

    This man has been a tremendous failure for his party and the country. He better figure out away that he can kill Osama a few more times and do it around Nov.2012. That’s going to be his best hope for re-election. He could make a reality series out of it. Ten weeks of trying to find his body in the ocean. Followed by another ten weeks of a re- execution.

    That’s the only kind of television that will get him re-elected.

  20. carping demon

    I don’t understand what Stoller expects people to do after they take their heads out of the TV. I have subscribed for over 60 years to a paper that in that time went from being fishwrap to being one of the county’s greatest and back to fishwrap again. How many ex-TV watchers are going to go down to the news stand and pick up the NY Times or WaPo or the WSJ or the FT every day and then sit somewhere and read it? And after having their heads in the TV for all their lives, how are they going to find their way around the WWW to the legitimate sources? Or even the motivation to look for them, as opposed to just sitting there and taking what’s fed to them?

    Of course, there are all sorts of good things that can come from tossing the television, but it will be a long time before it can change politics.

  21. b.

    Speaking of Greenwald, I think this
    http://ggdrafts.blogspot.com/2011/08/email-to-john-cole.html
    is getting close w/o really hitting the spot. The forensics appears sound, what is missing is the motive.

    Obama has been obsessed with bypassing the unwieldly congressional process “by committee”. When the first cat food commission was not empaneled by Congress, he moved it ahead by executive edict. It did not work. Now, Obama tries again. He domestrates willingness to trade absolutely everything for a “Super Congress” setting the stage for an “up or down vote”, apparently in persistent hope that a closed door bargain can accomplish the cuts he has been pushing for – notably with revenue raises excluded.

    I still do not get the motive here. Maybe this is just Obama’s Ultimate Magic Underpants Gnome thing:

    Da Commission
    Da Bargain
    … a miracle occurs …
    Re-Election!

    But one aspect seems obvious – whatever one thinks of the constitutional and “unitary” implications of punting by using the 14th to ignore – and thus challenge – the debt ceiling, the persistent urge to turn Congress into an “up or down, no discussion, no amendment” annex of increasingly small, increasingly secret commissions looks unconstitutional, in spirit if not letter. A voter cannot sell himself or his vote. Should Congress be permitted to sign away its duties under the constitution, as elected representatives?

  22. JTFaraday

    WHAT Presidency?

    The one that hangs out in the Oval Office and does smack with Timmy and the Boyz from Government Sachs, that’s what.

  23. Claudia

    Too bad the Judas goat is an archaic metaphor: suits him to a T. Meanwhile sophisticated and organized forces herd the body politic like the domesticated animals they think we are.

  24. Deborah

    make it three for a Sanders write-in…yearning, check him out, he’s better than Kucinich!

  25. Carolyn Kay

    >>how do you acquire support from liberals, as he did in the primaries in 2008

    Maybe they’ll do it by driving away from progressive discussion anyone who has a criticism of Obama, as Matt Stoller did on MyDD in 2008.

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

    1. Sophia

      Stoller left MyDD in 07. And what MyDD were you reading back in 08? That place was a bloody cage match from January until June with Hillary hold-outs raising their voices to the bitter end. Jerome wasn’t merely tolerant of criticism of Obama, he encouraged it.

      1. Carolyn Kay

        Okay, then he helped ban Obama criticizers at MyDD in 2007. And he banned Obama criticizers at Open Left when he landed there.

        I just don’t what to hear from people who wouldn’t listen to criticism of Obama when it counted.

        Not until they crawl on their bellies like reptiles to beg forgiveness and give a detailed analysis of how they plan to keep from making such a gigantic mistake in the future.

        And give bannered headlines to those of us who were right. We are obviously better judges of character.

        What’s so amazing is that the people who criticize the mainstream media for still refusing to take seriously those who predicted that Iraq would be a fiasco and that a housing bust was inevitable, refuse to take seriously those of us who tried to warn about Obama.

        Hypocrites, thy names are most of the A-List bloggers.

        Carolyn Kay
        MakeThemAccountable.com

  26. Sai

    Goldman and MG turned bank holding companies. Is there some info in public domain on the type of audits FED conducted on their trade books since then?

  27. willyjsimmons

    >>how do you acquire support from liberals, as he did in the primaries in 2008

    “Maybe they’ll do it by driving away from progressive discussion anyone who has a criticism of Obama, as Matt Stoller did on MyDD in 2008.”

    Re-quoted for emphasis.

    Also see: DU, dailykos, openleft, firedoglake, talkingpointsmemo etc. etc. etc., silent actors like Greenwald, atrios, digby, Drum, Klein. Loud actors like John Aravosis.

    A book could be written.

    1. Sophia

      I think some of your memories are confusing “Please shut up about a brokered convention in which delegates are encouraged to ignore the voters they were sent to represent. She’s lost already. Get over it.” with an unwillingness to tolerate progressive criticism of Obama. I read plenty of progressive criticism of Obama back then. Progressive blogs are so far from the problem if you want to discuss the ways in which progressive ideas have been silenced in the public discourse.

      1. willyjsimmons

        ” I read plenty of progressive criticism of Obama back then.”

        From the names and blogs I listed???

        In the famous words of Joe Wilson: “You Lie!”

        “Progressive blogs are so far from the problem if you want to discuss the ways in which progressive ideas have been silenced in the public discourse.”

        Bob Somerby would like to talk with you about that. Good Gracious God Almighty how wrong you are.

        What are you talking about?

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      This is revisionist history re Stoller, see my Sophie’s and my comments above. He was a skeptic of Obama as of his Democratic party speech in 2004, and moved to open antipathy as a result of seeing him operate in the context of the Lamont campaign against Lieberman in 2006.

  28. monte_cristo

    Without even reading past the first sentence ( I did, but in the end it wasn’t necessary) it was the seventies when i first reached your conclusion. In nearly forty years I relented a little, not much, I used televison to help me learn different languages but it was always a painful experience, bullshit shoved down your throat. We seem to be here again. And I sense that there aren’t many that were here the ‘first’ time around: hence the sense in your commentary – they haven’t worked it out.
    The comment on the web is that the econo-blogs are way ahead of MSM. And they are. Yes, I was a subscriber to FT. And it’s neat, nice reflection with some distance of power-plays. Playing the market.. there isn’t much better. And they actually are codedly pretty much independent. Independent for their readership, not independent for the ‘common-guy’. They are paid to be ahead of the curve.
    The econo-blogs are pretty much the FT’s sources more or less, that is for anything interesting – we play.
    But when this sort of stuff :
    http://epicureandealmaker.blogspot.com/2011/08/i-think-ive-said-this-before.html
    starts coming after Taibbi’s posts… I think we’re reaching new territory. And E-W.!
    NC doesn’t actually create the pressure. We don’t create the pressure. They create it!! They push the limits, not us.
    We’re all waiting for kickback, and not passively… I loved epicure’s posts ( and “what is this we “Tyler”" commentary).
    We’re finally approaching the wire. About bloody time.

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