Before President Obama was elected, I lived in dread of two outcomes, that he would not be elected and that he would be elected. No one shared my twin concerns. But I was absolutely sure that if he was elected, progressives would be dreadfully disappointed and would turn on him.
And so they did. And they were surprised at “who he really was.” And I was not.(1) I'm not saying that I could see through Obama before the election. That's a tiny bid true, but mostly I'm saying, "He still is who you thought he was, he just has to look different as President than as a candidate." I foresaw his change in appearance. In fact, if you listened closely he warned us this had to happen. (see Complex Strategies) Neither was I surprised with their disappointment and resentment. The test of a good theory is its ability to make predictions of non-obvious outcomes, so I say my theory of political dynamics passed with flying colors, and the hunches of self-defeating progressives failed.
One thing I had going for me — I’m old. I had seen this before with Clinton, Carter, LBJ, and in local politics. I also had a theory of why it happens; that comes under “Complex Strategies.”
But I didn’t know the half of it, and Jonathan Chait does. He’s done the historical research and his article takes a fascinating look at this phenomenon back to Roosevelt.
Obama is compared unfavorably to Clinton, the master politician:
- Clinton took office in a recession and tried to pass a $19.5 B stimulus package. It was blocked. He tried for $15.4, and that got killed.
- Obama passed a $787 B stimulus in three weeks. That’s $100 B more than Bush got passed for his six years of the Iraq war.
- Clinton raised the top tax rate and passed an earned-income tax credit — Liberals were disappointed.
- He failed to integrate gays into the military.
- Bob Herbert of the NYTs said ““The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread … because he tries so hard to be liked by everyone.”
Carter was a complete disappointment.
Obama is criticized for his Afghanistan surge, and compared to Johnson (LBJ) the president who knew how to get things through Congress.
- LBJ’s Vietnam surge was 480,000 troops, 16 times bigger than Obama’s Afghanistan surge, and LBJ’s lasted much longer. And that war cost 50,000 American lives, two million Vietnamese and untold Cambodian lives before it was over.
- The left held frequent protests to call him a murderer, and drove him from office.
- Then it was so disappointed with Humphrey that he lost to Nixon.
Kennedy is hard to match in our Memories:
- Three months after taking office he launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — a complete fiasco almost leading to nuclear war.(2) I'm not saying that I could
see through Obama before the election. That's a tiny bid true, but mostly I'm saying, "He still is who you thought he was, he just has to look different as President than as a candidate." I foresaw his change in appearance. In fact, if you listened closely he warned us this had to happen. (see Complex Strategies)
- Kennedy lacked the votes in Congress to push his civil-rights legislation, so he placated James Eastland, a powerful Jim Crow senator from Mississippi, by nominating the arch-segregationist judge William Harold Cox to the federal bench.
- Liberal columnist Max Lerner decried Truman’s mania for “cooperation” and his eagerness “to blink [past] the real social cleavage and struggles,” attributing this pathological eagerness to avoid conflict to his “middle-class mentality.” (I’m quoting Jonathan Chait)
Roosevelt, the president most often used to belittle Obama:
- He ran against Hoover’s high deficits and immediately passed an austerity budget. Ooops. Then in 1937 he repeated the mistake.
- After 5 months in office he created the “Federal Emergency Relief Administration” (WPA) and funded it at half a billion. Relative to his economy, that’s still 5 times smaller than Obama’s stimulus.
- Roosevelt’s Social Security bill passed the House 372 to 33 with 81% of Republicans voting for it and with 64% of Republican Senators voting for it.
- In spite of having such a strong hand, the meager benefits were financed by a regressive tax, and domestic workers and other black-dominated professions were excluded.
- By Executive Order 9066, he sent 110,000 Japanese to internment camps for a year and half, most of them US citizens.
- Imagine if Obama had done something equivalent.
The point is not to condemn these presidents. Sometimes they were mistaken but many times they had to make painful tradeoffs I have left out their accomplishments, because my point is only to show that the past has never been so rosy as the memory of it when we use it to condemn the present. So let us take off the rose color spectacles and have a look at what real presidents are up against and how they deal with fickle friends and implacable foes. Next: Complex Strategy.