Two friends wrote me yesterday about Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times (“Why is he Bi? (Sigh)”). I suspect it tapped in to the frustration they and many Democrats are feeling about what they consider insufficient movement on the liberal agenda.
Dowd writes,” Our president likes to be on both sides at once,” and frames it as a criticism. He can’t help it. “He was born that way.”
She cites his positions on Afghanistan, Libya, the budget, the environment, health care, Wall Street, and politics. Poor guy – she doesn’t cut him a break. (Well, she does give him credit for “the capture of Osama and his drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen.”)
So it’s time for two reminders, First, governing is about compromise. And second, he’s actually accomplished quite a lot.
Governing is about compromise
Last December, in the wake of criticism of Obama following the lame-duck session tax deal, I wrote in a blog post:
The liberal-left side of the debate says Obama has no principles and isn’t willing (or tough enough) to fight for anything. I’m on the other side. Compromise – important even after winning the White House and Congress in 2008 because of the broad range of views among Democrats - became critical when Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate last January. And it will be even more so going forward, given Democrats’ weakened position in both houses since November.
In view of Dowd’s column and the angst it is producing, it’s worth repeating some of Matt Bai’s NY Times piece from that time:
Is President Obama himself a triangulator? Has he become the kind of compromiser he once disdained? Perhaps the better question might be: So what if he has?
Again and again, we have Democratic presidents who say, ‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the better,’ and ‘This is the best I can do,’ ” says Robert Reich, the liberal economist and former labor secretary under Mr. Clinton. “And over and over we have Republican presidents who say, ‘I am going to hold out for my principles.’”
In this more expansive sense of the epithet, one can reasonably tag Mr. Obama as a triangulator. In striking his tax deal — which extended cuts for the highest income levels and reinstated the estate tax at a much lower rate than sought by liberals, while also extending unemployment benefits and establishing a new payroll tax holiday — Mr. Obama effectively said that the perfect could not be the enemy of the better, and that this was the best he could do.
The problem with this definition of triangulation, though, is that it comes awfully close to an indictment of governing, generally. Some political compromises, of course, are craven or even disastrous; there’s a reason that the words “appeasement” and “Yalta” remain part of the lexicon. But to disdain pragmatic compromise is to become unyielding and self-satisfied in the service of theory, rather than creative in the service of your agenda. ...
Perhaps Mr. Obama could have won a more progressive resolution to the tax-cut debate had he and Congressional Democrats taken up the issue earlier this year, when the deadline wasn’t so close and when the president could have mounted a sustained public campaign. But as it stands, the deal Mr. Obama got, while no one’s idea of perfect, will pump hundreds of billions of dollars in consumer and business tax breaks into a languishing economy, while also aiding the unemployed and easing the tax burden on a strained middle class.
On the other hand, had Mr. Obama held the line on principle and allowed all the cuts to expire, as some Democrats would have preferred, the public debate in January would most likely have come down to which of the two parties was responsible for letting middle-class taxes rise during a recession. It’s an argument that Democrats, historically vulnerable on taxes and already fending off charges of expanding government, would probably have lost.
Such compromises, ideal or not, are the building blocks of responsible governance. If that makes Mr. Obama some kind of triangulator, then it could also make him a successful president.
Reflecting on the Dowd column and my post the other day on Obama’s Afghanistan speech, my friend wrote:
Obama NEVER has disappointed me when it comes to his vision or his beliefs for our country.
But, suddenly I am realizing that I have yet to see any of those visions come to light ... or even be put into some kind of beginning action. Yes, I know that probably many (if not all) of his visions are unrealistic, but has he once since getting into office shown the American people that he has PLANS, not just IDEALS??
Well, my first reaction was, “You have to play the hand you’re dealt,” and Obama was dealt a really bad hand. Even so, her comment showed me the need for a second reminder:
He’s actually accomplished quite a lot
From “It takes an attitude adjustment,” a February post, here are some first-two-year accomplishments:
· Passed historic health care reform, providing stability and security to those who have insurance and affordable options for those 30+ million people who don’t, and putting an end to pre-existing conditions and life-time caps. (This was one of his plans, not just an ideal.)
· Dealt masterfully with his inherited challenges: an economy in freefall, a health care system in crisis, and two wars. [OK, we’re not where we’d like to be, but we avoided a Great Recession, saved the U.S. auto industry and thousands of related jobs, and made some progress on reform of the financial system.]
· Made three huge investments in the future with the Recovery Act, which was the largest infrastructure investment since Eisenhower, the largest education investment since Johnson, and the largest clean-energy bill ever – rolled in to one law. The Recovery Act saved or created 3.7 million jobs while creating a foundation for future growth.
· Reauthorized and expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to another 4 million low-income kids.
· Took important steps to improve our national security. Ended combat operations in Iraq and made troops available for the greater threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan (another plan). Reached the most significant arms control agreement with Russia in two decades that will reduce nuclear arsenals and put inspectors on the ground in Russia. (Another plan.)
· Made major investments in education to prepare us for the future, by funding programs like “Race to the Top” to spur innovation and provide needed funds to schools, reforming student lending to make more available at less taxpayer cost, and funding a new GI Bill to make college more affordable for returning veterans. (Education reform – another of his plans.)
· Took important steps to protect civil rights by repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act making it easier for women to challenge unequal pay practices, and signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act giving law enforcement new tools to prosecute those who commit hate crimes.
Further, Obama’s leadership on the tax deal (much-criticized by Democrats) made possible in the lame duck session:
· Middle-class tax cuts;
· Extending unemployment benefits and temporarily reducing the payroll tax;
· Major food safety bill for the first time giving the FDA a mandate to prevent, rather than simply respond to, contamination of the food supply;
· 9/11 responders health bill.
Other accomplishments of the Obama administration (in no particular order):
· Overturned restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research;
· The Credit Card Bill of Rights, outlawing hidden fees and deceptive lending practices from credit card companies;
· Overturned Bush Administration “global gag rule,” allowing American aid to international health organizations who provide family planning, including abortion counseling;
· Appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the first Latina to ever serve on the bench, and with Obama’s appointment of Elena Kagan, three women now serve on the Court;
· Ended previous policy of offering tax benefits to corporations who outsource American jobs; now promote in-sourcing to bring jobs back;
· Ended previous policy on torture.
(Google the phrase “Obama accomplishments.” I found great lists at BuzzFeed.com, WikiAnswers.com and Obamaachievements.org. The list at the latter site was complied by “a team of about 100 volunteers dedicated to countering the constant negative drumbeat of our mainstream media. In the past two years, over 400 steps forward have been taken by the Obama administration, yet the media continues to focus on the negative.”)
Dowd glibly captured the frustration of many, and I understand it. But it’s important to remember that it’s not a perfect world. Obama is not the perfect president. As I said to my friend, “He’s a man, not a miracle-worker.” But I can think of no one I’d rather have leading our country during this four-year period.
We’re about to witness another challenge to Obama’s leadership. A recent poll shows 63 percent of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling, and the Republicans’ brinksmanship really scares me.
There will no doubt be compromise, and Democrats will no doubt be unhappy. So in the coming weeks, it will be important to continue to keep Bai’s words in mind:
[Some] compromises, ideal or not, are the building blocks of responsible governance.