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Obama at Halftime: The Big Question

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Public conversation in and around Washington D.C. is currently preoccupied with the question of the fiscal cliff. And rightly so, for very big things are at stake -- not least whether or not a political crisis will tip the economy back into recession, and whether an election result that mandated a tax increase on the rich can still be negated by Republican intransigence. Whether the fiscal cliff is a real one or a manufactured one, and if real, whether it can be circumvented without lasting damage to vital welfare programs -- all that remains momentarily unresolved and as such, the legitimate subject of a daily deluge of argument.

But the fiscal cliff is not the only issue currently before us; and in many ways it is not even the most important one. The important one is the one behind the fiscal cliff negotiations -- the one concerned with the overall trajectory of the Obama presidency and its progressive potential. It is not just the fiscal cliff whose resolution is still unclear. Whether Barack Obama will be a great liberal president is equally in doubt. The important thing to ponder, at this its half-way point, is whether the defense of the Obama presidency that many of us have just waged will in the end turn out to have been a defense that was worth waging.

Let us hope that it will be so.

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But will it? There seem to be three broad views of the first Obama term already available to guide us here. One is that Obama was never a great liberal, and that we deceive ourselves if we think that he ever was or could be. Another is that he was always a great liberal, just one heavily constrained by unusually difficult external circumstances. The third is that his liberalism was from the outset compromised by other features of his politics and character. The first of the three gives us no hope of a transformative presidency. The second and the third, to varying degrees, suggest that an Obama second term will inevitably deliver less than is promised but more than radical critics fear.

Which, if any, of these three takes on the Obama presidency will prevail is not yet settled: indeed, settling it will in part be a product of just how well those of us wanting Obama to be a transformative president lobby and argue for that outcome. But we do have some evidence from Obama's first term to guide both our expectations and our lobbying. Three pieces of evidence: on the record thus far, on the external constraints on that record, and on the internal character and limits of Obama's liberalism.

The record. As his first term comes to a close, the promise of progressive change which impelled Barack Obama to the White House remains largely unfulfilled. It is true that there have been many small but significant progressive initiatives in fields as disparate as nuclear security and gender equality; and of course at least two major legislative changes -- a health care reform and Wall Street regulation. But each of these major initiatives remains limited and partial in its effects, and the legislative record of the administration as a whole is still woefully incomplete. We have yet to see comprehensive immigration reform. We have yet to see any serious assault on mass unemployment or on generalized poverty. We have yet to see any successful resolution of the home foreclosure crisis. American troops remain in Afghanistan. The welfare state remains under threat, and the grand promise of effective climate change legislation is all but forgotten.

Why? Well partly because of particularly difficult economic and political circumstances. Obama came to the presidency in the immediate wake of the most serious financial crisis experienced in the United States since 1929. He inherited a financial system that was gridlocked, a housing market in free-fall, and an economy sliding rapidly into recession. He also came into power, of course, with both the House and the Senate under Democratic Party control, but that Democratic majority ultimately proved less effective than initially anticipated. It proved less effective in part because of the presence within it of many conservative (so-called Blue Dog) Democrats. Obama the candidate had put together a successful electoral coalition but not as it eventually transpired a successful governing one. The Democratic Party legislative majority was also less effective because those Blue Dog Democrats were then immediately joined in their fiscal and social conservatism by a particularly virulent Republican minority in both Houses of Congress -- a minority determined to block Obama's policies and undermine his legitimacy by any means possible. Quite quickly in Obama's first term as president, therefore, it was not just the financial system that was gridlocked. The legislative process in Washington DC was gridlocked also.

But there was more in play in the politics of Obama's first term than simply externally-dictated limits on what a left-leaning president might do. There were also internally-adopted constraints on what that president chose to do. Obama entered the White House determined to change the political culture of Washington DC by pursing bipartisan solutions wherever those solutions were available. The fact that, broadly speaking, bi-partisan solutions were not available to him, did not prevent this president from giving bipartisanship his best shot. Nor did it prevent him from placing in key decision-making positions individuals whose own politics were either explicitly Republican (as with Robert Gates at the Pentagon) or at best centrist rather than liberal Democrat (as with Tim Geithner at Treasury and Larry Summers at the National Economic Council). With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that more progressive voices within the administration were effectively marginalized by those choices and so failed to carry the day, particularly in the crucial early months of 2009 when the public standing of bankers was at an all-time low and Republican resistance to large stimulus packages had not yet crystallized. Doing too little too late, and doing too little too late by choice, the administration's own moderation helped rekindle that of its Republican rivals, closing down the actual political options it faced by not initially widening those options with sufficient speed and determination.

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So the big questions before us as the Obama second term begins are these. Do we simply face a repeat of this substantial gap between progressive promise and conservative performance, or has the "shellacking" of the Republicans in 2012 opened new political possibilities that a revitalized president will now take? How will the interplay of external and internal constraints that were such a feature of Barack Obama's first term as president play out in his second term? Whether they play out better this second time round will turn crucially on the extent to which Obama moves decisively now both to push back the external constraints and to rid his administration of centrist Democrats. The president is currently taking a tougher negotiating stance than he did in the 2011 debt ceiling crisis; but even so, he is still offering no fundamental challenge to the Republican assertion that non-military government spending needs to be cut. With John Boehner currently digging in, with the next debt ceiling crisis looming, and with Tim Geithner the chosen point man for the administration's fiscal cliff fight, the first signs are not good that either set of key changes will quickly occur.

But they need to occur, and liberal commentators on these events need constantly to insist that they do occur. For we are in new territory now: this side of the general election, the need to defend the Obama presidency against the Romney challenge has entirely gone. Nate Silver was right, Fox News was wrong. So now the task before us is entirely different. Arguments about administration underperformance that before November were softened -- lest they played into Republican hands -- now need to be made with renewed rigor, the better to help push policy during Obama's second term in a distinctly progressive direction. Pre-November, the key task facing progressive intellectuals was that of helping save the Obama administration from its conservative opponent. Post-November, the task is to help save that administration from its own moderate self. Sadly, I fear that this second task is not going to be an easy one. Not easy, but no less essential for that.

This argument will be developed more fully in David Coates' Pursuing the Progressive Case? Observing Obama in Real Time, forthcoming, January 2013

First posted with full sourcing at www.davidcoates.net

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