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Resolving the "Obama Paradox" (The Most Successful Failed Presidency in a Generation)

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The intense dispute over President Obama's personality, principles and policies is a proxy for the larger debate over the history, values, ideological composition and direction of America. The focus is on the person, but the battle is over the nation.

In that context, a number of progressive activists and observers (this writer included) have spent the past 18 months repeatedly making the case that the Obama administration's unwillingness to stake out a strong, principled, progressive position on key issues is detrimental to Obama's political fortunes, to the Democratic Party's electoral prospects and most importantly, to the country. Looking at polls, trends, midterm projections, the economy, the environment, the war in Afghanistan, etc., the facts on the ground appear to have borne out that view.

On the right - unsurprisingly - the opposite is true: Obama's Republican and conservative opponents have resorted to their usual tactic of attacking anyone who isn't a rightwing reactionary as a raging, big-spending liberal, "liberal" being seen as the ultimate ignominy. Republicans benefit immensely from a decades-old, well-oiled communications mechanism that frames the public discourse. Their message cuts through, but judging by the measures in the previous paragraph, the reality of eight years under Bush invalidates the claim that rightwing policies benefit the U.S. The right hardly has standing when it comes to a legitimate critique of President Obama.

Between these two poles is an ocean of commentary and opinion. In recent days, what has emerged from this cacophony is a seemingly contradictory amalgam of positions, dubbed the "Obama Paradox," that portrays the president as a successful failure. A number of prominent pundits and left-leaning writers have tackled the perceived paradox, each aiming to put forth a definitive take on what ails this White House.

Paul Krugman:

The latest hot political topic is the "Obama paradox" -- the supposedly mysterious disconnect between the president's achievements and his numbers. ... the only real puzzle here is the persistence of the pundit delusion, the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting -- who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback -- actually matters. What political scientists, as opposed to pundits, tell us is that it really is the economy, stupid.

Kevin Drum:

Here's the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here's the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick.

Eric Alterman:

[I]t is pretty much impossible to argue against the notion that Barack Obama is already the most consequential Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. And yet not only has Obama's approval reached an all-time low for his (admittedly brief) presidency. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll public confidence in the president has hit a new low ... It wasn't so long ago, that liberals were being called "f------ retards" by Rahm Emanuel for refusing to get behind the president's compromises on health care. When they finally did, they were chastised for insufficient enthusiasm for a bill that they were instructed to hold their noses and support. Ditto financial regulation, which, in many respects, is a gift to Wall Street, not Main Street. And environmentalists, labor, and feminists have all received not merely nothing, but genuinely regressive rulings by the administration and told to take it and like it.

Neera Tanden:

I concede that, in the first 18 months of his presidency, Obama has not accomplished all that he campaigned on. But I would submit that, if the president only passed the health care bill and nothing more in this term, he would still have succeeded in bringing about significant change, because the bill represents the greatest and most progressive piece of domestic legislation in my lifetime.

John Aravosis:

Well, if you accept the White House talking point that passing anything that contains the title of the thing you promised, is in fact passing the thing itself, then yes the President has been wildly successful. For example, the President said during the campaign that he was going to push for a public option in health care reform, he didn't push for it at all. But he did pass a bill that was called "health care reform," so using the logic of this article, that means he kept his promise. Or on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the President promised a full repeal. In fact, the current legislation does no such thing. But it is legislation entitled DADT, so, again, under this logic, the President has kept his promise. It's a bit like baking a stone and calling it a cake, then telling your child: "what? - I promised you a cake, here's a cake."

Ezra Klein:

The topic du jour appears to be the Obama paradox. How, some writers are asking, can the Democrats be both passing a lot of legislation and be headed for a defeat at the polls? But there's no contradiction. No paradox. Instead, there's unity. Oneness. Om. This is night following day. Democrats won their massive majority because of an economic collapse. They've passed so much legislation because they have a massive majority based on an economic collapse. But the economic collapse isn't over. And having a lot more seats than the other party means 1) voters blame you for the condition of the country, and 2) you have a lot of seats to lose. What the bad economy and the huge majority giveth, the bad economy and the huge majority taketh away. Om.

I've argued that on the left, this ongoing dispute has become a full-blown internecine war:

Strikingly, this civil war is premised on a false choice: that an incremental legislative approach and a well-articulated grand ideological vision are mutually exclusive. They're not. Rapid, sweeping changes may not be feasible in the face of entrenched interests and steely GOP obstructionism, and credit should be given to the president for seeking and achieving solid wins. But neither is the White House prohibited from standing up for core Democratic ideals and presenting them powerfully and unflinchingly, explaining to the public in clear terms why Democrats have the better plan for America. Nor does the glacial pace of progress in Washington obviate the need to reverse George Bush's radical excesses, something the Obama administration has failed (so far) to do.

Extrapolating from the idea of a false choice, I think Ezra Klein's conclusion is correct, though he arrives at it from the (relatively) narrow angle of the economy. In essence, the "Obama paradox" isn't a paradox at all. There's nothing inherently illogical about someone accomplishing big things but undercutting those accomplishments with errors, misjudgments and mistakes - or being undercut by external circumstances. In the past year, politics and pop culture have given us a surfeit of examples of 'successful failures' - individuals who commit a transgression and undermine a lifetime of achievements. Are these individuals successes or failures or both? With President Obama, the issue is policy not personal life, but the situation is roughly analogous: serious errors, poor timing, or plain bad luck (or all three) can undercut the most impressive string of victories.

Further, the definitions of success and failure that undergird the "Obama Paradox" are exceedingly amorphous. Is it about legislative wins, no matter the underlying substance? Is it public opinion as reflected in polls? Is it pundit consensus and conventional wisdom?

And who defines success or judges which issue or question is the most important? Is it jobs? The Gulf disaster? Health care? Is Obama a progressive, a centrist, a corporatist, a socialist? Are we winning or losing Afghanistan? Is Obama the next FDR, Bush-lite, the anti-Bush, or the un-Reagan?

Ultimately, the broadest way to assess a presidency is the utilitarian question of whether the sum total of the administration's decisions and actions result in more good than harm to people and the planet. Needless to say, making that determination is a gargantuan undertaking. Many of the outcomes, if knowable, may not become apparent for decades. Defining good and harm outside of physical well-being is perennially difficult.

So how do we resolve the present contradictions surrounding President Obama and how do we make a fair assessment of his tenure? To the extent that we can, we do so by clarifying our approach in advance of our judgment. A reporter looking at facts and data should first choose the metric(s). It might be the number of campaign promises kept, or legislation passed, or public opinion polls and trends, or economic stats, or a weighted combination of several factors.

For activists and opinion-makers, the process is somewhat different: it's about fundamental ideals and values against which the president's actions are measured.

For the general public, it's a mix of personal circumstances (how the administration's policies affect them and their families), their values, what the media tells them, what their friends and family think, and so on.

Whatever the parameters and methods, there are several ways to reach an informed, albeit incomplete, view of Obama's presidency. Naturally, some of these views will be contradictory. From certain perspectives Obama is successful, from others he's not - there's nothing paradoxical about that.

What's far more interesting is that there is one thing Obama can do that transcends the ebb and flow of events, the endless swirl of opinion, the daily wins and losses, the progress and setbacks that constitute governing. It is the one thing with lasting appeal and enduring value and a prerequisite for unqualified success in any endeavor: standing for something worthwhile, for a set of well-articulated principles, and fighting for those principles tooth and nail.

The real Obama paradox is why that hasn't happened when it's good policy and good politics.