POLITICS
02/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama From Left To Right

Committed liberals and conservatives place a much higher priority on the achievement of specific goals and policies in their predictions of the success or failure of the Barak Obama presidency than those who might best be called centrists. There is, however, very little that they share in terms of substance.

Take, for example, James K. Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas and author of the recently published The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. In his response to the HuffPost questions, he does not mince words:

Economic success for Obama can only mean (a) restoring full employment and (b) transforming the energy balance of the economy -- both production and consumption -- so as to put the country on a sustainable path. (a) is a reasonable objective over four years and (b) will be the final test of Obama's presidency over two terms.

To restore full employment, the new administration needs to recognize that we are experiencing a structural failure that will not be solved by stimulus alone. The entire financial sector must be reorganized, reregulated, and placed under entirely new leadership. Social Security should be expanded, not cut. Fiscal assistance to states and localities should be open-ended, replacing lost tax revenues and ensuring the continuation of public services and jobs through the crisis. Infrastructure funding should start with "shovel-ready" projects and repairs, but also support larger, long-term investments. There must be comprehensive foreclosure relief and mortgage restructuring. And universal health insurance.

To transform the energy balance, we can start with such matters as weatherization, fuel efficiency standards, and the electricity grid. A hard cap on carbon emissions will be needed. Going forward, we'll need a planning department, new energy research facilities (national labs), a much larger scientific, engineering and contracting workforce in this area, and policies that will stabilize the price of oil, creating a viable planning environment for private enterprise. This is the shape of the new economy for a generation or more. In short, the old economic engine probably cannot be restarted. And if it is, it will not run for long.

If there is a threat to Obama, says Galbraith, it is that:

It will cling too long to the conventions of post-war economic thought. These include the idea that recessions eventually cure themselves, that stimulus mainly is a "kicker" that accelerates this natural process, and that we can somehow get through this economic crisis in two years or so, returning to a "normal" world of expanding credit and shrinking government. The so-called 'fiscal responsibility' lobby, which always seeks to cut Social Security and Medicare, in fair weather or foul, is a leading obstacle to realism in this crisis. Their victory, should it occur, would prevent the development of a long-term growth strategy and therefore, in effect, prevent the development of recovery programs on the scale that the situation is going to require.

This crisis is not an interlude. It is the defining issue of the age.

From an entirely different vantage point, conservative Heather MacDonald, John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute, was equally explicit, listing three markers, in her view, of a successful presidency:

1. Obama could use the economic crisis to push through entitlement reform--slowing the growth in Social Security benefits for upper- and middle-income taxpayers, raising the retirement age, charging the elderly more for Medicare, and other politically unpalatable measures to dismantle the Social Security Ponzi scheme and control health spending.

2.. He could decrease our reliance on oil imports by imposing a gas tax, offset with cuts in income or payroll taxes. I would hope that he reverses his opposition to nuclear power.

3.
He could reduce the crime, poverty, and academic achievement gap by continuing to stress that men have an obligation to raise their children. The 70% black illegitimacy rate is a social cataclysm. In a world where it is unusual for a man to marry the mother of his children, boys fail to learn the most basic lesson of personal responsibility: you are responsible for your children. Obama exemplifies loving, attentive black fatherhood; he has an unparalleled opportunity to make the case for marriage. Doing well in school should no longer be deemed 'acting white,' but rather 'acting Obama.'

And the guidelines MacDonald would use to define failure:

(First), if his administration is a bust, it will be because he placed an unjustified faith in the ability of government programs to solve problems that have their roots in poor individual choices. Within that framework, I worry that he will trot out too many retreads of failed social programs. His $10 billion early education plan is one such retread, it will most certainly reproduce the record of Headstart (zero impacts).

Secondly, while I don't fault policy-makers for turning to government at the current moment in desperation, if Obama continues to assume that government has the ability to drive the economy productively--to innovate and create value--he will impair the dynamism and entrepreneurship that is America's greatest economic asset.

John Yoo, author of the infamous/famous Bush administration's "torture memos," acknowledged the importance of dealing with the economy, but then added:

[Obama's] place in history will really depend on how he handles national security. If he guts the intelligence agencies and gives up leadership to Congress, again like [Jimmy] Carter, then it is hard to see how we will handle the threats posed by Iran and North Korea, and the challenges of Russia and China.

Jamin Raskin, Democratic Maryland State Senator and American University Law professor, comes from a different world:

Obama's success will turn on four areas of achievement and progress: (1) revival of a dismal economy through Keynesian-style public investment and spending that uplift an embattled middle class and restore the decaying national physical infrastructure; 2) a creative collection of environmental initiatives that make environmentalism and economic growth strong partners once and for all, something like what I would call a Green Deal; (3) development of a national health insurance plan that brings tens of millions of uninsured Americans in and either displaces or sharply controls the currents costs of private health insurance; (4) dramatic improvement in America's standing, prestige and power in the world based on a surge in American diplomacy and energetic leadership to confront long-standing troubles like the Middle East conflict and global poverty.

In many respects, progressives set as tough, or tougher, standards for Obama than conservatives. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign For America's Future, declared that the central challenge is:

Not simply to engineer the economic recovery, but to move towards the achievements of balanced growth with its benefits widely shared. His presidency will be judged overwhelmingly on whether he succeeds on that question. So if he's a success, he'll have been part of regenerating a growing economy, with an expanded public social contract (beginning with affordable health care for all), sustained public investment in areas vital to our future (education, modern infrastructure, R and D, new energy), progressive tax reform and new priorities to pay for this, and a new global strategy that includes both placing rules around the global economy (labor rights, consumer and environmental protections, banking and currency regulation), and a national industrial policy (built initially around energy and the expanding green markets of the future). This is a big sea change -- but it is hard to see how he will be successful without it.

Note it does not include entitlement reform -- other than reform of health care which is vital to both a sensible social contract and to our fiscal health. And it doesn't include accounting -- pay-go, budget surpluses etc. -- which are far less important than outcomes.

Author and liberal polemicist Katha Pollitt was similarly explicit:

If a success, enlarging the safety net, reviving civil liberties and civil rights, putting liberal judges on Fed bench and SC, making significant progress on getting everyone health care, promoting women's rights, re-regulating Wall Street and banks, supporting union organizing. Oh, and brokering Israeli/Palestinian settlement. Good luck with that! If a failure, not doing even one of those things, and bogging us down in Afghanistan.

Along compatible lines, Heather Booth, veteran civil rights activist and founder of the Midwest Academy, noted:

For forty years we have been on the defensive, trying to stop bad things from happening. We now have a chance to build for change for all of us. Part of what made FDR such a successful President, was he not only created change, but it was an inclusive change that was about all of this country--so all of the country could see itself in the hope for the future. This is the key to what President-elect Obama has promised--change in which all of us are in the picture (health care that is affordable for all--including those currently with insurance and those without and the many with inadequate insurance; energy that creates jobs and doesn't pit environmentalist against worker, etc.). This is a key basis on which we can see success--not just in one or more policy areas (as important as they will be), but bringing hope to people that there really can be a better future for all.

The most succinct description of the moment, however, belongs to John O'Sullivan, editor-at-large of National Review, who wrote: "Obama is a sphinx-like enigma on whom the rest of us can impose our own hopes for change."