So Which of These Points Would You Disagree With?


    On my piece, Sorry Mr. Krugman: Obama Came to Office Holding a Royal Flush, Then Declared His Hand “Ace High”, I have taken a bit of a beating. Given the “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” principle, I accept that this goes with the territory.

    But there’s something about all the objections I don’t get. My critique of Obama rests on a handful of points. Many of the criticisms directed my way seem to me irrelevant to these points, as if they are attacking an argument different from the one I’m making.

    For example, some people seem to think I don’t realize just how bad — how determined to thwart Obama — these Republicans have been.

    On the contrary, my whole “Press the Battle” campaign is an attempt to convey that what’s animating these Republicans is much worse than too many people in Liberal America recognize. If there is one point I want to convey in my whole enterprise, it is this: “That the Republican Party has become the instrument of a destructive — I would say “evil” — force.

    What Obama has been up against is not just an “extreme” party, not just the unscrupulous plutocrats who bankroll their scandalous political strategies, not just some rogues who got elected to office. Obama — and the rest of us — are up against a rather pure case of the kind of thing that creates historical nightmares.

    I have no animus against President Obama. His failure to deal effectively with the Republicans is a tragedy of historic proportions, and so in that way I am deeply saddened by this missed opportunity. But I wish him well, I feel some fondness still for the man, I think he has many important virtues.

    So it is not because I feel like attacking Obama that I write such a critique as the “Royal Flush” piece. But rather that there’s something really important for all of us to see in his failure. Because if we cannot see what he should and could have done differently, that pretty much means we still do not see what we have to to –we, as Democrats, as people who do not want the Republicans to succeed in turning our country into the ugly thing toward which they are continually striving, and as American patriots — if our country is to be saved.

    And what is it that, according to me, we should be doing? “See the evil. Call it out. Press the battle.”

    According to me, we would be in much, much better shape now if President Obama had done those three things starting as soon as the Republicans began to make manifest their destructive and dishonest ways of dealing with him and, thereby, treating with contempt the will of the American people and the whole set of democratic ideals that underlie the system our Founders gave us.

    So let me pose this question to those who think me wrong in my critique: which of the following points would you disagree with?

    1) The Republicans, as an opposition party during the Obama presidency, have behaved disgracefully, unprecedentedly, in profound violation of American political norms.

    2) This kind of behavior should be punished, not rewarded.

    3) It has not been punished, and indeed in 2010, it was rewarded by voters, many of whom had been successfully conned by an avalanche of lies from the Republicans throughout the preceding two years.

    4) That behavior COULD have been punished if it had been called out effectively for what it was, showing the American people how fundamentally unAmerican, how contrary to our political norms, how the opposite of how our Founders intended, how contrary to the public good, how injurious to the nation, how dishonest and destructive, the Republicans’ behavior was.

    5) The president of the United States — with his bully pulpit — is in a position to call out the disgraceful behavior, get the public’s attention, expose the Republicans and make them pay a political price for their behavior, and either continue to pay that price or change their ways.

    6) President Obama did almost none of that calling out, particularly in the first two years, but still hardly none of it. The Republicans got away with their delegitimization (the birther lie) and demonization, got away with their abuse of the filibuster, got away with their utterly unpatriotic strategy of obstructionism, etc. etc.

    (Quote from my 2009 open letter to Obama in the Baltimore Sun:    

    Yes, you’ve denied some of their lies, but you’ve not called out the lying. When Sarah Palin and her ilk accuse you of supporting death panels, and you respond by saying, “That’s not true, there are no death panels,” the national conversation centers on the question: “Are there death panels?” But if you say, “It’s unpatriotic for Republicans to degrade our national discourse with fear-mongering lies,” then the media will focus on the question: “Are the Republican peddling lies?” The first question undermines you; the second discredits your opposition.)

    It seems to me that only 4 and 5 should be considered anything like “matters of opinion,” the rest being essentially empirical. But if you don’t believe in 4 and 5, it seems that you don’t believe that democracy can work. Because that would pretty much mean that we as a democratic polity are completely at the mercy of liars and cheats.

    • on this subject, but will repeat them here as well.

      *I’d take issue with point #5.

      “The president of the United States — with his bully pulpit — is in a position to call out the disgraceful behavior, get the public’s attention, expose the Republicans and make them pay a political price for their behavior, and either continue to pay that price or change their ways.”

      What “bully pulpit” does the President really have these days, given the wildly dysfunctional media landscape he faces? A few points on that dysfunctionality:

      1. The media, which used to consist of three major TV networks and major newspapers in each city which most people read, is now splintered into an almost-untold number of types/varieties/sizes/shapes of media (social media of all kinds, hundreds of TV channels, god knows how many radio channels via internet/airwaves/satellite, podcasting, Facebook, Twitter, you name it) to the point that there’s really no way any leader can get his/her message out in a coherent manner to most people, at least not on a consistent basis.

      2. The media seems hell bent on its false equivalency and brain-dead “both sides” narrative, making it EXTREMELY difficult to “call out” anything, let alone get at the actual facts, truth, etc.

      3. The media is mostly focused on triviality, false sensationalism, scream fests, horse-race political coverage, the “scandal” du jour, and other assorted idiocy, as opposed to substance.

      4. Given the speed of information – including wildly FALSE information – these days, it’s almost impossible (actually, strike “almost”) to knock down false rumors, conspiracy theories, and whatever other insanity is bopping around the intertubes at the speed of light. It’s basically an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole, a far cry from the “bully pulpit” of Teddy Roosevelt or whoever in years gone by…

      5. Respect for institutions of all kinds, including the presidency, has declined substantially over the past few decades, meaning that many (most?) people – particularly those not of the same political party – aren’t inclined to believe the president, regardless of what he or she says.

      I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point: when you talk about the president needing to use his “bully pulpit,” my response is a simple question, “WHAT bully pulpit?”

      *Actually, for many of the same reasons, I’d take issue with #4 as well.

      “That behavior COULD have been punished if it had been called out effectively for what it was, showing the American people how fundamentally unAmerican, how contrary to our political norms, how the opposite of how our Founders intended, how contrary to the public good, how injurious to the nation, how dishonest and destructive, the Republicans’ behavior was.”

      Given the reasons I’ve listed, I’m simply not seeing how Republicans’ behavior “COULD have been punished if it had been called out…” Think about it. Let’s say President Obama had tried, starting in the spring of 2009 or whenever, to do that. How would that message have been received? I can just hear it now, Faux “News” and so many others bashing him for violating everything he’d talked about since 2004, how we’re not “Red America/Blue America but Red White and Blue America,” how he was committed to transcending the old partisan divides and ushering in hope and change, etc, etc.

      Who, if anyone, would have had President Obama’s “back” on this? Who would have had the bigger “megaphone” to get their narrative out there: a) the right wing, with its domination of the radio airwaves, and its strong presence in (if not dominance of) the TV and print media landscapes; b) progressives, with…what exactly, beyond Media Matters, Think Progress/CAP, Daily Kos, state-based progressive blogs, the ProgressVA folks and their brethren in other states, and a few others? It seems to me that the media landscape is tilted overwhelmingly to the right, at best the “center-right,” probably at a 100:1 ratio (or greater) over the left. I’m not saying we should give up, but I’m also not at all convinced that a Democratic president has the “bully pulpit” you believe he or she does in 2014 (as opposed to 1914 or 1814 or whenever).

    • Andy Schmookler

      Some of you seem to be saying that the president is really not in a position to call out this Republican Party successfully.

      To you believe that even the president is impotent to 1) fire up Liberal America into an intense force for this battle, and 2) to turn a good share of the rest of the American people against this ugly thing that the Republican Party has become, that would seem to imply that nobody can.

      So does that mean that you don’t think that this is a necessary part of winning this battle?

      Or does it mean you think that the battle is hopeless?

    • Catzmaw

      All I see here is a doubling down on your original argument, Andy, and all of its flaws are still apparent. What’s new in this followup?

      First, your entire argument centers around the notion that if only President Obama had been super outraged and sure to declare “liar, liar” every time he heard a lie that somehow his very stridency would have broken through the deliberate, calculating, slickly packaged, market researched, algorithm driven, active campaign of lies against him. Again, this argument is deeply flawed and shows little understanding of just how a misinformation campaign works. They’re doing it ON PURPOSE. It’s not like they’re going to back off if the guy who is their target calls them out.

      His strident response would have been denounced as just that by the forces arrayed against him and identified as proof positive the American public should fear their angry black President. This has always been the fatal flaw of those who argue for the “bully pulpit” approach, one which has never been truly valid anyway. The bully pulpit only works with people who may disagree with policy, but are either of the same party or same general approach as the President but reluctant to follow. It counts on them being shamed into compliance. What has happened recently when President Obama HAS called out the likes of Fox? Any signs of backing down? Of giving him the benefit of the doubt? Of trying some introspection into whether he might have a point?

      Second, this argument neglects also to take into account that a change in the President’s tone would have caused a corresponding shift in tone and increase in hostility by his opponents. It would have contributed even more ammunition to false equivalency, to the idea that “both sides are doing it”. We see this argument now among ill-informed Americans who perceive nothing but endless warfare between their major parties, an impression which the aforementioned slick packagers are happy to buttress in an effort to get people not to vote. Nobody is more pleased than right wing manipulators to hear otherwise progressive or liberal or moderate left leaning people throw their hands up in exasperation and declare it makes no difference who they vote for because “they’re all the same.” What you advocate, Andy, would confirm this impression and lend it validity.

      Keep in mind, the average American simply isn’t paying attention to politics. They never do. I was shocked this week when mentioning in passing Jimmy Kimmel’s discovery of people who had no idea who Joe Biden was, and then found that at least one of the students (American, BTW) in my college sophomore level criminal law class had no idea who he was, either.  

      What President Obama did was take a seriously dysfunctional situation and somehow manage some positives out of it. All the talk of how if he’d only just schmoozed with Republicans or tried harder with his own Party is ludicrous. As I recall he did some outreach to Republicans in his first few months in office, inviting the leadership over, visiting and answering questions at their leadership conference. What did it get him? Did anyone respond with anything other than refusal to deal with him on any level? What have I missed here which you saw which gave you the impression that he could have changed things just by being a louder, more excitable version of himself?  

    • Quizzical

      I think you may be onto something with your “Press the Battle” series, and we need fighting spirit, so I for one would like to see you take this further.

      However, don’t you think it is asking too much for the President to do the main fighting?  Take the example of Joe McCarthy for example.  It was not President Eisenhower who took him down.  It was a private attorney making a speaking objection during a Senate hearing.  Then there is the example of FDR.  Isn’t there a famous quote attributed to him, when asked to pass civil rights legislation, going something like, “I agree with you. I want to do it.  Now, make me do it.”  Which I take to mean that FDR was not going to take up that particular fight until the political support was already in existence.  In our system of divided powers, a President has to build support for anything to get done, and polarizing battles must be carefully chosen and carefully timed.

      But I agree that there must be someone who will take up the battle immediately, rather than let lies go unchallenged.  That applies whether the lies are about bills or people.  We need to have progressive leaders who, if invited as guests to right wing talk shows, will be ready and willing to battle.

      I don’t think this problem is new, although the internet makes such tactics easier, cheaper, and more harmful. There are probably studies and doctrine concerning the use of propaganda going back to WWI, at least, and I presume, there are also studies and doctrine concerning counter-propaganda.  There is also the wisdom and experience obtained by Democrats who went through Whitewater, the “Freak Show” maltreatment of Al Gore, the “swiftboating” of John Kerry, and the town meetings on deathpanels in 2010.        


    • amber waves

      Obama as the first president of African American descent had a problem that all people who are the first minority…or woman in their jobs have.  They are burdened with years of prejudices which make them vulnerable to attack. Obama overwhelmingly brought in veteran Washington and Wall Street insiders from the Clinton administration. He feared that as the first Black president, he was vulnerable to attack as an uppity, greenhorn who hates White people.  These veterans made few mistakes, but were very conservative.

      Unfortunately, what was needed was a bolder approach to the financial crisis. He needed to use the crisis to go after financial corporate power and turn his huge campaign to attack the NY banks. Instead he brought in Goldman Sachs to treasury and economics team and he never even prosecuted 1 banker for the 2008 collapse.

      On foreign policy he chose establishment military leaders (gates) and Hillary who largely continued the Bush/Cheney wars.  He made very very cautious choices.

      In one small foriegn policy area, he was bold….and successful. Nuclear Weapons. He called for abolition. And he got a significant treaty with the Russians and got global leaders to agree to tighten up low-level radioactive materials and pollution. He held up a high-bar…and had some small but significant victories. Given Republican intransigence, he has lost all momentum on this issue in his second term.

      If he had held up a high bar in

      a)ending BOTH big wars:

      b)Medicare for all

      c)break up the big banks…

      He would not have achieved all of his goals, but he could have set the agenda and gotten better results.

      It is sad to see such opportunities wasted because of political timidity framed in part by his “newness” on the scene.