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Sorry Mr. Krugman: Obama Came to Office Holding a Royal Flush, Then Declared His Hand “Ace High”


 Paul Krugman is a hero of mine . Because of his brilliance, his integrity, his batting average at being right, and the choice piece of journalistic real estate he occupies, Krugman has my vote for MVP among all the pundits of our times.

But regarding the piece Professor Krugman just published in Rolling Stone, arguing that “Obama has emerged as “one of the most … successful presidents in American history,” I must – regretfully, but strongly–disagree.

Our differences here are matters of how we weigh different parts of the picture. Krugman goes through a list of Obama’s achievements – such as health care reform, financial reform, and others – and I largely agree about those.

At the same time, Krugman acknowledges that failure of Obama’s that’s salient for me, when he writes: “He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically.”

So which should be weighed more heavily, the achievements or that failure to deal rightly with this “scorched-earth Republican opposition”?

I say it’s the latter, and here’s my case.

First, and less important, Obama will have had an eight-year presidency in which his opposition will have effectively prevented the president from achieving anything legislatively for the final six. The president has been compelled to retreat to the final fortress of executive action. Such a retreat is hardly a sign of presidential success.

Second, and most important, six years into Obama’s presidency, the American political system is a dysfunctional wreck such as we’ve never seen before. An opposition party that’s behaved in unprecedented and disgraceful ways has flourished. The governmental process has been strangled into utter unproductivity. In parts of the American body politic, ugly impulses have grown more intense, and the divisions among us have grown deeper.

At one level, all this pathology can be blamed on the destructive force that’s taken over the Republican Party. But at another level, it is also the consequence of the failure of this president to battle this ugly force and compel back into the recesses of American society. Instead, Obama’s approach has allowed it to gain power such as it has not possessed since the 1850s .

It appears that Mr. Krugman takes it as a given that this scorched-earth opposition would be as ugly and as mighty we see it now . (Note his use of the word “realistically” when he speaks of Obama’s years of naivete.)

But I believe that to be a most important error.  It didn’t have to be this way.  

One could see, soon after his Inauguration, how Obama was giving his power away to his enemies. One watched as the Republicans were at first wary of this enormously popular and charismatic new president, but then saw that — despite the great authority that had been invested in him through his inspiring rise to the presidency – they could get away with anything without his making them pay a price.

(An example is the course taken by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley on health care. Grassley started out acting like a moderate Republican willing to conduct normal, cooperative politics. But then Obama’s conduct, appeasing rather than attacking the obstructionists, pulled the rug out from under Grassley. Seeing that he had more to fear from the radicals on his right than from the president, Grassley quickly closed ranks with the radicals.)

Obama fed the beast that has consistently sought to thwart and destroy him. And even since he became more “realistic,” he has never taken it on to expose, fight, and defeat it.

Even before Obama  took office — for the GW Bush presidency already revealed the depth of the danger coming from the right – it was clear that defeating this ugly force was Job One.  And it was a job he could have accomplished.

(And lest anyone imagine that I am making this case only in hindsight, with the benefit of seeing the utter mess our politics have become, it can be seen here that I’ve been making this critique – publicly, play-by-play in real time – since the first year of the Obama presidency. Alternative history is inevitably unprovable, but judge for yourself how plausible it is that the alternatives I proposed along the way show: It didn’t have to be this way.)

Let us not forget the power Obama had on Inauguration Day. He bestrode the political world like a Colossus.  His potential to reshape this country was huge, and America’s need for him to repair and restore it in the wake of the Bushite wrecking crew was intense.

Instead, our system of governance – which has steered this nation into greatness over our two-plus centuries – is in shambles. The destructive force America needed Obama to subdue has grown stronger. The future of American democracy is in serious doubt.

Can we call such a legacy the mark of a “successful” presidency?  

Had he done Job One, might we not have had even more achievements, plus a properly functioning political system?

  • Jimiskin

    Excellent piece. I could not agree more. I have only one burning question. Why? Why and how did Obama misread the opposition so terribly?

  • Jim B

    I haven’t seen any other democrats take on the republicans except maybe the congressman from Florida. Would it have helped if the most powerful democrat in the senate or house had marched over the to the WH and told the pres what was up? Ken Burns program on PBS told about some people in the Roosevelt administrations that were willing to point out the truths of the time. Those truths helped both presidents.

    Obama seems to be a lone wolf and that is not good.

  • NotJohnSMosby

    So, a collapsing financial system, a full-fledged stock market crash, jobs disappearing a half million at a time and a conservative lunatic fringe already fired up by Sarah Palin calling the incoming President a terrorist on the campaign stump.  This is a royal flush in your book?

    Obama came in with a strong hand politically, but with very little experience.  In those first two years, Pelosi did a great job, but Reid squandered the filibuster-proof majority he had in the Senate.  Obama tried to play nice to Republicans for two years – a sign of his inexperience – and wasted time.

    But, he didn’t come in with a royal flush.  He certainly had more than ace-high.  Getting ACA through, with teabagger groups letting every old racist get a cathartic rant out that they had been forced to hold for decades, was a miracle.  Getting out of Iraq, the Arab Spring, the economic meltdown in Europe.  All of that.

    Obama has done a lot of things poorly.  He’s done some great things.  He should have been much more forceful with Republicans, and called the teabagger uprising what it was and is.  Rich country club Republicans unleashing the poor white racist energy.  But, he tried to be fair, pulling a common Democratic mistake of not using power when it’s both available and needed.

  • fwdprogress

    President Obama has been let down by everyone….including himself. But Dems have been attacking him with blog posts like this since 2009 and have done next to nothing to spread the amazing progress he achieved with the stimulus, ACA, WSR etc…enjoy the 5.9% unemployment rate and record Dow numbers.

  • ir003436

    This article is a huge load of nonsense.

    I doubt that any President has faced an opposition that conspired 24 hours after his inauguration and determined their entire approach would be “NO.”  Add to that the 24/7 brutal, vicious, obscene attacks on him from the coordinated, deep-pockets rightwing lie machine.

    There’s no way President Obama could have worked with Republicans.  Grassley’s alleged moderate approach was a smoke screen.  Obama certainly wasn’t helped by Clueless Harry Reid and by several other treacherous Senate Democrats, all of whom are more concerned about their precious Senate seats and who don’t give a goddam about the President.

    Our political system is a “dysfunctional wreck,” not because of President Obama, but because of the Teahadist, biblethumping, gun-toting, xenophobic, hate-filled Republican Party.

  • Another Scott

    You write:

    “Let us not forget the power Obama had on Inauguration Day. He bestrode the political world like a Colossus.  His potential to reshape this country was huge, and America’s need for him to repair and restore it in the wake of the Bushite wrecking crew was intense.”

    I guess that’s why one of his first executive actions, signing an order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year, was held up by those in Congress who feared him.  Because he was a “Colossus”.  :-/

    I don’t think so.  

    If one voted in 2008 expecting Obama was going to be a Superman who would move into the White House and fix everything that was wrong with the federal government, then disappointment was going to result.  Obama was never going to be Superman.

    I think the main thing that Obama wanted to happen in DC was for the Congress to do its job again.  To stop ceding so much power to the President.  To face up to its responsibilities to pass sensible legislation rather than refusing to vote, refusing to pass an honest budget, refusing to face reality.

    That’s why he said the $1T coin was never an option and that the debt ceiling had to be raised without negotiations.

    That’s why he hasn’t issued thousands of Executive Orders.

    That’s why he hasn’t appointed thousands during congressional recesses.

    And that’s one reason why he has resisted all the calls for boots on the ground in Syria and elsewhere.

    He has great respect for the Constitution and wants the House and Senate to do their jobs.

    He’s done an amazing job considering the uniformly stupid opposition he has faced from Republicans in the Congress and in the courts.  I suspect he will continue to do good things for the country even if the Senate flips (FSM forfend!).

    Yes, he could have done so much more with a Congress that wasn’t inhabited by those who value political victories much more than what’s sensible and best for the country.  We know how to fix many of the problems the country is facing and will face in the coming years.  It’s not being done fast enough (or at all).  But it’s not Obama’s fault.

    Green Lanternism isn’t a sensible way to look at Obama’s presidency, it seems to me.

    My $0.02, FWIW.



  • CADeminVA

    Are talking about things that struck me when I read this some hours ago.

    Andy it is far too early to begin to assess the Obama Presidency, other than as “incomplete”. I think that ten or twenty years from now he will be viewed as the most consequential president in a long, long time.

    I tell people that if a Republican President doubled the stock market, cut unemployment in half, lowered the Federal deficit over 40% and kept inflation in check his face would be carved on Mount Rushmore.

    Obama by his very election was held to unbelievable and unattainable goals. How’s that “post-racial America” thing working out? I think of how John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic elected President. Also the last.

    I know friends who are disappointed in Obama’s defense of civil liberties. He is not a civil libertarian.

    I know friends who are disappointed in Obama’s pursuit of many progressive ideals. He is not a progressive, per se.

    Obama’s domestic politics, in the public policy arena, are a skosh to the right of Richard Nixon’s. The Affordable Care Act falls well short of what Nixon proposed for health insurance reform, for example. Obama is an incrementalist at heart.

    The lack of respect shown to the man and the office is shocking and dispiriting. There is an entire 24/7 media machine dedicated to sedition against him.

    No, Eric Holder never frog-marched the banksters and fraudsters as I might have wished. Some think Obama “timid”, and of course it was William Blake who said “Prudence is an Old Maid courted by Incapacity” but the nation was still too shell-shocked by the Crash of ’08 to fully understand the enormity of it. By 1932 the country had seen what Republican policies could accomplish (not) and Franklin Roosevelt was given a great mandate. Obama’s election was historic, but in no way was he given a similar mandate.

    We should be putting our efforts into getting as many Democrats as possible elected right now. I haven’t given up on losing the Senate. Let’s try to get John Foust (a real chance) and Jack Trammell and Norm Mosher (not so much of a chance) elected.

  • Check it out.

    …The current indiscriminate pile-on about a “failed presidency” is just bandwagon [bull****]. Unlike Krugman, I’ve long had confidence in Obama’s long game, even as I have had several conniptions in his term of office


    Forget the media-click-bait pile-on. Just watch the economic data after the worst depression in many decades (and look at Europe or japan for comparison). Follow the progress in universal health insurance (itself a huge positive change in American life). Measure the greater security from WMDs. And observe the tectonic cultural shifts.

    I’m not going to stop bashing him when I think he deserves it. But have I reason to question the long-term achievements of his long game? [F***] no. And we have two years to go.

  • Quizzical

    First of all, 99% of the criticism of Obama in the media over the last six months has absolutely been driven by the upcoming midterm elections, which are now overtly being characterized as a “referendum” on the Obama Presidency.  So this is an important topic for that reason alone.

    I don’t pretend to any great political wisdom, but to my mind, it’s pretty clear that the upcoming midterms are going to be a “base election” in which the objective is to energize and turn out your own base, and discourage and depress the turnout of the opposition’s base.  Obama bashing fits very neatly into that strategy for the Republicans on both sides of that occasion.  

    I’m not saying that Democrats should refrain from any criticism of Obama; and certainly, where he made mistakes, there should be lessons learned.  On the other hand, let’s not get swept up in the politically driven Obama bashing that is sweeping through the media.  I mean, if you make me feel bad enough about having voted for Obama twice in the first place, I might just say the hell with it, and skip this next election.

    Second, a lot of the Obama bashing is wildly contradictory.  On the one hand, he is supposedly weak and incompetent; on the other hand, he is supposedly abusing executive powers both domestically and in foreign affairs.  On the one hand he is supposedly an indecisive, timid Constitutional law professor, on the other hand, he is supposedly ignoring the military advice of his generals and recklessly getting us into wars with Congressional authorization in violation of the Constitution. On the one hand he supposedly is inexperienced; on the other hand, he has been President of the United States for six tumultuous years.

    Put all of this criticism together, and you get an oxymoron, like cold fire or something. It doesn’t make any sense, and mostly there is no effort to make sense. Most of the criticism is blatant political spin with no attempt to justify the assertions with any facts.  

    Third, it is a myth that Obama had a fillibuster proof majority in Congress for two years.  I’ve seen that myth debunked numerous times. It’s just not true.


    That one lays out how Obama had just 24 days of super-majority.

    Fourth, as I recall, part of Obama’s original Presidential campaign was based on his argument that he would be a different kind of politician and would not perpetuate the politics of division that characterized the Clinton Administration and the GW Bush Administration.  After running on that basis and winning, how could he come into Washington and start playing hardball partisan politics from Day One?  I presume he really believed he could work with the Republicans, and that he thought that getting the people’s business done was Job One.  

    Meanwhile starting with election night in November, 2008, we now know that Congressional Republicans were meeting secretly and vowing not to give him any legislative success.  

    Anyway, in my book, Obama is the best President that we’ve had since 1960.  If Obama did not have a Congress he could work with, the fault is not his, but ours.


  • Catzmaw

    Oh look, I disappear for a while from Blue Virginia and come back to this nonsensical account of how it’s Obama’s fault that he couldn’t figure out a way to deal with people who took an oath to make sure he failed and have dedicated themselves through every procedural gimmick and destructive tactic they could to bring him down, even if it meant bringing the country down, too. Articles like this were the reason I stopped reading blogs run by people angry that their magical fantasy President hadn’t waved his wand and brought them the unicorns and sparkle ponies they were expecting.

    President Obama’s biggest flaw was assuming he was dealing with rational people who would eventually see the sense of what he was trying to do and work with him, if not for themselves, then for the sake of the country. He had ample reason to believe this would happen because that’s how it always happened historically. He genuinely believed he would be able to reach his enemies in a spirit of compromise as soon as they saw the harm flowing from their ways. As a deeply rational human being perhaps he was a little late in picking up on the depths of their insanity and willingness to do actual harm to this country in pursuit of their goal of making him fail. However, once it became obvious just how intractable they were, he had a choice of either carving a middle road to get what he could, or of withdrawing into a principled hard stand such as is recommended here on the assumption that withdrawing into Fortress Progressive and declaring himself at war with the GOP would somehow change everything for the good.

    Frankly, Andy, you do yourself no credit by pointing out that you’ve had the same critique since year one. All that tells me is that you weren’t really paying attention to just how far the descent of Republicans into anti-government zealotry has run. You are stuck in your own rut, a simplistic belief that if he’d just been loud and confrontational enough it would have worked some magic and made his opponents more cooperative. Upon what do you base this assumption which is so central to your entire argument?

    Please identify the evidence in support of your criticism. Point to the Republican who admits that if only President Obama had talked tougher, screamed louder, and acted more aggressively the waters would have parted and the miracle of GOP cooperation would have been born.

    Who is it, really, who misread the opposition if you genuinely believe that a louder, angrier black President would have pulled off such a miracle? What you perceive as “appeasement” can be better seen as making the best of a bad situation and even profiting from it. This was the point of Krugman’s piece. He’s rethought his criticisms because despite the seeming appeasement this President has gotten a lot done.

    The same thing was apparent from the reactions of the GOP to the deals he made with them. The first few days we’d see the glow of self-congratulation and their conviction that they’d won some victory, and then by the next week the criticisms would be pouring in that he’d somehow bamboozled them and gotten more than they were willing to give. Watching them was like watching Charlie Brown complain about Lucy taking the football away again.

    In short, this criticism of President Obama is old news. In fact, it could have been written his first two years in office. Yet here we are with many, many accomplishments which Andy considers too unimportant to outweigh this tired old critique.

    Armchair quarterbacking is always easy, but it’s not real. Being a distant observer with no real skin in the game isn’t the same as being the guy on whom everything hangs.

  • Andy Schmookler

    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.