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?