After The Breather


For me, it's not an unfamiliar pattern. A few days before my scheduled vacation, my lymph nodes started to pop out like golfballs and the night after I went off-grid, I got violent chills, fevers and aches that lasted until a couple of days ago. I'm still creaking a bit. Loads of tests; nothing conclusive, except for a summer flu. Bummer. But it was a change, if not a holiday, and I'm glad to be back, and grateful for the Dish team for a superb job while I was indisposed.

Two rough observations as I dipped into the news from my iPad – observations which sometimes require a few steps back from the cult of contemporaneity we live in. One profound thing has happened this year. It has become clear that the 2007 recession was much, much more severe than we realized at the time; and that the employment recovery is likely to be stalled for as long as it takes for Americans to pay down more debt. This is not that surprising. We knew this was a bad one; and we also knew that recoveries after financial crashes tend to last longer. But politically, it has up-ended the core strategy of Obama's re-election. The bet was that recovery would be visible enough by 2012 for voters to remember who got us into this mess and be patient with those trying to get us out of it.

For the most part, it seems to me that the bet has failed. The stimulus was not perfect, but it definitely put a floor under the pain. But we've been bouncing along that floor ever since – and, in my view, are far too indebted to risk another huge bout of borrowing to try and kickstart the engine again. Worse, the Republican brinksmanship over the debt ceiling and the subsequent downgrade seriously hurt the president's image of competence. Yes, the Tea Party was hurt much more. But they have dragged Obama down with them, and helped create a narrative of a weak, flailing executive. I don't think the president who enacted universal healthcare, rescued Detroit successfully and killed Osama bin Laden and much of al Qaeda's leadership can be described as weak. But the Christianist right's passionate hatred of the man has taken a toll; and the refusal of the left to defend the administration's substantive achievements has led to Obama once again on the ropes.

Yes, he has been there before. Many times. But this is the most serious in terms of approval ratings. His job now is to keep insisting on a balanced debt reduction package and an aggressive attempt to do the limited things he can to help employment rebound. Once this dynamic kicks in, as it will this Thursday, I think the core GOP obstructionist case against anything this president wants gets politically riskier. We will segue into the phase of a choice, not a referendum. And as yet, the GOP has not mustered a credible or persuasive plan to cut the debt and get the economy moving again. Until they can explain what they would have done differently in the last two years and link that argument to a case for economic revival ahead, I think they're far too cocky right now.

The second observation is that Qaddafi is now out of power. I opposed the war and worried it would become a long and civil one. I remain unconvinced that we did the right thing, and concerned that the consequences of this will still be ugly, or less damaging to human lives than non-interventionism would have been. Nonetheless: Obama asked for patience, defended his new "lead-from-behind" strategy with the allies, and the NATO campaign has succeeded in its core task. I read a column like this by Nick Kristof and I get a lump in my realist throat. I'll remain suspicious of what lies ahead and dismayed by the imperial manner in which this war was launched. But credit where it's due.

Since Obama's speech in Cairo, Tehran has been rocked to the core by a popular revolt, Mubarak and Ben Ali are gone, Qaddafi has been deposed and Assad looks weaker by the day. For good measure, al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated and bin Laden captured and killed. Like George H W Bush through the last years of the Soviet Empire, Obama has been castigated throughout for caution, nuance, restraint. But like GHW Bush, his foreign policy legacy is shaping up to be transformational.