Obama’s Moment Of Truth

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 8 2011 @ 1:21pm


It comes tonight, in the midst of by far the worst reviews of his presidency and the real chance of a double-dip recession ending it after one term. The left is livid; Dowd keeps reiterating her Obambi mockery; and he's apparently lost the Hamptons! (yes, that was a joke.) I don't think anyone can deny the gravity of the crisis he inherited on many fronts, foreign and domestic, or the things he cannot control (tsunamis in Japan, debt crises in Europe, an opposition defined by hatred of him) but that doesn't mean he will or should be excused for another economic after-shock after the 2007 – 2009 Great Recession.

I find much of the criticism overblown. Partly that's because I have yet to hear an account of what he should have done by his conservative critics. They seem to suggest he should have passed no stimulus, bailed out no banks or auto-companies, and let the economy heal itself over time. It's an interesting thesis, I suppose, if you can wipe your memory banks of 2008/2009. At the time, there was a sense of total emergency as the entire global financial system looked as if it could go under. It didn't. Nor did the US economy enter a very frightening downward spiral. To dismiss Obama's stabilization of a plane headed toward crashing seems terribly unfair to me.

But let's say Rick Perry had been president: no stimulus, no auto bailout, no payroll tax cut, no extension of unemployment benefits. Does anyone think that unemployment would be lower today than it is? Surely it would have been much much worse, even if you take a dim view of the content of the 2009 – 2010 stimulus. Does anyone think that any president, Democrat or Republican, would have risked a second Great Depression when offered ways to mitigate it?

But what's accurate about the criticism is that Obama has not (yet) told a story of the last three years that resonates. Instead the rightwing noise machine has drowned out reality with an alternate set of non-facts. The sheer fantasies and lies about Obama's record on display last night really do shock the conscience. Romney was among them [NYT]:

“We are an energy-rich nation and we’re living like an energy-poor nation,” [Romney] said, asserting that Mr. Obama had halted offshore drilling, blocked construction of new coal plants, slowed development of nuclear plants and failed to develop natural gas trapped in shale formations.

But those claims are largely untrue. While Mr. Obama declared a moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill in 2010, the government began granting permits again earlier this year and activity is approaching pre-spill levels. The administration recently announced a major lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico and gave provisional approval to a Shell project in the Arctic off the coast of Alaska. And while a number of utilities have canceled plans to build new coal plants, that is largely because demand for electricity has slowed, not because of new federal regulations.

But when did you last hear an Obama official touting that? I was watching Hannity the other night (they pay me) and he said that when the president offered a tax cut to help the economy, he'd back him 100 percent. Really? One third of the hated stimulus was tax cuts. Obama is now proposing an extension of the payroll tax cut. Tax revenues are at their lowest in fifty years and tax rates are lower than under Reagan. Obama even agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for two more years. If tax cuts are the solution, why aren't we booming?

And yet somehow the Fox Propaganda Machine has just continued to portray Obama as the only candidate they know how to run against: a crazy big government liberal, taxing the country to death. Joe Klein regards this as a political failing on Obama's part:

If he were [a top-drawer politician], we’d be talking about the Obama tax cuts–there have been two big ones–instead of the “failed” Obama stimulus package; the Obama Senior Citizen prescription drug benefit (he closed the donut hole), universal health coverage that you can never lose instead of death panels; the Detroit auto boom as a path to a revival of manufacturing. Most important, we’d be talking about jobs instead of deficits. We would never have played the Republican deficit follies these past nine months. He would be defining the political arena. Instead, the Republicans are.

But the deficit and debt do matter if only because they are undermining any confidence in the long term stability of the American polity and economy. I don't think Obama was wrong to tackle it, just too cautious in not nailing himself to the Bowles-Simpson mast while offering concrete proposals to help jobs now. As to the rest, Joe is right. The gap between what has actually happened and the narrative the right has been able to propagate about it is dangerously wide.

But that gap means one thing: if an accurate, compelling counter-narrative emerges, a real revival is possible. And one thing I have long observed about Obama is his willingness to stay on the ropes longer than seems wise or possible. That's the pattern, obscured by his meteoric political success. But then, time after time, he has often managed to pull out of it with a speech that returns the country to reality, an argument that is very hard to counter, and a set of proposals that are often commonsensical. Recall his healthcare address after the Tea Party revolt in the summer of 2009. Recall where it led: passage of national universal health insurance.

This time, it's much harder. The deeper economic forces are bleak for any incumbent anywhere in the West; the rubric of change ends when you have been in office for almost three years. The lack of a strong recovery has understandably unnerved people. But I believe Americans are a fair bunch and will give him a hearing (they still like him a lot, despite the approval ratings slide). What he needs to do is not just offer proposals that would be suicidal for the GOP to oppose, but to give us a narrative of where we've come and where we are going. He has one – and put the right way, it's compelling.

This, after all, is a president who has ended the war in Iraq, killed Osama bin Laden, passed universal health insurance, rescued Detroit, stabilized an economy in free-fall, dispatched Qaddafi, deftly presided over a democratic transformation in the Middle East, and guided the political system toward a far more honest assessment of our fiscal crisis. He has quite a story to tell. He just needs the audacity to tell it.

Well, tonight we'll see the first attempt. What ultimately forges a presidency is how it responds to the moment when it is getting pummeled. Good luck, Mr President. This time, you'll need it.