Ask Me Anything: What’s Obama’s Biggest Mistake?



This, of course, brings to mind David Brooks’ column this morning, bemoaning Obama’s decision to abandon attempts to get Republican support for preventing a double-dip and to go it alone out there as a populist outsider. Strategically, I think David is right that Obama’s strengths do not lie in polarization. In my ideal world, the conciliatory, reasonable Obama would have reached some accords with a reasonable, chastened GOP and then fought an election on the future direction of the country. In the actual world, it seems clear that this GOP has shown itself dedicated to the destruction of this presidency and any promise it offered to the country – as well as doubling down in its heart on a repeal of much of the New Deal. The refusal to address any revenues at all as part of a bipartisan fiscal Grand Bargain made that perfectly clear.

David concedes that:

Republicans weren’t willing to meet him halfway — or even 10 percent of the way.

But he then argues that Obama should have stuck to his position nonetheless, even though the GOP seems actively intent on increasing the chances of a double-dip in order to pursue their path back to power. He twists the knife a little comparing Obama’s strategy to Netanyahu’s. Yes, that will get their attention.

The flaw in the case, however, seems to me that, after a while, Obama’s conciliatory response to a bunch of ideological thugs – especially after they tried to send the country into default – made him look weak and impotent. You can’t win an election that way. You can neither rally your base nor look strong to Independents. And you risk looking weak as the economy tanks for lack of demand – as the GOP is clearly hoping for.

My own view is that the dichotomy David draws is too stark. The Grand Bargain is completely compatible with a populist message, as long as it includes the kind of tax reform and simplification along the lines of the Bowles-Simpson plan. And populist measures, like a tax on millionaires, if they are cast as a means to restrain debt rather than to punish success, can be popular among liberals and independents. And without knowing the super-committee’s results, it’s hard to see what Obama can do in the meantime. A national tour highlighting the GOP’s desire to enrich the wealthiest even now seems to me a perfectly worthwhile exercize for this moment. Obama can and should shift if the super-committee somehow succeeds, and I agree with David that the Grand Bargain is almost perfect Obama policy.

But Obama wasn’t entirely about restoring reason and civility to the discourse. He was also about changing the country’s direction away from the debt and recklessness of the Bush years. He was concerned about the poorest. He was worried about inequality all along. He was a moderately liberal insurgent.

I see no reason why, as next year takes shape, he cannot repeat that formula, sharpened by the impact of the Great Recession. Not easy. But the GOP’s dickishness made anything else extremely hard.