Right-wing obstruction could have been fought: An ineffective and gutless presidency’s legacy is failure
Thomas Frank, Salon
Sunday, Jul 20, 2014 07:00 AM EST
(A)ll presidential museums are exercises in getting their subject off the hook, and for Obama loyalists looking back at his years in office, the need for blame evasion will be acute. Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?
Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them-their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls-they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.
In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all-for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp-heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)
But bipartisanship as an ideal must also be kept sacred, of course. And so, after visitors to the Obama Library have passed through the Gallery of Drones and the Big Data Command Center, they will be ushered into a maze-like exhibit designed to represent the president’s long, lonely, and ultimately fruitless search for consensus. The Labyrinth of the Grand Bargain, it might be called, and it will teach how the president bravely put the fundamental achievements of his party-Social Security and Medicare-on the bargaining table in exchange for higher taxes and a smaller deficit. This will be described not as a sellout of liberal principle but as a sacred quest for the Holy Grail of Washington: a bipartisan coming-together on “entitlement reform,” which every responsible D.C. professional knows to be the correct way forward.
What will the Obama library have to say about the people who recognized correctly that it was time for “Change” and who showed up at his routine campaign appearances in 2008 by the hundreds of thousands?
It will be a tricky problem. On the up side, those days before his first term began were undoubtedly Obama’s best ones. Mentioning them, however, will remind the visitor of the next stage in his true believers’ political evolution: Disillusionment. Not because their hero failed to win the Grand Bargain, but because he wanted to get it in the first place-because he seemed to believe that shoring up the D.C. consensus was the rightful object of all political idealism. The movement, in other words, won’t fit easily into the standard legacy narrative. Yet it can’t simply be deleted from the snapshot.
Perhaps there will be an architectural solution for this problem. For example, the Obama museum’s designers could make the exhibit on the movement into a kind of blind alley that physically reminds visitors of the basic doctrine of the Democratic Party’s leadership faction: that liberals have nowhere else to go.
My own preference would be to let that disillusionment run, to let it guide the entire design of the Obama museum. Disillusionment is, after all, a far more representative emotion of our times than Beltway satisfaction over the stability of some imaginary “center.” So why not memorialize it? My suggestion to the designers of the complex: That the Obama Presidential Library be designed as a kind of cenotaph, a mausoleum of hope.
Person Of Paradox
By Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
July 22, 2014
(O)n the issue of the economy, and the people who wrecked it and then sold off the pieces, and then, by and large, got away clean, there were some things the president could have done, and didn’t do, that lead me to believe that, on this issue, Frank is more right than he is wrong. For example, there was no reason to involve Bob Rubin in the transition team, much less to staff the Treasury Department with Rubin-esque clones. Hell, Tim Geithner didn’t have to be Treasury Secretary. There was nothing stopping the president in 2008 from appointing a tough assistant U.S. Attorney to be an assistant secretary of the Treasury tasked with vigorously investigating the causes of the economic meltdown, and whatever crimes were involved therein. The Republicans would have raised hell, but they were going to do that anyway. It’s hard to see a Democratic Congress defunding the Treasury Department, but I admit there’s no telling what mischief Max Baucus might have concocted. The president faced unprecedented opposition employing unprecedented tactics. However, “looking forward, not back” on many issues was a conscious governing strategy.