Swampland Responds: What Went Wrong For Obama

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At the end of the last post, I asked Swampland’s informed and argumentative throng to weigh in with its take on what went wrong for Obama in his first year. The answers are varied, and worth reading. What follows is not a complete reprinting, but includes the best responses so far. (Keep ’em coming in the comment thread.)

Stuart Zechman:

1. Obama over-promised and under-delivered
Whatever else can be weaseled out of, Obama campaigned and was elected on the promise to fundamentally change Washington. In the year since he was elected, there are no indications whatsoever that this premise of his campaign –of his political existence– will translate into anything meaningful in terms of reforming our political institutions. This means that either A) he was lying, or B) he’s a naive fool. It also means that the public who believed in, organized for and voted for him are also naive fools, and are starting to be humiliated for that trust.

2. Obama’s political philosophy doesn’t work in practice, either politically or in terms of good policy
Since now (as of March 9, 2009) Obama has revealed himself as a centrist (“I am a New Democrat,” he told a gathering of 65 members of that Congressional caucus), we know that his is the classic Clintonian centrist approach to politics and policy. Unfortunately, these policies are bad for the country, if you think that “the country” primarily involves the interests of tens of millions of ordinary Americans, and not merely the leaders of industry and finance. They’re also suicidal for Democrats, if, by “Democrat” one means the political party whose sole premise for existence is the need for ordinary people’s representation in government to counter the influence of elites.
As an example, his policies with respect to the financial industry’s collapse were predicated on a continuation of the government’s partnership role, and not the adversarial role envisioned by the architects of the New Deal. As a result, Obama’s Administration has acted largely to preserve these institutions (and their elite leadership) as they are, in their collapse-worthy state, and has saddled the government with enormous debt in doing so. As was the case in the Great Depression, the Administration was literally threatened by the finance industry, but this time they submitted.
As the continuing lending crisis demonstrates, these expenditures with no reforms attached are wastes of wealth, serving no stimulative effect, and producing nothing in the way of material benefit for citizens –a fact of which they’re well aware. Economist Joseph Stiglitz calls this “ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses.” Voters call it “business as usual in the corrupt Beltway.”

Elvis Elvisberg:

1: The GOP “had an interesting theory that if you refuse to cooperate with efforts to make the country better, things won’t get better and the out-of-power party will benefit. The theory appears to be true.” http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2010/01/our-broken-institutions.php See, e.g., the Gang of Six, which served to delay for months, get zero GOP support, and ruin the possibility of health care reform. Also note that, as with stimulus spending during a recession, there is no disagreement among well-informed people that something along these lines needs to be done; however, the GOP went with maximal exaggeration and obstruction in both cases.

2: The GOP and the press think it’s always 1980– the the cavalry’s coming, and they’re going to be swept back into power. This, despite the fact that if you consult polling issue by issue– leaving party affiliation and loaded questions out of it– the Dems are much, much more preferred than the GOP. But the press thinks that every moment is “fraught with peril for Democrats.”

3: So do Democrats. They’re always scared that it’s 1994, too much so to do anything. See this staffer email: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2010/01/relieved.php?ref=fpblg


Most voters do not pay constant attention to politics. They tend to hear odds and ends of things and some of it filters in as fact. Unfortunately, after Obama was elected, the press decided they had to suddenly criticize and show that they weren’t in the tank for Obama. Alas during the Bush years, there was no constant hand-wringing about the deficit. There were no Democrats on places like NPR giving a different point of view – now all I hear are Republicans so NPR can show how objective it is.


It seems to me that one conclusion is simply: Now that we have gotten to actually KNOW Obama, he ain’t all that special. So many people, voters, media, etc., got so caught up in the hype that Obama’s (very talented) campaign team put out, there just wasn’t enough critical analysis of who he was. I read “Audacity of Hope”…some good ideas (even to this right-winger), but I couldn’t get over thinking to myself, “How is a first-term Senator, with limited experience at any level of government ever going to sell this to Congress?”


The President’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge that we have a two-party system, his insistence on making destructive concessions to the same party voters he had sent packing twice in a row in the name of “bipartisanship,” and his refusal ever to utter the words “I am a Democrat” and to articulate what that means, are not among his virtues. We have competing ideas in a democracy — and hence competing parties — for a reason. To paper them over and pretend they do not exist, particularly when the ideology of one of the parties has proven so devastating to the lives of everyday Americans, is not a virtue. It is an abdication of responsibility.
What happens if you refuse to lay the blame for the destruction of our economy on anyone — particularly the party, leaders, and ideology that were in power for the last 8 years and were responsible for it? What happens if you fail to “brand” what has happened as the Bush Depression or the Republican Depression or the natural result of the ideology of unregulated greed, the way FDR branded the Great Depression as Hoover’s Depression and created a Democratic majority for 50 years and a new vision of what effective government can do? What happens when you fail to offer and continually reinforce a narrative about what has happened, who caused it, and how you’re going to fix it that Americans understand, that makes them angry, that makes them hopeful, and that makes them committed to you and your policies during the tough times that will inevitably lie ahead?
The answer was obvious a year ago, and it is even more obvious today: Voters will come to blame you for not having solved a problem you didn’t create, and you will allow the other side to create an alternative narrative for what’s happened (government spending, deficits, big government, socialism) that will stick. And it will particularly stick if you make no efforts to prevent it from starting or sticking.


1. The financial crisis sapped a lot of political willpower and resources. It’s hard to get a whole lot done when faced with an economy in as dire straits as has been the case for the last year and a half.

2. Health Care is difficult to pass, not simply because of all the contending interests involved (although that is definitely a big part of it), but because the average voter can’t understand it. This is incredibly complex stuff. As a group of engaged people (you’re reading the comments here at Swampland, so I assume you’re probably more politically savy than the typical person on the street), I would challenge you to describe to me what your own coverage is. My guess is no more than a handful could say what your copay, deductable, coinsurance, lifetime maximum is.


Obama was elected largely as a rejection of neoconservative colonialism, yet, in the face of grave econimic turmoil, he continues to grow the military budget (CBO estimates 6% annually- *bellow), build military bases throughout the Middle East, exaggerate the national security threat posed by foreign groups (Bush had Saddam/Baathists, Obama has the Taliban), employs the same military advisers as his predecessor and seems dedicated to the “Long War”


Mass. is a very strong Dem state. Therefore, there are many leftwingers there (they would be called moderates in most other democracies – America votes very rightwing). So this was a protest vote from the left. Country-wide, Obama has a 54% approval rating, so it must be because Mass. has more leftwingers.

While the media acts oblivious, the left is well aware that Obama has continued many criminal Bush policies (e.g. Obama is guilty of conspiracy to hide Bush’s crimes against humanity), Obama has been in the pocket of the Health Insurance and Banking industries, and Obama has grovelled to the likes of Lieberman and the Republicans. Do you think the leftwingers were pleased with all that? No intelligent, ethical, informed person would be pleased with it. And the only power they have is to not vote for them.


#1: A variation of Scherer’s #6. It isn’t the #1 problem as it wasn’t a mistake Obama made nor are the points Scherer listed alone a problem. The reality is that media has split from Tabloid and Real to 5 categories: Tabloid, Partisan, Self-absorbed (Scherer’s point), Real and Internet. Yes, you could argue that the real media like Washington Post and New York Times have been Partisan in the past, but I doubt many of us would disagree that the headliners on MSNBC or Fox – AKA the faces of news today – are far more partisan. In effect, we have powerful Partisan media, powerful Self-absorbed media that only looks different from Tabloid media insofar as it’s dealing with Washington instead of Hollywood, a powerful Internet media which is far more a voice box on everything that’s broadcasted that doesn’t so much deliver what’s happening as it does spread what’s happening, and a weakening real news with the papers going out of print and the news channels almost hiding the actual newsmen. None of that is the fauly of Obama, but this gigantic shift hasn’t been responded to properly by Obama. Between it all, it has the power to explode anything and fast. Obama did a better job than any candidate in history to take advantage of this during the campaign, but his attempts to revolutionize it have almost stopped since he got into office. Imagine if Gibbs had a twitter feed? Instant response every time a Republican states a lie on National TV. Not next day response, instant. You could have people told a claim is false before they’ve even heard the claim – and we all know that the story gets on page 1 while the rebuttle ends up on page 10. And I came up with that in 2 minutes.
#2: Selling the stimulus bill as a cure all. Every analyst with reasonable skill said that the stimulus bill couldn’t solve the economic crisis. Everyone from the White House to Wall Street knew that a second stimulus would have to come. The response he should’ve given was “this Stimulus Bill is to help stabilize the economy by helping main street, but it is not the last one we will pass to ensure that people can get back on their feet. We will need to evaluate the situation further and have a clearer grasp of how people are hurting and what can be done to help them and pass further bills as it becomes clearer”. Yes, it might’ve hurt him with deficit hawks in the short run, but telling Main Street it wasn’t going to be left in the rain when you had to know that unemployment would continue to tick up probably would’ve helped.
#3: Leaving Republicans out of the stimulus negotiations. I know this is a debatable one and it wasn’t really Obama’s fault but rather Reid and Pelosi, but still, he ran with bipartisanship as a key element and this set the tone in Washington that bipartisanship was out the door. It has the bonus effect that if Republicans actually slowed down the bill, they could be tossed out with “you go ahead and wait, we want to help real Americans”. On the other hand, you throw in a few compromise items (not many, they still had a mandate) and you’re off to the races. It might not have prevented the teabagger takeover of the Republicans, but it might’ve helped. Heck, if they did it right, they could’ve used it to further split the GOP
#4: Not keeping a tab on Kennedy’s seat. Yes, Coakley should’ve told them earlier, and it’s Mass, but you can still have some lackey who’s job it is to check the numbers every week just in case something happens.
#5: Control one, just one, press cycle. Sure, they couldn’t do anything about Joe Wilson, but what about Sargeant Crowley. It seemed for the latter half of the year, if they had some news go their way, someone, somewhere, figured out how to usurp it.


6. Conservatives distort and get away with it. Ex 1: The continued use of the term “government takeover” regarding healthcare. What, exactly, is being taken over. Ex 2: “Death Panels” No further comment required. Ex. 2 “Malpractice Reform” Damages from lawsuits are less that 1% of healthcare costs, and punitive damages are awarded by juries, not judges. “Secret deals” Did the Congressional Record and C-Span disappear and I missed it?

7. The Media can’t be bothered to do policy in detail. When was the last time you saw an extensive, coherent discussion of policy (as opposed to politics) on television? Track down the number of minutes devoted to “Game Change” by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – oops – Haloerin and Heileman and you’ll get a sense of the problem.

8. The decline of the American educational system: People do indeed get the government they deserve.