Frank Rich’s profile on Obama entitled ‘Something Rotten’ appeared in New York magazine this week, Rich’s first major essay since leaving the Times. It’s a fair, devastating take-down, all the more so because Rich is sympathetic and had high hopes for the Obama presidency. But it breaks very little new ground. It catalogs Obama’s serious weaknesses and states the obvious: that his re-election is in big, big trouble. In a sane world against a remotely credible opponent, Obama would be a huge underdog.
Of course, we haven’t inhabited a sane world for some time, which is troublesome not just because some complete wacko may soon be in charge, but because a presidential election year brings out the worst in those benighted creatures on two legs and their weak leaders. I also fear what could come next, not just next November but the whole tedious stretch leading up to it. We really have no idea how Obama would react upon facing defeat, and he has not been the least bit shy about wielding and adding to the vast powers his predecessors bequeathed him.
There are two arenas in which I find Obama’s instincts particularly worthy of anxiety if not alarm: the New Deal legacy and the international sphere, specifically the Iranian bugbear.
As to the former: Rich argues that Obama’s biggest mistake was not slapping down the finance industry when it was on the ropes. By throwing it a taxpayer-funded lifeline without extracting anything important in return (the lame reforms in Dodd-Frank are a mild and scarcely relevant exception), Obama mortgaged his administration to the idea that returning quickly to the failed, old ways would restore economic health. He thereby re-energized the rapacious banking sector, whose natural allies are his mortal enemies in the GOP.
Obama now has no real constituency left in economic policy: the Tea Baggers think he’s the anti-Christ; many of his erstwhile boosters see him as a sell-out; and Mary & Joe Main Street are unemployed or underwater and cannot trust him. Only the tiny minority of die-hard Democrats will follow Obama into the Valley of Death even if a large additional slice eventually sickens at the thought of Bachmann and Romney on the evening news and throws him their votes. But I do not anticipate long lines at the polling stations as in 2008.
So where does Obama go from here, having tossed his chance for an appealing populist, neo-Rooseveltian stance? All signs point to further pandering to the rhetoric and demands of the greedy, swallowing the GOP deficit mania whole hog and desperately seeking BFF status with people who would like to see him in livery welcoming their guests at the front gate. We can anticipate the usual pattern of Obama giving up the farm before negotiations begin, then throwing in Mom’s retirement cottage when the opposition digs in its heels.
But why stop there? The scenario could get much worse: why merely lose in the budget talks when you can give away even bigger prizes?
For example: Obamacare is a big, fat target for the incoming Republicans should they come back to haunt us next year. But what if a new Grand Compromise were made attractive to them? Why couldn’t Obamacare be a model for dismantling the single-payer government-funded healthcare monoliths that Republicans have been aiming at for decades? Force seniors and the poor to buy Obamacare-style insurance instead of guaranteeing them free medical services, and voila, the budget is freed up for more tax reductions.
Democrats are cynical enough to sell this to their base, and who would stop them? The party machinery would immediately go to work to convince us that it’s the ‘best deal we can hope for’ and will ‘preserve’ these programs for future generations, etc., etc., blah blah.
That’s a cynical view, to be sure, but here’s one to top it: why shouldn’t Obama greenlight an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities next year? Because he got the Nobel for peacemaking once upon a time? Pardon my chortle. The Israelis are itching to do it; the neocons would cheer; the Democratic establishment would grumble and go along. Many liberal Jews would be ecstatic. A few wise dissidents would warn of dire consequences, but three quarters of Congress would stand on their chairs to support it.
Rich has little to say about what drives Obama; perhaps he finds our president too opaque to read. Or maybe Rich doesn’t really care—I don’t. He says Obama ‘falls hard’ for Ivy League white guys like Rubin, Summers and Geithner and doesn’t try to explain it further. He concentrates on what he thinks Obama has to do to turn his unsteady ship around and win re-election. That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, too.