Ross Douthat has mostly disappointed me as the New York Times' token right-winger in the paper's editorial stable. Particularly compared to his blogging at the Atlantic, Douthat often has come across as a ponderous scold, dutifully promulgating Republican talking points within somewhat-to-very disingenuous examinations of issues and slightly creepy forays into pop-culture philosophizing.
But his piece in Saturday's paper on "The Obama Way" reminds me why I had some regard for Douthat in the first place: when he can put the BS aside, the guy has a pretty sharp eye.
Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.
In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”
Both right and left have had trouble processing Obama’s institutionalism. Conservatives have exaggerated his liberal instincts into radicalism, ignoring the fact that a president who takes advice from Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates probably isn’t a closet Marxist-Leninist. The left has been frustrated, again and again, by the gulf between Obama’s professed principles and the compromises that he’s willing to accept, and some liberals have become convinced that he isn’t one of them at all.
They’re wrong. Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue. It’s just that he’s more acutely conscious of the limits of his powers and less willing to start fights that he might lose than many supporters would prefer. In this regard, he most resembles Ronald Reagan and Edward Kennedy. Both were highly ideological politicians who trained themselves to work within the system. Both preferred cutting deals to walking away from the negotiating table.
Actually, I don't think this is quite right. Douthat overstates Obama's core liberalism: if that were correct, he'd start engaging on issues with much farther left positions than has been the case. On health care, he might have used the specter of a single-payer plan at the jump to ensure that a public option survived into the final bill, for instance; instead, he expressed just enough support for a public option to keep it alive as a bargaining chip, but ultimately didn't expend any political capital to save it.
This take also misses a big piece of Obama's institutionalism: his deference to Congress. Perhaps this is more political expediency--letting the legislators take the lead is a good way to somewhat insulate the White House when things go sour--but I have to believe that the former Constitutional law professor and Senator has some fairly strong views about Article I. (This is lost, of course, on the right-wing hysterics who bleat about the incipient tyranny of Obama: at least when it comes to domestic policymaking, he might be the most institutionally deferential president we've had since Ford or even Eisenhower.)
But Douthat nails the essential pragmatism--which is why I thought the guy could be a successful president in the first place. I have the feeling that Obama's first year might look much better from the perspective of 20-30 years down the road than it did in real time--much as Reagan's has. (This is a point Andrew Sullivan keeps making as well. I think the analogy is somewhat overstated: Reagan had a large clutch of Southern Democrats who supported him on most big issues, giving everything he did a veneer of bipartisanship beyond Obama's wildest dreams, for one thing. But politically, barring some new disaster, it seems likely Obama will hit a dramatic economic upswing leading into his bid for re-election, and if he wins as convincingly as Reagan did in 1984, he might yet effect a similar political realignment.)
And yet the admittedly impressive list of legislative accomplishments it looks like Obama will be able to claim by the time he gives his State of the Union speech isn't exactly thrilling many on the left who worked so hard to get him into the White House and invested such hopes in his presidency. While they're blaming Obama--understandably, I believe, given large choices like the administration's deference to Congress and smaller ones such as not drawing lines on health care--that strikes me as less than half the story. A recent conversation on "Bill Moyers Journal" between the host, American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi--all opinionated liberals who have been disappointed with the first year of this presidency--covered much of this ground, and Kuttner made a fantastic point:
The other thing that's missing, if you compare him with Roosevelt or LBJ or Lincoln, the other thing that's missing is a social movement. In all of these great periods of transformation, you had social movements doing a complicated dance with the president, where sometimes they were working with him, sometimes they were beating up on him. That certainly describes the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson. It describes the abolitionists and Lincoln. It describes the labor movement and Roosevelt. Where's the movement?
My strong suspicion is that Obama understands this--and if anything, maybe he's been too subtle about communicating it. We know that there's enough of a "movement" on the left to power a campaign such as his to the Democratic nomination, and he's enough of a centrist to win the presidency from that perch. But the work of the organized left obviously isn't complete: it seems they can't yet exert a political price for taking them for granted, and I don't believe they've made a compelling case to the country why more liberal solutions will be embraced.
Unfortunately, it's not likely that Obama ever again will have as favorable an alignment in Congress as he does right now. At best, he'll have about a 10-12 seat majority in the Senate (down from 20 now) and maybe 20-30 in the House for the balance of his presidency. That will mean either changing the rules of the Senate, as many are beginning to talk about, or finding some Republicans willing to take a role in governing again. The man and the movement will have a lot of work to do.