Does Obama Lack a Sense of Irony?

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James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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  1. Avatar D. C. Sessions
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    In addition to lacking a sense of irony, he also appears to be a president with precious little sense of strategy.

    I suppose that we could frame this as proof that he’s a conservative at heart: not so much lacking a sense of irony as the capacity for cognitive dissonance and introspection.Report

  2. Avatar Scott
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    No, Obama’s real problem is that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. This is a PR fight I think Obama might have been able win if he had really tried.Report

  3. Avatar nadezhda
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    If you don’t believe the stimulus will have any positive impact on GDP or employment rates, then I suppose you could see a disconnect — he got a tiny give-away to a whole lot of people that will automatically expire by giving up a big give-away to a small number of people which will take a huge political battle to sunset.

    But Obama thinks he got the biggest win he could get on a (temporary) stimulus that will not only do what he was elected to do — promote recovery towards wide-spread long-term prosperity — but better position him to fight the medium-term budget battles coming up, which are going to open up the tax code and during which the “Bush tax cuts” are going to disappear in a wider restructuring debate. Seems to me that’s a classic case of aligning tactics with strategy.Report

  4. Avatar Michael Heath
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    I’ve considered Obama defenders’ arguments and remain unconvinced. I do think it’s important to attempt to discover each protagonists’ motivations.

    Watching yesterday’s press conference last evening the President argued his motivation is to serve those who unemployment benefits risk expiring. That concern reconciles exceedingly well with the national interest and the duty which I think President’s should follow. I also take the president at his word. However from this perspective this deal appears really shitty deal in terms of the economics since other aspects of this stimulative effort are aren’t stimulative, e.g., tax cuts over the 35% floor, and therefore pretty much only adds something a little less than $70 billion per year to debt (because businesses are flush with cash and don’t need money to hire employees, they instead need a marginal increase in demand).

    The only apologia I can offer in defense of the President is weak tea: He’s had a brutal work load the past several weeks given his travels and didn’t properly game-plan out the options available to the Senate to get an extension of unemployment insurance at a cost that accelerates our descending into a less credit-worthy borrower. Sen. Sherrod Brown did a fine job laying out the history of how these fights play out with the GOP conceding at the last minute. The only contra I know is these Republicans are not the past Republicans and truly do not give a shit about the jobless – I think this compelling and makes an arguable case for Obama’s response (though again, I think it’s a shitty deal).

    President Obama’s criticisms of the Congressional Democrats is also spot-on but it’s criticism that can be applied to him as well. The fact is that extending much of the Bush tax cuts even below the top rates is not an optimal stimulative effort. In addition the incremental amount that will add to debt could have been redirected into better more stimulative initiatives, e.g., state governments – particularly education, and infrastructure.

    The GOP wins in spite of the fact their positions are by far the worst of the lot and will add to debt with no significant stimulative impact. In essence they’ve set themselves up well in terms raising campaign cash for 2012 by defending top earners top tax rates by increasing the debt and insuring the economy continues to stagnate or even contract until then. Politics trumps good governance once again. Rachel Maddow best defined Obama’s concession as “inexplicable capitulation”.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Drew
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    Because stringing together short-term wins is long term victory, and sacrificing the presently possible for the future desirable is a strategy for long term defeat, or at least disappointment. The things that have been long-term victories actually are just the products of maximizing short-term opportunity — Social Security during the Depression in 1935; ACA during a highwater opportunity for Dems in 2009-10 brought about by spectacularly failed Republican foreign policy in the preceding eight years.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird
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    That’s the problem with Schrodinger’s President.

    The waveform hasn’t collapsed yet. He is both winning *AND* losing.

    We don’t have the perspective to look in the box yet.

    Maybe we never will…Report

  7. Avatar 62across
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    I imagine it’s due to the form and trying to get out a little bon mot, but it would help this discussion if you’d be more explicit about your terms. To your mind, what long-term wins have been sacrificed for which short-term gains? This deal appears to be a short-term loss (his base is pissed about the tax cut extension) and the long-term remains to be seen (the unemployment benefits extension is only a part of what the administration got in return).

    Also, could we get a definition of long-term we could agree on? If you insist on the horse race construction of events, I can see how you would conclude Obama has no strategy. But, I would contend that in the temporal scale for something as massive and slow moving as a national government, the events of the last couple of weeks are but a passing moment. Short-term for a presidency is a congressional term and long-term is decades. That’s not to say Obama has a good long-term strategy, only that it is far to soon to tell.Report

  8. Avatar Michael Heath
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    62across:

    . . . what long-term wins have been sacrificed for which short-term gains? This deal appears to be a short-term loss (his base is pissed about the tax cut extension) and the long-term remains to be seen (the unemployment benefits extension is only a part of what the administration got in return).

    If this deal passes, President Obama has handed-over a huge GOP short-term win in terms of encouraging the GOP’s financial constituents to fund the ’12 campaign.

    A big loss to the country is large portions of this deal will significantly add to the national debt in a manner that is not stimulative in growing demand or has a significant impact on the job market. Our economy’s businesses are swimming in cash where this deal transfers more to taxpayers and businesses, we instead need a marginally high enough bump in aggregate demand to get companies hiring. Business don’t hire more because their cash-flow goes up in terms of a tax break, they hire when demand increases.

    Long-term Obama has made it more difficult to end a horrible tax policy that’s been contractionary in terms of economic growth and jobs. The result if his deal is passed is it will continue to keep increasing debt relative to the size of the economy, which means less of an economic base to service a marginally higher debt load – debt which didn’t provide an adequate return in growing an economy. Something we empirically know now since we understand the stimulative impact on certain types of spending increases and tax cuts.

    The budget impact of interest expenses relative to GDP is not that bad now because interest rates are low, however when/if higher rates return we’ll be paying a much bigger portion of federal revenues to interest expense from an economy that’s smaller and therefore less able to service. That’s less money that goes towards supporting the overall economy. The GOP policy position is insane because its contractionary while also adding to the debt with little to impact on growth; and here we now have a Democratic president following them down this no-win road.Report

    • Avatar 62across in reply to Michael Heath
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      Michael –

      As I said, I agree this deal is a short-term loss for Obama (or win for the Republicans, if we’re going to insist on a zero-sum framing). I would argue with your idea that it was huge, however. Obama got some things in the deal I wouldn’t have expected and the GOP’s financial constituents need no encouragement from Obama to fund the ’12 campaign, lord knows.

      I’d also agree with your assessment of the tax cut extensions being not stimulative and that this has been proven empirically. The payroll tax holiday, EITC and unemployment benefits, on the other hand, will all drive demand.

      As to the long-term, I still don’t see how we can know how things will go. Yes, this deal was really bad on the deficit reduction front. If this deal is the final word on deficit reduction, then I’d concede to what you are saying. (And to North’s point, it’s hard to trust there will be more to come.) But, Obama has yet to give his second State of the Union address. It’s not even half-time and there is a hell of a lot of game yet to be played.Report

  9. Avatar North
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    By itself I can sort of accept the narrative Obama’s supporters are peddling: he’s essentially acquired an additional stimulus for the economy from the GOP; tax cuts, unemployment extensions etc and exposed the GOP’s hypocrisy on the deficit at the same time in order to hopefully gin up the economy in time for re-election.
    In isolation it sortof works but considering his personal history of being so passive on issues he claims are important I don’t know if I would give him the benefit of the doubt. The best argument I heard was that he’s opened up enough room to get some other things through, Start or the DADT repeal for instance. If he can actually manage to land a couple of those fish maybe I’ll feel more favorably inclined towards him.Report

  10. Avatar James Hanley
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    62Across–From Obama’s perspective, the permanent extension of Bush tax cuts is a long-term loss, because they extend the time frame until we get serious about structural budget reform that helps stabilize the economy (see Michael Heath’s comment), which could have been his legacy. I agree with you that in the big picture the last couple of weeks are but a passing moment–and Obama chose to win only that passing moment.

    nadezhda–“better position him to fight the medium-term budget battles coming up, which are going to open up the tax code and during which the “Bush tax cuts” are going to disappear in a wider restructuring debate
    At what point will Obama stop positioning himself to win and actually start winning real battles? He seems rather like McClellan. (Persuading Republicans to extend unemployment benefits at Christmas isn’t a real battle.) As to the upcoming medium-term budget battles leading to the disappearance of the Bush tax cuts, well, I think I want some of what you’re smoking. a) He’ll be battling a Congress with a powerful, perhaps dominant, block of anti-tax Republicans. b) In Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, he discusses how the appearance (or lack of) of competence leads to self-fulfilling prophecies. If you’ve shown an ability to win in negotiations, your opponents expect to lose and simply play not to lose too big. If you’ve shown you can be defeated, your opponents play to win. I have yet to see from Obama an ability to win when the Republicans play to win. And if I see that, you can sure they’ve seen it. They have zero respect for his legislative competence, and I can’t see where they’re wrong.

    Michael Drew–I don’t mean this nastily, but I don’t think you’ve put a lot of time into the study of strategy. Winning lots of small battles can lead to the illusion of winning, but if you’re winning small one by sacrificing large ones, you are not adding anything up to a long-term victory.

    Let’s also keep in mind, a president’s greatest chances for real legislative achievement are in the first term. By facing a Republican majority in the House, Obama’s window of opportunity is shutting. If I was wagering at this moment on his re-election, I’d put a small amount down in favor of it, but significant second term legislative successes are rare for presidents.

    Jaybird’s warning about perspective is, of course, important to keep in mind. Carter was generally seen as a failed president (and still is by those who haven’t looked closely), but he appointed Volcker ad Fed Chair, initiated important economic deregulations that strengthened our economy, and brokered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that still stands 30 years later–doing more for peace in the Middle East than any other president. And the mostly liberal academics who generally take upon themselves the authority to rank presidents have grudgingly realized that Reagan was a better president than they initially thought. Hell, for myself I’ve had to reassess Bush I rather favorably, in light of his successors, and in ’92 I was ecstatic that he’d lost re-election.

    Still, I don’t see what accomplishments Obama has to date that will really engender any long-term acclaim, other than–and I think this is important–a less arrogant attitude toward other countries.Report

    • Avatar 62across in reply to James Hanley
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      James –

      So we are clear, the tax cut extension aren’t permanent as they’ll sunset again in two years. I agree it will be hard to allow them to sunset even then, but the public agrees with Obama’s position on the Bush tax cuts, so that’s a debate that would be beneficial to Democratic interests to have during the next presidential campaign. Short-term loss for long-term gain…

      Structural budgetary reform could still be Obama’s legacy, if he chooses. Granting that the second two years of a president’s term are historically non-productive, in this instance, Obama has some concepts now in the public eye from his deficit reduction commission and some other camps plus a Republican House that says that deficit reduction is a priority. If deficit reduction truly is important to Republicans, he can move some of those concepts into law. If not, the GOP’s hypocrisy is highlighted and the Tea Party folks will not take kindly to that. Long-term gain…

      As far as accomplishments to date, I see both the Affordable Care Act and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as foundational. These programs aren’t going anywhere and will be built upon. Long term gain when seen over decades and not years.

      It took 18 years to reach your ultimate perspective on Bush I. All I’m arguing for is at least two more years before you can reach any meaningful perspective on Obama.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to 62across
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        It took 18 years to reach your ultimate perspective on Bush I.

        Actually, much less than that. And ’92 was before I became a student of the presidency (or, actually, it was precisely the time period at which I first started to become a student of the presidency). But don’t worry, I’ll keep re-evaluating Obama as he and I go along. But I’m not going to wait two years to critique him for what seem to me to be serious mis-steps.

        So we are clear, the tax cut extension aren’t permanent as they’ll sunset again in two years.

        Correct. My mis-statement.

        I agree it will be hard to allow them to sunset even then, but the public agrees with Obama’s position on the Bush tax cuts, so that’s a debate that would be beneficial to Democratic interests to have during the next presidential campaign. Short-term loss for long-term gain

        It’s not a winning campaign issue for Democrats. And I’ll be shocked if they regain Congress in two years, even if Obama wins re-election. A more likely outcome is that he loses the Senate, too.

        If deficit reduction truly is important to Republicans,

        It’s not, and hasn’t been since some time in the mid-90s, when the Balanced Budget Amendment died and the tech boom swelled government tax receipts. The only way it might become important to them again is if Democrats control the Presidency and both houses of Congress.

        As far as accomplishments to date, I see both the Affordable Care Act and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as foundational.

        Those are the most plausible claims so far, but I’m not terribly impressed by either. The CFPB is too amorphous to have any idea what it will become, and I expect it will become just another case study in agency capture. You can be sure a Republican president will appoint someone who’s not sympathetic to its aims, and Congress gave it too much power to self-define for them to be able to constrain what a future appointee does. Maybe it will turn out like the EPA. We’ll see.

        As for the health care act, it will only stand as an impressive legacy if it ends up being the first step toward a true national health care system. But requiring poor Americans to buy insurance they can’t afford can’t possibly stand the test of time as a proud accomplishment for Democrats. That was the first case where I began to think that Obama fundamentally lacked the legislative skills to achieve his real goals–which isn’t surprising given his paucity of legislative experience.

        I see lots of wishful, and increasingly wisftul, thinking from Obama’s supporters. Please note that I’m not attacking Obama’s goals from a partisan perspective (I grudgingly voted for him, in fact), but I just don’t see any of the things he’s actually accomplished as being the things his supporters were really looking for when he was elected.Report

        • Avatar 62across in reply to James Hanley
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          I don’t think we are at odds here. I’m not suggesting that Obama not be criticized, just that the lack of long-term strategy critique is weak at this point in his presidency when everything about the long-term must be surmised.

          Undoubtedly, I am being both wishful and wistful about Obama. But, I am one of those supporters who believed (and still believes) that he ran as a pragmatist while all the idealism was projected on him by others. (He allowed this, no excuses, but it was not his core message.) Except for civil rights (which is a HUGE problem for me), I am fundamentally getting the president I voted for.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to 62across
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            he ran as a pragmatist while all the idealism was projected on him by others.

            Well, he titled his book The Audacity of Hope and repeated the Change mantra until our ears bled. I suspect it may be a bit late to claim he didn’t actively participate in projecting the idealist image.

            I agree that except for civil rights I’ve gotten the president I expected when I cast my vote, but then my expectations were pretty dismal, too.

            But I’m not uncomfortable criticizing him for lack of a long-term strategy because I just haven’t seen one yet. Nixon had one, parts of which went well. Reagan had one as well, large part of which went well. Carter was developing one, but it was too late. Bush I didn’t have one. Clinton had one, but it was poorly designed, requiring him to spend all his minimal political capital up front in failed policy proposals. Bush II might have had one, but 9/11 destroyed his chance of achieving it, and created the opportunity for Cheney to implement his long-term strategy in its place. I’m not sure Obama ever did have one, because as I noted, he didn’t have much legislative experience. I think he ran for president because everyone was naming him as a possible candidate, not because he had a clear idea of what to do with it, beyond “good things.”Report

          • Avatar North in reply to 62across
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            I’m sorry 62 but Obama did not run as the pragmatist candidate. That’d be the unlovable Hill-dog. Obama ran as and his campaign was themed around him as the hope and change transformative new post partisan new way of doing business in Washington change the dynamic one we are the one we’ve been waiting for candidate. That’s many many things but pragmatist it certainly ain’t.

            Now at the time I thought it was a crock. I was charmed to discover later that he’s actually a pragmatist instead of some new hope who craps rainbows and sparkles. But I don’t know if I think he’s a good politician yet.Report

            • Avatar 62across in reply to North
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              Yeah, the Obot costume doesn’t fit me very well, but I still put it on sometimes, because I get so sick of the arm-chair quarterbacking. It’s what the blogosphere does and I know that coming in, but there are times when the lack of time perspective really strikes me as ridiculous. Presidencies are measured in years, not days.

              That said, I think both Clinton and Obama spoke constantly of their ability to get things done; Clinton would kick-ass and take names and Obama would disagree without be disagreeable. The transformative, progressive candidates (Kucinich and Edwards as it were) did not get out of Iowa.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to 62across
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                says:

                I hear you, I’m not saying the man is a failure yet. But I’m underwhelmed and getting underwhelmeder.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to 62across
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                says:

                62across,

                I hear you, and I don’t begrudge you your view. I just don’t see that Obama actually has a strategic sense that’s ever going to amount to much. He really does seem overwhelmed by legislative battles. On the other hand, he’s trying very hard to play the “head of state” role (non-partisan representative of the whole country) rather than the “head of government” (partisan policymaker) role. I respect that, and for American presidents it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice, so to the extent it’s not working out greatly for him, that’s more due to the nature of the job. I think Obama really would be more suited to the role of president in France’s system, where he’s not expected to be involved in day-to-day policy battle.Report

              • Avatar Michael Heath in reply to James Hanley
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                says:

                James Hanley stated:

                he’s trying very hard to play the “head of state” role (non-partisan representative of the whole country) rather than the “head of government” (partisan policymaker) role. I respect that, and for American presidents it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice, so to the extent it’s not working out greatly for him, that’s more due to the nature of the job.

                Excellent point. If you watched the presser this was the exact framework for how Obama was specifically arguing. Ability to act as the head of state is a key factor for me when deciding who to support with my vote. In this election I thought in Jan-08 McCain, Obama, and Clinton were all capable. I was therefore amazed watching the McCain meltdown in the summer of ’08 onward.

                President Reagan used to frequently annoy his own Administration and party when he did the same though I concede he had far more blind-spots on the various American constituencies whereas Obama truly appears to be governing for all Americans – which drives the left nuts when it requires making Wall Street companies viable enough to provide credit liquidity. It’s this mostly positive aspect of Reagan’s presidency that liberals fiercely avoid confronting, where his rhetoric does provide them with ammunition.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
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      I admittedly have not spent a lot of time studying strategy but I’d submit that Sun Tzu was not studying the 21st century American political system. It seems to me that wars are won and lost, but politics just goes on and on. By any measure, Obama already has a strategic win on the books not just in his first term, but in this Congress. Just as you don’t sacrifice a long-term win for a limited gain, there are also times when you don;t leave easy money on the table. Not every hand is a big hand, but some are nevertheless winning hands. If you’re winning small battles at times when the large battle is not in play then you’re just winning small battles, and in this game, those add up. Even more so when the stakes are what happens to real people. Structural budget reform might be a good thing (I’m not remotely convinced Obama is all that interested in it as a legacy, though if it fell in his lap he’d probably take it, so I’m not sure you’re even on the same page with him what would constitute a long-term win), but in this case, the reality of providing some short-term juice to the economy along with some alleviation of economic suffering in my view more than justifies whatever strategic shortcomings this decision represents. Keep in mind – almost none of his critics on the left say he should have gone ahead and let all the tax cuts expire; they just wanted to have a little bit more of a tussle about it first. I think Obama judged (probably rightly) that the terms would not much improve if he held out (bc Republicans would love nothing more than for him to let the cuts expire at this moment), and that doing so would detract from his ability to maximize what is turning out to be a surprisingly productive lame duck.Report

  11. Avatar James Hanley
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    P.S., I think if I was really wrong, this wouldn’t be so funny.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
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      says:

      Will you admit you were wrong if DADT gets repealed in the lame duck? Or if START gets ratified?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        Hmm, I won’t admit that I’m wrong, but I’ll add it to the assessment, favorably. The problem with Obama getting credit for DADT is that he’s failed to move on it for so long that if it passes now, it will appear as though it’s more due to desperate efforts by Democratic legislators than by anything he’s done. Although as the old saying goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. But as grudging as that sounds, like I’m desperately trying to save the hypothesis, I would count either of those as Obama wins, and most likely future historians of his presidency would see them as such. Still, let’s face it, his action on DADT doesn’t compare well to Truman’s action on racial integration of the armed services.Report

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