Ignoring the Obama Presidency

Among liberals, and most political observers, it’s widely acknowledged that President Obama took a major political hit when he pushed for health-care reform against Republican intransigence and public opposition. The cost of winning comprehensive health-care reform—a longtime liberal dream—was a resurgent and powerful Republican Party. If political courage is defined by the willingness to suffer politically for the sake of good public policy, then Affordable Care Act stands as a testament to the president’s political courage.

Which is why I also have no idea what National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar is talking about when he writes the following:

One of President Obama’s political weaknesses in his first term has been that he’s all-too-willing to avoid making tough decisions, hesitant to expend political capital for potential long-term gain. Throughout his first term in office, he’s had a cautious governing style, and has avoided taking on some of his party’s core constituencies…when it comes to political bravery, Obama isn’t going to win any profiles in courage, either.

Even if you don’t include the Affordable Care Act—and I don’t see why you wouldn’t—this is demonstably false. For the first eight months of this year, Obama did nothing else but “expend political capital for potential long-term gain.” Indeed, given the extent to which liberals are still angry over his willingness to compromise their interests, I’m not sure how else you would describe his approach vis a vis the debt-ceiling negotiations and everything preceding.

Whether you support the choice or not, it remains true that President Obama offered cuts to Medicare and Social Security in exchange for modest tax increases, the result of which was to destroy his standing with liberal activists. If political courage is defined by the willingness to stand against your party’s interests, as Kraushaar argues, then Obama is a courageous politician.

In fairness to Kraushaar, his critique is par for the course. One of the strangest things about the current poliical moment is the extent to which mainstream pundits routinely act as if crucial moments in the Obama presidency never happened. To wit, Tom Friedman complained that Obama hasn’t taken a stand on deficit reduction, despite the fact that he released a plan in September and has been touting it ever since. Likewise, David Brooks moaned that Obama is mired in liberal ortodoxy, despite the fact that — until recently — he has been eager to accomodate Republican demands. And Chris Matthews demands more ambition from Obama, despite the fact that he ran hard to pass a piece of social legislation that rivals the Great Society programs in size and scope.

It’s one thing for pundits to err in their judgment—it happens to the best of us—it’s something else entirely for them to ignore reality and blame the president for his failure to conform to their magical world.