Is Obama An Effective Politician?

Kevin Drum makes the case:

What's more, Obama also won passage during his first two years of a stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare bill that Democrats had been trying to pass for the better part of a century, a financial reform bill, and much needed reform of student loans. And more: a firm end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, and resuscitation of the NLRB. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden too.

Sure, we all could have wished for more. Everyone has different hot buttons, and I particularly wish that financial reform had been stronger and that Obama had somehow managed to get cap-and-trade across the finish line. I'm also unhappy with the extension of the Afghanistan war and Obama's Bush-like policies regarding national security and civil liberties. Still and all, in two years Obama has done more to enact a liberal agenda than George Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight. That's not bad, folks. All things considered, I'd say Obama is the most effective politician of the Obama era. And the Bush era too.

There are a lot of liberal myths about Bush, but the most prevalent is that he got whatever he wanted. He didn't. His signature domestic accomplishment had Ted Kennedy's name on it. He failed to get a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, he expanded Medicare, and he got two failed wars. His assault on the welfare state through privatizing Social Security was easily turned back, as was his immigration reform bill, which in all honesty would have been good for the country if it had passed. Most of  Bush's big domestic items that got passed were things liberals could live with.

I don't think it says much about Obama's effectiveness as a politician that the most conservative parts of Bush's agenda didn't make it through -- Bush, after all, never had the mandate or the filibuster-proof majority Obama had. But that in particular highlights one of Obama's biggest shortcomings -- his spectacular failure to fill vacancies on the federal bench. Obama had a bigger majority in the Senate than Bush and still has appointed fewer judges to the bench than any president in the past 40 years, something that puts all of his legislative accomplishments in peril, and he hasn't so much as balled up his fist. Obama has been far more of an immigration hawk than Bush, racking up record deportation numbers and failing to even persuade senators in his own party to line up in favor of the DREAM Act.

Which brings me to something else -- Obama's biggest accomplishments aren't much more "firm" as his supposed end to the "Bush torture regime." This is the most ludicrous line in Drum's defense of Obama -- aside from a flimsy executive order banning torture, nothing is there to stop a future Republican president from bringing it back. His aggressive use of the state-secrets doctrine has prevented any court from determining that Bush's "enhanced interrogations" were illegal, and there's been no legislation to that effect. Because the stimulus bill wasn't big enough, the economy hasn't recovered, and his re-election is danger. So not only do we have a largely Republican judiciary prepared to roll back some of Obama's best accomplishments, a Republican win in 2012 could pretty much seal the deal on repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

I don't really know how this all adds up to Obama being "an effective politician." I'd say he's pretty good at electioneering and mediocre at getting things done. There are times -- like with the repeal of DADT -- his "appeasing the stakeholders" approach works remarkably well. And there are times, like with the debt ceiling, that it leads to disaster. There are some things -- like a public option -- that have been largely beyond his ability to get done. 

It is important to remember that Congress is much more important when it comes to domestic policy -- that more than anything explains the relative moderation of Bush's domestic agenda, and the difficulty Obama has had in implementing his. But given the relative modesty of his accomplishments, and their general fragility, I'm not sure I think he's any better that it's accurate to say "Obama has done more to enact a liberal agenda than George Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight." We don't even know how much of what he's done will last the decade. Even worse, with the GOP fully committed to dismantling the welfare state, we don't know how much of American liberalism's signature accomplishments will even last the decade. All of those things are in peril because Obama failed to fully rescue the American economy. How can anyone possibly look at all this and conclude that Obama is an "effective" politician?

UPDATE: Jamison Foser raises the fair point that the Bush tax cuts are more accurately described as Bush's big domestic accomplishment than NCLB. I didn't include them because the tax cuts were passed through reconciliation and don't really represent Bush wrangling effectively with Congress, but the point is well taken--since the deficit is largely a function of Bush's wars and tax cuts, I think it's even less accurate for Drum to say that Bush didn't do much for the conservative movement. As I wrote earlier this week--running up a huge deficit provided the key rationale for the current Republican attack on the welfare state.

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