Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The President's Ear

There's a lot of argument right now about who has it. Some of the more liberal members of the party are convinced it's Rahm Emanuel and that he is cynically destroying the Obama presidency by caving on every liberal goal. Steve Clemons has been making this argument in a series of increasingly obnoxious, uncharacteristically fact-free posts that seem to add up to - well, I couldn't really say. His most specific piece of advice is this head-scratcher:
Set up a Team B with diverse political and national security observers like Tom Daschle, John Podesta, Brent Scowcroft, Arianna Huffington, Fareed Zakaria, G. John Ikenberry, Brent Scowcroft, Joseph Nye, Rita Hauser, Susan Eisenhower, Katrina vanden Heuvel, John Harris, James Fallows, Chuck Hagel, Strobe Talbott, James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and others to give you a no-nonsense picture of what is going on.
What does this even mean? Is there going to be a "Team B" room where respected academics team up with publishers of an internet tabloid to tell Obama that Guantanamo should be closed by now, as if he didn't know that? And besides, nearly all of these people are either writing blogs, regular opinion columns, academic papers, or magazine pieces - or appearing regularly on TV. Is there any reason to think their opinions aren't already known, or that they're not in contact with the White House already? (If you think Tom Daschle's not communicating with the White House right now...) This is exactly the kind of gimmicky nonsense that the White House doesn't need.

Anybody can read my complaints about this presidency right on this site, but one thing you won't see me claim is that this president is indifferent to progressive causes. He might not always go as far as I would like, but I simply cannot see this portrayal of Emanuel as a cynical, unprincipled Machiavellian running the White House into the ground and abandoning all progressive goals as nothing more than a lazy caricature. Ezra Klein seems to agree with me, and he offers some helpful perspective:

In fact, what appears to be happening is that Barack Obama is listening to his policy people. He didn't scale back the health-care reform bill because they convinced him that the different pieces didn't work on their own. He's trying to close Guantanamo because a lot of people who work on this stuff think we should close Guantanamo. That's the thing about electing a smart technocrat as president: He's swayed by smart, technocratic arguments. The political people are being used to help sell and shepherd the policy, and to figure out how much of the policy can pass Congress, but they seem to be losing the major arguments over what that policy should be.

The obvious counterargument here is the stimulus debate, but as Michael Tomasky has noted, the limits on the size of the stimulus appears to have come from the House of Representatives (and then, later in the process, from the Senate). Maybe Rahm and the White House didn't do enough to break through those limits, but they also thought the recession would be a lot milder than it actually was, and so didn't act with quite the urgency that better information might have furnished.

The point about the stimulus is well-taken. And I'd add to the domestic policy part of this argument that Obama has very publicly staked a massive part of his presidency on the success of comprehensive healthcare reform. And he has not backed down from the goal of a comprehensive bill. The period immediately following the Brown election was disheartening, but people who thought the White House would give up or scale back their efforts were wrong. Obviously, a lot depends on what happens in the next few weeks - we'll see if we get the bill (and it's now appearing that we will). When healthcare is done, people will come back to their senses. The process has been wrenching, and liberals faced some agonizing moments when Obama's approach seemed excessively cautious and pragmatic. But I expected caution and pragmatism, and that's what Obama promised in the campaign. And after a long, grueling process, he still hasn't abandoned the healthcare effort. He kept that promise too.


JDR said...

Glad to see you've seen the light, a former employer of yours be darned.

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