synthetic zero

January 28th, 2010

I was talking with an online acquaintance of mine who is irritated at me for not buying into the idea that Obama has been mostly a betrayer of liberal causes. It had gotten to the point that he was surprised that we agreed on anything at all. Yet I reminded him that we agree on most things: we agree the Iraq war was a disastrous mistake. We agree that the economy is being drained by casino operators calling themselves financial services companies who are taking a rake off the top. We agree that same sex marriage ought to be legal. We agree that income disparity in the US is undermining our long-term stability. We agree, in short, on most things when it comes to goals and policy.

Where we disagree is more in terms of tactics. He seems to think Obama is almost a traitor to those of us who worked to elect him. I think he’s done far better than any president in at least the last few decades. The backlash against him reminds me of my years in college in the 80’s, when my friends on the left had so many complaints about others on the left that the left basically just tore itself apart, leading to its decline and near irrelevance.

What I believe is that to win you have to make allies. I’m not saying liberals are wrong to try to press Obama to go left, and I’m not saying that we should always try to appease the middle. Sometimes you need to take a strong stand on principle even when it isn’t moderate; as Obama did against the Iraq war long before it was fashionable to do so.

But we need allies. We need to stand together. Obama is an ally. I think he’s doing a damn good job. Not perfect but come on, what president is ever going to do everything exactly as you want him to.

The disease I see happening now among some on the left is similar to a disease I saw in college: someone does or advocates a few things you don’t agree with, and you think immediately he must be allied with the forces of darkness. He wants evil to succeed, and he’s been bought. Well, I don’t agree. I think there are legitimate reasons why people who share the same overall view of things might disagree on tactics or even strategy, and that this shouldn’t cause us to assume bad faith and turn on each other. I don’t know why liberals seem to do this more than conservatives, but it seems as though we do (though Tea Partiers are beginning to do this on the right —- yet they managed to get behind pro-choice Brown in MA so they may be learning their lesson already).

I think it’s unfortunate that many on the left are seeing Obama as a “huge disappointment” or even an enemy when a lot of this has to do with our own idea of who he was supposed to be in our minds. The moment he does anything we don’t agree with, he’s betraying us? I don’t think so. I think it’s right to pressure him politically to do what we think he should, but I think it’s a shame when we turn on each other because of disagreements about tactics.

Ultimately I think if we were objective about this, we’d have to say Obama has been far more effective in his first year than Clinton was in his first year. But we had much lower expectations of Clinton, so we judge him far less harshly. I don’t think it’s fair to judge Obama as a failure just because he didn’t live up to our unrealistic expectations, despite the fact that he’s done far better than Clinton did on most issues. Clinton tried to get health care passed — he didn’t get anywhere near as far as Obama has. Was Obama’s standoffish approach wise or not? Clinton tried “leading” on health care and was pummelled because of it, and it failed. Obama let Congress work out a bill and has gotten much closer to success than any president in the last century.

The guy isn’t perfect but give him a chance. Governing is difficult, especially when Republicans have decided to filibuster everything in sight. If we throw Obama away because he doesn’t live up to our fantasy of who we thought he ought to be, Heaven help us when a Republican wins in 2012. Then we might learn to finally appreciate this President: but perhaps too late.

permalink | (comments are closed) trackback

13 responses to this post:
  1. Julie K. Minnepian says:

    whoa there! you’re saying obama’s liberal? When did that happen?

    January 28th, 2010 at 9:15 am
  2. Julie K. Minnepian says:

    was it this inference that killed zinn?

    January 28th, 2010 at 9:17 am
  3. mitsu says:

    What I’m saying is, basically: Many of the policies Obama has advocated, in particular things like the bank bailouts, were far more progressive than people think, because quite frankly I don’t think people understand what would have happened had he not done them (i.e., essentially people are complaining about a policy that would have screwed everyone about 10x worse than what we’ve seen so far if he hadn’t done them). Also, a lot of what he’s had to do vis a vis compromise has been forced by the Senate — note that the House has passed far more progressive legislation, which he would have signed had the Senate been able to get its act together: that is to say, we tend to put all the responsibility for what happens on one person, as though he or she were a dictator, even though the actual responsibility is systemic. And finally, human beings as a whole tend to react to deltas rather than absolutes, that is to say, if something is different from the baseline we’re expecting or hoping for, we react to that, and forget how bad things would be given the available or realistic alternative. If Gore had won in 2000, we’d have been complaining about him, no doubt, not having any idea how bad things would have been had Bush been president.

    January 28th, 2010 at 11:01 am
  4. Julie K. Minnepian says:

    I think Obama’s the most capable and reasonable leader in years. I imagine him as an extremely high functioning democratic adaptation who has indicated to me that he shares some of my values. If I had cast my vote for him (i voted for a less compromised, albeit less realistic ideal) - I would be cheering him on - as he seems to be doing more than I thought was humanly possible - and seemingly involving everyone in the process. I think if we could make him world leader for the term of his life, he could enact some real and sustaining change. Hail Caesar! (I just don’t think he campaigned as a liberal).

    January 28th, 2010 at 12:40 pm
  5. mitsu says:

    Well, that’s a matter of semantics, I suppose. If you think the word “liberal” refers to Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, then he didn’t campaign as a liberal — but I think the word more commonly is used to refer to the more broad spectrum of left-of-center politics, including, say, Clinton, whereas “leftist” or “progressive” might be better terms for Chomsky et al. If I were to apply a phrase to Obama it would be pragmatist with progressive impulses and a desire for post-partisanship (a desire unlikely to be satisfied in the current political climate.)

    January 28th, 2010 at 12:59 pm
  6. murffy says:

    I agree with you, Mitsu. Obama has done a good job and, perhaps more important than his accomplishments to date, has been acknowledging his mistakes. It bodes well for future policy decisions.

    I know many on the left have complained about the inadequacy of the stimulus package passed last year. Sure, it could have been better, but people seem to forget it passed on razor-thin margins. A more liberal package never would have gotten through and we’d be a lot worse off economically than we are now, except maybe the pride we on the left could take in Obama standing on liberal principles.

    January 28th, 2010 at 4:53 pm
  7. huxley says:

    mitsu: I’ve not posted here before. I assume you’re the same mitsu who occasionally comments at neo-neocon.

    I’m a lifelong Democrat who started voting Republican after 9-11. Not surprisingly I don’t like Obama and I disagree with his policies, but I’m not here to hash that out.

    What I don’t understand is your assessment that Obama is doing a “damn good job.” Even considering Obama’s performance from a supporter’s viewpoint, that’s a hard claim for me to buy.

    Those liberals who are dissatisfied aren’t just complaining because Obama isn’t sufficiently progressive for them. Obama hasn’t accomplished much and he has set back the cause of the Democratic Party.

    Aside from the stimulus and the taking over two car companies — which aren’t obvious wins — Obama has little to show for his first year in the White House.

    * Obama’s signature healthcare and energy bills have yet to pass and likely will not unless drastically scaled down.
    * The economy remains stagnant and unemployment hovers around 10% — two points higher than promised when the stimulus passed.
    * Obama’s poll numbers have suffered the steepest first year decline since Truman.
    * The Democratic Party is in retreat in the polls and in recent elections, and faces very tough, possibly catastrophic, declines in the mid-term elections.
    * Republicans, conservatives, and Tea Party members are resurgent and confident — a remarkable turnaround given Obama’s skyhigh polls and the predictions of a big FDR-style realignment due to Obama’s election.
    * In foreign policy, aside from vague “People like us again!” polls, Obama has no wins either. Iran has ignored all of Obama’s overtures and deadlines, Russia and China are no closer to being allies, attempts to re-energize Israel-Palestine negotiations have failed and alienated Israel, and it looks like Obama is going to have to walk back the KSM NYC trial.

    Whether one agrees or not with Obama’s policies, the fact remains is that in his first year he has burned much of his political capital with little return and the Democratic Party is now in near panic about upcoming elections.

    Again, how is this a damn good job?

    February 17th, 2010 at 12:09 am
  8. mitsu says:

    Huxley, so strange to see you posting here, but you’re certainly welcome. Worlds collide.

    It would take a long time for me to really respond to what you’re saying in detail, but the long and short of it is that I believe the Obama Administration did a remarkably good job navigating what was one of the most catastrophic financial crises in the history of the country. In other words, had they not intervened in more or less the way they did, we’d be far worse off economically than we are now. I think people on the left, middle, and right for the most part don’t understand this, and people always complain about the situation as they perceive it now, rather than the situation as it would have been.

    The evidence is pretty strong for this; for example:


    “Around the world over the last century, the typical financial crisis caused the jobless rate to rise for almost five years, according to work by the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. On that timeline, our rate would still be rising in early 2012. Even that may be optimistic, given that the recent crisis was so bad. As Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson (Republicans both) and many others warned in 2008, this recession had the potential to become a depression.

    Yet the jobless rate is now expected to begin falling consistently by the end of this year.”

    As for health care — we’ve been trying to deal with this issue for almost a century and government after government has failed to come to terms with it — this Administration came closer to a comprehensive approach to the problem than anyone ever has before in this country. I still believe some sort of health care reform can be had, though I have to say I have been disappointed in Harry Reid; I don’t think he’s been doing nearly enough to get bipartisanship working again. I certainly think he should have worked harder to salvage the bipartisan jobs bill worked out in the Finance Committee.

    Obama has certainly failed in the sense that he has been taking too much of a policy approach to government and not been doing enough of the political legwork, which has led to all sorts of misconceptions about what is going on right now. So yes, of course I agree the political side of this has been lacking, though a lot of new presidents go through this. On policy, however, I think he’s done a very good job, better than any president in recent memory.

    Regarding foreign policy, I think he’s done an excellent job in Afghanistan and Iraq, not only appointing an excellent SecDef but also in general guiding policy and military strategy in a very prudent and what I believe will be successful way. Regarding Iran, the internal situation there would have been challenging for any president, but one successful outcome of his outreach has been hardening of international attitudes towards Iran — because of his overtures, Iran is increasingly isolated. At present, however, more belligerent stances will play directly into the hands of hardliners in Iran. What is needed is international resolve, and that can’t come from grandstanding on our part but showing that Iran is intractable regardless of how much we hold out our hand. And now, the Administration is pivoting and now adopting a more harsh tone against the Iranians. It’s a classic Bismarckian move — you attempt negotiations, and if they work, great, but if they don’t, the fact that you tried wins you allies on the international scene. Same thing George Bush Sr. did with Iraq, very wisely, prior to the Gulf War.

    February 17th, 2010 at 12:35 am
  9. mitsu says:

    A graph from the Obama campaign website illustrates the effect of government policy since Obama took office:


    It takes time to dig out of the huge hole we were in at the end of the disastrous Bush Administration.

    February 17th, 2010 at 12:43 am
  10. huxley says:

    mitsu: Thanks.

    Obviously I disagree with your repeated characterization of the Bush administration as “disastrous.” So naturally I disagree that in comparison Obama is a big improvement. Quite the opposite in my view.

    The financial meltdown was a worldwide event with roots going back before 2000. There’s plenty of blame to go around for everyone. On my side of the aisle, people mostly blame the Democrats.

    In any event I find it very difficult to believe that the US would have been exempt from the meltdown had Bush not been president in 2000 or if Obama had.

    You are justifying Obama’s first year in terms of how bad the past was, what threats are being averted, and what groundwork for a better future has been lain.

    However, speaking of Obama today, his accomplishments remain more metaphysical than real. Maybe all his work comes up roses in a year or three. I doubt it, but maybe.

    In the meantime, though, Obama has a big problem in the decline of support for his policies and even his own approval polls. Although you continue to support Obama, a substantial number of moderates, independents, and others have bailed on Obama.

    According to a CNN poll the other day 52% of Americans don’t believe Obama deserves reelection. This is after only thirteen months.

    Considering that Obama’s initial popularity was up there with JFK, it’s clear that something has gone seriously wrong for Obama. Blaming Bush, Reid, Republicans or the American public for not understanding doesn’t help.

    However great Obama’s policies may be, if he continues to produce no results and lose support, he is likely to be a lame duck after the midterm elections.

    February 17th, 2010 at 3:53 pm
  11. mitsu says:

    Yes, it’s impossible to re-argue all the issues vis a vis the financial meltdown in a comments section. And the roots of the meltdown do begin prior to 2000. However, most of the “blame on Democrats” which I have seen simply don’t stand up to objective inquiry — I am aware some Republicans blame programs designed to expand housing availability to low-income people and minorities — however, an actual analysis of that particular program shows that because those loans were given out with careful underwriting, even though they were to low-income folks, they did not default at levels any higher than prime loans. The main problem with the financial crisis came from no-doc loans and other risky loans which inflated the market, and these were based on the fact that you could securitize loans in the wake of the demise of various regulations including Glass-Steagall and others. I don’t actually think (unlike some of my liberal and leftist friends) that there was any conspiracy here; I think we were seeing a classic bubble market which happens whenever there is insufficient regulation in a market. It doesn’t require evil intent on anyone’s part — bubbles happen all the time.

    In this specific case the bubble happened to be fueled by an inappropriate application of the Gaussian copula function, which I won’t try to explain at length here but this article does a good job of talking about it:


    but in essence this was just the thing that went wrong in this case — there were a series of financial crashes after Reagan deregulated the economy — the S&L crisis, the LTCM debacle, the tech bubble, and now the housing bubble. Bubbles are inevitable when you let markets run without much regulation. Our country went through a series of such bubbles and crashes during the 19th century, culminating with the Great Depression — FDR’s policies and Keynesian economics put our country on a path of long-term stability and expansion which lasted for about 50 years. (The irony is the 50’s, which many conservatives point to as a sort of paragon of lost American greatness, was that way primarily due to the stabilizing impact of New Deal regulations).

    Bush to my mind was disastrous on a number of fronts — I believe we may have forestalled 9/11 if he’d been more on the ball with national security in the early days. I think the Iraq war was a dangerous diversion from the primary battle in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein was a tin pot dictator who was not a serious threat to the United States. Bush vastly increased the deficit by passing unsustainable tax cuts for the wealthy while simultaneously vastly increasing government spending. And, he sat idly by while a gigantic financial bubble inflated during his presidency, whose popping could have started a new Great Depression.

    I certainly agree that Obama is at a popular low, now, though he is still outpolling Republicans. I think he’ll turn it around, now that he realizes he has to get out in front of the debates and not be quite as passive with Congress. But in terms of policy I think he’s done a great job and has absolutely turned things around — we would have been in far worse shape otherwise. Will he be reelected? It takes a while before the effects of policy come home to roost — Bush’s policies were awful but it took 6 years for Americans to realize it. We’re still suffering from them but now people have blamed Obama for them (quite unfairly).

    February 17th, 2010 at 4:14 pm
  12. huxley says:

    mitsu: Yes, I’ve already read the Wired article as well as fair amount of other stuff on the meltdown. I mostly see it as a bubble event that met its inevitable fate.

    However, I don’t see how you can blame Bush.

    Would you claim that if Gore, Kerry, or Obama had been president that the US would have avoided the meltdown? Likewise 9-11 since you seem inclined to finger Bush for not preventing that act of terrorism never seen before.

    Warren Buffet, an Obama supporter, didn’t see the meltdown coming. Nor any European leader. Why is Bush singled out for your special opprobrium?

    As I read you, Bush is always to blame and Obama is never to blame. It’s good to know where you stand, but this strikes me as hyperpartisanship, pure and simple.

    Your last claim that people have blamed Obama for Bush’s policies is the last straw.

    Obama is in trouble now because he spent a full year, while unemployment shot up and the economy languished, trying to pass mammoth leftist bills that the public didn’t like and the public knew weren’t addressing the current economic woes, though Obama presented them as solutions to those woes.

    It’s not that Obama isn’t “living up to a fantasy,” but that he isn’t living up to the rudiments of the pragmatic, centrist, post-partisan campaign on which he ran and was elected.

    February 18th, 2010 at 11:32 pm
  13. mitsu says:

    >I don’t see how you can blame Bush

    Since Bush was president for nearly 8 years prior to the financial meltdown, the idea that Bush bears no responsibility for it would only make sense if you believe that presidents in general bear no responsibility for economic management, or, even less plausibly, that the causes of the financial meltdown all occurred a decade earlier and were unstoppable in over 8 years of governance. I really think you ought to consider the possibility that it is you who is viewing Bush under a very partisan lens.

    And suffice it to say I and most of us on the left certainly do not believe Obama’s policies have been anything like “leftist” — stimulus spending was absolutely right and prudent. The health care bill didn’t even have a public option in it by the time it got through Congress, and was a bill that was quite similar to Republican proposals in years past. Objectively this view of him is inaccurate. Of course, I agree that this is a narrative that has been pushed by the right, but it is, in a word, wrong. That’s a misperception Obama is going to have to work harder to correct.

    In any event, I don’t really and have never been interested in getting into a lengthy debate in the comments section — one of the things I never liked about USENET was the excessive debating going on. If you’d like to discuss this further feel free to email me or email me a link to your blog, if you have one, and we can “debate” by making comments in our own blogs that, if you wish, reference each other. I don’t really want to have this sort of dynamic however in my comments, so I’m going to close comments here.

    February 19th, 2010 at 12:09 am

synthetic zero is powered by WordPress

posts(rss) . comments(rss)