What’s The Matter With Thomas Frank?

Obama Green Lantern

Thomas Frank has fallen for the Green Lantern view of the presidency, thinking that the president has the power to do anything he wishes. His criticism of Obama:

Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?

Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

But bipartisanship as an ideal must also be kept sacred, of course. And so, after visitors to the Obama Library have passed through the Gallery of Drones and the Big Data Command Center, they will be ushered into a maze-like exhibit designed to represent the president’s long, lonely, and ultimately fruitless search for consensus. The Labyrinth of the Grand Bargain, it might be called, and it will teach how the president bravely put the fundamental achievements of his party—Social Security and Medicare—on the bargaining table in exchange for higher taxes and a smaller deficit. This will be described not as a sellout of liberal principle but as a sacred quest for the Holy Grail of Washington: a bipartisan coming-together on “entitlement reform,” which every responsible D.C. professional knows to be the correct way forward.

Frank both ignores the real obstacles which Obama faced and is not very accurate in describing Obama’s record. He forgets that the there was a very good reason that Obama never had a chance to reason with the Republicans–they decided right off the bat that they would oppose anything Obama supported for political reasons. Frank might check out the work of  centrists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann on how Republicans are responsible for the current gridlock along with  this Frontline documentary:

On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, a group of top GOP luminaries quietly gathered in a Washington steakhouse to lick their wounds and ultimately create the outline of a plan for how to deal with the incoming administration.

“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told FRONTLINE.

Among them were Senate power brokers Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.

After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything. The new president had no idea what the Republicans were planning.

There were clear institutional limits on Obama in a system where forty Senators could block the majority on anything. The Democrats had sixty votes for a very brief time due to the delays in swearing in Al Franken and later Ted Kennedy’s death.  Even when Obama technically had sixty Senators voting with the Democrats, this included Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson who would never go for the type of leftist agenda Frank favored.

Obama chose to use his limited political political capital to concentrate on health care reform, passing a comprehensive health reform package after previous presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton were unsuccessful. Ted Kennedy once expressed regret at working with Richard Nixon and instead insisting upon a single-payer system at the time. Similarly Hillary Clinton convinced Bill to threaten to veto anything other than her plan, rejecting a Republican proposal which was very similar to the Affordable Care Act. It would be far better to accept what can be passed and then work to improve it over time.

Sure the Affordable Care Act is a confusing jumble, but that is because it built upon our current system. It would have been better if the system was even more complex and perhaps confusing, including either the public option or Medicare buy-in. Neither could pass because both Lieberman and Nelson opposed them. Obama certainly could have never received sixty votes for a single-payer plan, breaking up the banks, or a bigger stimulus.

Beyond Congress, Obama was limited by conservative media bias on economic matters. Obviously Fox was out there spreading lies and attacking anything Obama wanted to do, but the problems weren’t limited to Fox and its viewers. Most of the media is owned by the wealthy, and much of the news, especially on television, is reported by wealthy television stars. They might not share the Republican views on social issues or their opposition to science and reason (leading to the conservative view of  a liberal media) but many of them are quite conservative on economic issues. They were biased towards tax cuts and cutting spending. Media reports on the economy typically stressed the size of the deficit and included the assumption that a reduction in government spending was necessary. Few pointed out the degree to which Republican spending and tax cuts in the Bush years contributed far more to the deficit than Obama’s stimulus spending. The atmosphere was hardly conducive to pushing an even bigger stimulus, regardless of how much more this would have helped the economy recover. He also ignores the degree to which Obama’s stimulus did help bring about economic recovery.

Just as Frank ignores the benefits of Obama’s policies, including the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus, he exaggerates what Obama did not do. No, Obama did not destroy Social Security and Medicare. It is the other party which has been seeking to do that. Offering  Chained CPI in exchange for a grand bargain on the deficit might never have been a good idea, but we can’t blame Obama for making a bad deal when such a deal was never made and we don’t know what he would have held out for before making such an agreement.

Obama’s record has much in it to displease the far left. It is doubtful that any other president would have achieved more than he actually did.

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1 Comment

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    JimZ says:

    This is a fair assessment of the Obama years, and a concise answer to Thomas Frank, who usually does a better job reporting. I had a similar reaction when I read Frank’s piece.

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