Where the Beltway Mainstream Thinks Obama’s Performance Could Have Been Improved

Where the Beltway Mainstream Thinks Obama’s Performance Could Have Been Improved 1

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The original title of this post was “Why Obama Was a Bad President,” but in the end I thought that would be preaching to the choir; good clean fun, but not much value added. (Here is a long and detailed — I won’t say exhaustive, because there’s just too much — thread on Obama’s malfeasance and bungling, suitable for retweeting.) So I decided instead to focus on where the great and the good in the Beltway felt Obama’s performance had been sub-par.

Interestingly, MoDo seems to ratified the trend toward Obama revisionism, with “Old Pol, New Tricks” on March 20. She wrote:

So now comes a delicious twist: President Biden is being hailed as a transformational, once-in-a-generation progressive champion, with comparisons to L.B.J. and F.D.R. aplenty, while Obama has become a cautionary tale about what happens when Democrats get the keys to the car but don’t put their foot on the gas.

The collective smirk [“West Wing Brain! West Wing Brain!”] was wiped off the face of Obamaworld this past week, as former aides expressed their irritation at the retrospective dissing, and while Biden’s inner circle enjoyed an unfamiliar sensation: schadenfreude. Now the friendly fire once aimed at Biden is coming toward Obama.

All month long, Democrats have been trashing Obama for the size of his itty-bitty 2009 stimulus bill — Chuck Schumer called it “small” and “measly” — and his refusal to sell it to the public.

Obama’s failure to go big and to send the tumbrels rolling down Wall Street certainly greased the runway for Donald Trump. The paradox of Obama is that Americans embraced radical change by electing him but then he held himself in check, mistakenly believing that he was all the change they could handle.

And Axios piled on, with “Biden’s New Deal: Re-engineering America, quickly,” on March 24, with this nugget:

President Biden recently held an undisclosed East Room session with historians that included discussion of how big is too big — and how fast is too fast — to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America…. [Biden] loves the growing narrative [citing Modo, supra] that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama.

Of course, “Biden’s New Deal” wildly oversells Biden’s accomplishments. But if the way to get him writing checks is flattery (“the growing narrative”) have at it, say I.

Now, my focus on conventional wisdom rules out a lot of topics where The Wise think Obama did just fine: topics like torture, drone strikes, health care, bank bailouts, the foreclosure crisis, and HAMP, as well as public relations debacles like the famous drink of water in Flint, and the Democrat version of babies in cages. The mainstream has no problem with any of that! However, those policy area where conventional wisdom gives Obama low marks may also be areas where a Biden administration has more degrees of freedom. I went looking for such topics, and most of my results were negative. However, I did find three: Deficit spending, climate, and the revolving door.

Deficit Spending

Deficit spending seems to have been the “key log,” the single log which, when removed, freed up the entire logjam of Obama hagiography. From the New York Times, “Democrats, Pushing Stimulus, Admit to Regrets on Obama’s 2009 Response“, March 16:

Party leaders from President Biden on down are citing Mr. Obama’s strategy on his most urgent policy initiative — an $800 billion financial rescue plan in 2009 in the midst of a crippling recession — as too cautious and too deferential to Republicans, mistakes they were determined not to repeat.

The pointed assessments of Mr. Obama’s handling of the 2009 stimulus effort are the closest Democrats have come to grappling with a highly delicate matter in the party: the shortcomings in the legacy of Mr. Obama, one of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party and a powerful voice for bipartisanship in a deeply divided country.

The re-examination has irked some of the former president’s allies but thrilled the party’s progressive wing, which sees Mr. Biden’s more expansive plan as a down payment on his ambitious agenda. And it has sent an early signal that Mr. Biden’s administration does not intend to be a carbon copy of his Democratic predecessor’s. Times, all concede, have changed.


Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a leading progressive voice, said the changes should be attributed partly to the growth of the left, but partly to an inadequate Democratic response to the Great Recession, which she said ‘created so much damage economically, for people, but it also created a lot of political damage for the party” by not being larger in scope.

“I came of age watching Democratic governance fail me and fail my family,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said.

(Ugh, “governance.”) As did hundreds of millions. Business Insider writes today, in “Biden is splitting with Obama on the economy and the proof is in their stimulus plans“:

“The recovery from the Great Recession was long and painful. It exacerbated inequality and other forms of economic scarring,” Claudia Sahm, a former economist at the Federal Reserve, told Insider. “Those experiences are fresh in the minds of policymakers and the public.”

Congressional Democrats and Federal Reserve officials have been lining up alongside Biden. The rush to austerity in 2009 was a “big mistake” that left the country in recession for five years, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a March interview on CNN.

More recently, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told NPR that the economic recovery still takes priority over the national debt. While the country’s spending path is currently unsustainable, low rates ensure it can pay off its debt until the economic activity fully rebounds.

(I must confess to enormous schadenfreude at the sight of Deficit Hawk Larry Summers whimpering, slowly shrinking and transforming into a corncob. Who would have imagined?) More:

“If my 2010 self could see just how different we’re handling this recovery than we handled that one — when we were just pulling our hair out, because Congress was turning towards austerity when the unemployment rate was literally over 9% — it was just an outrageous approach to the recovery at that time,” Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist to Obama’s secretary of Labor, told Insider. “And so this is just incredibly different.”

“Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.” –Benjamin Franklin

The Clmate

Given that Obama underspent, the question becomes what Obama underspent on (not in terms of relief, but stimulus). Here, the consensus seems to be that Obama underspent on climate. From Foreign Policy, “Why Biden Has a Better Shot at Saving the Climate Than Obama Did,” it helps to be able to spend a lot of money:

The spokesperson said that major unions such as the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have come out in support of the Biden climate proposals in conjunction with his “Buy American” agenda, which in total will cost trillions of dollars. He added that “if unions didn’t believe that we were going to create good jobs for their members, they wouldn’t be supporting our plan.”

This is not to say that Biden’s climate plans will work in the sense of preventing climate disaster; the concept of all these plans seems to be that the dreaded lifestyle changes will not be needed, and that manufacturing “Buy American” products will not, in itself, impact the climate. Jobs are work, and work consumes energy, of course, by definition. Nevertheless, the money — under the hand and seal of Lord Manchin of the Appalachian Regional Commission, of course — should be there for him. From Rolling Stone, “Democrats Get a Second Chance on Climate”:

One of the first big opportunities for Democrats during this Congress is the infrastructure bill they plan to push later this spring. The details are still being worked out, but what’s taking shape is effectively a domestic Marshall Plan — both for workers and the climate. In the package, Democrats hope to beef up the nation’s aging power grid; mandate utilities to rapidly transition from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral sources of electricity; expand public transit and high-speed rail; fund the infrastructure needed for an all-electric vehicle fleet; and make a massive investment in green energy and green jobs.

Democrats would welcome GOP support for their agenda, but they’ve made clear that they’re going forward one way or another. In practice, that means passing legislation through reconciliation, a provision in the Senate’s byzantine procedural code that allows some measures to pass with a simple majority — rather than the typical 60 votes needed to beat a filibuster. But even with reconciliation, Democrats would still need their full caucus on board, including Manchin. Democrats can build that support by making the benefits of climate action obvious and spread them everywhere, says Faiz Shakir, who managed Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign: “One of the most powerful ways that FDR’s New Deal operated was that it thought about projects in every congressional district in America, and I think that that’s the way we should be thinking as we do green infrastructure investments and green jobs.”

Certainly Shakir’s strategy works for the F-35, so why not learn from success? And from Peter Orszag in the pink paper, “Joe Biden’s climate bill deserves bold fiscal support“:

Yet after the $1.9tn coronavirus relief package, deficit angst is back in some circles, and the upcoming infrastructure and climate bill could cost another $2tn. President Joe Biden proposed a raft of new tax increases during his campaign that will be fiercely opposed by Republicans and business groups. In this showdown, climate investments should be prioritised — even if they are deficit financed.

Government policy alone is clearly insufficient to bend down the carbon emissions curve. Innovation and changes in business and private activity must do a lot of the work. Yet if we are to have any chance of meeting the 2050 goal of net zero emissions, we can’t afford to miss this moment on the policy front.

Climate change is irreversible; the world will never be the same. But fiscal risk is not and, if a fiscal crisis were to arise, we would still have options available. Over the next few months, the US is going to choose between these two. In this unusual moment, the priority should be protecting the globe rather than the budget.

(Sort of amazing to see Orszag blithely admit that Obama’s economic policy makers had no idea what they were doing — they were, after all, mainstream macro — but what of that?)

Money printer go brrrr!

The Revolving Door

Finally, although this is not strictly a policy area, there seems to be a general recognition that the Obama administration’s Flexians might have been just a little…. .well… unseemly in their lust to cash in before the next Democrat administration revolved into place. From ABC, “Obama-era officials return to White House worth millions,” a warning shot:

As several Obama-era officials return to the White House under President Joe Biden, their reunion comes with fuller pockets and deeper ties to corporate interests, new financial disclosure reports show.

High-ranking government officials typically divest their financial interests in specific private companies that they may regulate, as required by ethics rules, or recuse themselves from matters that could affect their personal financial interests. Some of the Biden White House officials have indicated in their disclosure reports that they will divest from their corporate interests, but the full extent of their plans to avoid conflict of interest are not yet known because ABC News has not yet obtained their ethics agreements.

I would imagine disclosure reports will become important once the infrastructure bill really gets rolling. The Axios headline is more pointed: “Top Biden aides cashed in on Wall Street after Obama service.” But the body is not:

The White House said in a statement: “These White House officials are experienced government leaders whose past private sector experience is part of a broad and diverse skill set they bring to government service.”>

Oh, diverse. More:

Although several of Biden’s closest advisers made millions through forging new ties to corporate interests after leaving Obama’s White House, their wealth pales in comparison to the net worth of many super-wealthy Trump confidantes.

True, but I don’t see why that makes any difference; a steak dinner can buy a contract at the state level, and I would imagine even six figures could have a lubricating effect at the Federal level, especially if laundered through consulting fees, board directorships, speaking fees, book deals, etc. All these little episodes of cashing in are weapons lying about for the left to use at crucial moments, should they chose to.


The Obama Alumni Association is whinging, and that makes me happy. From the Hill, “The Memo: Biden team’s Obama criticisms draw some blowback“:=

“I think they are utterly unnecessary. I mean, what point are they proving? That was then and this is now,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Paul Maslin.

One of the most prevalent tendencies in politics is to keep fighting the last war. But to Obama’s defenders, like Maslin, that kind of approach sometimes amounts to pointless carping.

“We are in an entirely different situation, entirely different circumstances. No president is perfect. Maybe [Obama] could have pushed to do more. So what? It doesn’t matter,” Maslin said. “He had to do stopgap things to save the economy, which he did.”.., “The only person more popular than [Obama] in the country is his wife — and if she’s No. 1, he’s No. 2,” said Maslin. “Don’t waste time on undeserved, unfair criticisms. Just do your job.”

When Obama didn’t, lol. “Hope and change.” Remember that one? The Biden administration, amazingly enough, has risen to the occasion. Whether that’s enough — what about health care? — is another question entirely. In any case, Biden’s stimulus package already means he’s ahead of Obama on points, when even his hundred days have not passed.

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