President Obama’s Persistent Strategic Error: Mistaking Inside-the-Beltway Reality for “Real” Reality

Posted on June 26, 2011


Progressives and others who are concerned about the content of discussion in Washington are now divided on a critical issue:  to what degree should one hold responsible President Obama for errors or failures in the last two years, as well as the strengthening of Republicans after Democrats’ decisive electoral defeats of the GOP in 2006 and 2008?  These divisions depend on how different supporters and former supporters of Obama would answer a number of relevant questions:

  1. What would you like to see happen in Washington and in politics more generally?
  2. What do you believe is the current and potential power of the American Presidency?  How important is the “bully pulpit” and the President’s influence on popular opinion?
  3. How important is “supporting your team” (in the upcoming election) as opposed to holding out for principled policy?
  4. Is Obama at heart a progressive or more of a center-right corporatist or neo-liberal (right-wing on economics, left of center on social issues)?   Or is he simply a careerist without strong ideological commitments?
  5. Will Obama always concede to his opponents rather than fight?
  6. Do major crises in the real world require leaders to overcome their personal inclinations?

Those who tend to have very ambitious hopes for President Obama or feel that the dire situation of the world calls for dramatic and decisive action, are much more inclined to criticize him.  Also those who feel that the Presidential “bully pulpit” is a critical piece of political weaponry feel that he has been a major disappointment while those who feel that the Presidency has limited powers are more appreciative of his performance.  There are some who fear that it will weaken the President if progressives criticize him, pointing out that Republicans band together much better than Democrats.  Others feel that they must continue to point out his shortcomings, in the hope that he changes his policy or his strategy.

My perspective is that Obama and other Democrats need to be held accountable to what I’m calling “real” reality, the economic reality of Main Street, as well as the real physical reality of the earth’s degradation by our own species as home for…our own species.  Obama, as would any President, has had the potential to mobilize the grassroots in favor of his agenda or an agenda that is more favorable to the interests of “Main Street”, but that he has not done so, disempowering himself and the Presidency at a time of justified popular anger.  I believe that severe real world crises force leaders to confront their own personal preferences and limitations; America in 2008 required a new FDR or a President of similar ambition and nerve.  I care about Obama’s “heart of hearts” commitments and personality only insofar as they impact the American people.

I have been trying to locate a way to describe as simply as possible the common thread among Obama’s political mistakes while avoiding making a statement that is a condemnation of his character, his fundamental political principles, or attributes to him a permanent trait that bars improvement in his performance as President.  Given these assumptions that there is no fundamental flaw, I have come up with a formulation that makes sense of many of his major political mistakes so far.

Obama’s Political Mistakes Catalogued

Here is my catalogue of Obama’s political mistakes that have at times been echoed by people with varying political ideologies

  1. Appointment of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner as leaders of economic team/largely uncritical collaboration with financial interests invested in a Ponzi Economy/ignoring debt write-downs as solution to crisis/anemic financial reform package positions Administration with Wall Street against Main Street.
  2. Refusal to investigate or prosecute wrongdoing during Bush Administration/lack of differentiation between Obama and Bush policy regimes
  3. Inadequately large 2009 fiscal stimulus package diluted by tax cuts/omission of a large “Green New Deal” infrastructure program.
  4. Agreement that reducing public deficits was an urgent priority through speeches and appointment of a deficit commission weighted towards deficit hawks
  5. Health care reform prioritized before general economic, debt, and jobs policies
  6. Health care reform tailored to large corporate interests in health care including insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies/non-profit single-payer insurance (Medicare for all) system not considered
  7. Pretense that “enough had been done” for the economy in 2010.
  8. Continuing efforts to find common ground with Republicans bent on destruction of his Presidency/choice to chide rather than expose Republicans/implicit acceptance of Republicans distorted worldview.
  9. Lack of a post-oil, post-carbon energy and climate policy built upon a “Green New Deal” foundation/ongoing giveaways and apologia for fossil fuel companies.
  10. Afghanistan“surge” premised on demonstrating an appearance of toughness rather than on-the-ground realities in that country.
  11. Underestimation of the effects of criticisms and slander of Obama on the Democratic Party/underestimation of the Tea Party and non-party right-wing political action groups
  12. Demobilization and disappointment of his political base.

While this is a long list, with which some may quarrel, I think that many of these errors can be condensed in a way that enables enlightenment and learning rather than condemnation.  I believe that Obama has become lost or has chosen to lose himself in “Inside-the-Beltway” political reality which exists at some remove from real reality.

The Construction of Beltway Political Reality

Anyone who follows Washington closely has come to realize that political representatives live in something of a bubble, despite the many emails, letters, calls and visitors they get from outside of Washington.  The bubble is created in part by the filter of the news media, in particular the 24 hour cable news stations and increasingly popular Internet blog sites.  Every move and action in the world or in Washington is immediately interpreted as to its “political” implications.  These interpretations and filtering by these news media creates its own reality that has its direct impact on politicians who act in accordance to the interpretation more than the basic information.  The most common code word in the left-leaning blogosphere for this phenomenon is a reference to the consensus of “Very Serious People” or VSPs.

Additionally, the structure of the US government, created over 220 years ago, creates a government “culture” that is often focused on its internal procedures rather than the exigencies of what the nation as a whole might need from it.  Notable among these are the traditions of the US Senate, within which its members seem to act in response to the actions of other Senators and the Senate culture more than to the needs of society overall.

Beyond these structural issues, one of the major political parties, the Republicans, has over the past 30 years divorced itself from grappling with real issues and now on a routine basis denies economic and scientific realities in the service of a number of utopian strains in its ideology.  Republicans have come to prey on the largely misinformed and often oblivious parts of the US electorate who don’t want to be challenged by new factual information or the new and different in general.  Supply-side/neo-liberal economics has become the bedrock common sense of Republicans and functions in their hands as simply an excuse for celebrating naked greed often without the delivery of goods and services of any durable value.  To achieve their goals and maintain its unrealistic ideology, the Republicans have developed a powerful messaging machine with their own media channels with nationwide distribution.  A Republican-friendly, right-wing interpretation of most news events is available to a majority of Americans with a turn of the radio or TV dial at almost any time of day.

While divorce from reality would seem like a disadvantage for media sources and for politicians, it turns out that Republicans have been able to turn this to their advantage.  Not being held to standards of objectivity or scientific evidence enables Republican political operatives to be relatively mobile and inventive in their political tactics and pin down Democrats via rhetorical devices, while appealing to deep-seated emotion-laden themes in large segments of the electorate.  Republicans are quick to counter any attacks they might receive, especially if they are allowed to remain within the preserve of their media universe.  By contrast, Democrats, who generally lack a unifying ideology, are not nearly as mobile and not nearly as aggressive for a host of reasons that would distract here.

In efforts to “balance” viewpoints, mainstream media channels and politicians now feel that they must meet the Republicans “halfway”, even though halfway to utopia (nowhere in Greek) is also nowhere.  The largely fictional, emotion-based world of Republican political discourse then gets to maneuver and invent its own reality, thereby dragging along with it a good portion of the more scrupulous media channels.  Listening, for instance, to Jonathan Capeheart, a young black, liberal-seeming commentator for the Washington Post, talk about the deficit, you hear an almost complete facsimile of Republican talking points about sacrificing social programs because of profligacy.  If Republicans are included in the “big tent” of political discourse, that political discourse has been pulled rightward even as American opinions about basic programs like Social Security and Medicare have not changed very much.

“Real-er” Reality

As I have discussed elsewhere, there are reality based explanations for our economic and environmental situation which are not part of the inside-the-Beltway consensus.  Economists who got it right, such as Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, Simon Johnson, Steve Keen, Dean Baker, Jamie Galbraith and others, were temporarily admitted to public discourse during the crisis but are considered now again outsiders to the main consensus.  These economists, relying on to some degree Keynes as well as Minsky, have put together a reality-based narrative of what has happened and the situation we are in.  Interestingly, Jared Bernstein has vociferously re-joined the “reality-based” community since leaving his role as economic advisor to Vice President Biden.

In terms of our environment and assessments of the limits of fossil energy reserves, these remain excluded from sustained attention as they challenge us to remake our civilization, if confronted head-on.   Obama has made passing reference to the realities involved without instituting policies that directly face these dire circumstances.  Some pundits make passing reference to “dependence on foreign oil” with the implication that somehow we could depend on domestic oil as an alternative.  The terrifying reality of our dependence on fossil energy and decades of inaction remain outside of public discourse.

Both of these “real-er” discourses are well substantiated with social science, natural scientific and production data but again are not part of the Beltway VSP consensus.

President Obama Has Made Himself a Prisoner of Beltway Political Reality

Surprisingly, after running and/or being the beneficiary of a creative, “outside-the-Beltway” campaign for President in 2008, Obama has become largely a creature of “inside-the-Beltway” political tactics:  most of his major mistakes can be attributed to viewing the world through the lens of Beltway insiders.  Of the major mistakes that I have listed above, which are of course chosen with my own biases, ten out of twelve are most readily explained as Obama limiting his view of the world to that of what “Very Serious People” think or might approve of.  The two political “moves” that appear not to conform to this view are his prioritization of healthcare over economic recovery which appeared to come from a sincere or personal ambition on his part and his underestimation of the effects of being personally attacked by the Tea Party and the radical Right.

Otherwise, the ten remaining major mistakes of Obama’s Presidency can be attributed to a too-credulous view of the political landscape inside Washington or uncritical absorption of advice from Beltway insiders about how politics and the political economy should run.   The appointment of Obama’s economic team seemed designed to “calm markets” as well as avoid political appearances that he would change course from the Bush Administration; no efforts at structural reform were apparently on the table.  Obama’s worship of the concept of bipartisanship can be viewed as an uncritical absorption of the supposed “morality” of getting along with the other party, a morality that occasionally the American public assents to within a poll but is almost never practiced by Republicans, who nevertheless win elections.  Obama’s stimulus package seems to have been designed as almost the average of inside-the-Beltway political opinion about what a large stimulus package should look like, with its large proportion of tax cuts mitigating its stimulative impact, in addition to its inadequate size that did not correspond to any economist’s calculation about what was needed.

The most mysterious feature of Obama’s Presidency has been his choice not to mobilize his base or new support for his programs outside the Beltway.  Obama has not proposed programs that are designed to appeal to his base or to the American public, choosing, for instance, a health care reform that was not based on models that most Americans could understand, like Medicare.  The Health Care Modernization Act was designed to appeal to Republicans and corporate stakeholders in the healthcare industry without using popular pressure to mobilize support or shape inside-the-Beltway opinion.

Shying away from an ambitious “Green New Deal” can also be explained as part of Obama’s calculation of how his actions would appear through the filter of the Beltway press.  Obama has kept his distance from appearing as either another FDR, probably the left-most President of the US, as well as being a “hippie” who cares about the planet.  Obama’s speeches about climate and energy indicate that he knows intellectually what the challenges are that face the nation but the energy that he puts into these issues shows a lack of desire or absence of a rational decision to pursue them aggressively.

In general, Obama has approached the amalgam of current Washington opinion as a right-leaning, anti-Keynesian “rock” of truth which he cannot or should not attempt to influence.  The notion that Washington opinion is partly based on a distorted sense of how the economy now works or should work, as well as denial of science and climate change, hasn’t seemed to enter into his calculations.  He doesn’t seem to want to fight for the truth.

Obama Reinforces a System of Republican Privilege

The studious, almost obsequious pandering to Republican and Beltway insider opinion has only strengthened the role of Obama’s opposition.  While Obama may flatter himself that he is being a gentleman, an alternative view of a gentleman is someone who stands and fights for what he believes in if it is well justified.  He has instead handed a series of victories and a deciding voice to Republicans via his apparent belief in the “truth” of inside-the-Beltway common sense.   A highly intelligent man capable of researching and understanding what the best science would tell him, Obama has acted as if the politically massaged and packaged bromides spoken by political and economic commentators are weightier than those who do know better via experience and intensive study or the experiences of everyday people outside of Washington.

Obama, as well as other Democrats, and the news media are conferring an enormous privilege upon Republicans by shielding them from criticism and allowing them to construct their largely fictional policy world based on fiscal austerity and anti-Keynesian economics without withering criticism.  Obama has reinforced this sense of privilege by pledging not to investigate wrongdoing during the Bush Administration, one of the more corrupt and inept Administrations in the last 100 years.

Furthermore, it seems that Republicans are given a wide berth to attack Democrats by almost any means while Democrats hold back their attacks even when justified.  Refreshingly, Democrats have at least started to attack the Ryan budget plan as regards Medicare, but may give up this advantage if they too choose to cut Medicare in a similar manner.

Meanwhile Congressional Republicans and Republican supporters have been allowed to spin any number of tales about Obama and his Presidency, without a response from the President or his surrogates.  The ease with which Republicans construct fictional narratives, for instance Rep. Ryan’s budget that is not even an honest piece of work, has been supported by both Democrats and the press’s indulgence of these falsehoods.  Democrats, of course, also speak falsehoods but less frequently and their policy recommendations have at least had some plausible evidentiary support.  It is more likely that Republicans will attack Democrats weaknesses than Democrats will do the same to the Republicans.

Turning the Tide

To turn the tide, Democrats, perhaps led by Obama, will need to find a principled politics based in large part on the experience of and for the benefit of Main Street.  Democrats, either by their intentions or pulled along by popular movements, will need to based their politics on our best understanding of what is happening in the economy and in earth’s natural support systems that are ever more challenged.

To focus American politics on reality will be a great struggle, involving systematic reform of the political system and the energy basis of our economic system.  I don’t know whether there will be time to achieve all that needs to be achieved but it would help if the most powerful individuals, like President Obama, would catalyze the process.