Jon Chait and understanding Obama.

Jonathan Chait really, really, really wants liberals to not notice that President Obama is no George W Bush. How much does he want it? He wants it badly enough to jettison the entire idea of the Imperial Presidency (don’t worry: Chait and the rest will start grousing about it again on, say, January 20, 2013). Nope, it’s not Barry Obama’s fault that he couldn’t spin insanely lopsided Congressional majority straw into policy gold, because of… separation of powers:


The most common hallmark of the left’s magical thinking is a failure to recognize that Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government consisting of members whose goals may differ from the president’s. Congressional Republicans pursued a strategy of denying Obama support for any major element of his agenda, on the correct assumption that this would make it less popular and help the party win the 2010 elections. Only for roughly four months during Obama’s term did Democrats have the 60 Senate votes they needed to overcome a filibuster.


That kind of analysis, however, just feels wrong to liberals, who remember Bush steamrolling his agenda through Congress with no such complaints about obstructionism. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently invoked “the panoply of domestic legislation — including Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement — that Bush pushed through Congress in his first term.”

First term.


Let’s talk about Bush’s second term, instead. Actually, let’s talk about the second half of Bush’s second term.

Picture the scenario: it’s January of 2007. Congress has just flipped from Republican to Democratic control; the numbers are 49/51 Republican/Democrat in the Senate, 202/233 R/D in the House. The Democrats have run explicitly on an anti-Republican and anti-Bush platform; the expectation was that the President would be thus constrained or overruled on a variety of topics, including the most important one of the time. I refer, of course, to what would be later called the Global War on Terror, which touched on everything from the liberation of Iraq to proper detainee policy to vigorous domestic counter-terrorist data analysis. I’ll give a spoiler now: Chait mentioned none of this in his essay, largely because doing so would have been… awkward.


And it’s awkward because George W Bush, despite not actually having a majority in Congress, achieved the following in the GWOT between 2007 and 2009:

  • Prevented the war in Iraq from being abandoned.
  • Prevented the war in Iraq from being defunded.
  • Successfully instituted a ‘surge’ policy that allowed us to finally actually stabilize Iraq.
  • Reauthorized FISA.
  • Let me repeat that: REAUTHORIZED FISA. The Democratic base invested an incredible amount of time, money, sweat, and influence in trying to sabotage our foreign-to-domestic data mining operations; their abject failure to prevent a clean bill from passage should be the subject of books.

In other words, when it came to the war – which the netroots hated, up until, oh, January 20, 2009; and which motivated most of them to become politically active – George W. Bush found it possible to actually define the goals and tactics, despite the fact that he was facing an opposition that dwarfed anything that Barack Obama faced in 2009 and 2010. And that happened because George W Bush (despite his faults) was and is a better politician than Barack Obama is – and a better man as well. You see, when Bush said that something was important to him, it typically turned out that it was important to him. And so he’d fight for it. Obama doesn’t fight for things. He just wants other people to give Obama the things that he wants, and he gets very, very petulant when he doesn’t get them.


Which is sufficiently obvious that you have to wonder about Chait’s title for his article (“What the Left Doesn’t Understand About Obama”). I think that more people on the Left than are willing to admit it in public understand Obama quite well: he’s no fighter. The question is, does Chait understand this, too? – And if he doesn’t, then how long before Chait starts wearing his underwear outside of his pants?

Moe Lane (crosspost)


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