Was Obama Naive?

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Paul Krugman has finally come around to a fair assessment of Barack Obama’s term in office: not perfect, by any means, and he probably could have accomplished more with better tactics and a better understanding of his opponents. Still and all, he accomplished a lot. By any reasonable standard, he’s been a pretty successful liberal president.

Ezra Klein says this is because he abandoned one of the key goals of his presidency:

From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition.

….Obama spent his first two years keeping many of his policy promises by sacrificing his central political promise. That wasn’t how it felt to the administration at the time. They thought that success would build momentum; that change would beget change. Obama talked of the “muscle memory” congress would rediscover as it passed big bills; he hoped that achievements would replenish his political capital rather than drain it.

In this, the Obama administration was wrong, and perhaps naive.

This is, to me, one of the most interesting questions about the Obama presidency: was he ever serious about building a bipartisan consensus? Did he really think he could pass liberal legislation with some level of Republican cooperation? Or was this little more than routine campaign trail bushwa?

To some extent, I think it was just the usual chicken-in-every-pot hyperbole of American presidential campaigns. American elites venerate bipartisanship, and it’s become pretty routine to assure everyone that once you’re in office you’ll change the toxic culture of Washington DC. Bush Jr. promised it. Clinton promised it. Bush Sr. promised it. Carter promised it. Even Nixon promised it.

(Reagan is the exception. Perhaps that’s why he’s still so revered by conservatives despite the fact that his actual conduct in office was considerably more pragmatic than his rhetoric.)

So when candidates say this, do they really believe it? Or does it belong in the same category as promises that you’ll restore American greatness and supercharge the economy for the middle class? In Obama’s case, it sure sounded like more than pro forma campaign blather. So maybe he really did believe it. Hell, maybe all the rest of them believed it too. The big difference this time around was the opposition. Every other president has gotten at least some level of cooperation from the opposition party. Maybe not much, but some. Obama got none. This was pretty unprecedented in recent history, and it’s hard to say that he should have been able to predict this back in 2008. He probably figured that he’d get at least a little bit of a honeymoon, especially given the disastrous state of the economy, but he didn’t. From Day 1 he got nothing except an adamantine wall of obstruction.

Clearly, then, Obama was wrong about the prospects for bipartisanship. But was he naive? I’d say he’s guilty of a bit of that, but the truth is that he really did end up facing a hornet’s nest of unprecedented proportions. This might have taken any new president by surprise.

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