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Thomas Frank has an interesting column in Salon that typifies the cynical view of Obama by speculating what his Presidential library might look like.

Republicans in Congress want to make sure President Obama takes the blame for their obstruction. Thomas Frank helps them out by presenting the Jed Bartlett version of the Presidency. On the TV show West Wing, President Bartlett can accomplish anything by pounding on his desk and giving an inspiring speech. It's a romantic, but childishly unrealistic version of how government works. When Republicans obstruct, according to this view of the Presidency, we should pin the blame on Obama for not being an imaginary character on television.

After some mind reading about Obama's bad intentions, Frank recommends:

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.
Actually, Obama has done both of those things. He has relentlessly campaigned for a second stimulus jobs bill and has talked about economic issues from a progressive viewpoint non-stop.

When politicians say something conservative, Fox and talk radio act as an echo-chamber. It helps those ideas spread and become accepted as mainstream. When Obama says something progressive, much of the cynical pundit left help the corporate press by ignoring it. The progressive blogosphere often acts as a muffler on good, progressive statements by Obama instead of an echo-chamber. I haven't figured out how it helps advance progressive ideas to ignore when a sitting President espouses them.

For example, has anyone noticed how many times Obama called to end oil industry subsidies, including in major addresses to Congress? Probably not, since most progressive pundits have joined the corporate-owned press in ignoring those calls.

We've had another President in the same situation as Obama who did exactly what Frank suggests: Harry Truman. President Truman advanced an aggressive civil rights and economic agenda that would have made him one of the most successful Presidents in American history, rivaling FDR. Few people know about that agenda because almost all of it was blocked by an obstructionist Republican Congress. We remember Truman's accomplishments that didn't require Congressional action isntead, like desegregating the military.

"Give 'em Hell" Harry gave speeches more aggressively partisan than Obama. He coined the term "Do-nothing Congress." When Republicans published a reasonable agenda in their convention platform, Truman called a special session of Congress to demand they pass it. What a great stunt! It's just what Thomas Frank is calling for. And none of it worked. The Constitution still places severe limits on Presidential power when people elect a lousy Congress.

The big problem with Frank's essay is that, by identifying the wrong problem, he points us toward the wrong solution. The implication is that we need to look for a better Presidential savior who will make change happen by giving just the right fist-pounding speeches. That's a fruitless, counterproductive expectation.

Two important things separated this time in history from the eras that passed the Great Society programs and the New Deal. FDR and LBJ had two things Obama doesn't:
1) A super-majority in Congress.
2) Aggressive mass movements pressuring Congress and the President to do more.

Those are two things in our power to change. Obama almost had those two factors during his first two years and managed to pass the largest expansion of the safety net since LBJ, and the largest regulation of the financial sector since the New Deal.

As much as Obama has done to disappointment me, I've been even more disappointed that over the past six years too much of the progressive punditry and blogosphere have:
1) Obsessed over Obama while failing to put much pressure on Congress, and
2) Not spent as much effort building and highlighting people's movements that can deliver change.

We still have some slim chance this year of delivering a better Congress and building stronger mass movements. What we'll end up with if we do is a much better President. It's a course of action that will produce progress.

What won't produce progress is searching for Jed Bartlett. Hillary Clinton won't produce easy change for us. Neither will Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. There's no one we can elect President who will deliver what Thomas Frank is asking for unless we provide that President with those other two factors.

If Frank wants another system of government that gives far more power to the chief executive, he's welcome to argue for it. In my view, giving too much power to one person rarely goes well for very long.

In 2008 Obama repeatedly said that real change would take more than voting for him as President. He said change comes from the bottom up. That it will take a movement. That's true for Obama and anyone else we might elect as President. If Frank had listened to those speeches he might not be so disillusioned that Obama didn't turn out to be what he never promised to be.

The biggest mistake the progressive movement can make would be failing to learn the right lessons from the Obama Presidency by searching for the next Presidential Savior who will inevitably disappoint us as well. Putting all of our hopes and expectations into the office of the Presidency will never accomplish our goals. It will only produce a long line of Harry Trumans who never live up to their potential.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank you (6+ / 0-)

    for articulating my point of view so well.

    The President doesn't have a magic wand.

    by CJB2012 on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 11:50:35 AM PDT

  •  Great post. The level of Congressional (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slothlax, Willinois, CJB2012, anon004

    opposition Obama has faced has seen to equal since Andrew Johnson. And in that case it was Johnson vetoing laws enacted by Congress and Congress having the votes to override in most cases.

    Here we have a President who has a House determined to block everything of consequence and a Senate largely tied up with filibuster requirements.

    Those who criticize the President for not doing more never explain what specific things he can do (that he has not already tried) that will overcome Congressional obstruction.

    Further, affiant sayeth not. 53959

    by Gary Norton on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 12:24:14 PM PDT

  •  You just can't beat (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slothlax, jbsoul, corvo, YucatanMan

    this writing from Franks article [titled "Right-wing obstruction could have been fought: An ineffective and gutless presidency’s legacy is failure" ]:

    In approaching this subject, let us first address the historical situation of the Obama administration. The task of museums, like that of history generally, is to document periods of great change. The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over—when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse and the newspaper pundits were like street performers miming “seriousness” for an audience that had lost its taste for mime and seriousness both. It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in—and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.

    The Obama team, as the president once announced to a delegation of investment bankers, was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” and in retrospect these words seem not only to have been a correct assessment of the situation at the moment but a credo for his entire term in office. For my money, they should be carved in stone over the entrance to his monument: Barack Obama as the one-man rescue squad for an economic order that had aroused the fury of the world. Better: Obama as the awesomely talented doctor who kept the corpse of a dead philosophy lumbering along despite it all.

    The Age of the Zombie Consensus, however poetic it sounds, will probably not recommend itself as a catchphrase to the shapers of the Obama legacy. They will probably be looking for a label that is slightly more heroic: the Triumph of Faith over Cynicism, or something like that. Maybe they will borrow a phrase from one of the 2012 campaign books, “The Center Holds,” and describe the Obama presidency as a time when cool, corporate reason prevailed over inflamed public opinion. Barack Obama will be presented as a kind of second FDR: the man who saved the system from itself. That perhaps the system didn’t deserve saving will be left to some less-well-funded museum.

    Another prediction that I can make safely is that the Obama Presidential Library will violate one of the cardinal rules of presidential museums: It will have to be pretty massively partisan.

    So when do we start calling Frank a wild eyed batshit crazy insane person?

    The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney

    by dfarrah on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 12:45:07 PM PDT

    •  Something's Missing Here (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sviscusi
      So when do we start calling Frank a wild eyed batshit crazy insane person?
      I won't call Frank Thomas that, but your sig line "The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney" betrays your seeming slant: that Obama could have actually turned all this around single-handedly. I would expand it beyond just the banks, however, to include right wing industrialists. My theory, test it if you have the nerve, is that much of this bank and conservative industrialist money was used to incessantly hammer home the 'fact' that the President isn't white, which provides the ongoing wedge that tea party sympathizers are motivated by.

      Mr. Thomas has ignored these two facts in his otherwise well-worded critique, which is leaking credibility badly because of these omissions, particularly the racial animus fact.

      God's preference is for more people to be included, (not excluded through doctrine),...whenever the circle is shrinking, where people are being excluded or disliked, God is not served. -Rev. Alice Connor

      by paz3 on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 01:09:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  now the racist angle. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        corvo, AlexDrew

        yawn.

        The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney

        by dfarrah on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 01:45:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Obama was far from an outsider, an enemy of the (0+ / 0-)

        banks.  He appointed Jack Lew, Citibank executive, to be White House Chief of Staff.  That's the President's right-hand-man, privileged to all the personal insights and conversations within the residence and office of the White House.  

        Jack Lew eventually went back to Citibank, collected a $1 million bonus "for being appointed to goverment service" and then was appointed again by Obama.  This time as Treasury Secretary, where with $1 million in fresh green cash in his pocket, he is expected to act impartially and on behalf of the taxpayers, not the banks.  Good luck with that.

        That's just one example of the insider access directly into the very most personal aspects of the Obama administration. There are many others.

        And there's the President's admiration for the odious Summers.

        It might be an easy out to claim that the President couldn't accomplish anything because the "rich white men were opposed to his presidency," but that belies two of many counter-arguments:

        1)  The President didn't attempt any reining in of Wall Street, big finance, TBTF banks. and

        2) The President was playing an inside game all along, with bankers embedded in his administration at his behest.

        There was no racial animus between the President and his appointees from the ranks of powerful white bankers.

        It's really an easy out for a much darker story -- inside access and a president who had no intention of reigning in the banks or even making Timmy Geithner carry out his own mortgage rescue program.  And who was hurt by that?  Minorities to a great extent.

        "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

        by YucatanMan on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 03:49:09 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  So when discussing Elizabeth Warren (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          CJB2012, anon004

          new regulation of Wall Street, banks, lending and credit cards which she argued for is a heroic battle against the system.

          But when discussing Obama, those same laws suddenly become nothing at all. And we have to forget how Obama promoted her career and her position launching the CFPB.

          Look, there's plenty to criticize about the series of laws Obama passed over strong, loud objections backed with millions in lobbyists dollars the banksters spent OPPOSING Obama's new regulatory laws. If they love Obama so much why did they fight his laws so hard? We can argue about whether to blame Obama or the conservative Senate for those not being stronger.

          But to claim that he "didn't attempt" anything is a fucking fantasy.

          •  The laws passed by Congress originated within (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            dfarrah

            Congressional committees, with portions supported and opposed by the administration.

            Did the White House send legislation to Congress as many administrations have done?  No.  The administration deferred to Congress which it is fine to do, but it also means the administration itself didn't initiate or propose legislation, period.

            While mentioning Obama's "promotion of Elizabeth Warren" (who I did not mention at all), you fail to mention his attempts to reign her in and encourage her not to go too far.

            In reality, there are numerous articles about the Obama administration and Timothy Geithner attempting to waterdown legislation or weaken controls on banks, as well as greatly delay regulations and controls on the TBTF banks.  It's all out there. None of it is fantasy or speculation.

            Obama was running the defense against "the pitchforks" in favor of the Wall Street financiers, as he himself stated.

            "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

            by YucatanMan on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 06:44:13 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  I don't think Frank (0+ / 0-)

        said anything about doing something 'singlehandedly.'

        And, like single payer, BO didn't even try.  Why doesn't BO try to push dem policies?  Because he's a conservative, as the BO supporters like to point out so frequently.

        We got took.  It's that simple.  BO has set back dems for years with the 2010 fiasco alone, not to mention his efforts to cut social benefits, weaken unions, implementation of a repub insurance program, not to mention that he ensured the economy would limp along for years when we already know how to stimulate the economy!  It's been done before, but BO had to suck up to the people who caused the problem.

        The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney

        by dfarrah on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 05:24:23 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Maybe you can't (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sviscusi

      beat the writing but you can beat the logic.
      What exactly is his point? That Obama wasn't a socialist who dismantled the system? OK.

      That's true. Yet, at every point Obama proposed things to the left of what Congress was willing to pass, even when Democrats had the majority. Obama also repeatedly attacks the principles of supply side economics in speeches and in policies. Once again, with progressive punditry often ignoring him. So his singular focus on Obama as the barrier to more progress doesn't seem realistic or useful.

    •  A lost period in time and we're left with: (0+ / 0-)
      how to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t.
      Yes, it will have to be massively partisan to explain that, but that isn't all there is to it. An honest assessment would have to document the especially close relationship between the White House and Wall Street and Obama's revolving door appointments into the highest level jobs in his administration.

      Yes, he did a good job of standing between the pitchforks and Wall Street. But the people's hate for the financiers is still out there. It smolders among left and right, believe it or not. People can see what was done.

      Let's talk about something more fun:  Will the museum be in Chicago (rooted in the false economics of the Chicago School)? Or will it reside in tropic and expensive splendor in Hawaii, forcing people to think of those islands as one of our actual states?

      Which would be most annoying to Republicans? That's the one he should pick.  

      Any bets on a surprise venue?  I'm pretty sure it will be one of those two. I'm sure the money people are already lining up to campaign for their favored location (profit-making venue).

      "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

      by YucatanMan on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 03:40:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  He might have pointed his finger at the press... (0+ / 0-)

    for giving an allowance for the "Do-nothing [save something selfish or wrong] Congress" to operate but that would be pointing the finger at himself.

  •  Yes, BUT: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    corvo, YucatanMan

    FDR engineered those supermajorities.

    BTW, your characterization of Barlet is itself a myth on a myth. Throughout the course of the series, the Barlet White House surrenders time and again to Republican (and at times, Dem) obstruction. Generally speaking, they get almost nothing done, and most of what they do get done is a DLC wet-dream.

    The sad thing is, I think Sorkin (who wrote the first three seasons) was pretty sympathetic to the DLC wet-dream, but I could be wrong.

    To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

    by UntimelyRippd on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 01:42:54 PM PDT

    •  You know, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      CJB2012, anon004

      as impressive as FDR was I don't think any President is able to engineer a super majority of that size. It was the wave of the time. And if FDR was able to do that, why didn't he do it for all of his terms?

      Of course, you're right about the details of the West Wing, but my point is about people's expectations of the Presidency. The bully pulpit fantasy is common.

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