The problem with attempting to argue for or against any of these points is that for most policy issues, a solid case can be made for any one of these angles (well, except for personal corruption, for which there is zero evidence, but which tends to be the easy fallback for the most conspiratorially minded.)
But one potential clarifying issue on which to judge the question might be the Administration's crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries in California. My local weekly the VC Reporter has a pretty good story on the crackdown. The upshot is that the President, despite promising to respect California's lenience on the issue of marijuana dispensaries, is using the Justice Department to crack down on them in a big way. That in turn is leading to anger within the progressive base in California. The cover image says it all:
The question is why?
First, the Administration's defenders will have a very tough time with this one. It has nothing to do with campaign promises. In fact, the President promised to leave California alone on this issue. He's breaking that promise.
Nor can this one be blamed on Congress. While Congress could theoretically overturn the federal law (and one day, a more enlightened Congress will do just that), it's not as if there's a big Congressional push to make the Administration crack down on California. This is a purely executive decision. Local legislators aren't in favor of the crackdown, either:
With the country facing a monstrous federal debt crisis, spending federal funds to undercut state laws may not be a good use of taxpayer money. Ashley Schapitl, spokeswoman for Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara/Ventura, said “Lois’ position is that the federal government should defer to state law on this issue, and given the tremendous fiscal difficulties facing the federal government, the crackdown is not the best use of federal taxpayer dollars...”
“Forcing dispensaries to close does nothing for the demand for the medicine, instead it only pushes the market underground, which in turn invites more illegal activity into our communities,” said Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara/Ventura. “I see the federal crackdown as an aimless and senseless misuse of resources.”
The President's defenders can't explain these moves by using campaign pledges or legislative intransigence. This one is all on the President.
But the Administration's most severe critics have a difficult time with this as well.
Personal corruption can't really explain it. There's no pot of gold from interested industries waiting for politicians who crack down on marijuana. During the days of Reefer Madness it might have been a corporate control issue, but it's not really any longer. This tends to be a cultural touchstone rather than a corporate one.
The old trope about the President's "weakness" in the face of conservative legislators--the flip-side of the defenders' arguments--is also irrelevant here. There is no Congressional action on this issue to speak of.
Arguing that this decision springs from personal conservatism is a little difficult as well. The President has admitted to using marijuana and cocaine in his past, and still smokes the occasional cigarette in private. There is nothing in the President's past statements or writings to suggest that he has a particularly strong animus when it comes to drug use.
The only thing that makes sense here is that the President is trying to appeal to older, independent voters who are still deeply uncomfortable with marijuana legalization. Under this theory, the Administration's actions amount solely to an attempt to make good with the older independent voters who his strategists assume are the keys to his re-election.
And that, after all, squares exactly with what his advisers have actually said is the strategy:
Someday people will look back and wonder, What were they thinking? Why, in the midst of a stalled recovery, with the economy fragile and job creation slowing to a trickle, did the nation’s leaders decide that the thing to do—in order to raise the debt limit, normally a routine matter—was to spend less money, making job creation all the more difficult? Many experts on the economy believe that the President has it backward: that focusing on growth and jobs is more urgent in the near term than cutting the deficit, even if such expenditures require borrowing. But that would go against Obama’s new self-portrait as a fiscally responsible centrist...
It all goes back to the “shellacking” Obama took in the 2010 elections. The President’s political advisers studied the numbers and concluded that the voters wanted the government to spend less. This was an arguable interpretation. Nevertheless, the political advisers believed that elections are decided by middle-of-the-road independent voters, and this group became the target for determining the policies of the next two years.
That explains a lot about the course the President has been taking this year. The political team’s reading of these voters was that to them, a dollar spent by government to create a job is a dollar wasted. The only thing that carries weight with such swing voters, they decided—in another arguable proposition—is cutting spending. Moreover, like Democrats—and very unlike Republicans—these voters do not consider “compromise” a dirty word...
This all fits with another development in the Obama White House. According to another close observer, David Plouffe, the manager of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, who officially joined the White House staff in January 2011, has taken over. “Everything is about the reelect,” this observer says—”where the President goes, what he does.”
Plouffe’s advice to the President defines not just Obama’s policies but also his behavior. Plouffe tells the President, according to this observer, that the target group wants him to seem the most reasonable man in the room.
Ultimately, it is precisely this sort of misguided advice that is the greatest threat to democracy and real change in this country.
Yes, the system is broken, and yes, there is far too much moneyed influence in Washington. But on occasion, the American people can overwhelm all that and put legislators in office who they believe will act in accordance with the progressive principles that they believe in. Of course, the public will never self-label as Progressive, but the policies the public wants tend to lean very much in the progressive camp.
But the Democratic Party--the only vehicle in the two-party system capable of carrying progressive policies forward--is in the thrall of consultants who constantly tell Democratic politicians that the only way to win election and re-election is to suck up to conservative-leaning "independents". This, despite the mounting raft of evidence that so-called "independents" tend to fed-up partisan leaners who are sick of the fact that the system doesn't deliver results in their preferred direction.
This is why the Third Way and its allied consultants, constantly urging Democrats to take the conservative, careful path, are the greatest danger to American democracy right now. As much or more than corporate cash, these consultants take good politicians insofar as they exist, and convince them that the path to re-election lies through conservative policy. In doing so, they deny the American people the chance to tack left, and away from conservative policies when they do vote--despite rafts of corporate cash--to do so.
It seems too simple and stupid to be true, but it really is. Politicians come and go, but consultants tend to stick around for decades. Many of them are still in shellshock from the Reagan era, but continue to advise Democrats anyway, despite the world's having changed drastically and passed them by since then. Of course, it's not just consultants: the entire Party infrastructure is burdened with this sort of counterproductive thinking all the way from Rahm Emanuel to local county committees.
Change the Democratic consultant class in D.C., and you'll go a long way toward fixing what is broken with the Democratic Party, and by extension with the country.
Cross-posted from Hullabaloo