Presidential Unaccomplishments

I missed it the other day because it was appended to one of his abominable anti-feminist meditations, but James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal actually offered a succinct version of the predictable conservative reaction to Paul Glastris’ “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.”

Glastris…boast[s] of the “sheer legislative tonnage” of the things Obama has done, starting with “health care reform.”

The flaw in Glastris’s reason is obvious to anyone who isn’t either an Obama personality cultist or a doctrinaire liberal. The word “accomplished” has normative connotations as well as empirical ones, so that the question was a qualitative as well as a quantitative one. To say that Obama has accomplished “a great deal” is to say both that he has done a lot and that one approves of what he has done.

Uh, well, what would you have Paul do, Mr. Taranto? Put (sic!) after “accomplishments” or call them “alleged accomplishments” or “so-called accomplishments”? It is understood that for today’s conservatives, the only possible accomplishments a president could boast of in domestic policy would be to undo the “so-called accomplishments” of past presidents, beginning with the No Child Left Behind and Medicare Rx Drug initiatives of the “so-called conservative” who preceded Obama in office. I mean, I suppose a “true conservative” could ring up a genuine “accomplishment” by finding a way to outlaw abortions or same-sex marriages. Taranto would presumably be happy with legislation that made public benefits contingent on “pro-family” or “pro-male-responsibility” behavior he approves of, though it’s unclear that would be preferable to the abolition of such benefits altogether (much of what conservatives propose these days is of this sort of second-degree nature, making bad things like public benefits or taxes merely less objectionable).

Given that context, those of us who do believe the public sector has some valuable usages beyond national defense, punishment of crimes and enforcement of contracts (a community that until quite recently included many active members of the Republican Party) need to be able to have a discussion among ourselves about good, better and best usages of the public sector, and which might be considered “accomplishments.” It’s a shame James Taranto cannot participate in this discussion, but I’d hardly blame Paul Glastris for failing to stipulate in every sentence of his essay that of course, many Americans oppose the entire premise that presidents can accomplish anything other than the demolition of others’ work.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.