Obama’s Bad Timing

In the course of a fine review of yet another book seeking to locate the wellsprings of Obamaism in odd places (in this case, the works of Gilles Deleuze and Baroch Spinoza) in the May-June issue of the Washington Monthly, one of my favorite political writers, Mark Schmitt, offers his own tentative thoughts about how we may ultimately judge the turbulent presidency of Barack Obama. A sample:

Obama’s presidency has been the first real test of a politics focused on reform and democratic participation rather than traditional bipartisan bargaining—and it has failed. Over the last four years, American politics split sharply into the two primary traditions: the first a sort of hyper-Lockeanism represented not just by the Tea Party but even by Mitt Romney’s division of the country into “makers and takers,” the second a demand—driven by circumstances and crisis—for a much more active, expansive government role in the economy. Economic issues, once a natural zone of compromise, began to seem more like social issues, matters of irreconcilable absolutes. There wasn’t much room in the middle, and for a period, Obama’s discursive strategy seemed wholly irrelevant.

Schmitt goes on to suggest that Obama’s distinctive approach to politics might work better in at a future moment when, to quote Obama’s own hopeful phrase, the “fever has broken” on the Right. That moment looks as far off right now as it did in 2010; yet progressives haven’t agreed on any presidential model that would have definitely worked better (though not for lack of trying). It is pretty clear any Democratic president taking office in the middle of a financial crisis and the beginning of a Great Recession, and dealing with an opposition party focused only on ensuring his failure, was going to fall short of progressive expectations. Fairly apportioning responsibility for that disappointment will take a very long time.

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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.