President Obama’s “pen and phone” strategy (which he announced a year ago) has confused a lot of progressives. The title of this article by Markos Moulitsas pretty well sums it up: “Imagine that: Obama decides he’ll fight for people, approvals soar.” He’s right that President Obama’s approval rating has risen over the last couple of months and that the American people seem to like the fact that he is getting things done…despite Congress. Where the confusion shows is in assuming that the President has recently decided to “fight for people.”
Moulitsas includes a list of things Obama has announced recently. But as many of us have been pointing out, a lot of them (normalization with Cuba, executive orders on immigration, etc.) have been in the works for at least 1-2 years. It’s true that free community college is a new proposal. But it was preceded by a proposal for universal pre-K in his 2013 SOTU. The President has consistently said that he would stand by the process of the State Department’s study of the Keystone Pipeline and would veto any effort to preempt it. His working group on police reforms follows a record number of police brutality investigations initiated by the Civil Rights Division of DOJ during his administration.
But Moulitsas isn’t the only one confused by what’s happening. Simon Johnson is one of the people who objected to the nomination of Antonio Weiss as Undersecretary of Domestic Affairs at the Treasury Department. And so its ironic to read him insist that President Obama needs to swiftly nominate someone to that position now that Weiss has removed himself from consideration. But Johnson shows his own confusion with this:
In the continuing absence of an Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, the administration has recently displayed an inconsistent – or perhaps even incoherent – policy stance on financial sector issues. On the one hand, in mid-December, the White House agreed to rollback a significant part of Dodd-Frank – the so-called “swaps push-out,” which was shamefully attached at the behest of Citigroup to a must-pass government spending bill…
On the other hand, the President has recently issued veto threats to protect financial reform.
It’s important to note that both Paul Krugman and Matt Taibbi affirmed that the “swaps push-out” (authored by then-Senator Blanche Lincoln) was not “a significant part of Dodd-Frank.” For example, Krugman actually called it a “sideshow.”
Now, this isn’t the death of financial reform. In fact, I’d argue that regulating insured banks is something of a sideshow, since the 2008 crisis was brought on mainly by uninsured institutions like Lehman Brothers and A.I.G. The really important parts of reform involve consumer protection and the enhanced ability of regulators both to police the actions of “systemically important” financial institutions (which needn’t be conventional banks) and to take such institutions into receivership at times of crisis.
With that in mind, President Obama and a lot of Democrats signed on to the cromnibus bill that contained it’s elimination in order to remove one of the most powerful hostages Republicans might have used in this Congressional session (a possible government shut-down) to seriously undermine the truly significant portions of Dodd-Frank. That was the long game at play.
Finally, here’s William Rivers Pitt writing about his confusion in response to the State of the Union speech.
The President of the United States gave a speech on Tuesday night that would, in parts, have gone over like gangbusters at any Occupy rally in the country, and then he turned on a dime to brag about our massively impressive oil and gas production, i.e. fracking and maybe the Keystone XL pipeline, and then went on further to give an impassioned aria about climate change, at which point my brain crawled out of my ear and slithered into the bathroom, where it wept piteously into the cold porcelain truth of the base of the toilet.
I’ve already written about President Obama’s long game on climate policy…something Pitt obviously doesn’t see.
Way back in December 2010, the President addressed these kinds of critiques and laid out his strategy this way:
And so, my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there – what is helping the American people live out their lives…And at any given juncture there’re gonna be times where my preferred option, what I’m absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done. And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way, or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term, and the long fight, not my day to day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?
People like Moulitsas, Johnson and Pitt confused the tacking with the North Star. As more and more people begin to recognize that President Obama’s approach is paying off, we should make no mistake about it…this is where he has been heading all along.