The line making headlines from Jonathan Chait’s interview with Obama is – of course – related to the 2016 election. The president said:
I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the tea party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party.
But whether it was Chait’s or Obama’s intention, what struck me about the entire interview was that it addressed so many of the concerns raised by the “disappointed” left about his presidency. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Obama was “naive” about Republican obstructionism
In the interview, the president identified the moment at which he knew that the Republican plan was to obstruct anything he tried to do.
Probably the moment in which I realized that the Republican leadership intended to take a different tack was actually as we were shaping the stimulus bill, and I vividly remember having prepared a basic proposal that had a variety of components…On the drive up to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican Caucus, John Boehner released a press statement saying that they were opposed to the stimulus. At that point we didn’t even actually have a stimulus bill drawn up, and we hadn’t meant to talk about it. And I think we realized at that point what proved to be the case in that first year and that second year was a calculation based on what turned out to be pretty smart politics but really bad for the country: If they cooperated with me, then that would validate our efforts. If they were able to maintain uniform opposition to whatever I proposed, that would send a signal to the public of gridlock, dysfunction, and that would help them win seats in the midterms.
Later in the interview Chait identifies the date that happened. It was January 27, 2009 – a week after the president was inaugurated.
The stimulus was too small
President Obama addressed that one directly.
Republican leadership felt their politics, both in terms of recapturing the majority in Congress but also protecting themselves from what would become the tea-party wing of the party, prevented them, in their minds, from working with this administration in any kind of constructive way. And that led to us having to work with very narrow majorities on just about every issue, and, to some extent, that shaped how policy was made. When I hear people say, for example, that the stimulus should have been bigger, I constantly have to remind people that I had to give Susan Collins; Arlen Specter, who was then a Republican; Ben Nelson; and Joe Lieberman — I had to get those votes to get any stimulus, which meant that the fact that we ended up getting the largest stimulus program in American history was no mean feat. Trying to take it over the trillion-dollar mark was going to be challenging even if it was good policy.
Obama threw the public option under the bus
As above – with this addition:
Same thing with the public option [for health-care reform]. Even though we had very solid majorities in the House, the ceiling for what we could do was our decent, but, with the filibuster, constantly threatened majority in the Senate. That was complicated by the fact that, if you’ll recall, [Al] Franken hadn’t been seated yet, so that gave us even less room to maneuver.
The use of drones
This one is a bit more complex. Obama starts out with a statement of principle.
I had been very clear about the fact that one of the reasons Iraq was such a strategic mistake was because it took our attention away from finishing the job in Afghanistan. And I never made the claim that I was a pacifist. The speech where I announced my opposition to Iraq, the key tagline was “I’m not opposed to all war. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” I was very explicit about the fact that there are times where we need to deploy our military to protect American interests and the American people. But we should be wise and restrained in how we use that power.
The president then describes his own process on this one.
I mean this sincerely: I’m glad the left pushes me on this. I’ve said to my staff and I’ve said to my joint chiefs, I’ve said in the Situation Room: I don’t ever want to get to the point where we’re that comfortable with killing…
I will say that what prompted a lot of the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this. And it troubled me, because I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.
But I will say that having these nonprofits continue to question and protest ensured that, having made that initial decision, we kept on going and that it got pushed all the way through…I think America will continue to have work to do in finding this balance between not elevating every terrorist attack into a full-blown war but not either leaving ourselves exposed to attacks or, alternatively, pretending as if we can just take shots wherever we want, whenever we want, and not be answerable to anybody. What I’ve tried to do is to move the needle in the right direction, to set some trends in the right direction.
I can understand the frustration some feel about this president being willing to settle for moving the needle in the right direction. But that is how he has always viewed his role. He doesn’t pretend to be a “savior.” Obama simply strives to do what Abraham Lincoln did – get his paragraph right.
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
What is perhaps most interesting is that Obama brings this last one right back to the first critique addressed above and ties continued progress to the need to work with Congress.
I’ll make this last point. On all the issues we’ve discussed, but certainly on these issues of war and peace, the need for a more effective Congress and the desirability of legislation as the best solution to most of these problems remains…
If there’s one wish that I have for future presidents, it’s not an imperial presidency, it is a functional, sensible majority-and-opposition being able to make decisions based on facts and policy and compromise. That would have been my preference for the majority of my presidency. It was an option that wasn’t always available. But I hope the American people continue to understand that that’s how the system should work.
In a very profound way, President Obama wants to let us know that where we go from here is up to us.