I didn’t expect to agree with all, or even most, of Paul Krugman’s Rolling Stone article defending President Obama as “one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” What I did expect was something more ambitious than the case Krugman actually ended up making. His article really is the equivalent of the ‘everything leads to nuclear war‘ strategy practiced in competitive debating.
The entire argument more or less rests on the reader accepting that anything besides an Obama presidency would have been catastrophic. Obama might only have been marginally better than his political rivals and predecessors, but that slight difference made all the difference.
Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the piece is how Krugman disdains critics of the President too much to seriously engage with them. “In Defense of Obama” is not a rigorous take down of the political opposition so much as the indignant explaining of an exhausted, and by now disinterested, parent.
The just north of 4,000 word article sports only five data points, a rather disheartening ratio coming from a former winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Especially given that nearly every issue Krugman touches on has significant if not central portions which are all quantifiable.
Since The New York Times columnist insisted on making his defense of Obama a (not so elaborate) exercise in opportunity cost analysis, one would have thought a more precise form of accounting was in order. Instead, Krugman provides a shallow treatment of policy in every major area as it has developed under the oversight of an Obama administration. In each case, he addresses his arguments to centrist pundits and various other flavors of Very Serious People. Obama-bashing from the right is condemned as self-serving hackery, while criticism from the left is simply too difficult to take “seriously,” and thus completely ignored.
More importantly, Krugman’s lukewarm encomium is emblematic of a liberal attitude that has come to both define, and limit, a large swath of the political left. One that has so forcefully bought into the cult of the presidency, and feels so at home in the shallow binary struggles between Democrats and Republicans, that it spends more time circulating Jon Stewart bits and commenting on the most outrageous conservative moment of the day than actually pushing a positive agenda for progressive change.
This is why, on the eve of the midterm elections, the conscience of a liberal has devoted a Rolling Stone cover story to the defense of the country’s highest-ranking, non-legislating Democrat–you know, one of the few politicians who happens to not actually be up for re-election.
A further irony is Krugman’s Catch-22 characterization of the last six years. It was the best of times, it was the most disappointing of times. Things could have been a whole lot better, but they also could have been a whole lot worse. Important work was accomplished during that time, but much more remains to be done, mostly because not enough work was accomplished during that time.
From health care to banking to the economy, Krugman lauds policies either proposed or supported by the administration for being better than the status quo. The overwhelming improbability that President Obama, and the party he led, achieved everything that was politically feasible, that the stimulus, Dodd-Frank, and the ACA happened to each strike the perfect balance between what was beneficial for the country and what was realistically possible, seems lost on Krugman.
There were no ways in which Obamcare could have been improved without sinking it in the Senate. Any shortcomings in the ARRA pale in comparison to even weaker responses to the global recession by other countries at the time (none of which he actually cites).
In short, “We can argue about how much Obama could have altered this literally depressing turn of events…” but, “The bottom line on Obama’s economic policy should be that what he did helped the economy, and that while enormous economic and human damage has taken place on his watch, the United States coped with the financial crisis better than most countries facing comparable crises have managed.”
It’s hard to imagine a more defeatist brand of liberalism than this. How do you energize and mobilize a political base around more radical solutions to problems like stagnating wages and increasing economic inequality while praising political leaders for severely compromising on every one of them?
The more Krugman tries to stake out a defense of the Democrats’ idol, the more ground he sacrifices in a larger conversation about actual policies. There is something laughably vain and tribal, and arguably useless, in trying to vindicate a single political figure by seeking to arbitrarily score six years of complex political struggle.
The second to last section of the article is telling in this respect, since Krugman mostly keeps his mouth shut on issues of foreign policy, i.e. those issues the President has the most direct control over, precisely because of how complex they are. Krugman can find little to distinguish Obama from past U.S. presidents, and claims to lack the “expertise” required to weigh in on questions regarding war powers, privacy, or the continued bombing of other people in other countries.
In all of the categories the President should be held most accountable, for better or worse, Krugman defers judgment, despite spending so many earlier paragraphs lionizing Obama for policies he had far less of a role in crafting or making into law.
The result is tragically ineffectual. Left-leaning politicians in the upcoming election will continue to steer clear of Obama (much less admit to whether they ever voted for him). Much of the liberal chattering class will look to pin their hopes on 2016 presidential hopefuls. And should another Democrat be elected to the White House that year, liberals will have another totem to rally around for the ensuing political cycle, whose narrow victories and simple defeats will provide much catharsis long after the ice caps have all melted.