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The Obama administration's pipe dreams

obamaroses.JPG

The White House held a conference call today for Elizabeth Warren and various bloggers and writers. Most of it was what you'd expect, but Warren did mention that Rep. Barney Frank once told her that getting a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was a "pipe dream."

I think some people will see that as a mark against Frank, but he was right, at least judging by Washington's record over the previous 20 or 30 years. In fact, a lot of the Obama administration's accomplishments were pipe dreams.

A near-universal health-care system? Why would Obama and the Democrats succeed when Truman, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton had all failed, and politicians as adept as FDR and LBJ refused to even make the attempt? They've seen the numbers, right? The health-care industry is bigger now, and richer, and there are no more liberal Republicans. There's no way.

A $787 billion stimulus? Yes, it was too small. But everything Washington does is always too small. And within the confines of that stimulus, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress managed to make a host of long-term investments that would've been considered huge accomplishments in any other context, but are largely unknown inside this one. Huge investments in green energy, in health information technology, in high-speed rail, in universal broadband, in medical research, in infrastructure. The Making Work Pay tax cut. The Race to the Top education reform program. No recent president has invested in the country on anything like that level.

The fact of financial reform is less impressive given the fact of the financial crisis, and readers know that I'm skeptical about the final design of the bill. But the consumer protection agency really is an important addition that might not have been included if the White House was occupied by a different team.

There are the smaller items that, in any other administration, would be seen as achievements. Menu labeling in chain restaurants. The Independent Payment Advisory Board to bring down Medicare costs. Ted Kennedy's SERVE America Act.

And then there's what didn't happen: The financial system didn't collapse. Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and George W. Bush deserve some of the credit for that -- though they also deserve some of the blame for not preventing the crisis in the first place. But as Ben Smith says, TARP, which was begun by Bush and implemented by Obama, is probably one of the most successful policies in American history -- and it's also one of the least popular.

The Obama administration is also unpopular, though still more popular than the Democrats or Republicans in Congress. Many of its achievements -- notably health-care reform and the stimulus -- are similarly unpopular. That makes it difficult for the administration to run the midterm campaign that would've been the natural extension of this record: We have fulfilled almost all of the major promises we made in the 2008 election, and we're the most accomplished White House in a generation.

Those things are true, of course. And I think that the labor market will eventually recover, and the health-care reform plan will cover 32 million people and make the system better and more secure for a lot of people beyond that, and Obama, like Reagan before him, will be considered an extremely successful president despite struggling with his popularity in the early years of his first term. But for now, that kind of popularity is, well, a pipe dream. And the Obama administration is left running on exactly the record it hoped and promised to have in 2008, but without the level of economic recovery and thus popularity that would've helped convince the American people to deliver a favorable initial review.

Photo credit: Jim Young/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  | September 17, 2010; 3:27 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Comments

I'm really, really worried Ezra. You're the one who's laid out the facts about how fast job growth was in 1983. Well here we are at the end of 2010, and that kind of growth hasn't materialized yet. From here on our, we start to slip below the rosy 1982-83 scenario. Even if Obama was successful with the US economy, the drip of scary news coming out of Europe is unrelenting. When will the European situation finally get resolved? The US economy has shown that it's scarily sensitive to goings on over there, which is strange because during the Asian financial crisis of 97-98, it didn't affect the US at all.

And just how deep does the anti-Obama sentiment run? He can't get go somewhere now without being picketed. I would feel a lot better if I knew how many seats we are going to lose this November. A solid number-- even a high number-- would be a relief. Right now it's just a bottomless hole.

The media is talking about Sarah Palin as the next Obama now. I think your optimistic outlook is endearing, but I've never had a reason in life to expect things to go as I want them to, and right now I am quite scared.

Posted by: Factaaa | September 17, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm really, really worried Ezra. You're the one who's laid out the facts about how fast job growth was in 1983. Well here we are at the end of 2010, and that kind of growth hasn't materialized yet. From here on our, we start to slip below the rosy 1982-83 scenario. Even if Obama was successful with the US economy, the drip of scary news coming out of Europe is unrelenting. When will the European situation finally get resolved? The US economy has shown that it's scarily sensitive to goings on over there, which is strange because during the Asian financial crisis of 97-98, it didn't affect the US at all.

And just how deep does the anti-Obama sentiment run? He can't get go somewhere now without being picketed. I would feel a lot better if I knew how many seats we are going to lose this November. A solid number-- even a high number-- would be a relief. Right now it's just a bottomless hole.

The media is talking about Sarah Palin as the next Obama now. It's becoming more clear that she is going to run for President. If the economy does't start growing by 2012 she could win. I think your optimistic outlook is endearing, but I've never had a reason in politics to expect things to go as I want them to, and right now I am quite scared.

Posted by: Factaaa | September 17, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for the reminders of what Pres. Obama has accomplished in less than two years. I try to maintain some optimism and think about the long haul, rather than some short magical fix. Yes, the ecomomy sucks and people are hurting. My parents lived throught the Great Depression and I have vague memories of rationing cards during WWII. We have come through hard times in the past.

I am liberal, older, white, female, retired, a cancer survivor, and I have been assisting financially my daughter and my disabled brother (with home taxes)with my retirement savings---and thrilled that my family is surviving because we are helping one another. I am also the first in my family to attend college and I earned a Master's and a PhD while working full-time and supporting a family---it took me 12 years. I never expected an easy road because I was in it for the long haul, one step at a time.

And, I am not an angry older voter. I am also willing to pay more taxes. You don't get something for nothing! I know it takes time to turn the ship around, and I am willing to continue to support the President (thank heaven he found a way to put Elizabeth Warren in charge of the Consumers' group!!!)

I have voted in every election because it is my civic responsibility to do so. I can only hope that those who expected Obama to reverse this mess quickly will pick themselves up, and get out there and VOTE.

Thanks Ezra for your reporting. I have learned more about the ecomony in the last few years than I ever expected to learn.

Hang tough America.

Posted by: sandra14 | September 17, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Wonder how many of those jobs in 1983 were due to the 20% increase in the defense budget from the prior year. I suspect a 20% increase year over year in today's defense dollars would accomplish the same, or better. Quaint article from 1982 on the topic here:

http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=876

Posted by: Hieronymous | September 17, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"But everything Washington does is always too small."

Hahahahaha, hyperbole.

Posted by: staticvars | September 17, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Huge investments in green energy....hmmm. Would that be the heading under which a half a million was spent putting windows on buildings?

Funneling billions of dollars through clueless state and local agencies with carte blanche to blow on projects they couldn't sell to their own constituents does not an investment make.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 17, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

windows on EMPTY buildings

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 17, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

President Bush cut the taxes for everyone and this was so successful that 10 years later the Democratic president is talking about extending them indefinitely for 98% of the people.

President Bush deployed the military to remove the Afghanistan government that hosted the 9/11 attackers.

He successfully deposed a middle east dictator and replaced him with a democratically elected government.

Bush passed the no-child left behind educational reforms.

Bush passed prescription drug coverage legislation that helped senior citizens afford their needed medications.

Yes, Bush will definitely be considered an extremely successful president despite struggling at times with his popularity.

Posted by: cummije5 | September 17, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

"But as Ben Smith says, TARP, which was begun by Bush and implemented by Obama, is probably one of the most successful policies in American history -- and it's also one of the least popular."

Amen. Bless Ezra for pointing out this. (Again, I no work for Bankers and so on....)

At some point President needs to realize that he does not and should not be apologetic for his efforts not producing less unemployment. That is not how you do Politics.

He should simply accept that, 'yes magnitude of the crisis has been far severe than most realized.' If he were to face that situation again he would do the same thing - probably more stimulus and TARP. Because the alternative of not doing that is not acceptable to him - unemployment at 25% with devastation of Economy for decades.

Posted by: umesh409 | September 17, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

To answer Ezra's question of how the Dems could do all of this, the answer is that after several years at least of plummetting approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican Party, the Dems were given a once in a generation super majority. That they couldn't do more with that big of a majority speaks poorly of our system rather than President Obama.

But as Ezra says, despite all of the good work the Dems have done, though I'm not nearly satisfied with their results, they're going to get clobbered in November because the economy just isn't recoverying fast enough.

Posted by: MosBen | September 17, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

"Huge investments in green energy....hmmm. Would that be the heading under which a half a million was spent putting windows on buildings?"

Of course bgmma50. I'm sure they are also run heat/AC in the empty building, and so the windows help reduce energy bills.

"But everything Washington does is always too small."

Ezra, you can't be serious.

Posted by: justin84 | September 17, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I think your analysis is just about right. Only I worry that because the benefits/results of so many of the important things that have been enacted will take time (green energy investments, health care, even financial reform) and because the jobs recovery will also necessarily take time, this president (or the Democrats in general) will not get credit for the improvements. About a year or two into the next Republican administration or Congress, when things are looking better, they'll take the credit out of a hat and pat themselves on the back--and then proceed to dismantle as much of the progress as they can. A good reason to make sure this administration gets a second term.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | September 17, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

We've gotten a few field goals. We're still behind, but now it is time to play defense?

Posted by: zosima | September 17, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

This is why people are down on your stimulus:

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-stimulus-audit-20100917,0,3706864.story

Two Los Angeles departments have received $111 million in federal stimulus funds yet have created only 55 jobs so far, according to a pair of reports issued Thursday by City Controller Wendy Greuel.


Government has become more adept at dumping money without results. That's why education spending per pupil has doubled since 1983 while results are the same.

And guess what? Like you liberals keep saying, sales taxes are regressive. Chumps have massively hiked state/local spending and doled it out to Democratic special interests like Medicaid and the teachers' unions.

Posted by: krazen1211 | September 17, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

"And the Obama administration is left running ... without the level of economic recovery and ... popularity "

Yup.

Posted by: rmgregory | September 17, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

+2 liberal female sc justices

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | September 17, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

I've been trying to think of how to word the reply to the, "look how well Obama actually did, what he achieved" statement.

Who knows when I'll have time, so this is what comments are good for – to still get these things out (and hopefully polish them later). Here goes:

Yes, Obama did achieve an unusually large amount. But, he had unusually large advantages – a large majority in the house, and 60, yes 60, in the Democratic coalition in the senate, and a country that really unusually wanted big change.

The question should be did Obama do that well for the very unusually large advantages he had? Or did he largely underutilize them? And would Hillary, the fighter, have done better, or a lot better? Would she have changed the narrative, the thinking of the country, the way Reagan did, or would she have been scared to, the way Obama and his staff were. Reagan changed it in a way that did great harm for decades. Would Hillary have changed it in a way that would have done great good for decades, or more, like FDR?

And would Hillary have (or could, or should, Obama have) really grabbed the problems by the throat and abolished the filibuster and then fought hard (threatening self interested Democratic congresspeople with deadly serious primary challenges and starving all campaign funds) to get a health care bill with a public option, cap and trade, vastly bigger public campaign finance, a far bigger stimulus – With no filibuster this all becomes realistic. For that matter, would Hillary have put three hardcore members on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, with recess appointments if necessary, and not reappointed Bernanke. The Board confirms all Fed presidents in 2011, so they can really threaten – and follow through. Would have Hillary have done this to get vastly more monetary stimulus? And with all of this stimulus, would the economy have dramatically turned around, leading to Democratic dominance in the midterms and 2012 and even more historic positive change?

So again, it's what Obama did GIVEN the rare advantages he had. How much did he underutilize them? How much more could he have gotten? How much more would Hillary, the fighter, have gotten.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 17, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

From where I sit, the most ironic part is that many beneficiaries of his actions do not tie those to him at all. I live next to a lady whose entire house has been made enery efficient because he increased that program for those on a fixed income. The guy on the other side of me HAS a job because he works at GM and GM would have been allowed to die in a Republican administration. And my brother, a vociferous tea bagger, is working 50 hrs a week, whereas he was working about 10 hours a week a couple of years ago (doing cleanup in Detroit-area factories). I bet none of these people think of the Obama administration as accomplished. It's like it's invisible. You are, I hope, just ahead of the curve.

Posted by: ciocia1 | September 17, 2010 9:02 PM | Report abuse

Its not true that Reagan changed the thinking of the country. He catered to the innate selfishness of the then 90% white electorate. The economic growth and job growth during his two terms unspectacular, worse than several other postwar administrations, he increased the size of the deficit more than any other administration except the second Bush administration, and the all but forgotten Iran-Contra affair would look far worse if not for Bush II's Iran-Afghanistan fiascos.

Posted by: aj1111 | September 18, 2010 1:19 AM | Report abuse

Your defense of HCR is totally self-serving. Ezra. You played your own small role in ensuring that this totally unconvicing reform was the result of all the efforts. You didn't do anything to help progressive who wanted systemic change, there was never any compromise you didn't cheer for, and you never drew a line in the sand! Not even when the Dems just sttod and watched when Joe Lieberman broke the camel's back by killing the last remain of systemic change, the medicare expansion. The idiotic outcome, the same old failed sytem patched up by hundreds of billions ofr subsidies was just swell for you.

Of course, you still can't allow yourself to admit that this is not change at all, because then you would have to confront the fact that it was you who failed in fighting for anything better than this cr**, too. Your just lying to yourself, Ezra, just like the typical beltway pundit. Sad to see what you have become.

Posted by: Gray62 | September 18, 2010 5:35 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and don't try to defend yourself with quotes where you mildly criticized the compromises! The point is, instead of trying to push the reform to the left, you rationalized and excused every single compromise. You didn't fight, you put lipstick on every pig that the centrists brought along, while mumbling "that other pigger looked nicer, though". So, your actions helped enable the lousy result. No surprise, then, that you're still defending it!

Posted by: Gray62 | September 18, 2010 5:42 AM | Report abuse

Look, it's simple. A large number of people 1. Don't have jobs; 2) Have been forced to take pay and benefit cuts; 3) Have had work hours reduced; 4) have every reason to be worried about when they will lose their job.

Obama has taken better care of Goldman Sachs than he has of those people. And yes --the stimulus plan was too small --and they still haven't really even admitted it, and tried to fight for more.

Yes, they passed healthcare, but they still didn't give people any alternative to their increasingly crappy employer based health plans.

Furthermore, they delayed it so long that people are rightly skeptical that anything will actually happen.

Obama's been good for the financial industry, and generally better than any Republican will ever be. But he hasn't shown any enpathy for what most people are actually experiencing, nor has he used the bully pulpit effectively to address their needs.

Finally, he isn't consistent. He whines about the defecit, while pouring money down a rat hole in Afghanistan. Nice for Petraeus, but what does it do for my unemployed neighbor?

Posted by: tc125231 | September 18, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

tc125231 is correct when he says that Obama has been good to the banking industry, but not better than a Republican. If a Republican was president, no credit laws would have been passed at all, and Elizabeth Warren would still be in academia.

Where Obama went wrong was wasting a year trying to reason with Republicans, on the crazy concept that they cared about anyone but themselves and their wealthy clients, and that bankers would help anyone with their money but themselves. Now he knows better, but has lost precious time. The financial community will only work for the benefit of anybody but themselves if they are forced to.

Posted by: ciocia1 | September 18, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Republicans or their weak subsidiary obviously, plainly, do not have a fresh idea to speak about, and Americans should be clear about that.

Skipping the election should not be an option for Democrats, or independents, who give a whit about the direction of our nation.

However bad Democrats are, Republicans will continue transferring our nation's wealth upward without regard for regular Americans. Under their leadership, America will resemble a third world country sooner than later.

Let's not allow the party of "no" to further gridlock Congress, there's too much to do.

Posted by: MG81 | September 18, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

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