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Six things Obama has done wrong

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I spend a lot of time on this blog tussling with some of the less-satisfying critiques of the Obama administration. But it's also worth looking back over the last two years and asking what they could've done better.

A few conditions, however: First, I'm not including things that I'd have liked to see happen, but don't think Congress would've allowed. A public plan paying Medicare rates falls into this category. Second, I'm not including mistakes too dependent on 20/20 hindsight. The administration -- and the CBO, and the private forecasters -- all thought the recession would be milder than what we actually got. That's what led to the disastrous prediction that the stimulus would hold unemployment under 8 percent. But I'm not going to fault the administration for using the best data available at the time. And third, I'm restricting myself to the issue I cover. Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer and others have persuaded me that the administration's record on civil liberties and GLBT rights is, at best, checkered. But since I've not really dug into those issues myself, I'll leave them for someone else.

1) The tax cut that failed: The administration likes to brag that the stimulus was comprised substantially of tax cuts. Look how bipartisan! Only the tax cut they included was the Making Work Pay tax cut from the campaign. You don't get bipartisan points for doing the thing you wanted to do anyway, and they didn't. They also designed the tax cut to release slowly and be completely invisible to the people receiving it. This, they hoped, would make people spend more of the money. It's hard to say if it worked (Jared Bernstein convinced me that survey data isn't enough to say it didn't work). But politically, it's left only one out of 10 Americans aware that the Obama administration lowered their taxes.

2) Neglecting the Federal Reserve: Matthew Yglesias has made this critique better than I could've, so I'll outsource it to him. "A party whose leaders realized that economic results were the most important driver of public opinion wouldn't have renominated a conservative Republican to head the Federal Reserve. Even more astoundingly, having given Ben Bernanke a second term in office, the Obama administration didn't get around to nominating anyone to fill the other vacant posts on the Federal Reserve Board until April 2010."

3) The Fiscal Commission: I've come to see the "National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform" as a major error on at least a few levels. Remember, first, that it's a powerless executive body created after Republicans filibustered a bill that would've created a similar, but more powerful, commission in Congress. They did that because they didn't want to compromise on taxes. They're not going to compromise in the president's commission, either. So on the simplest level, the commission will fail, but in order to pretend it hasn't failed, it'll probably release some Social Security cuts that we probably shouldn't make anyway.

Worse, creating the Fiscal Commission accepted the argument that the problem is the deficit. It isn't. If the president wanted to change the economic conversation and show himself thinking long-term, we should've had an effort focused on a long-term growth strategy, in which fiscal sustainability would've been one pillar, but not the only pillar. Instead, the Commission's report will be a battle over deficit reduction in general and, most likely, Social Security in particular. Those are battles that Democrats -- and the economy -- will lose even if they win. How much better to have offered some deal this year pairing long-term deficit reduction with immediate stimulus, or to be looking towards a report next year that would be about growth and reform, not just about how best to manage contraction.

4) The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: I struggle with this one. The stimulus included measures designed to create jobs and help the economy immediately and measures designed to make investments and strengthen the economy over the longer-term. As a matter of policy, I fully support that. As a matter of politics, I think it made the bill look worse to people who didn't understand -- or support -- the dual mandate. Splitting the bills in two would've allowed for a cleaner stimulus, but it might have meant we didn't get the second bill -- and we needed it. Forcing the medical system to move towards electronic medical records was incredibly important. Which is why I'm conflicted on this.

5) The size and sale of the stimulus: By now, this is a familiar critique. Christina Romer thought we needed $1.2 trillion in stimulus. Then the recession turned out to be larger than we'd calculated. Then we got just $787 billion -- and not all of that was stimulus. I'm not here to argue about whether the administration could've gotten more by working Congress harder. I'm not smarter than Rahm Emanuel or Phil Schiliro. But the fact that this was a half-measure should have been communicated to the American people. Instead, we got figures and rhetoric arguing that a stimulus of this size would be sufficient. When it wasn't, the idea itself got discredited.

6) It's the procedure, stupid: Here are four words we've really not heard out of the Obama administration: "Up-or-down vote." Obama has spoken occasionally about the filibuster, but the relentless perversion of the legislative process has not been made into a sufficient issue. The administration complains that they can only do what they can do, and they'd have done more if not for Congress, but there's been little effort and no political capital spent explaining -- much less changing -- the impediments to action. Many Americans think the administration has failed, and they've hardly even been exposed to the argument that they were actually stopped. Republican obstruction has been predictable since, at the least, the stimulus vote, but they never figured out a way to force the issue, or even really make it part of the story.

There are more, of course. But those are the six that spring to mind first.

Photo credit: arry Downing Photo.

By Ezra Klein  | October 29, 2010; 4:52 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Comments

All fair points, Ezra. But with the election only a few days away and Republicans threatening to turn back the clock on much of the progress we have made, it is also important to highlight the significant successes President Obama and the Democrats have had, and how only the Democrats offer a chance for us to keep moving our country forward.

http://www.winningprogressive.org/the-closing-argument-in-support-of-voting-democratic-on-november-2

Posted by: WinningProgressive | October 29, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

That's a good list.

I'd add too many people tainted with Bush Administration ties. Changing the economy was the top issue, so he appointed Geithner, negotiator of the AIG bailout, and re-appointed Bernanke. He needed to change the course in Afghanistan, recognized it, yet gave us Bush's defense secretary. As a result, there were no clean breaks. Oddly enough, keeping Bush people has resulted in lousy outcomes (Afghanistan going badly, economy going badly.)

Too many Clinton people too but that's more understandable.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | October 29, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

What about appointing a lying tax cheat to be Treasury Secretary? What about not prosecuting one single criminal responsible for the massive mortgage fraud that sank the US economy.

This is the most lawless administration in US history. It's willingness to look the other way will ultimately make the Teapot Dome look like kids stuff. We are in the middle of the greatest scandal in US history. Where's the outrage from the Administration? Where's the Justice Department?

Obama had the responsibility and the opportunity to clean this mess up. He has utterly failed.

Lee Adler
http://wallstreetexaminer.com

Posted by: drstool | October 29, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

It's my very humble belief that this administration has been the most politically challenged in modern times. Very worthwhile accomplishments that will benefit all Americans are reviled and will are actually the ammunition of the Republicans: Health Care Reform, ARRA, Financial reform etc. How can the average American find fault with affordable health care, ongoing medical coverage for dependents to age 26, not being dropped from coverage for getting sick, 3.2 million jobs saved or created, a substantial tax cut, real credit card reform?

These have a nearly universal benefit to the average American but the reforms are nearly universally misunderstood or their benefits have been dishonestly twisted by Republican lawmakers, conservative pundits and Fox News.

That the administration allowed this rewriting of the first years' accomplishments is a testament to a total lack of competence by the President and his political advisers to anticipate and effectively rebut the ruthlessness of their political opponents.

Posted by: mikemfr | October 29, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

This isn't a bad analysis since it featured the political failings as much as the policy ones.

Also in the future when there's a Republican President stymied in the Senate I'm sure that Klein will intensely condemn the Democrats' "obstruction."

Posted by: bbface21 | October 29, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

"Six things Obama has done wrong".

Just six? Personally, I give most men, including the President, credit for at least six and a half or seven. But perhaps I've been overestimating and should acquiesce to the (51-vote, not 60-vote) majority opinion.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 29, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

You're a policy wonk Ezra, yet this list features very few policy failings: 1 and 6 are essentially just criticisms about Obama's 'message', when you yourself constantly deride the notion that minor message adjustments can make a great deal of difference. The same pretty much goes for 4 and 5.

OK, you think the fiscal commission and the appointment of Ben Bernanke were major policy mistakes. What else? To me the fact you don't seem to have many to hand is an indication, despite all the rhetoric we hear, of how well Obama has done on the policy front in difficult circumstances.

Posted by: bigmandave | October 29, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

The "up or down vote" is WRONG. He's said it several times in stmts & speeches. Just google it at wh.gov. There are several instances.

Glad to see you & the rest of the firebaggers are doing all you can do before the election to suppress the vote. You really should stay off MoJoe if you're afraid of him b/c you always agree w/whatever the idiots on there say. A different person appears on Keith & Rachel.

Posted by: carolerae48 | October 29, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Yes. Yes. "It's the procedure, stupid" or It's the public pressure stupid.

Yes. Where was the call for an up or down vote?

This always comes to mind when I hear Democrats blaming legislatively lameness on the need for 60 votes.

When the Bush team wanted to pass horrendous legislation like the Patriot Act, the Medicare Part D plan and etc, they put on a full court press. They worked the media for months and used their base to put pressure on Democrats. If you didn't agree with Bush you were painted as a traitor.

What orchestrated effort did Obama's team push for with the same intensity?

I remember the first communication from OFA after the election was to call on people to talk to their neighbors about Health Care.

We just had an election where a very specific well thought out health care plan was presented by Obama. It was called "BARACK OBAMA AND JOE BIDEN’S PLAN TO LOWER HEALTH CARE COSTS
AND ENSURE AFFORDABLE, ACCESSIBLE HEALTH COVERAGE FOR ALL."

Why weren't we being energized to call on our Senators and Congressmen and put the pressure on them to pass what we voted for?

The Obama team has not made the Republicans pay a price for being the most obstructionist minority party in history.

They have not taken the fight to the Republicans.

They have not effectively used the bully pulpit to push for and promote their legislation.

If they had started off by going after the crimes of the previous administration they would have put the Republicans on defense while making points for standing up for the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

Instead we are subjected to weak tea and legislation written by corporate pirates.

Still... the Republicans are far worse so I will vote for my local Democrats.

It is just sad that an opportunity to redefine liberalism and tip the scale toward government for the people has been missed.

Posted by: slugrunner | October 29, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

"There are more, of course"

Man, is that the understatement of the year. I'd say approving the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was a mistake, wouldn't you? And how about sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to counter 100 al-Qaeda fighters?

Leaving aside the merits of his health care reform, it was pretty stupid of Obama to spend months saying "we can't do HCR with reconciliation" only to end up doing it with reconciliation. That wasted lots of time, in essence burning their 60-vote supermajority without gaining anything in return.

Then there are all his civil rights atrocities, from shielding torturers to continuing extraordinary rendition, from assassination of Americans without due process to indefinite detention without trial.

Posted by: B405 | October 29, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

I've been compiling a list myself. I've included: Race to the Top, HAMP, Gulf oil spill response (this is a policy failure), deal to not recess-appoint. Of course, the "looking forward, not backward" regarding torture is problematic as well.

Posted by: frenzic40 | October 29, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

EK this is akin to the interview where they ask you to name your weakest point and you say "I care too much, or I work too hard".

Pretty funny stuff.

Point by Point:

1. Nobody cares about the little tax cut because in Harry Reid's wisdom, you left the really BIG tax increase on the board to go into effect in January! It won't be your fault that it was a time bomb waiting to go off, but you didn't even try for a symbolic vote and it dwarfs the heck out of your cut.

2. You couldn't have replaced Bernanke at a time when he was seen as some sort of savior by the markets because they would have rolled over on the President. Besides the two top choices would have been the evil Larry Summers or the ridiculously hapless Christina Romer. Talk about a scary Halloween!

3. Nobody cares about the Fiscal Commission, it's results will be given great press for a day or two then completely ignored. Nothing about it mattered one cent in this election.

4. ????? Again have it your way. One bill or two would not have mattereed at all.

5. So who was ghostwriting your column this morning? Aren't you the guy who wrote:

"At any rate, the economy grew at an annualized rate of two percentage points. That's slow-but-not-catastrophic in normal times. But these aren't normal times. What it means, rather, is that we're not catching up to where we need to be. We'd need a bit of time at 5 percent growth or so to really get back on track."

So even though you and all your Krugman like econmists including Romer say the stimulus WORKED, and yet you complain about how weak GDP was (a lot of which, as has been pointed out to you, was inventory build, not real growth) So now you're my financial advisor telling me that even though your last bit of advice didn't turn out the way you planned, if I just give you a whole lot more money, that will REALLY make a difference!

This sounds a lot like one of the Nigerian emails where if I bring $10,000 to some people it will enable them to get a million dollars that is locked up somehow and they will share that money with me!

6. Your big problem talking badly about the filibuster would have been the senile old Robert Byrd would have been on every talk show either in person on on video saying how wonderful it is and it should never be changed. Hard to rattle the R's cage about filibusters when it's all-time leading proponent is your senior Senator from West Virginia.

I think you and Greg should just get together on Wednesday and say no mistakes were made at all, people just voted stupidly. It would sound about as intelligent.

Posted by: 54465446 | October 30, 2010 12:35 AM | Report abuse

You guys should stop complaining because, one the health care we have now isnt as good as it was supposed to be. also the law has just been signed so give it some time. so if u want to say u have the right to choose tell that to ur congress men or state official. If you do not have insurance and need one You can find full medical coverage at the lowest price by calling 877-882-4740 or check http://bit.ly/9EwL4G If you have health insurance and do not care about cost just be happy about it and trust me you are not going to loose anything!


Posted by: quintinjoe30 | October 30, 2010 5:55 AM | Report abuse

If you are planning a mortgage refinance then you should search online for "123 Mortgage Refinance" before you decide they found 3.25% refinance with bad credit history and also did instant analysis of my mortgage.

Posted by: derekjoan30 | October 30, 2010 6:23 AM | Report abuse

Add to that general lack of narrative- not asking everyone to pitch in and sacrifice to get the job done- instead looking insecure in what you are asking because it is a little of this and a little of that so as not to offend anyone...
A healthcare bill that had the opportunity to change the whole system and instead went to the right of what Nixon, Carter and Clinton and even the 1994 Repugs had suggested
An education policy to the right of the repugs "race to the top"

This administration is a mess
and we on the left have no other choices.

Posted by: NYClefty | October 30, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

My tarot cards said that releasing the tax break slowly works better. Granted, tarot cards are a bunch of nonsense, but so is taking a poll on this matter. A unscientific rebuttal for an unscientific study.

Also Ezra I think you are over estimating the electorate. Very few people are against the ARRA because they don't understand the dual mandate. They are against it because they wrongly believe that it added a lot to our government debt. The GOP was smart in changing the message to deficit and debt after health care and ARRA because now people think the government went on a spending binge, which it hasn't.

Posted by: chrisgaun | October 31, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Living high on the hog while asking others to "have skin in the game" (aka sacrificing, aka pitching in, aka doing your patriotic duty) was a real mistake. At least the communist bureaucrats of the old Soviet Union had the decency and discretion to stock their fancy goods in stores with unmarked doors, so no one could see how much better they lived than the masses. The trip to Spain and the endless vacationeering don't play well in this economy and in this administration, where people are being asked to fork over big money for the sake of the administration. The message: one rule for you, and another for me.

Posted by: truck1 | October 31, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

truck wrote:

"The trip to Spain and the endless vacationeering don't play well in this economy and in this administration, where people are being asked to fork over big money for the sake of the administration."

You must be new here. Normally we don't get comments this idiotic with this column.

Posted by: 54465446 | October 31, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

It's idiotic to say the trip to Spain was a big mistake? Who are you - planner Desiree Rogers? Of course it was a mistake.

Posted by: truck1 | October 31, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

President Bush spent literally more than one year out of his eight at the ranch, to say nothing of trips to Camp David. To call the Obama's few family trips "vacationeering" is sheer stupidity.

Posted by: 54465446 | October 31, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

President Bush spent literally more than one year out of his eight at the ranch, to say nothing of trips to Camp David. To call the Obama's few family trips "vacationeering" is sheer stupidity.

Posted by: 54465446 | October 31, 2010 11:30 PM

Yes, Bush went to his ranch or Camp David where he either owned the property or the government did. Remember that the Obamas are only halfway through their hopefully only term in office and their vacations cost the taxpayers how much?

Posted by: gfafblifr | November 1, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

"The administration complains that they can only do what they can do, and they'd have done more if not for Congress"
That is true to a certain extent but if the Democrats were pushing the right issues (i.e. a real jobs bill) then their fillibuster proof majority would have been no match for Republican obstructionism. The way I see it, any Democrat that loses his/her seat tomorrow deserves it.

Posted by: newyorker123 | November 1, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

gfablifr wrote:

"Yes, Bush went to his ranch or Camp David where he either owned the property or the government did. Remember that the Obamas are only halfway through their hopefully only term in office and their vacations cost the taxpayers how much?"

How could you be such an idiot? Do you think that the literally hundreds of people who travel with the president stay on his ranch and eat his food? There is simply no comparison. At this stage of his presidency, Bush trips had cost 4 to 5 times as much as the few the Obamas have taken!

Posted by: 54465446 | November 1, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Six issues "spring" into your mind? the title of the article says ten (10) things wrong the president has done, you should know the difference but hey journolists nowdays know better furthermore it is "fall" perhaps that is why you are somehow confused.Ironically on the 6 issues you don't seem to be sure what is good and what is bad, what happened and how it happened.
I have recommended to the president that in order to fix our problems fast and efficiently the experts in the media be appointed to the most critical posts, having you there for instance, for sure, you would have prevented such horrendous mistakes right?
The American media lives in a fantasy world and makes one believe that the president can be either a miracle man or a dictator in order to produce "changes" even though he has accomplished many to the desperation of the Republicans.
I wonder whether you will write an article about the real culprits that intentionally dug this nation into a deep ditch, may I suggest Bush and Company? the US corporations? the US banks? the American oligarchy?

Posted by: postDC | November 1, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse


My previous comment somehow dissapeared, oh well we'll try it to summarize it.
Given that the media experts are superbly qualified to fix the state of our nation and in order to prevent the president for making horrendous mistakes I suggest, as I have done in the past, that, the president appoints journalists like you to critical posts, that will be a dream come true for they know how to tame the Republicans and come out with the right answers quickly and efficiently and as an example I submit to you FOX newsuisance where on a daily basis they present US with ingenious solutions with honesty, integrity and patriotism.
Personally I feel that one thing missing from this administration has been not bringing to justice the culprits of our state of affairs ( Bush, Chenney, US corporations, US banks,US oligarchy) perhaps you would write an article on this matter instead of trying to find the 5th leg of a cat of this administration.

Posted by: postDC | November 1, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

The number one failure of the Obama administration was failure to hold people accountable for not only malfeasance but also crimes. First, the Bush administration got a pass on war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as constitutional violations. That set the stage for a whitewash of the financial crime that led to the Global Financial Crisis.

"It's the corruption, stupid."

The reason that wholesale corruption continues is campaign finance, lobbying and the revolving door, all of which institutionalize corruption.

Posted by: tjfxh | November 2, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

The number one failure of the Obama administration was failure to hold people accountable for not only malfeasance but also crimes. First, the Bush administration got a pass on war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as constitutional violations. That set the stage for a whitewash of the financial crime that led to the Global Financial Crisis.

"It's the corruption, stupid."

The reason that wholesale corruption continues is campaign finance, lobbying and the revolving door, all of which institutionalize corruption.

Posted by: tjfxh | November 2, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

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