Ross Douthat is a good sport. In today’s column, he dissects President Obama’s mistakes with an objectivity, even a sympathy, that few conservative commentators would bother to muster. Indeed, the project doesn’t seem to have taken much brain sweat at all. In each of the year’s crises, from Libya to the debt ceiling, Douthat sees the same pattern at work: staking out a patch of safe middle ground, Obama manages to skirt catastrophic failure, but only at the expense of anything like bankable success:
The same pattern has played out in the debt ceiling debate. Instead of drawing clear lines and putting forward detailed proposals, the president has played Mr. Compromise — ceding ground to Republicans here, sermonizing about Tea Party intransigence and Washington gridlock there, and fleshing out his preferred approach reluctantly, if at all.
The White House no doubt figured that this negotiating strategy would either lead to a bipartisan grand bargain or else expose Republican extremism — or better still, do both. And again, the strategy is arguably working. Americans were given a glimpse of right-wing populism’s reckless side last week, and the final deal will probably let the president burnish his centrist credentials just in time for 2012.
But winning a debate on points isn’t a substitute for looking like a leader. It’s one thing to bemoan politics-as-usual when you’re running for the White House. It’s quite another to publicly throw up your hands over our “dysfunctional government” when you’re the man the voters put in charge of it
In Salon, Steve Almond proves Douthat’s point with a scream of anguish. Titling his piece “The President We Wish We Had,” Almond runs through Obama’s record issue by issue, comparing the president’s actual — and to his mind, mealy-mouthed — statements with the thundering rebukes he’d rather have heard:
The stimulus debate
What Obama said:
It is absolutely true that we can’t depend on government alone to create jobs or economic growth. That is and must be the role of the private sector. But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life.
What we wish he’d said:
For eight years, the GOP did the loyal bidding of their corporate sponsors. They sucked hard-earned cash from the pockets of working Americans and funneled it to the gambling addicts of Wall Street, who, in turn, trashed the economy and left millions out of work. It’s now my job to clean up their mess. Until such a time as the private sector grows a set of balls – and a conscience – the government will have to help. To those Republicans now whining about excess spending: You had your shot. You blew it. Unless you’d care to explain why you spent the taxpayers’ money like a drunk frat boy at a Las Vegas whorehouse, shut the fuck up and get out of the way.Healthcare reform
What Obama said:
Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.
What we wish he’d said:
The reason our healthcare system is broken is because we’ve put corporations in charge of curing the sick. Period. Your illness — or that of your child — isn’t a moral burden to insurance companies. It’s a financial opportunity. Which is why they keep jacking up your premiums while paying millions to their CEOs and lobbyists. The fundamental mission of the modern conservative movement is to get people to blame the government for their problems, so corporations can go on fleecing them. Conservatives can’t stand Medicare precisely because it proves that the government does a better job of providing medical care people than corporations. They are right to be terrified about a government takeover of health care. If our nation finds a cheaper and more compassionate path to healing, some of their biggest donors will be put out of business.
And so on. But if, among members of Obama’s base, Almond’s reaction ranks among the rawest, it’s far from the most cynical. Also in Salon, Glenn Greenwald argues that the debt ceiling deal represents no failure on Obama’s part; the man’s wanted to slash the budget all along:
As I wrote back in April when progressive pundits in D.C. were so deeply baffled by Obama’s supposed “tactical mistake” in not insisting on a clean debt ceiling increase, Obama’s so-called “bad negotiating” or “weakness” is actually “shrewd negotiation” because he’s getting what he actually wants (which, shockingly, is not always the same as what he publicly says he wants). In this case, what he wants — and has long wanted, as he’s said repeatedly in public — are drastic spending cuts. In other words, he’s willing — eager — to impose the “pain” Cohn describes on those who can least afford to bear it so that he can run for re-election as a compromise-brokering, trans-partisan deficit cutter willing to “take considerable heat from his own party.”
None of these pundits claims the last word, but still, you get the idea: the natives — or at any rate, a significant proportion of them — are getting restless. According to Gallup, Obama’s approval ratings are down at 40%, which Douthat calls “George W. Bush-esque.“ At this rate, Obama will head into the 2012 elections looking like the second coming of John Kerry. That is, he’ll be nobody for Democrats to vote for, just someone through whom they can vote against whoever the GOP picks; an unsatisfying form of protest. “Ribbon-in-Chief“ is not a job I‘d care to buck for..