the national interest

Does the Left Have Any Better Ideas Than Obama’s?

Thanks, Obama. Photo: Pedro Santana/AFP via Getty Images

The Obama era produced the most sweeping combination of social reforms, economic rescue, and regulation of any presidency in half a century. For that reason, the left finds it necessary to transform Obama’s successes into failures — if Obama’s methods made the world a better place, they can be replicated, but if they failed, the only alternative is either reaction or a Sandersian political revolution. The left-wing New Republic has a new series of pieces repeating what is now a familiar indictment of Obama liberalism: “The Collapse of Neoliberalism,” by Ganesh Sitaraman, “A Decade of Liberal Delusion and Failure,” by Alex Pareene, and “The Hell That Was Health-Care Reform,” by Libby Watson.

It is obviously true that Obama’s success was tempered both by sometimes flawed decisions and, to a much greater degree, the system’s limited ability to bear change. Many of Obama’s most successful measures were designed to set the stage for expansion and improvement later on. No reforms in American history, from emancipation to the New Deal, have yielded uncomplicated triumph. Viewed up close, they are all the same grueling half-measures weighed down by compromises with odious forces, and all had to survive right-wing backlash that denied anything that felt like “victory.”

There are surely cautionary tales to be drawn from Obama’s experience. But in its haste to bury both Obama and liberalism, TNR’s authors downplay the scope of his success. (While understandably short of comprehensive, their assessment completely omits such enormous reforms as the bank rescue, auto bailout, green-energy subsidies, energy-efficiency and pollution regulations, DACA, the Iran nuclear deal, the Cuba opening, and ending the ban on gays in the military.) Most important, they barely acknowledge, and utterly refuse to grapple with, the barriers Obama and his allies had to overcome.

Sitaraman’s account leans heavily on the “neoliberal” epithet, so that the bitter struggle between Obama’s liberalism and Paul Ryan’s conservatism is erased, and the two sides retroactively transformed into capitalist allies. In Sitaraman’s account of the economic-rescue effort, the stimulus created itself and Obama’s contribution was to chafe at its size and scale it back. “After the Great Crash of 2008, neoliberals chafed at attempts to push forward aggressive Keynesian spending programs to spark demand,” he writes. “President Barack Obama’s advisers shrank the size of the post-crash stimulus package for fear it would seem too large to the neoliberal consensus of the era — and on top of that, they compromised on its content.”

Reading this bizarre account, one would have no idea Obama actually fought to enact what he believed was the largest stimulus Congress was willing to pass and that the compromises were demanded by senators who supplied the pivotal votes. One might argue, as I have, that Obama could have coaxed even more stimulus out of Congress with a more clever strategy. Instead, Obama liberalism is retconned as somehow working to shrink the stimulus.

Their account of Obamacare’s creation likewise erases the staggering array of forces upholding the status quo. Generations of liberal health-care experts have concluded that, in a perverse path of dependency, the employer health-insurance deduction has turned the 160 million Americans with employer-provided insurance into advocates for the status quo. After literally decades of failure, from Truman to Johnson to Clinton, Obama & Co. built around the employer system by creating regulated, subsidized markets for those trapped in a dysfunctional individual market.

Pareene asserts they should have simply put everybody on a government plan: “By far the most effective part of the Affordable Care Act, in terms of helping Americans get care, was simply expanding Medicaid,” he writes. “And a decade into the ACA, it has become more apparent than ever that the best way to reduce America’s absurd health-care costs would simply be a single-payer program.” Of course, “simply” making everybody in the individual market eligible for Medicaid would have required enormous tax increases and caused tens of millions of Americans to be dumped off their employer coverage. The political difficulty of doing so can be seen by Elizabeth Warren’s frantic race to distance herself from a single-payer plan she endorsed in an effort to woo the Bernie Sanders vote. That this “simple” solution is not even “apparent” to a progressive like Warren after a couple months of having to defend it ought to indicate that the Obama administration had sensible reasons for taking the course it did.

Watson, for her part, will grudgingly credit Obama only for failing spectacularly so that the sainted Sanders could succeed where he failed:

The complete shift in how we talk about health care — going from Democratic institutions describing how uninsured people game the system for free health care to even moderate Democrats acknowledging the gap in the ACA by proposing a public option, and a majority of the country supporting a single government insurance plan — is remarkable. This is thanks, in large part, to a grumpy old socialist from Vermont, who took on the party’s anointed establishment hacks to champion Medicare for All, pushing this more radical policy idea toward the mainstream. But none of this would have been possible without the ACA’s failure to achieve its goal of making health care either affordable or universal. Thanks, Obama.

Does a majority of the country favor single payer? Earlier people did express support for it, but opposition has grown and now slightly exceeds support. Even earlier polls that did show support relied on omitting several concrete elements, all of which are toxically unpopular: moving people off employer-sponsored insurance and covering undocumented immigrants. The only plan the left has come up with to surmount these obstacles is pretend they don’t exist and, perhaps, accuse people who acknowledge them of being profiteers, ghouls, neoliberals, and so on.

Sitaraman asserts that Obama’s ideology has “collapsed,” and “people around the world have recognized that the world of the 1980s has changed and that it is time for a new approach to politics”. Yet somehow Obama left office with a 60 percent approval rating, and Jeremy Corbyn received less than one-third of the popular vote while being trounced, so perhaps it is just a little more complicated.

The next Democratic president probably won’t be burdened with an economy undergoing the most rapid free fall since the Great Depression. But he or she will have to grapple with a Senate that massively overrepresents Republicans, courts stacked with right-wing judicial activists, and thermostatic public opinion that turns skeptical of government when Democrats hold the presidency. It would be edifying for the left to work out its own strategies — nothing would be more helpful to liberals than a powerful left that could reposition its ideas in the center. But that kind of work is difficult. Choosing to reside in a fantasy world, in which all the problems have simple solutions that we need but grasp hold of, is so much more pleasant.

Does the Left Have Any Better Ideas Than Obama’s?