The Magazine

What If There’s No There There?

Obama’s ‘vision thing.’

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By JAY COST
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How about the president’s relationship with Wall Street? On the stump, he often bashes the largest financial firms. Yet since his earliest days in national politics, he has been ready, willing, and able to accept their largesse. In 2008 he outraised John McCain in the financial services industry by more than 40 percent. Signed by Obama in 2010, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill provided a huge payoff to these supposed evil-doers by enshrining “too big to fail” into the law. According to Ron Suskind, Obama initially wanted to break up Citi as a lesson to the rest of the banks, but his corporate-friendly advisers​—​above all Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner​—​never followed through on this order, and the president did not pursue the matter.

How about the DREAM Act? Can the president offer amnesty to the children of illegal immigrants? In 2011, he said he could not. In 2012, he initiated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which did exactly that. Now, there is reportedly a bigger amnesty in the works, even though he just recently disclaimed that power.

The president has shown ambivalence even toward relatively small budget items. Take the Export-Import Bank, which some conservatives have targeted for repeal. Is it “little more than a fund for corporate welfare,” as Obama said in 2008? Or is it a vital program that is “creating all kinds of jobs,” as he said this year?

How about his role in the constitutional system? As a candidate, Obama harangued George W. Bush for presidential overreach, so we might have expected a limited executive footprint. Yet from signing statements, to a congressionally unauthorized air campaign against Libya, to ad hoc rewrites of Obamacare, this president has not been demure. Except when he has been. How else to explain his sudden commitment to congressional authorization for a strike on Syria last summer? Then again, the administration has recently suggested it might not need a go-ahead from Congress to bomb Syria after all!

A key difference between Obama and his two most liberal predecessors​—​FDR and LBJ​—​is this: All three mastered the flowery and vague rhetoric of political campaigns, but FDR and LBJ followed through with specific programs and smart legislative strategies to turn their rhetoric into law. Neither FDR nor LBJ was a wonk​—​they outsourced the details to experts like Rex Tugwell and Wilbur Cohen​—​but they were quite involved in the process from beginning to end, and the final results bear their unmistakable imprimaturs.

Obama does not possess such strong opinions about the whats and hows of public policy. Public option in the health care bill? Take on the big banks? Executive amnesty? FDR and LBJ would have had strong opinions on these questions. Obama’s answer often comes back: definitely maybe. Little wonder that the so-called Obama Doctrine is framed in the negative: Don’t do stupid stuff. A statement about what the country should do is beyond his vocabulary.

Oftentimes, pundits blame rigid party polarization for the lack of compromise in Washington, but what if the problem is really Obama’s inability to see how both sides could work together? A president does not need outsized congressional majorities to get a few big things done. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton demonstrated that all it takes is a leader with the vision and skills to make the most of existing common ground. Reagan worked with Dan Rostenkowski to reform the tax code in 1986, while Clinton worked with Newt Gingrich to reform welfare, cut taxes, and restrain Medicare spending.

The current thinking is that common ground has given way to the vile partisanship of House Republicans, but this view withers under scrutiny. Both sides agree on the need for tax reform, and are not that far apart on a framework. Virtually no disinterested observer likes the vast array of farm subsidies; these could be reformed, as they were in 1996 under divided government. Conservative Republicans have recently turned their attention to corporate welfare, which has long been a bane of the left. Further, members of Congress are always bashful about their ties to special interests; a little presidential pressure on this front might yield some long-overdue reforms of the legislative process.

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