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What the Democrats Have to Show

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Our political conventions have long since become TV shows with little suspense and an ever-expanding cast of media commentators functioning as a Greek chorus, telling us what to look for, what might or might not happen, how balefully the latest cycle of ambition and the duel for power is likely to turn out for the commonwealth. Though they tend to run as a herd, these toilers, reaching daily and hourly for fresh insights, save us from having to think for ourselves.

What fun there is in conventions is in their unanticipated moments—reinventions of the ritual, usually but not always scripted, that prove memorable. When Barack Obama landed in Charlotte to give his third big convention speech in eight years, he could expect to be compared both to the 2004 model Obama—a wiry, intense, out-of-nowhere state legislator with an arresting story and a gauzy vision—and to the 2008 model, the one in front of the styrofoam columns with his many promises of hope and change.

In Charlotte, none of that would be new; much of it would be considered shopworn. The Bank of America Stadium where he was first scheduled to speak, before thunderstorms threatened, would have evoked his quandary. It might as well have been called Bailout Park (after the Bush program Obama inherited along with some of the blame that attached to it in many minds, and an economy shedding jobs at a rate of 150,000 a week). Without a lot of attention paid to all he’d actually accomplished, he’d now nearly four years later been graded and stamped DISAPPOINTING, first by media consensus, then by his opponent, who, after months of snide remarks about the various ways in which this exotic creature failed to “understand” America—its enterprise and “exceptionalism”—simply embraced that more-in-sorrow verdict.

In Tampa, with a catch in his throat, Mitt Romney claimed to have nurtured a hope four years ago that Obama would succeed in mastering the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Of course, Romney didn’t acknowledge the extreme lengths to which House and Senate Republicans went to ensure that Obama would do no such thing, resisting him with near unanimity on every major initiative touching on taxes and jobs, going so far last year as to risk another collapse by showing that they considered a federal default less risky and outrageous than an increase of the historically low tax rates on the upper one or two percent.

At moments like that, Obama often seemed to have been caught flatfooted by the gall of his opponents, unable to find plain language to do a Harry Truman and give ’em hell, irritated on occasion by the need to spell out obvious facts and knock down obvious distortions. His promise—that he held in his own person and temperament the ability to heal the partisan breach—was thus mocked and refuted at the outset by the barefaced resistance he confronted. The Republicans would do nothing to legitimize his leadership. Viewed as having lost control of “the narrative”—in the opinion, at least, of those locked into the nonstop “conversation”—the president needed to find a way in Charlotte, finally, to recapture it: to stand on his record without sounding defensive, to offer a believable future consistent with past promises. He needed to be memorable again.

As polls show, many voters are capable of holding two (or more) seemingly inconsistent thoughts in their minds: one that Obama has been an OK president (that’s to say, well-meaning, conscientious, trying to do what he thinks right for most Americans and the country’s future); another that the country is headed in the wrong direction. They’re capable of realizing, unlike some commentators, that a president doesn’t control everything that happens, that Obama was hardly the creator of the mess he inherited. If they like a president enough, they’ll overlook, or at least put aside, embarrassing episodes such as the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan years or Bill Clinton’s office dalliance, but maybe not when the embarrassment is a stubbornly high unemployment rate and a seemingly endless foreclosure crisis.

Recent polls indicate that 50 percent of likely voters still think Romney might be a better steward of the economy. This could be a bet on competence rather than ideas, yet another example of Dr. Johnson’s “triumph of hope over experience.” Not a good bet, you might have thought, given Romney’s baggage: the Republican record of zealotry and intransigence, his offshore accounts and apparent limitations as a candidate, or his fixation on cutting taxes on businesses and “job creators” as the answer to joblessness and almost anything else. But if that’s Romney’s burden, the tightness of the race must say something about Obama’s load, about the dissatisfaction that the convention would need to address, suggesting it might not be sufficient to keep hammering Romney as an out-of-touch zillionaire if the president couldn’t answer the pointed question posed by Paul Ryan, in his otherwise meretricious Tampa speech, of how things might be different in a second Obama term.

First, someone needed to say what’s often left unsaid by pious souls accustomed to considering the good the enemy of the best: that even if this president is “not the second coming of FDR,” as Michael Grunwald concedes in a well-argued new book positively reassessing Obama’s earliest initiatives,* even if his attempts at soaring rhetoric don’t always soar, even if he cannot impersonate warmth, humility, or gratitude with the practiced aplomb and head nods of Ronald Reagan, or reach out to an audience on an emotional level with the unquenchable thirst of Bill Clinton, he has been, all in all, better than OK when it comes to the big choices, domestic as well as foreign—a better than average president in a terrible time—decisive, prudent, focused on results.

“Maddeningly pragmatic” was the way David Remnick summed him up last year. He denied himself and his most avid followers the satisfaction of a commission of inquiry into the interrogation transgressions of the Bush-Cheney years; resisted the temptation to take over Citibank when the financial system was tottering; never sent Congress his blueprint for health care—in order to get the CIA focused on al-Qaeda and the hunt for its leader; to raise capital requirements on the banks and get credit flowing without putting the world financial system through the wringer again; to bring home a piece of legislation that would pass Congress if not, while the debate roiled, the bar of liberal opinion. Less driven by polls, at pivotal moments, than any recent president, he gambled on going for broke on health care, against the advice of advisers, with the same single-mindedness with which he went after Osama bin Laden, bagging both with mixed results for himself politically. There was a huge swing to the Republicans in 2010 after the Affordable Care Act was finally pushed, tugged, and wriggled through an unruly Democratic Congress rightly fearful that it might be on its last legs, and a modest bounce after Osama’s demise.

A few hours before the convention’s first gavel, I dropped in on a luncheon forum (sponsored, I can’t avoid mentioning again, by the ubiquitous Bank of America) at which Connecticut’s Democratic governor, Dannel Malloy, was asked Ryan’s question: how a second Obama term would be different. The governor refrained from gushing. Tellingly, he said Obama was poised “to be a great second-term president.” That left a lot unsaid. By indirection, the phrase clearly implied he’d been something less in a first term that had taught him, the governor said, painful “lessons.” A Connecticut congressman, Joe Courtney, chimed in, spelling those lessons out. Republicans were “not to be trusted, not to be worked with.” Their president, their candidate, these Connecticut Democrats were hoping, would show from here on that he’d finally gotten over his “post-partisan” delusions.

In The New New Deal Grunwald, a Time correspondent, also doesn’t gush, but he plainly thinks Washington opinion-mongers have missed the story on Obama’s efforts to grapple with the slide, which the president-elect learned after the election was much worse than anyone yet understood. (With the economic forecasts all pointing down, down, down, Obama wryly asked an adviser days before the election whether it was too late to hand the crisis—and the race—to McCain.) Grunwald seeks to make a case that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed less than a month after Obama came to office without a single Republican vote in the House and only three in the Senate, deserves to be appreciated as the greatest legislative landmark in decades (at least till the Affordable Care Act came along). This was the oft- derided “stimulus,” which was oversold as an engine for job growth and undersold as an ambitious program to put the collapsing economy on a “new foundation” for the future.

In Obama’s view, halting the slide was a necessary but not sufficient aim. Of the $787 billion thrown at the problem in the form of tax cuts, budget support for states, and infrastructure projects, about $150 billion went to clean energy, computerizing the health care system, refurbishing schools, and basic research. It was 50 percent bigger in constant dollars than the entire New Deal, Grunwald asserts, and the biggest investment ever in each of these various fields. Though it was too small in the view of some economists on the left, it was too huge, ambitious, and multifaceted to be grasped; plenty big enough, however, to help inspire the Tea Party revolt.

Ever since, the Republicans have scorned it as “the failed stimulus,” and while most of the targeted bucks appear to have done the intended double duty as Keynesian support and basic investment, Obama never hit on a slogan that would counter the perception of ineffectual, scattershot waste or suggest the promise he’d baked into the act. It was change you could believe in, if it worked, but as the unemployment rate spiraled up in the months before all this spending reversed the trend, who knew or cared? Now, with the spigot turned off, teachers and cops whose jobs were saved in 2009 are being laid off by state governments in the tens of thousands, dragging down the recovery. It thus remains a hard sell, until individual programs are extracted from the unwieldy whole and held up as success stories.

Franklin Roosevelt not being available, it was left to the New Democrat, deregulation advocate, forty-second president, and first husband in waiting to put across the argument that Obama had been brave and more effective than we knew in confronting the collapse. Considering the past bitterness, touchy reconciliation, and hopes for the future of the two presidents and their entourages, Bill Clinton’s appearance on the convention platform on its second night was an occasion of delicious irony as well as a coming together to bring a tear to any unabashed Democrat’s eye. Here was the stuff of dynasties, as if a threatened Tudor had turned to a Plantagenet for support.

  1. *

    Michael Grunwald, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era (Simon and Schuster, 2012). 

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