‘The Unencumbered Man’

Shawn Thew/epa/Corbis
President Barack Obama at a White House press conference on his hundredth day in office, April 29, 2009

After Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election last November, the question arose whether the result should be seen as a realignment—a fundamental shift in party dominance that would continue for a good many years. That the era of conservative supremacy was over seemed clear. Beyond that, observers were divided. My view, expressed in these pages, was that such talk was premature and that any notion of Democratic dominance “would depend on what President Obama and the congressional Democrats did with their power.”1

Now, seven months later, this picture is starting to come into focus. On the plus side we’ve seen the passage of a $787 billion stimulus package; an agreement on higher emissions standards for US-made automobiles that a chastened industry accepted (the President and his auto czar, Steven Rattner, are practically co-CEOs of General Motors and Chrysler, and thus could have their way); and a major credit-card reform bill.

Other moves have been less cheering, including a desultory and, say many liberal critics, deeply regressive scheme regarding the banks, with billions of taxpayer dollars going to some of the institutions responsible for the economic crisis, credit flowing only a little more freely than it had been, and no big, Glass-Steagall-style reform proposed as of yet (although new regulations of derivatives have been put forth). In addition, Obama’s policies on detainees were seen by many civil libertarians as scarcely distinguishable from those during the last year of the Bush administration. He made a costly misstep by not preparing a timely, detailed plan for dealing with Guantánamo detainees, following his announcement in January that he would close the prison within one year.

More generally, there has been a sense among some liberal interest groups that their concerns are decidedly second-tier. Labor groups worry that “card-check” legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions has stalled; and the lesbian and gay lobby suspects that repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military has been postponed.

Whatever the criticisms, though, the central fact is that, so far, Obama’s coalition is holding together. This is true in the country at large, where his approval ratings, though down several points from the very early days, are still more than high enough to provide him political capital. And it’s true among Democrats of all stripes in Washington. I recently conducted eighteen interviews (most of them off the record or “on background,” alas) with administration officials, members of Congress and staff, operatives, and insiders—this in addition to casual conversations with other such people that come naturally in my line of work. I heard quibbles, and sometimes more than quibbles, especially about the bank bailout, which was often described as a transfer of wealth from the middle class…

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