The Obam Synthesis Under Siege – Ross Douthat

15 May

From Ross Douthat at the NYT:

The true ideological inclinations of the Obama White House can be endlessly debated, but slightly more than halfway through this presidency I think it’s fair to make the following generalization: Obama has governed as a business-friendly social democrat and an aggressive social liberal, as a hawkish interventionist when intervention seems cheap and easy (drones, missiles, etc.) and a cautious realist when it doesn’t, and as a surprisingly vigorous defender of presidential prerogatives across a variety of fronts. A few weeks ago, I characterized Obama-era liberalism as featuring “an imperial presidency, a corporatist economic policy, and then a libertarian turn on almost every social issue,” and while that line misses various nuances and complexities, as one-sentence summaries go I think it’s pretty good.

It’s also useful for understanding why the last few weeks have been so rough for this White House. Obviously they’ve been difficult because scandal has piled on scandal: The resurfacing Benghazi affair, the news that the Internal Revenue Service took a disproportionate election-year interest in conservative activists, and now the revelation that the Department of Justice secretly seized two months worth of phone records for Associated Press reporters as part of a highly aggressive leak investigation. But it’s also because the details of the scandals raise uncomfortable questions about the particular policy synthesis that Obama has pursued — and they’re getting traction at a time when other high-profile stories, from the debate over the Oregon Medicaid study in wonkland to the trial of the late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell over in culture-war territory, are raising similarly uncomfortably questions on other fronts.

In the case of Benghazi, as Tim Carney points out, you have a story that’s ultimately about an administration trying to downplay the resilience of Al Qaeda and the messiness of post-intervention Libya, lest those realities sow election-year doubts about the success of the White House’s entire light-footprint, drones-and-bombs approach to counterterrorism and the Middle East. In the case of the I.R.S. and Justice Department imbroglios, you have two stories that don’t need to have direct links to the Oval Office to remind people of the kind of abuses that that imperial presidencies tend to generate. (It’s also striking that both the new Benghazi revelations and the I.R.S./DoJ scandals came hard hard on the heels of Rand Paul’s filibuster, which was arguably the first moment when the Obama administration faced a significant political challenge on questions of executive overreach.)

Meanwhile, whatever spin you put on the Oregon Medicaid study, it was a real-world test of the administration’s signature domestic policy initiative whose results clearly didn’t live up to liberal expectations, and it’s given skeptics of Obamacare perhaps their most statistically potent ammunition at a moment when the new health care law is about to face the test of implementation. (Which, of course, involves new responsibilities for … the I.R.S.) Likewise, while the implications of the Gosnell case are open for debate, it’s the first occasion in a while when social liberals have clearly been forced on the defensive — and the first high-profile story in Obama’s entire presidency to throw his own radicalism on abortion into sharp relief.

Obviously his White House faced major challenges all across its contentious first term. But it was rare for the administration to see its attempt at a new left-of-center synthesis challenged and undercut across multiple fronts at once — on foreign policy and civil liberties and domestic policy and social issues. Journalists no doubt talk too much about narratives and storylines, but they do matter, and having all of these stories in the wind at once is significant, in part, because it threatens to rewrite the public’s understanding of what Obama-ism represents. The president wants to be seen, and works to be seen, as a pragmatic, data-driven steward of popular programs who’s leading a wave of social progress at home while keeping us as safe from terrorists as any Republican tough guy could. But the current mix of headlines suggests a very different take on the same record — in which Obama embodies a “new” progressivism that’s too comfortable with executive power and too eager to conduct foreign policy from 30,000 feet, too cozy with powerful interest groups and too wedded to a dysfunctional welfare state, and as far outside the mainstream on social issues as any of the right-wingers it likes to define itself against.

Whether this alternative narrative actually takes hold with the public and press remains to be seen. But the last few weeks have clearly made it more credible, and an easier sell to the unconvinced, than all the slings and arrows of 2012 campaign.

Original link: http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/the-obama-synthesis-under-siege/

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