Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Filling in the blanks for Bill Keller

Based on his opinion of the state of the Obama adminsitration, fmr. NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller needs someone to fill in some blanks, primarily between his ears:


The decline in Obama’s political fortunes, the Great Disappointment, can be attributed to four main factors: the intractable legacy bequeathed by George W. Bush; Republican resistance amounting to sabotage; the unrealistic expectations and inevitable disenchantment of some of the president’s supporters; and, to be sure, the man himself.

Keller trots out the already tired trope that Obama inherited the wind from George W. Bush:

Unfunded wars, supply-side deficits, twin housing and banking crises enabled by an orgy of regulatory permissiveness — that was the legacy Obama assumed. In our political culture if you inherit a problem and don’t fix it, you own it. So at some point it became the popular wisdom that Iraq and Afghanistan were “Obama’s wars,” and that the recession had become “Obama’s economy.” Given the systemic burden Bush left for his successor, that judgment seems to me to be less about fair play than about short memories.

In Keller’s telling of “historical truth,” the Democrats’ initial support of those wars disappears, their control of Congress from 2006-08 magically vanishes, and our debt has nothing to do with government spending even the Obama administration admits is unsustainable. As for the housing and banking crises, the NYT’s own business reporter seems to find responsible an unholy alliance between Wall Street, the Democratic establishment, community organizing groups like ACORN and La Raza, and politicians like Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Henry Cisneros. Moreover, most Americans continue to blame Bush for the economy; Keller is simply delusional on this point. As I was unable to find any polling on who is to blame for our current wars, I would wager Keller is also indulging his imagination on this point (and one would hope people blame Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the Afghan campaign).

Keller continues:

Another toxic legacy of the Bush years is an angry conservative populism, in which government is viewed as tyranny and compromise as apostasy.

I sort of agree with this, to the extent that the Tea Party grew out of the reaction against the Wall Street bailout. But “Republican resistance amounting to sabotage”? During the GHWBush administration, Democrats supported the war on terror, acquiesced in enhanced interrogation of high-value terror suspects and warrantless eavesdropping on terror suspects, and were part of the consensus that Saddam Hussein and his WMD programs posed a grave and growing threat to our national security — only to cynically disavow all of it when the going got tough… and to end up continuing most of Bush’s war policies in the Obama administration, adding targeted assassination of US citrizens and possibly indefinite detention. Compared to that record, Bill Keller has the unmitigated gall to call the standard GOP opposition to higher taxes, job-killing regulations and unsustainable government spending “amounting to sabotage”? Puh-leeze.

Indeed, Keller’s account of “historical truth” on this point ignores that Obama had a Democratic Congress for two years, including a period where Dems had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Obama got his stimulus, TARP II, Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law. Keller credits for Obama for all of these things later in his column, ignoring that if the GOP is any position to hinder Obama today, it is due to widespread public disappointment with and revulsion against the Obama record.

Keller pooh-poohs liberal disenchantment with Obama. Here again, there is a kernel of truth to Keller’s point. Progressive ideologues are being unrealistic about what Obama could achieve, given how unpopular his agenda has been. And there is partisan cynicism in opposing even Obama’s tiny and practically illusory nods toward entitlement reform. But it is an irony-free observation coming from Keller, who is blaming Obama himself. And his criticism of Obama is hilarious:

Obama can be faulted for periods of passivity (his silence as Republicans have sought to defund financial reforms), for a na├»ve deference to Congress (his belated engagement in the details of the health care bill), for a deficit of boldness and passion, for not doing more to stiffen the spines of his caucus on Capitol Hill, for not understanding — at least until his latest barnstorming on the jobs bill — that governing these days is a permanent campaign.

Obama’s successes were arguably due to his leaving the grubby work of vote-counting to the Democratic leadership in Congress, while focusing on buying off stakeholders: health insurers, pharmacos, investment banks, etc. Keller is now blaming Obama for not being bold mere paragraphs after dismissing his fellow travelers as politically unrealistic. Moreover, Keller seems to have forgotten all of the town halls, photo-ops, infomercials, press conferences, and the occasional speech to a joint session of Congress in support of the various items on the Obama agenda during the first half of his term. I can almost forgive Keller for blotting them from his mind, given how unsuccessful they all were in moving public opinion. But they all happened. Obama has always understood the permanent campign; indeed, it’s all Obama knows how to do.

Lastly, Keller is perhaps at his worst here:

It’s not just that [Obama] has failed to own his successes. He has in a sense failed to define himself. He is one of our more elusive presidents, not deeply rooted in any place or movement. David Remnick’s biography called Obama a shape-shifter. At the fringes, that makes him vulnerable to conspiratorial slanders: he is a socialist, a foreign imposter, a jihadist, an adherent of black liberation theology.

Well, Obama did attend a church based on black liberation theology for 20 years. Under Bill Keller’s leadership, the New York Times did its best to ignore the story, to avoid the sort of religious vetting that Keller has argued should be standard for presidential candidates. Barack Obama touted his “blank screen” quality in The Audacity of Hope, yet in 2008, Keller and his fellow travelers in the establishment media did little to fill in the blanks Keller now complains about. I know teenagers with a better sense of self-responsibility than Bill Keller.

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