The online journal of Vermont filmmaker, Bill Simmon.

Subscription Options

Defending the President (from my liberal friends)

Posted on Sep 9, 2011 by billsimmon in politics | 13 Comments

It’s the end of my 42nd birthday and I’ve spent today relaxing. I’ve played video games, been taken out for a meal and for drinks, had dinner made for me by my wife, had presents given to me, and been utterly overwhelmed by facebook friends wishing me well on my special day. I took the day off from work so I could have some me-time. That’s what you’re supposed to do on your birthday, right?

So great, except all day there’s been this thing nagging at me, taunting me, double dog daring me to ignore it. And now I’ve just given in. Ignoring it isn’t working so I’m diving into shark-infested waters. It’s time for me to tell some very smart people just how utterly misguided and foolish they’re being.

Some context:

I’m a liberal. Like most liberals in this country, I supported Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. I mean I really supported him. I even gave him some of my money. For the first time in my life, I had the experience of voting for someone that I actually wanted to be president rather than for the guy who wasn’t as awful as the other guy. It wasn’t just vague platitudes about “hope” or “change” that I liked, it was the specific stuff he said he was going to do as president that won me over, along with his enormous intellect and seriousness of purpose.

Since President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the Obama administration has made some decisions I don’t agree with 100%. It’s a long enough list of things ranging from actual policy positions I disagreed with to overly conciliatory negotiating tactics to not being forceful enough rhetorically on certain issues I care about. The most recent example is the administration’s decision to scuttle planned EPA rules that would have toughened lax Bush-era smog standards (it’s bad policy, and at a minimum, a missed opportunity for a bargaining chip).

Seeing the guy I supported doing things I disagree with is frustrating. I want him to be perfect. I want him to be Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, JFK and Jed Bartlett all rolled up into one guy. President Linceddyveltlett would have made sure we got the public option. The Linkeddyveltlett administration would have gotten Gitmo closed and would have played hardball in the debt ceiling fight.

I think it’s important to hold the President to a higher standard and expect him to meet it. And when he doesn’t, when he fails to live up to our President Linkeddyveltlett ideals, it’s important we let him know and complain about it and write blog posts and tweet and stomp our collective liberal feet.

But I also think that while we express our frustration, we need to keep our wits about us.

Recently, some friends of mine, who I tend to think of as very smart most of the time, have taken their liberal indignation to some rather absurd places.

For example, Gerry Canavan recently wrote this on his excellent blog:

Historically, primarying a sitting president is tantamount to just giving the presidency to whomever the other side nominates. But if it’s Romney, given the extent of the Obama disaster, that’s a tradeoff that could potentially be reasonable; Romney would likely just be a more effective version of Obama, putting forth generally the same sorts of policies without the scorched-earth opposition from the other side. Let Romney 45 govern like Bush 41 and regroup for 2016/2020.

And then the other day, Casey (The Contrarian) Rae-Hunter wrote this on his blog:

My wife made the observation that we might actually fare better under Mitt Romney. Yes, I know that sounds weird, but it makes sense if you think about it. First of all, Romney’s record indicates that he’s a fairly moderate Republican. Earlier in his career, he very plainly supported a woman’s right to choose. If elected, I doubt he’d push to overturn Roe v. Wade (he’d probably just leave it to the states, which is kind of what Obama is doing by default). Romney’s health care solution in Massachusetts looks a lot like what the President promoted (and ultimately got). On the campaign, Mitt has to tack rightward to appease the teabaggers. But those positions wouldn’t necessarily carry over to the Oval Office.

My wife’s most interesting point was that, instead of negotiating against himself, like Obama, Romney could end up giving the left more of what they want. It’s not hard to picture him telling his party that he “had to make concessions” in the course of negotiations. And those concessions might very well be more than we get out of Obama, due to the fact that he gives away half the store BEFORE entering talks.

Seriously? Mitt Romney would be “more effective” as president than Obama? We might “actually fare better under Mitt Romney?” Guys (and Mrs. Contrarian), I think you’re letting your emotional reactions to some individual disappointments get the better of your brains.

First of all, literally the same day Casey posted the piece quoted above, Mitt Romney delivered a big speech about the economic plan he’d pursue if elected. What’s in it? Massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, the elimination of all new safeguards to reign in Wall Street, widespread deregulation, and a crackdown on labor unions. He also wants to enact a spending cap that would gut most of the federal budget and require brutal cuts to programs like Medicare.

In what universe can you look at that sort of economic plan and think a Romney presidency would anything but a disaster?

Well maybe Romney is a secret moderate, as Casey suggests. After all, one of previous versions of Romney’s many personas was actually quite moderate. But to accept this premise, one would effectively have to believe, “Maybe every word Romney has said over the last four years about his agenda and worldview has been a total lie, and he’s secretly a sensible centrist.” In other words, let’s trade a pragmatic progressive president for a Republican who *claims* to be a conservative, but who might possibly turn out to be shamelessly lying to the entire country. Romney *says* he’ll be super right-wing on everything from the economy to the judiciary to foreign policy, the argument goes, but maybe it’s all just an elaborate, half-decade-long ruse.

That seems like an awfully big risk to me.

What’s more troubling about Casey and Gerry’s posts is that they seem to assume that the Obama record of accomplishments is thin and underwhelming. That’s wrong.

If you had told me three years ago that Barack Obama, after 32 months in office, would:

  • pass an $800 billion stimulus that ended the recession
  • pass a breakthrough health care reform law 100 years in the making
  • enact Wall Street reform
  • rescue the auto industry
  • repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
  • pass a terrific-but-overlooked student-loan bill
  • ratify the New START treaty
  • pass the first overhaul of food-safety regulations in 70 years
  • pass new consumer protections against the credit card industry
  • expand stem-cell research
  • and add two solid new Supreme Court justices,

I (and a lot of lefties) would have been doing cartwheels. If you then told me at the time that Obama would also get Osama bin Laden, withdraw troops from Iraq, and oust Moammar Gaddafi from power, all within the president’s first 32 months in office, I would have suggested saving room on Mt. Rushmore.

But if you had told me at that time that all of this would happen and liberal voters would not only be apoplectic about Obama’s perceived failings but would also start eyeing Mitt Romney as a credible alternative, I would have said that you’d clearly lost your mind.

And there’s a finer point here too that’s largely overlooked. Voters don’t just elect a president — they elect an executive branch and an expansive regulatory bureaucracy. Under a Democratic president, that bureaucracy works towards progressive ends — on everything from consumer safety to worker rights to the Justice Department’s prioritization of civil rights cases — while the exact opposite happens under a Republican president. Almost no one even realizes the importance of well-below-the-radar governance, but in countless ways that affect millions of Americans literally every day, it matters.

I get frustrated by the Obama administration sometimes too. But suggesting that handing a radicalized Republican party even more power might not such a bad idea because Romney was sort of moderate once upon a time is not a reasonable position for sane people to hold. You’re smarter than that.



Subscribe to the Comments

  1. Look, first of all, it’s the job of Obama’s political team to strike the right balance between keeping the base happy and appealing to independent voters (to whatever extent they actually exist). If dyed-in-the-wool Democrats are talking the way that me and Rae are talking — and it’s not like they’re the only ones — they’ve screwed up in a major way. The proper response to that isn’t to lecture the base about how stupid and childish they’re being; it’s to strike a better balance so you can win. Don’t talk to me, talk to Obama.

    For what it’s worth Obama’s team actually knows this; that’s what the “pivot to jobs” in last night’s speech was about. Too little too late, probably, but at least the attempt is finally being made.

    I appreciate your list of Obama accomplishments but of course we could play the same game with major disappointments. Chief among these is the famously unnecessary “pivot to deficits” which has ceded huge rhetorical *and* policy ground to the GOP getting absolutely nothing in return. Kevin Drum wrote about this the other day:

    If Republicans keep saying [Keynesianism] doesn’t work, and in response Democrats sort of shuffle around looking embarrassed, why would anyone doubt that it’s a completely discredited theory?

    Meanwhile that $800 billion that “ended the recession” is looking mighty insufficient to me. Meanwhile he’s giving up ground on the environment completely of his own volition for absolutely no reason. Meanwhile both Wall Street and the previous administration skated on their very obvious crimes. Meanwhile he’s gotten basically no one appointed to the judiciary. Meanwhile the vaunted health care reform might never actually get enacted due to how badly he’s managed everything else. Meanwhile…

    (Also, frankly you’re padding this list a bit. Obviously his Supreme Court justices are okay, but it’d be a pretty big deal if they weren’t. But food safety was the major issue for you in 2008? New START? The country is completely in the toilet economically, but at least *stem cell research* will be allowed, at least until President Perry reverses all that in 2013….)

    My point about Romney is *not* that people should vote for Romney; obviously not. It’s that if Romney gets in in 2016 things genuinely won’t be so bad. He will, in fact, put forth generally the same sorts of policies as Obama does — health care was Romneycare, remember — without the scorched-earth opposition from Republicans we see now. That’s because Republican elites will suddenly remember that there’s actually no deficit crisis and be willing to spend money again to fix things again. This is how things always work.

    That’s all I mean when I say Romney will be a more effective version of Obama. I won’t be happy with his presidency, obviously, but it won’t be the second coming of Bush II, especially if Democrats hold at least one house of Congress then. Romney’s a center-right technocrat, not a radical.

    My expectation is that Romney will also betray his base in precisely the same way that Obama has betrayed us on issues like gay rights and the environment. We may actually get something there.

    None of this *had* to happen, of course — the Obama who was elected in 2008 should have easily coasted to victory in 2012. And maybe he can still win; Republicans are basically in disarray themselves. But from my perspective Obama has been an abject failure precisely because the times were so urgent and the opportunities for genuine change were so vast. He had 59/60 seats in the Senate and a huge majority in the House. He was a hugely popular, obviously historical figure. He could have done almost anything. He blew that once-in-a-generation opportunity completely.

    Now we’re reduced to “Well, sure, Obama stinks, but it’s a two-party system and the other guy is certainly worse.” And you’re probably right! But you’d have never convinced me in November 2008 than the 2012 argument for Obama would be so very thin.

  2. I’m with you on the counter-critique, if not the language (so they’re not sane?). Needless to say, a great number of erstwhile Obama supporters see his more recent inability to effectively oppose extremist politicians as proof that he’s no longer worthy of support (my wife has started calling him “The Great Capitulator”). I’d like more of these people to re-familiarize themselves with your list of Obama’s actual achievements before jumping ship into shark-infested waters.

    Oh…and here’s a belated Happy Birthday to you!

  3. BTW, the “you” to whom I refer is Bill!

  4. On September 9, 2011, ndc said:

    tl;dr “one shouldn’t vote for a cretin out of spite at a poltroon”

    or “don’t quit your job just because your wife slept with your boss”

  5. On September 10, 2011, Steve C said:

    “It’s that if Romney gets in in 2016 things genuinely won’t be so bad. He will, in fact, put forth generally the same sorts of policies as Obama does — health care was Romneycare, remember — without the scorched-earth opposition from Republicans we see now.”

    Wow. This is just nuts. So Romney will appoint people who think like him? He won’t, say, bend over backwards to appease all those crazy knuckledraggers who held their noses in the primary and voted for him – what kind of people will run the EPA and DoJ?

    Lastly, and most importantly, the actual insanity of this cute little bloggy-contrarian stance is measured in the number and significance of all the SCOTUS cases over several decades that will have been decided differently. We’re voting for who gets to shape the branch of govt that has the last word.

  6. I don’t know how many ways I can say that I’m not suggesting people vote for Romney. Again, obviously not, please don’t vote for Romney.

    What I’m saying is the following:

    * If Romney gets in — which looks pretty likely where I’m sitting, just check the poll numbers for the special election in Weiner’s district — it won’t be the end of the world. He’s much more like Bush I than Bush II. A Romney victory is not my desired outcome but it isn’t the worst thing that could happen and likely won’t be all that different from what a second term for Obama would be like.

    * Here’s the more controversial section. If we’re genuinely interested in playing a long game — the way all of Obama’s actions are attributed to “11-dimensional chess” — I consider it *at least possible* that primarying Obama and dramatically upping Romney’s chance of winning could be preferable to four more years of compromise. The argument for Obama is: “Republicans are so crazy that even the most moderate of them must be kept out of power at all costs. That’s why Obama’s strategy of 90-10 compromises with Republicans is the only rational choice.”

    I’m sorry I don’t find that very persuasive. If Obama loses in 2012 because the Left publicly abandons him, maybe the next Democrat will think twice about triangulation as a strategy in 2016 or 2020. Enduring a Romney administration will be painful, perhaps very painful, but it could conceivably be worth it if the Democrats finally learn to take the liberal wing of their caucus seriously.

  7. On September 12, 2011, billsimmon said:

    A Romney victory … likely won’t be all that different from what a second term for Obama would be like.

    This sentiment is exactly what my post is meant to address. Even if you compare the worst-case-scenario Obama 2nd term — with nothing but 90-10 compromises and center-right frames and no leverage in the legislature — and a best-case scenario Romney presidency where he reverts to the moderate centrist he was as governor of MA (both of these scenarios are a long stretch, but for the sake of argument…), the Obama presidency will still be enormously better (and a Romney presidency a colossal disaster) for the country. See that 2nd to last paragraph in my post.

  8. In the short term, I agree. From a longer term perspective, I think it’s a open question.

  9. Bill (and Steve, and other Obamapologists) — you are mistaking the grove of accomplishments for the forest of disillusionment.

    More than any particular policy, or litany thereof, liberals in this country are starving for a voice on the national stage. Someone to articulate our ideals and to fight against the tide of slander and lies directed at the Great Society over the past 40 years. When we voted for Campaign Obama, we were voting for that voice. But (at least until very recently) that voice has been silent, replaced with Capitulating Obama and the usual Democratic Cringe.

    The way he reverses or preemptively throws in the towel on specific policies is a close second to the way he refuses to reject the radical anti-social frame (hey, did I just coin a new pejorative for rugged individualists?), but I hope you can see it’s distinct.

    As Gerry says, his latest “pivot to jobs” is too little too late, and smells cynical and transient to me.

    In short, we voted for Elizabeth Warren but we elected Claire McCaskill. Bait and switch, fool me twice, you don’t get fooled again.

    BTW Nick, when *should* you quit your job?

  10. On September 25, 2011, billsimmon said:


    1. your comment doesn’t actually address the point of my post, which is that the notion that Mitt Romney would be anything other than a disaster as President (compared to a second Obama term, or to any Democratic presidency for that matter) is deeply misguided.

    2. Your comment is not only wrong, it’s backwards. You wrote:

    liberals in this country are starving for a voice on the national stage. Someone to articulate our ideals and to fight against the tide of slander and lies directed at the Great Society over the past 40 years. When we voted for Campaign Obama, we were voting for that voice. But (at least until very recently) that voice has been silent, replaced with Capitulating Obama and the usual Democratic Cringe.

    First off, President Obama has articulated the relevance and importance of fundamental liberal governance to a national office for MORE than any president since LBJ. His addresses before joint sessions of congress are filled with such articulations that are eloquent and on-point. He’s also made these cases in speeches before ideological opponents like the GOP caucus and the US Chamber of Commerce. These speeches are available for perusal here:

    Suggesting that the president has failed to articulate the principals of the Great Society in public is just factually wrong. He’s actually done it more than any other modern president.

    But I also take issue with this notion that candidate Obama was some sort of fire-breathing liberal champion. The earliest meme I can remember from his candidacy is that he was a Senator who couched issues in conservative frames and that pissed off the left. Indeed, his 2004 DNC speech (the one that launched him as a national figure) didn’t even mention Bush and Cheney by name, instead focusing on grand ideals of One Nation and the things that make us similar as Americans rather than our differences.

    Even late in the 2008 race, Maddow interviewed candidate Obama and pushed him on his reticence to frame specifically liberal ideals as being better than conservative ones and his response was basically, “yeah, okay, but we seem to winning anyway.”

    -Obamapologist Bill

  11. Thanks for the Obphtamolgy appointment; I needed a new prescription.

    I concede #1, and would even add a few more horrors, like Mitt’s Supreme Court nominations and department heads. I could fisk your #2, but instead I’ll just point to a rebuttal of “we seem to winning anyway” (these days) –

    “Small Donors Are Slow to Return to the Obama Fold.”

    (also via Gerry.)

  12. (rats… meant to say “I needed a new prescription for my rose-colored glasses” but the joke got lost in a tab-switch…)

  13. On September 26, 2011, billsimmon said:

    Well now you’re arguing with Obama in 2008 instead of with me now. You claimed the president hasn’t been articulating the ideals of Great Society liberalism. That’s demonstrably false. You further claimed that candidate Obama and President Obama are very different from each other. I disagreed and gave examples of how they are actually quite consistent with each other.

    I don’t argue that support for Obama is less now than it was in 2008, but that fact doesn’t support either of your claims. The president has a tough fight ahead to win a second term AND your comment above is wrong-headed.

Leave a comment

Get a Trackback link