Posted by: Chris | October 19, 2010

What if Hillary Clinton was Right?

As the resident Clinton apologist here (and elsewhere), I suspect this should come as no surprise, but I have been reflecting a bit on the criticisms levied during the 2008 primaries now that we are nearing the midterm elections.  Much ended up being overheated nonsense carted about by the campaigns and the media alike so that everyone could have an issue to talk about (for instance, the whole “who liked NAFTA more than who” kerfuffle).  But the core criticisms that Hillary Clinton enumerated against Obama were more substantive:

I think this clip best summarizes this critique:

These points seem fairly prescient, especially in light of the NYTimes’ excellent recent profile on the  dispirited mood in the Obama White House.  According to the article, “Obama has been surprised by all sorts of challenges that have made it hard for him to govern” because he “trusted his judgment and seemed to have assumed that impressive people in his own party must have a certain basic sense of integrity — and that impressive people in the other party must want to work with him” but “found that his vaunted speaking skills are not enough to change the dynamics of governance.”  The President has also conceded, just as Clinton alleged more than two years ago, that he misunderstood the motivation of his political opposition and overestimated efficacy of hollow but high-minded bipartisanship:

The biggest miscalculation in the minds of most Obama advisers was the assumption that he could bridge a polarized capital and forge genuinely bipartisan coalitions. While Republican leaders resolved to stand against Obama, his early efforts to woo the opposition also struck many as halfhearted. “If anybody thought the Republicans were just going to roll over, we were just terribly mistaken,” former Senator Tom Daschle, a mentor and an outside adviser to Obama, told me.

More over, the Administration and its supporters have come to learn that the structural impediments to enforcing one’s will from within the Oval Office are quite implacable, no matter how noble or righteous your cause, and that his grand pronouncements during the campaign did indeed generate the damaging “false hopes” he once fervently denied:

Most of all, he has learned that, for all his anti-Washington rhetoric, he has to play by Washington rules if he wants to win in Washington. It is not enough to be supremely sure that he is right if no one else agrees with him…

In their darkest moments, White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday, a societal cynicism that holds leadership in low regard. Some White House aides who were ready to carve a new spot on Mount Rushmore for their boss two years ago privately concede now that he cannot be another Abraham Lincoln after all. In this environment, they have increasingly concluded, it may be that every modern president is going to be, at best, average.

It seems the primary campaign predictions on the problems facing a prospective Obama presidency were dead-on, made even more intriguing as the McCain campaign’s critiques (about Obama’s vacuous celebrity and weakness as Commander-in-Chief) have not been similarly borne out.

While we are on the topic of election prognostication, I came across this post over at the old blog that holds up pretty well, especially this last part:

Both Sullivan and Matthews despise the egomaniacs and leeches who sully the noble endeavor they imagine politics to be and long for someone to restore the greatness and honor to the political world as it once existed.  And both quickly became disgusted with the Bush presidency when it failed to live up to their (and its own) impossible goals.  When the Bush abhorrence of the Washington system led to the accumulation of power in the executive and the disregard for international agreements.  When the emphasis on unity and bipartisanship around the President’s agenda led to ironically enough to more partisanship, as the “partisan” Democrats looking out for what they believed to be right, became an obstacle for progress to be removed at any cost.  When the emphasis on grand public endeavors led to more corruption  and mismanagement.  When the emphasis on freedom and democracy for the world over petty national interests led to bloodier and more relentless war.  One wonders if Obama will disappoint his believers as did Bush, or if he will finally thread the needle and bring about heaven on earth and return to politics to the noble and grand business they have always remembered it as.

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Responses

  1. Obama is the best. He’s so smart and so good looking and Hillary is such a witch

  2. I can only think of one serious person who’s run for president without dramatically overselling what she can accomplish and promising to end bipartisanship: Hillary Clinton. (The Times article Chris links says somewhere that 4 of the past 5 presidents have been governors who promised to fix Washington – the other made an even more infelicitous / overconfident promise.)

    The reason Clinton declined to peddle those two snake oils is that Obama already had a monopoly on the market, so she was forced to the second-rate strategy of being realistic. By implicitly praising Clinton for her realism, Chris commits the same error Clinton predicates of Obama; he attributes political agency to a person as opposed to a set of structures.

    The article Chris links – which is basically drivel – also doesn’t establish that Obama was especially naive. It quotes him saying that his biggest mistake was trusting the good faith of fellow politicians, quotes his aides blaming the Administration’s lackluster approval ratings on factors beyond their control, and quotes some supporters chiding him for “poor communication.” What’s naive is to take these quotations at face value, as opposed to as stock recitations that come out of any Administration round about midterms time.

    Of course, interspersed between the quotes are a variety of “seems” sentences – Obama seems to have come wanting to change Washington, Obama seems to have thought he could just argue everyone around to his point of view. (The unspoken modifier in all cases is “really, deeply, honestly” – “…seems to have come really, deeply, honestly wanting to change Washington,” and “really deeply, honestly thought he could just argue everyone around.”) But because these “seems sentences” do nothing but channel the prevailing zeitgeist their probative value is, precisely, zero.

    There’s only one place where the article lends support to Chris’s view that Clinton’s campaign criticisms have some merit. (Given how many different points of view the article lends support to, it’d be very surprising if there wasn’t some language supporting Chris’s view.) It is here:

    “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.”

    Problem is that the “really” modifier – as opposed to “really, deeply, honestly” – isn’t sufficient to establish the Obama Administration as an outlier. There’s never been a White House – outside of Denmark I doubt there’s ever been a serious organization – that’s immune to overconfidence.

    There are obviously personal differences between Obama and Clinton – Obama is good looking; Clinton is a witch (h/t northernlights). Obama is sanctimonious; Clinton is marginally less sanctimonious – but it is entirely non-obvious (a) that among those personal differences is a disparity of realism or (b) that those personal differences would have translated into meaningful differences in their Administrations’ performance or outlook.

    The structuralist perspective of which Clinton and Chris are sometimes champions suggests that they probably wouldn’t have.


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