At Salon, Thomas Frank, imagining Barack Obama's presidential library denounces the president for being (in Frank's words) "ineffective and gutless." Frank seems to regard Obama's right wing opposition as a paper tiger that easily could have been vanquished, and he sees Obama's failure to do so as proof that Obama never wanted to accomplish much of anything except to help fat cats get fatter:
Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn't he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?And on and on in this vein. Ed Kilgore responds:
Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn't do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn't reason with them -- their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls -- they'd gerrymandered so many states that they couldn't be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.
In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all....
Put side, for the moment, the bizarre and ahistorical assertion that it's possible to "put the right out of business once and for all." Let's look at the claim Obama and his defenders had to inflate the power of the opposition ... to excuse the failure to vanquish it and advance a far more progressive agenda than was actually offered.Even that understates what Obama was up against. That implies that he had a 60-vote majority in the Senate for a year. He didn't -- he had one for six months.
There is this institution called the U.S. Senate. Even after two big Democratic cycles in 2006 and 2008, Republicans held 40 seats, enough given absolute unity and a single Democratic defection to thwart anything the majority party attempted, under rules ripe for abuse that neither Barack Obama nor Harry Reid invented or imagined. Just a year after Obama took office, Republicans won a special Senate election and obtained the power to block absolutely any Democratic measure.
Recall that Al Franken was elected to the Senate in 2008 by a margin of just over 300 votes; he was declared the winner after a battle that went on for eight months and, of course, included unsubstantiated Republican allegations of Democratic voter fraud. The result was that Franken wasn't sworn in until July 7, 2009 -- six months after the rest of the Senate's freshman class was sworn in.
Democrats had 60 votes for exactly 51 days because Senator Ted Kennedy died on August 26. His replacement, Paul Kirk was sworn in on September 25 and held the seat until February 4, 2010, when Republican Scott Brown officially took his place.
Total number of days with 60 votes: 184.
(And not even 184 consecutive days -- there was a month's gap in there.)
And this was a Democratic Party that included Blue Dogs such as Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, whereas the GOP imposed rigid party discipline. Frank sneeringly declares that at the Obama library "the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration's every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight" -- but no major party has acted like this in America in living memory, with no negative consequences except perhaps an inability to win future presidential elections.
The power of organized right-wing opposition is real; Obama has made plenty of mistakes, but his failure to roll over these guys is not his fault.