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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sullivan’s ‘Obama’s Long Game’ Article Rattles GOP

In his live blogging of the SOTU, Andrew Sullivan was mostly unimpressed with President Obama’s speech, which drew rave reviews elsewhere. While many Obama supporters focus on his formidable public speaking skills, Sullivan sees Obama’s great strength more in his ‘long game’ strategy.
Sullivan’s insightful “How Obama’s Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics” featured in a controversial Newsweek cover story, as well as in The Daily Beast, made a compelling case that President Obama is playing a very shrewd hand, much to the dismay of his critics, left and right. As Sullivan says of Obama’s critics:

…I don’t even recognize their description of Obama’s first term in any way. The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply–empirically–wrong….given the enormity of what he inherited, and given what he explicitly promised, it remains simply a fact that Obama has delivered in a way that the unhinged right and purist left have yet to understand or absorb. Their short-term outbursts have missed Obama’s long game–and why his reelection remains, in my view, as essential for this country’s future as his original election in 2008.

Sullivan notes his own disappointments with a few of Obama’s policies, then recounts the Romney/GOP litany of attacks and responds with a description of the mess Obama inherited from Bush:

…None of this is even faintly connected to reality–and the record proves it. On the economy, the facts are these. When Obama took office, the United States was losing around 750,000 jobs a month. The last quarter of 2008 saw an annualized drop in growth approaching 9 percent. This was the most serious downturn since the 1930s, there was a real chance of a systemic collapse of the entire global financial system, and unemployment and debt–lagging indicators–were about to soar even further. No fair person can blame Obama for the wreckage of the next 12 months, as the financial crisis cut a swath through employment. Economies take time to shift course.

Then Obama’s response:

But Obama did several things at once: he continued the bank bailout begun by George W. Bush, he initiated a bailout of the auto industry, and he worked to pass a huge stimulus package of $787 billion…All these decisions deserve scrutiny. And in retrospect, they were far more successful than anyone has yet fully given Obama the credit for. The job collapse bottomed out at the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect. Since then, the U.S. has added 2.4 million jobs. That’s not enough, but it’s far better than what Romney would have you believe, and more than the net jobs created under the entire Bush administration. In 2011 alone, 1.9 million private-sector jobs were created, while a net 280,000 government jobs were lost. Overall government employment has declined 2.6 percent over the past 3 years. (That compares with a drop of 2.2 percent during the early years of the Reagan administration.) To listen to current Republican rhetoric about Obama’s big-government socialist ways, you would imagine that the reverse was true. It isn’t.

Despite the failure of Obama’s most optimistic recovery projections to materialize as quickly as he had hoped, Sullivan explains that “the stimulus did exactly what it was supposed to do. It put a bottom under the free fall. It is not an exaggeration to say it prevented a spiral downward that could have led to the Second Great Depression.”
Despite the most treasured of Republican conceits that theirs is the party of tax and spending cuts, Sullivan clarifies Obama’s record:

…Not only did he agree not to sunset the Bush tax cuts for his entire first term, he has aggressively lowered taxes on most Americans. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts, affecting 95 percent of taxpayers; he has cut the payroll tax, and recently had to fight to keep it cut against Republican opposition…

As for spending, Obama again trumps the GOP record:

…His spending record is also far better than his predecessor’s. Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms. Under Bush and the GOP, nondefense discretionary spending grew by twice as much as under Obama.

As Sullivan sums up their respective claims to fiscal rectitude:

…You could easily make the case that Obama has been far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor…Obama has had to govern under the worst recession since the 1930s, and Bush, after the 2001 downturn, governed in a period of moderate growth. It takes work to increase the debt in times of growth, as Bush did. It takes much more work to constrain the debt in the deep recession Bush bequeathed Obama.

Sullivan also sets the record straight about the economics of ‘Obamacare’:

The great conservative bugaboo, Obamacare, is also far more moderate than its critics have claimed. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will reduce the deficit, not increase it dramatically, as Bush’s unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug benefit did. It is based on the individual mandate, an idea pioneered by the archconservative Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and, of course, Mitt Romney, in the past. It does not have a public option; it gives a huge new client base to the drug and insurance companies; its health-insurance exchanges were also pioneered by the right. It’s to the right of the Clintons’ monstrosity in 1993, and remarkably similar to Nixon’s 1974 proposal. Its passage did not preempt recovery efforts; it followed them…it sets standards, grants incentives, and then allows individual states to experiment. Embedded in it are also a slew of cost-reduction pilot schemes to slow health-care spending. Yes, it crosses the Rubicon of universal access to private health care. But since federal law mandates that hospitals accept all emergency-room cases requiring treatment anyway, we already obey that socialist principle–but in the most inefficient way possible. Making 44 million current free-riders pay into the system is not fiscally reckless; it is fiscally prudent. It is, dare I say it, conservative.

Sullivan concedes of the Act “It needs improvement in many ways, but the administration is open to further reform and has agreed to allow states to experiment in different ways to achieve the same result.”

Sullivan credits Obama with bold leadership on foreign policy, and adds “If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war.” Sullivan notes, perceptively:

Obama’s foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower’s or George H.W. Bush’s, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage. It is forged by someone interested in advancing American interests–not asserting an ideology and enforcing it regardless of the consequences by force of arms. By hanging back a little, by “leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role. As an antidote to the bad feelings of the Iraq War, it has worked close to perfectly.

Sullivan has an equally thoughtful take on the left critique of Obama’s economic policies and record, noting:

From the start, liberals projected onto Obama absurd notions of what a president can actually do in a polarized country, where anything requires 60 Senate votes even to stand a chance of making it into law. They have described him as a hapless tool of Wall Street, a continuation of Bush in civil liberties, a cloistered elitist unable to grasp the populist moment that is his historic opportunity. They rail against his attempts to reach a Grand Bargain on entitlement reform. They decry his too-small stimulus, his too-weak financial reform…They miss, it seems to me, two vital things. The first is the simple scale of what has been accomplished on issues liberals say they care about. A depression was averted. The bail-out of the auto industry was–amazingly–successful. Even the bank bailouts have been repaid to a great extent by a recovering banking sector. The Iraq War–the issue that made Obama the nominee–has been ended on time and, vitally, with no troops left behind. Defense is being cut steadily…

If Sullivan overstates the merits of the bank bailouts and glosses over the adverse impact of our lengthy and expensive occupation of Afghanistan, he correctly credits Obama’s historic achievements on expanding Gay rights, securing better fuel economy and green investments and restricting torture. Sullivan gives Obama plaudits for “a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics” and “the slow and deliberate and unprovocative manner” in which Obama has implemented key reforms, always focusing on change which can achieve more lasting stability of reforms, rather than flashy victories in the short run. He sees Obama as a shrewd player of political chess:

Obama was not elected, despite liberal fantasies, to be a left-wing crusader. He was elected as a pragmatic, unifying reformist who would be more responsible than Bush…The president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider. This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself, or willing to let others to define him, or simply weak. I remember those stretches during the campaign against Hillary Clinton. I also remember whose strategy won out in the end.

Acknowledging his personal “bias toward a president who has conducted himself with grace and calm under incredible pressure,” Sullivan says, “…If he is reelected, he will have won a battle more important than 2008: for it will be a mandate for an eight-year shift away from the excesses of inequality, overreach abroad, and reckless deficit spending of the last three decades. It will recapitalize him to entrench what he has done already and make it irreversible.”
As for the way forward, Sullivan’s prescription for ending gridlock in Washington — “…The only way out of that deadlock is an electoral rout of the GOP, since the language of victory and defeat seems to be the only thing it understands” has sparked smouldering resentment among his fellow conservatives.
Naturally, some Republican writers went ballistic, including Sullivan’s Daily Beast colleague, former Bush speechwriter David Frum, who responded with a predictable litany of GOP boilerplate spin. Similar screeds can be found at the Weekly Standard, Red State, Sara Palin’s comments, the Washington Times and other conservative blogs and rags.
All in all, however, Sullivan’s Daily Beast post should prove of interest to thoughtful swing voters, as well as Obama partisans in their search for strong, creative arguments for the president’s re-election.

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