My advice to Obama, 4 years ago
In the fall of 2008, websites including the successful Obama campaign’s were asking people for “advice for president-elect Obama.” Here was my 100-word version:
Americans elected you to bring a new politics freed from old thinking. You are defusing right vs. left antagonism by creating a centrist coalition of the familiar. However, the country is crying out for national health care, a fair restoration of economic life (as opposed to bailouts), and no more counterproductive military adventures. Too much accommodation of traditional interests will not let your leadership stretch as far and fast as it must. Some of the population hates everything even our greatest leaders do; you must do what is right, not what makes you the fewest enemies, for you will have many of them whatever you do.
Now I wonder: was that good advice? Let’s go through it.
Yes, we hoped for “a new politics freed from old thinking.” It didn’t happen. “Old thinking” prevailed, especially but not only on the right wing.
“Right vs. left antagonism”: worse than ever; there is no “centrist coalition.”
“National health care”: yes, much progress since then, though still not the national health care system that other developed countries have. And it’s still being resisted, even by many who will benefit from it. (Actually, everyone benefits if there are fewer people with inadequate medical care.)
“A fair restoration of economic life”: good advice still. The jobs and housing crisis is still going on as banks and corporations prosper.
“No more counterproductive military adventures”: excellent advice. The Iraq and Afghanistan adventures were so slow to wind down and neither is over, but at least there have been no new ground invasions. But who could have foreseen the drone adventure?
“Accommodation of traditional interests”: ask Summers, Geithner, and Emanuel about that one. Well, they were so first term.
“Some of the population hates everything even our greatest leaders do”: true. Obama must have hoped to be universally loved; that’s obviously not happening.
“Do what is right, not what makes you the fewest enemies”: Yes, as in gun control.
In sum: pretty good advice, I think, except that I didn’t foresee (who did?) that even the “centrist coalition of the familiar” would collapse. In our government system, any coalition depends on political infighting and the rewards pipeline (see the movie “Lincoln”), not on national interest; and that is increasingly clear with ultra-safe gerrymandered congressional seats, whose occupants can do anything they want to cater to their most vocal supporters. Still, a president who now, reluctantly, understands this has a better chance of getting done what is necessary.