Nelson Aldrich Obama

Which historical political figures does Barack Obama see when he looks in the mirror?

…or maybe Barack Rockefeller, if you prefer.

Perhaps one way to explain President Obama’s inability to stake out more strongly progressive positions on — well, just about anything, from tax cuts, to health care reform, to foreign policy (think Afghanistan) — is that he essentially is not a progressive Democrat but rather that extinct breed, the Rockefeller Republican.  It is not quite the same thing as modern-day moderate Republicanism, because it is slightly to the left.  But the more I think about it, the more that I have to conclude that all those who for the last two years have been calling Obama a moderate Republican have some justice on their side.  I don’t know if the foregoing works, but there is a lot there.  Consider:

Rockefeller Republicans (sometimes called “silk stocking Republicans”) basically favored New Deal programs and civil rights, and at the extreme left of their faction actually advocated a stronger social safety net (think Jacob Javits, Clifford Case, Hugh Scott, or Charles Percy).  They were committed environmentalists.  Their appeal was essentially technocratic and “good governmentish”, running against urban machines and corruption (think Thomas Dewey).  They opposed, however, anything far-reaching, and always looked out first for the interests of business; they were loathe ever to use populist rhetoric.

Moreover, they were uncomfortable fighting in the trenches, and rarely pushed major social reform through.  Leverett Saltonstall, according to Robert Caro, had a “patrician aversion to disputes or controversy that made him shrink from quarreling.”  Forty years later, when John Podesta was President Clinton’s chief of staff, he told White House staffers that any political strategy that rested on the support of moderate Republicans was a non-starter: they would always cave.

Now consider that the Affordable Care Act is essentially the same as that proposed in 1993 by Republican John Chaffee of Rhode Island: individual mandate, antidiscrimination provisions, private health insurance, subsidies for those who can’t afford it.  His financial rescue team — led by Tim Geithner, a New Yorker close with Wall Street– adamantly refused to consider Swedish solutions of bank nationalization.  If he was frustrated about Congressional pusillanimity on the size of the stimulus, he never showed it.  And he would never — never — use populism of any kind against the banks.

This might be the most “good government” administration in history: the administration has been remarkably free of any scandal, although Darrell Issa will invent a few.

But the goo-goo-ism seems to reach a higher level with Obama: the Marquess of Queensbury has come to DC.  Obama has rarely if ever used his presidential authority for stop-loss orders to end Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, and his administration appears eager to “play by the rules” and overturn the policy only with the acquiescence of Congressional Republicans.  He is positively allergic to recess appointments.  He never plays hardball: the Wikileaks documents show him trying to stop prosecutions of former Bush officials, a favor that the Bushies would never have returned. 

On foreign policy, his principal intellectual guide appears to be Brent Scowcroft, and unsurprisingly, national security is where the good government bias ends: Obama has taken care to advance the Establishment line on things such as State Secrets and civil liberties.

And now, we see him caving on tax cuts, buying into fiscal conservative myths on federal employee salaries, making concessions without receiving anything on the other side.  And maybe that’s because partially, he doesn’t share the progressive outrage at modern-day Republicanism.  The Rockefeller types certainly had their conviction, but they were never really outraged at anything.

Rockefeller Republicanism is an honorable tradition.  Those associated with it have strong records and look good in history’s light.  But you probably wouldn’t want one in a foxhole with you, at least politically (Chaffee himself was a war hero at Guadalcanal).  And right now, Democrats are on defense.  They — we — need a leader.

Moreover, Rockefeller Republicanism only works if there is some sort of political force to its left.  But for the next two years, in Washington Obama might be the left.  He doesn’t like being there.  He likes reasonableness.  For all the talk about him as a Chicago pol, he is not: he is a Punahou and Harvard Law School pol.

It’s going to be a long two years.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

32 thoughts on “Nelson Aldrich Obama”

  1. His financial rescue team — led by Tim Geithner, a New Yorker close with Wall Street– adamantly refused to consider Swedish solutions of bank nationalization.

    I hate this argument, because it misses something very important: they didn't have the legal authority to nationalize the banks until after the financial reform bill passed. Prior to that, the feds could only nationalize certain kinds of institutions, the relevant one here is commercial banks. They couldn't nationalize investment banks. They couldn't nationalize brokerage houses. They couldn't nationalize insurance companies. There wasn't a single significant player in the meltdown that was just a commercial bank. The most critical pieces didn't have an attached commercial bank at all. Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. were investment banks. AIG was an insurance company. Any attempt to nationalize them, or Citi, or BoA, or Merrill, or any of the other problem children would have been met by a blizzard of lawsuits that would have defeated the entire purpose of nationalizing them. Until legislation passed Congress giving them that authority, it wasn't possible. And we saw how long it took Congress to pass anything giving them that authority.

    It was a complete non-starter and the continued fascination with this particular shiny object tells me that a lot of people don't really understand what was involved.

    Obama has rarely if ever used his presidential authority for stop-loss orders to end Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, and his administration appears eager to “play by the rules” and overturn the policy only with the acquiescence of Congressional Republicans.

    I loathe this argument, too, and for the same reason. It indicates that someone either hasn't read the relevant law, or doesn't really care whether or not the President breaks it. The stop-loss provision clearly says that the President must make the determination that a given individual's continued service is essential to national security. This is why, even at the height of the Iraq War, the stop-loss order only pertained to particular specialties where there was a potential shortage of troops. At this point, that argument can only be made about a very small number of specialties. No particular fighter pilot, such as Victor Fehrenbach, is essential to national security. If Obama invoked stop-loss for anyone else, he would pretty clearly be breaking the law. There probably wouldn't be anyone with standing to sue, but he would still be violating the law.

    Which I thought was one of the things we hated about George Bush.

  2. Well said. The historical parallels are also interesting. The Rockefeller Republicans emerged at a time when it seemed like the New Deal coalition and approach had become the driving force in US politics and policy, and looked like it would maintain that status for some time to come. The response was to offer alternatives that would sand down the rough edges and ensure a place for the Republican party in US governance. They were wrong, of course; the backlash against LBJ's attempt to extend the New Deal, and the sociocultural liberalization that was associated with it in the popular mind, was so strong that it made the hard right (ie Rockefeller's opponents) of Nixon and Reagan into a new driving force in US politics and policy, more or less continually up to the present. Obama's approach now, like Rockefeller's fifty years ago, is to moderate and channel these right-wing impulses, in order to sand down the rough edges of conservatism (e.g. strengthening, rather than replacing, the private-insurance-based health financing system) and ensure a place for the Democratic party in US governance.

    But an alternative view would be that conservatism today, like New Deal liberalism 50 years ago, isn't poised to remain a dominant force – in many ways it seems to be running out of steam. The utter vapidity of conservative "ideas", the obviously futile, gimmicky and self-contradictory nature of their policy agenda, the stupidity and hackishness of many or most leading conservative polticians, seem more characteristic of a spent force than of a ruling party. It's all reminiscent of the smug, hackish, feckless liberalism of the 70s. So maybe Obama really is the wrong man for the times. But in that case who's the right one?

  3. Rockefeller pfui! How about Vincent Impellitteri? Naive, clueless, no sense how to use the power of the office, and anointed by the New York Times!

  4. Intriguing analysis Jonathan, could have added in John W. Gardner, the Republican who founded Common Cause and oversaw the implementation of Medicare as LBJ's Secretary of HEW as well.

    You raise an excellent point about the Rockefeller Republicans having power in part because of there being a powerful left wing in U.S. politics at the time. I would supplement that by saying that the Rockefeller Rs also had something else: Broad respect within the Republican party. That gave them room to maneuver and a fair bit of influence…but today the few that survive are often reviled as RINOs.

  5. To pile onto Keith Humphreys, I should mention Mac Mathias, of Maryland. As a Marylander, I voted proudly for him. (It might have been the last time I split a ticket.) I was prepared to vote against him in 1986, because I was beginning to realize that the party was more important than the person. However, he was as disgusted by Reaganism as I was, so he didn't run and I was spared the unpleasantness of doing so.

    The Rockefeller Republicans can trace their genome back to the Whig Party of the 1840's and 1850's–a bit moralistic and quite elitist; cautiously progressive; pro-business. (Their morality was the real thing: not Talibanism.) I won't bother to do a geneology for the current crew–Dave Neiwert is better-qualified that I am.

  6. J. Michael Neal says

    I hate this argument, because it misses something very important: they didn’t have the legal authority

    I hate this argument, because the US Federal Government does things without legal authority all of the time. Obama didn't pursue the solutions Neal mentions, not because there was no authority, but because he's evidently not the kind of President that tells his legal counsel to find him the justification for what he wants to do: rather, he listens when his lawyers tell him what he can't do.

  7. I've been calling Obama a Rockefeller Republican literally for years. It's a fairly obvious diagnosis. If Obama were a typical example of a Republican-right President we'd be in vastly better shape as a country. The idea that he's a moderate-to-left Democrat is alternatively absurd and terrifying.

  8. Those were the days. Of course, the RRs were in the shadow of the New Deal. I can see Obama being a good president back in the day — bringing a divided country together — something like an answer to Richard Nixon's polarizing. Our politics are a lot different today. Yes, a long two years.

  9. Aardvark has his nose to the ground here:

    "Obama didn’t pursue the solutions Neal mentions, not because there was no authority, but because he’s evidently not the kind of President that tells his legal counsel to find him the justification for what he wants to do: rather, he listens when his lawyers tell him what he can’t do."

    Yes. He ran on restoring the Presidency to a humbler position.

    I thought it was just campaign rhetoric to garner votes after the Bush usurpation.

    Unfortunately he actually meant it.

    I say unfortunately because these aren't benign times that can afford a wishy-washy leader. Anybody willfully ceding Presidential Power in a dysfunctional democracy to a dysfunctional House of Reps is an idiot. The world needed a strong Democrat with a hidden mean streak to push an agenda into the future.

    What we got was another a temporizer…

    A glib milquetoast…

    A newly minted golfer with the rich, and a gopher for the rich…

    A Democratic Party momentum-killer nonpareil wh'll make Carter look like Superman…

    Who would have thought:

    Oh they really meant that kind of Manchurian candidate!

  10. Machiavelli once observed that the worst tyrants are often the successors of popular and successful kings: if Rex I is so well-loved that others are happy to delegate power to him, they set up an infrastructure which Rex II can abuse.

    Perhaps Obama’s reluctance to play hardball demonstrates the reverse phenomenon.

  11. Rockefeller Republicans … were committed environmentalists.

    I have been looking, hard, professionally, for the last two years, and I can offer no substantial evidence that Obama or his principal advisors are even weak environmentalists.

    On this front at least, we'd be way better off with Rockefeller Republicans (as long as they weren't Jay Rockefeller-style patsies for Big Coal)

  12. J Michael Neal: ". . . it misses something very important: they didn’t have the legal authority"

    I agree with Aardvark, but I don't want to entertain legal and institutional counterfactuals.

    Jonathan Zasloff's point, I think, is that Obama had choices, and made the wrong ones. Neal's point echoes a form of defense that's been repeated for both Bush2 and Obama, since Shock Doctrine governance has become the norm: "they had no choice", and "it could have been worse". It is often a highly technocratic argument: if you understood the financial, economic, legal issues in detail, you'd understand why he had to do precisely what he did. Or, a weaker, but cagier argument: he had choices, but you misunderstand what they were, because you don't understand the law and economics.

    This is a blog, where appeals to technocratic expertise in making policy can be expected to have purchase. But, this is an issue, where the relevant technocratic expertise is under legitimate question. However you want to sort out the legal, economic and institutional details, a choice was made to have a crisis, and then to preserve a corrupt, malfunctioning system through the crisis, by the expedient of issuing massive amounts of government debt and credit, without requiring restructuring. Indeed, the policy has been correctly characterized as promoting "extend and pretend" practices, through an extended period during which financial institutions would restore their solvency, by continuing their predatory financial strategies.

    The label, "nationalization", for the path not taken, really doesn't tell us very much about the particulars of the path not taken. In 2008, in prospect, "nationalization" was a label for a policy of issuing massive amounts of government credit, in the form of guarantees, as a first step toward restructuring the financial sector, by fiat, while preserving a functioning payments system. Counterfactual assertions about the constraints of legal authority aside, "nationalization" differed from actual policy primarily in the degree to which the government would assume control of financial institutions and depose their management. After that . . . who knows? The Johnson-Kwak camp argues that nationalization would have changed the political balance, facilitating more thorough-going institutional reform in the aftermath, because many of the big banks and other financial institutions would have be removed or neutralized as a political force. Johnson-Kwak characterize the actual course of policy as equivalent to a bank-led political coup and takeover of the U.S. government.

    Obama was heavily backed by the financial sector, and Obama, arguably, pitched his candidacy effectively, as a barrier to, not a facilitator of, populist rebellion. Actual policy flowed naturally from Obama's political positioning. Assertions about the alleged constraints of legal arcana are the stuff of self-deception, not insight.

  13. I agree with a lot of this. Looking to the underlying cause, I think only a portion of this is his personality. I think the other big component is the extent to which the Democratic Party is dependent on large campaign donations from Wall Street democrats. Chuck Shumer is out front saying that middle-class tax cuts include salaries up to $1 million. Geithner is taking the lead on extend-and-pretend; HAMP is a miserable failure. Neither the IRS nor the AG nor the SEC are launching high-publicity investigations of the fraud in the formation of the securitized mortgage trusts.

    In sum, there's little populism from high-level Democrats because they actually represent wealthy NY moderates. No one is representing the working class.

  14. There's a whole lot right with this analysis. I was thinking he's more like Eisenhower, unwilling to take on the right-wing nuts of his day and saving his liberalism for his farewell speech. Although I don't think one-term Presidents get farewell speeches.

  15. Privately, Mr. Obama has described himself, at times, as essentially a Blue Dog Democrat, referring to the shrinking caucus of fiscally conservative members of the party.

    From :

    I find Obama to be well to the right of the Rockefeller Republicans. I don't see much difference between this administration and that of Bush II. Yes, there have been small improvements on environment, but from the economy to foreign policy (esp. war). Obama's willingness to use the power of the executive to support clearly illegal behavior, following the path taken by Bush II.

    His lack of understanding of the economy, combined with a naivete about what needs to be done (such as attempting charge soldiers for medical insurance) leaves one with an expectation for the future that things can only get worse – a long two years, to be followed by more of the same. At a time when we need a president who will confront the problems that he inherited, we have a president who doesn't recognize the problems before him.

  16. I hate this argument, because the US Federal Government does things without legal authority all of the time.

    Setting aside whether or not this is true, the scenario envisioned here would have been radically different than most such instances, because the courts would have been actively involved. Even if it were eventually found that they had the power, which I doubt extremely, it would have been tied up in courts for years before it could have been done. As of right now, we'd still be sitting here with banks that are obviously insolvent and without any sort of solution in place.

    Unless, of course, you are arguing that Obama should have gone the full Andrew Jackson and sent the US Army into the streets of New York to physically seize all of the banks and whatever else they could find. He could have told the courts that he was declaring martial law and they could get stuffed. That's what it would have taken. And inevitably shoot some people along the way.

    As I said, issuing stop-loss orders wholesale to put an end to DADT would have been blatantly illegal, but it would probably have been the case that no one would have had standing to do anything about. So, whether or not you think it would have been a good idea comes down to whether or not you think that it's fine for the government to blatantly break the law in cases where you don't like the law. With bank nationalization, that's not the case. There were practical elements as to why breaking the law to achieve a desirable policy aim wouldn't even have been effective even if it were desirable.

  17. I used to tell people I was an "Eisenhower Republican." Truth be told, I was really a Jacob Javits Republican. But people didn't know who he was…

    Now I wouldn't vote for a Republican if Sarah Palin was running on the Democratic ticket…

  18. The group, the sub-population, that used to be Liberal Republicans are nowadays a firm part of the Democratic coalition (unless someone just like them, except that he has more money, is running for Mayor of New York as a Republican). Obama was very definitely the candidate of that group in 2008 but I don't think that he himself is part of that group. His attempts to ingratiate himself with that group have not worked well. The Catfood Commission, for example, was meant to show that he shared their deficit hawkishness, but he got the tone subtly wrong (like Widmerpool wearing the wrong raincoat). Brad Delong, who I think of as the exemplar of the Liberal Republican Turned Democrat, called it an unforced error. More importantly, the old Liberal Republicans had a deep interest in the actual mechanics of government: Nelson Rockefeller played the government of New York State like an organist — feet going one way, one hand on this keyboard, the other on that, pulling this stop out, pushing the other in. Obama doesn't evince such interest. He does not look for levers. The lack of recess appointments, hell, the lack of nominations, most recently the call for a federal pay freeze, show a distaste for getting things done.

  19. Obama didn't need "legal authority" to nationalize banks. There was ample money in TARP to simply buy a majority shares of the banks from common stockholders at market prices.

    Instead TARP bought various bank assets at grossly inflated prices, thereby shoveling money into the hands of the stockholders who elected the incumbent reckless managers, and the stock options of the managers themselves.

    Perhaps the biggest example of this was buying all the AIG-originated credit default swaps at face value when they were worth maybe ten cents on the dollar.

    The single largest beneficiary of this was Goldman Sachs, with Deutsche Bank #2.

  20. I voted for Dennis Kucinich.

    Let's compare him and Obama on a few issues:

    BO: longtime friend of the coal industry

    DK: 100% rating from League of Conservation Voters

    BO: opposes marriage equality, lacks the courage to end DADT despite 70% of the public supporting repeal

    DK: perfect record on equal rights

    BO: more troops in the middle east now and a larger military budget than George W. Bush

    DK: advocates ending both wars quickly and large cuts in defense spending

    BO: center-right on health care

    DK: single payer health care system

    Now could Kucinich have beat McCain? Certainly not by the big margin Obama did, but I think he would have won given the economy. And if McCain somehow had won, it would be the GOP that took huge 2010 losses because of the economy and a demoralized GOP base that hated their president. So we'd have large democratic majorities in congress and a centrist republican president for 2011/2012. Now we have a narrow majority in one house and a centrist quasi-Republican president instead.

    In summary, I submit that Kucinich voters have been vindicated, all 2 or 3% of us! I read the RBC several times a week and look forward to mea culpas from the several early Obama supporters here.

  21. While I appreciate some of you coming around on Obama, and "moral cretin" is exactly right, it was clear he was Wall Street Democrat/Rockefeller Republican before he came into office by reviewing his brief but revealing Senate voting record.

    For example, he joined _every_ Senate Republican in voting for the "Class Action Fairness Act" in 2005. This put him well to the right of Bill Clinton, who vetoed various similar attempts to immunize large corporations from legal liability. It also put him to the right of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Mark Pryor, and Robert Byrd, who all voted no (together with every Senate progressive)

    Another revealing act very shortly after he came into office was his appointment of Mark Peterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, as chief of staff for the Treasury Secretary. His general incompetence and lack of concern for the party that elected was also quickly revealed by his filling up his cabinet with several of the most electable Democrats in conservative states (Salazar, Napolitano, and Sebelius).

  22. "…the Wikileaks documents show him trying to stop prosecutions of former Bush officials, a favor that the Bushies would never have returned."

    Jonathan, given the source I assume this refers to the agitations to prosecute these officials abroad (under e.g. "universal jurisdiction" laws in Spain). In which case your hypothetical about Bush administration policy and behavior in this matter had the situation been reversed is almost surely wrong. No US government is going to accept foreign jurisdiction over decisions of US officials regarding US policy even if the decisions are subsequently seen as wrong. Nor should they.

  23. Larry, it's not clear to me that the Spanish case is actually an instance of universal jurisdiction, because Spanish citizens were involved (the only really universal jurisdiction law IIRC was in Belgium, thankfully now repealed.). But you are right that the Bush Administration would have opposed Spanish prosecutions as well under those circumstances. What they would have done is prosecuted former officials from another administration themselves — a policy that Obama should take but will not.

  24. I agree with the basic analysis, but in order to understand why his personality is so conflict averse you have to bring in his race. I think that a minority has to behave in a certain fashion in the mostly white world of high level political power (as well as in Harvard level legal circles) in order to garner acceptance and be successful. The expected bahavior involves not being to pushy, too aggressive, and too confrontational.

    I think it is difficult for Obama to unlearn what has made him the President. That's is why you see him kowtowing to the Republicans, even when they treat him as if he has illegally usurped the Presidency from its rightful owners. So perhaps his behavior is not as much ideology driven as it is the product of the career trajectory that took him to the White House.

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