Washington Babylon — December 15, 2009, 12:56 pm

Taibbi vs. Obama (and the Liberal Blogosphere)

Unemployment stands at over 10 percent, meaningful health care reform is collapsing, and the banks have reaped huge profits thanks to the Obama administration’s policies. Naturally, liberal bloggers are upset–but with Matt Taibbi, not Obama.

Taibbi has a piece in Rolling Stone entitled Obama’s Big Sellout, which says: “What’s taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history”:

Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

I don’t agree with everything in the piece, in particular the “sellout” framework (because Obama’s image as a a crusading reformer was always a myth). I profiled Obama for Harper’s back in 2006, writing at the time:

The question, though, is just how effective—let alone reformist—Obama’s approach can be in a Washington grown hostile to reform and those who advocate it. After a quarter century when the Democratic Party to which he belongs has moved steadily to the right, and the political system in general has become thoroughly dominated by the corporate perspective, the first requirement of electoral success is now the ability to raise staggering sums of money. For Barack Obama, this means that mounting a successful career, especially one that may include a run for the presidency, cannot even be attempted without the kind of compromising and horse trading that may, in fact, render him impotent.

But Taibbi’s piece is provocative, entertaining and often times dead-on. Yet the semi-hysterical quality of the response to his article, seen most clearly in an American Prospect piece by Tim Fernholz, makes you wonder about the motives of those criticizing Taibbi. They seem to either not like him personally or perhaps they just can’t bring themselves to face what’s obvious by now, namely that if you’re a liberal Democrat, the Obama years are going to be a huge disappointment.

Some of Fernholz’s criticism is bizarre. Taibbi wrote that Karen Kornbluh didn’t get an administration job and “was rewarded for being the chief policy architect of Obama’s meteoric rise by being outfitted with a pith helmet and booted across the ocean to Paris, where she now serves as America’s never-again-to-be-seen-on-TV ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Fernholz pounces on this statement as being allegedly one of the cases where Taibbi got it totally wrong. “The reasons why Kornbluh didn’t get a job remain unclear,” he writes, “but she lost her influence earlier in the year while Obama campaign and she remained in Washington as his Senate Office policy director and later at the DNC, where she played an important role by crafting the 2008 Democratic platform. She currently serves as U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.”

What precisely is it that Taibbi got wrong here? Fernholz has pretty much rewritten Taibbi’s sentence and then pretended that he’s uncovered a smoking gun error.

(Note: I would question Taibbi’s characterization of Kornbluh as being “known for pushing Democrats to focus on the plight of the poor and middle class.” Like a lot of the Obama appointees that Taibbi criticizes, Kornbluh used to work for Robert Rubin.)

Matthew Yglesias had more measured criticism of Taibbi’s story, saying it “ignored Congress”:

The problem is that to accomplish the things I want to see accomplished, people who want change need to correctly identify the obstacles to change. If members of Congress are replaced by less-liberal members in the midterms, then the prospects for changing the status quo will be diminished. By contrast, if members are replaced by more-liberal members (either via primaries or general elections) the prospects for changing the status will be improved. Back before the 2008 election, it would frequently happen that good bills passed congress and got vetoed by the president. Since Obama got elected, that doesn’t happen anymore. Now instead Obama proposes things that get watered down or killed in congress.

There is definitely some truth to the argument but it lets Obama off easy. The president obviously can’t get his way on everything, but it matters when he makes his priorities clear and shows that he intends to fight. When he indicates that he doesn’t care much nor plan to fight, Congress gets the message and time and again Obama has shown that he’s not willing to fight on key issues.

The most obvious example is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for workers to organize unions. Obama supported EFCA on the campaign trail, when he needed union votes, but he stopped talking about it as soon as he was elected. Democrats in Congress took the cue and the legislation bogged down; if it ever passes, it will be a watered-down version, and that won’t entirely be the fault of Congress.

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