How to Turn an Apology into a Presidential Indictment

February 26, 2013   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX


By Marie Burns:

New York Times columnist David Brooks begins today’s column with a half-baked apology for his last column:

 In Friday’s column, I wrote that the Obama administration has no plan to avoid the sequester save raising taxes on the rich. That was unfair. The White House approach is not what I would like, but it is more balanced than I described. Humiliation is a good teacher.

(For more on Brooks’ Friday fiasco, see my New York Times eXaminer column, “White House Slams Brooks.”)

Needless to say, Brooks does not dwell for a nanosecond on his “humiliation.” Rather, he turns it into an indictment of three Presidents.

First, he describes what was wrong with President Clinton’s centrist approach: “… since then, we’ve had two decades in which inequality has gotten worse, the structural problems that slow growth have accumulated and debt levels have exploded. We simply need more robust policies than anything modeled in that era of centrism.” Apparently, legislation passed during George Bush’s terms in office had nothing to do with increasing inequality, slowing growth and exploding debt levels.

The problem, as Brooks sees it, is that President Obama is trying in his second term “to be the liberal Reagan.” In Brooks’ estimation, a “liberal Reagan” is a compulsive re-actor, not a B-movie actor: “The Republicans attack government, so the Democrats defend government. The Republicans champion the individual, so the Democrats champion the collective.”

The result of Obama’s bad choice to be the anti-Reagan, Brooks says, “is that this approach locks us into the same debate framework we’ve been stuck in since 1980, which has produced so much gridlock. If politics is framed in this way, then the country divides and policy stagnates. We will keep having these endless budget squabbles. The dysfunction will metastasize.” That is, any leader who argues that government and collective responsibility are defensible is causing Congressional Republicans to “squabble” with Democrats.

One need only slightly rephrase Brooks’ critiques to see how ridiculous they are. What I found amusing about this one was that Brooks managed to indict both Saint Ronald of Reagan and Obama the Collectivist. Reagan famously said, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” So it was he who caused more than 30 years of gridlock. Obama’s failure has been not to undo Reagan’s failure: “My main complaint with Obama,” says Brooks, “is that he promised to move us beyond these stale debates, but he’s, instead, become a participant in them.”

Brooks writes, “My dream Obama would take advantage of the fact that only the president can fundamentally shift the terms.” (Emphasis added.) Brooks goes through a litany of things Obama should say about nurturing investments and the family and stuff. Brooks posits that if President Obama would talk more about means-testing Medicare to save the children, etc., etc., those rudderless Congressional Tea Party Regulars would suddenly come around and Washington would once again become the Good Ship Bipartisan, as it was in the good ole days; i.e., Before Reagan. I’ll leave it to the very reliable Dean Baker to mock Brooks’ policy proposals: “It’s not sufficient in David Brooksland to have just one party that openly advocates redistributing money to rich people. Of course Brooks doesn’t put the agenda he imagines as bold in these terms, but these are two of his three big points.”

Once you’ve pondered that Brooksian “dream” of a two-party system dedicated to the rich, let us examine Brooks’ “Great Presidents” argument. According to his thesis, a great president is not a liberal (Obama), a conservative (Reagan) or a centrist (Clinton). According to Brooks, Teddy Roosevelt was a great president, and what made him great was that he saw “situations differently.” I guess so. Roosevelt did manage to push a great deal of important legislation through Congress. He did not, as Brooks would have it, do so via Bipartisanspeak. If Teddy saw things differently, he said them differently, too:

TR’s relationship with Congress in general was strained. Roosevelt consistently insulted the time-consuming debate with which it operated and called members ‘scoundrels and crooks’ and ‘fools.’ … [“When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not guilty.’” Roosevelt once said.] The Senators and Representatives resented the steady rise in presidential power that had been occurring since 1877, and resented even more Theodore Roosevelt’s usual tone of command….

The legislative branch could also feel disenfranchised because of the public criticism that failure to act during Roosevelt’s administration always brought. However much politicians worried about his individualism, the public always loved TR…. Roosevelt … knew how to publicize himself, as well. Roosevelt was known to act as his own press secretary, using leaks, background interviews, exclusive stories, and more.

As I write, Barack Obama is in Newport News, Virginia, urging members of the public to put pressure on their representatives to end the sequester. Very TR of him, don’t you think? Why isn’t Obama spending this energy by directly addressing Congress, as Brooks suggests? Perhaps it is because President Obama has tried that tack many times. Or perhaps it is because President Obama knows that his best rhetoric could not move a Congress of men and women who view him as a cross between the Anti-Christ and a Communist sleeper. Moreover, President Obama has acknowledged that many of these members of Congress come from bright red districts. These are districts in which members of Congress are assured re-election as long as they do not compromise with Communist Prez and his Democratic fellow-travelers.

If the heart of David Brooks’ Friday column was a lie, the heart of his column today is irresponsible nonsense. It is its own sort of lie — not in its presentation of a “Dream President,” but in its pretense of a “Fantasy Congress,” one whose members can be moved by logic or patriotism or pragmatism or anything. As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post writes today,

 The idea that the President can necessarily bend Congress to his will is indeed a ‘dream.’ It doesn’t reckon with the most fundamental question at the heart of all of this: What if there is nothing whatsoever that can be done by the president or anyone else to break the GOP out of its no-compromising stance. This isn’t an unreasonable reading of the situation; it’s what Republicans themselves have confirmed, publicly and on the record – they will not concede a penny in new revenues, no matter what. And if this is the case – if the fundamental problem is that Republicans really do prefer the sequester to any compromise – isn’t it incumbent on commentators to explain this clearly and forthrightly to their readers? … Anyone who helps deflect blame from Republicans — in the full knowledge that they are the primary obstacle to the compromise we need to prevent serious damage from being done to the country — is unwittingly helping to enable their intransigence.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo doesn’t name names, but Brooks is surely among those he had in mind when he wrote: “Over the last few days, as it’s become increasingly clear that the sequester cuts probably really will happen, the big name pundits are coming forward and complaining that President Obama needs to step forward and ‘exercise leadership’ and solve the problem.”

The American public largely agrees with President Obama’s policy approaches. His public approval rating, at 55 percent, is 20 points higher than the GOP’s approval rating. Congress’s approval rating is in the mid-teens. Despite the bad economy, President Obama won re-election by 5 million votes, Senate Democrats picked up seats in the election, and a million more Americans voted for House Democrats than for Republican House candidates. Yet David Brooks argues that the key to “presidential leadership” is subverting both the public will and the common good to accommodate the unpopular right-wing agenda of Congressional Republicans.

David Brooks’ “Dream Obama” would be America’s nightmare.

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (1)

  1. Dave says:

    “Needless to say, Brooks does not dwell for a nanosecond on his “humiliation.””

    Maybe Mr Brooks could take a course on humility.


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