The view from the bubble
They say we’re entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Except, of course, if we’re Paul Krugman:
When it comes to Barack Obama, I’ve always been out of sync. Back in 2008, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, I was skeptical. I worried that he was naive, that his talk about transcending the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern American right. Furthermore, it seemed clear to me that, far from being the transformational figure his supporters imagined, he was rather conventional-minded: Even before taking office, he showed signs of paying far too much attention to what some of us would later take to calling Very Serious People, people who regarded cutting budget deficits and a willingness to slash Social Security as the very essence of political virtue.
And I wasn’t wrong. Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP’s unwillingness to make even token concessions.
But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.
As usual, his screed is filled with cherry picked statistics, unsupported claims, and plenty of vitriol for those who don’t agree with him. He uses these weapons, such as they are, to paint a picture of Barack Obama as a consequential and successful president. While I certainly won’t argue with consequential (there have certainly been consequences for electing Obama), the bar Krugman sets for success is convenient for his case but meaningless to Americans outside the elite bubble.
How does Krugman address this?
Yes, Obama has a low approval rating compared with earlier presidents. But there are a number of reasons to believe that presidential approval doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to: There is much more party-sorting (in which Republicans never, ever have a good word for a Democratic president, and vice versa), the public is negative on politicians in general, and so on. Obviously the midterm election hasn’t happened yet, but in a year when Republicans have a huge structural advantage – Democrats are defending a disproportionate number of Senate seats in deep-red states – most analyses suggest that control of the Senate is in doubt, with Democrats doing considerably better than they were supposed to. This isn’t what you’d expect to see if a failing president were dragging his party down.
More important, however, polls – or even elections – are not the measure of a president. High office shouldn’t be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better. Has Obama done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes.
Krugman’s point about changing the country for the better is an interesting one. It inevitably leads to the question of better for whom. We the people, pesky knaves who base our opinions on the reality we face every day, have been rejecting the claim that Obama has been successful in poll after poll for years.
That rejection is not hard to understand. Jobs are still hard to come by. Our hours have been cut. Our benefits have been slashed. Our savings haven’t earned interest in half a decade. We see more and more people on the streets, not just in big cities but in suburban towns. We know we might be one job loss away from joining them. We see a generation graduating from college into a hopeless economic situation. We know our children might be next. Worst of all, we’ve had to listen to the media trumpet recovery and economic good news while our situations are still terrible.
Instead of acknowledging the reality faced by the people, Krugman moves to silence and marginalize us. Our opinions are due to partisanship and being down on politicians in general. With a wave of a hand, he rewrites our stories to fit his narrative. This leaves room to for Krugman to explain Obama’s successes using only his preferences and priorities for reference. Inside the bubble, he matters and we don’t.