Biggest Surprise of Last Two Years: Bad at Losing.

A few weeks ago Jonathan Bernstein asked liberals “As the 111th Congress winds down, what’s your biggest disappointment of the things you expected to happen?”

Bad at Losing

I expected Obama to be a better loser, specifically to be better at losing. There were a lot of items on the table, a lot of them weren’t going to happen, but it was important for the new future of liberalism that the Obama team lost them well. And that hasn’t happened.

By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.

Let’s take an example of a lose: immigration. The assimilation of Hispanics into a central part of the United States is a long-term project, one that will go on beyond this Congress and any bill it may have passed.  Securing Hispanic votes is central to any theory of an emerging Democratic majority.  And it was going to be possible that any bill wouldn’t pass, given how difficult immigration bills were to move in the Bush years.

So this should have been something that was lost well. Here’s my major memory of the Obama administration on immigration:

Whenever Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and other immigrant-rights advocates asked President Obama how a Democratic administration could preside over the greatest number of deportations in any two-year period in the nation’s history, Obama’s answer was always the same.

Deporting almost 800,000 illegal immigrants might antagonize some Democrats and Latino voters, Obama’s skeptical supporters said the president told them, but stepped-up enforcement was the only way to buy credibility with Republicans and generate bipartisan support for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

On Saturday, that strategy was in ruins after Senate Democrats could muster only 55 votes in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act…

This is losing poorly. It makes major concessions without getting anything in return, conceding both pieces of flesh and the larger narrative to the other side. This unnecessarily splits those who support the Democrats on whether or not to support these actions. It doesn’t name the opponents of the effort to figure out ways of deploying pressure to change things. Without an obvious fight it’s not signaled that it was a priority. And the ultimate problem is that it doesn’t leave the coalition in better shape for the next battle.

This is true of many issues, ranging from unions fighting for the ability to unionize easier to the technology groups fighting for Net Neutrality.   Why should these groups be happier with the past two years, even if they thought on day one that they wouldn’t win anything?  How are either stronger for the next battle?

Candidate Obama’s chief blogger, Sam Graham-Felsen, recently asked Why is Obama leaving the grass roots on the sidelines? by not engaging those on the unprecedented email list Obama was able to create. I’d go further and ask where are the newer and/or stronger liberal groups that have emerged in the past two years? So many seem demoralized and confused and few new ones seem to exist at all, which is disturbing given the volume of people Democrats had in Congress going into this session.

This is a problem regardless of whether or not you think Obama is a progressive boxed in by failed institutions, a centrist Democratic in awe of Rubinomics who accidently stumbled into the largest downturn since the Great Depression, or a political neophyte who never fought a battle and, as an old-school liberal told Bill Greider “”was rolled by the bankers, then he was rolled by the generals, then he was rolled by the Blue Dogs and other Democrats who had no interest in going along with what he proposed.” Regardless of where the Democrats want to go they need people and institutions to help them get there, and it’s not clear that we are any closer to getting those in place.

In my book, this matters.  As Ziad Munson’s ethnography of the Pro-Life movement argued “mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion.” People aren’t simply acting out unconscious political codes and rules like a processor, and people aren’t simply rational consumers maximizing a matrix of orthogonal political preferences by choosing among competing parties. Politics is a process, and a person’s political habitus is created by engagement in institutions based on their views that in turn change those views and push on the institutions themselves.  If we want a dominate liberalism, institutions to engage people need to be grown and nurtured.

The Other Surprise Disappointments

As for specific issues: In 100 years the thing that will matter the most is our failure to get started on combating global warming and carbon in the atmosphere. Oceans will acidify, the Earth will heat, hopefully it won’t become a cascading process that feeds itself, and by that time change will be much harder. Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece on the bill failing in the Senate is excellent at showing why it’s difficult to get a 60th vote, as well as the executive branch stumbling over any hopes of this bill in some major ways (giving away off-shoring drilling, which Senators were hoping to trade for votes, for instance).  Like immigration, the plan seemed to be “hoping Lindsey Graham is a decent guy” rather than planning out for the next decade of what will need to be done.

My biggest disappointment was the continuation of the Bush-era policies regarding the Unitary Executive, expanded powers regarding detention and other civil libertarian issues.  I look at it from the point of view of people working on the front lines and in the middle offices.  You can have good or bad people, conscientious versus authoritarian people, but they largely work within a framework they inherit. If the framework and institutions are corrupt, then the final practices they produce will be as well.

Imagine a military analyst who joins in 2001 at age 25, perhaps in response to 9/11. If Obama goes a second-term, that analyst will be around 41 when the next President comes, and our current policies of black sites, wiretapping, etc. will just be “the way things are.” We’ll have a generation of military and information bureaucrats  that has entered into that atmosphere that won’t know anything different and that will then continue to perpetrate that apparatus, regardless of who is in charge.  This worries me more than any specific transgression (though the specific ones do worry me).  Hence why a cleansing of policies was necessary, and we didn’t get it.

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32 Responses to Biggest Surprise of Last Two Years: Bad at Losing.

  1. Mandrake says:

    As usual, excellent post. I would argue another disappointment, which really ties into exactly what you’re saying, was the assumption that Republicans would work in good faith to do what was best for the country. That, after the healthcare debate (debacle), the administration continued along that same path demonstrated an inability to reassess and adjust strategies. It could be said that the accomplishments of the lame duck session (to the extent that one can consider them successes after the pay freeze on government workers and the tax deal) were pyrrhic victories, the punishment for which are to come in the 112th Congress.

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  3. noompa says:

    I’ve heard some voice the objection as “let Bartlet be Bartlet”. The worrying thing is, on current evidence, I don’t even know if Bartlet IS Bartlet. Wrong expectations, or wrong person?

  4. I wish I could say Obama surprised with his … uh, shortcomings. Turns out he was pretty much as expected, a Wall Street front-man, a closet Republican, like his mentor- at a remove Bill Clinton.

    The institutions that supported liberalism from the civil rights era have been undermined by ‘progress’ and a tsunami of Chinese made junk. Obama won the presidency because he was an iteration of Willie Horton the GOP couldn’t fade like they faded Gore, Kerry, and Dukakis, not because he was a great leader. Now what?

    It’s hard to say what the energy- driven economy will leave us after it has had its sport, maybe something that completely new institutions can be built from. Right now it is impossible to see what these might look like or what their presumptions might be built upon.

    Sit back and wait …

    • rose says:

      i agreewith you on many things you have said except the
      part about Clinton ………Obama doesn’t even come close to what
      Clinton did, to help all people, not just his chosen
      few……………..That press conference showed us or maybe
      reminded us of the grasp Clinton has on the issues and really can
      talk without needing the teleprompter. He got into the issues and
      understood them and then could explain them. not so much

  5. Chris Gaun says:

    Nice post. Although I don’t know if “pound of flesh” is a good go-to literary reference.


  6. lark says:

    Your priorities are different than mine. I supported the DREAM act but also the increased immigration enforcement. The Obama people were right about the need for that. It also sends a message to the American people: that the administration will not simply ignore the business use of illegal labor, with its consequences of driving down wages and jobs for citizens. This approach is a no brainer.

    My chief disappointment with Obama is that he and his people don’t grasp or don’t take seriously what has happened to the job market and to inequality, over the last 20 years. They are not prepared to re-think free trade and the whole outsourcing conundrum. They are not challenging corporate control of our economy and political system. That is the disaster. What goes along with that is their failure to pass legislation removing some of the unfair barriers to unionization. That is a very poor decision with large consequences.

  7. Ed says:

    I agree that it is not surprising how often he lost but quite shocking how incompetent he seems while doing it.

    He simply does. not. understand. that the Senate GOP has no desire to work with him. And now that he has wasted two years futilely pursuing “bipartisanship” he’s doing the inevitable “move to the center” strategy. Just think, he could have staked out a position that was actually on the left before playing the centrism game after the midterms.

    Health care reform set the tone for his entire presidency, and nothing is surprising or disappointing anymore. It’s just a big wad of sad. He had one chance to put his foot down and do something Big, and he let insurance industry lobbyists write a bill that makes no sense, probably isn’t constitutional, and will be dissembled before it even goes into effect.

    He’s just a bad negotiator, that’s all there is to it. Great campaigner, zero useful skills for governing.

  8. Frank Youell says:

    Does anyone really think Obama gained any credibility by deporting illegal alien criminals? That’s like saying we should all be thankful that Obama didn’t stop sending out Social Security checks.

    Remember the illegals in question are folks who entered the criminal justice system for non-immigration related crimes or were known violators of explicit court orders to leave the U.S.

    The fact that anyone would suggest that these folks not be kicked out shows the depravity and moral bankruptcy of the Open Borders crowd.

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  10. gmanedit says:

    Stop being a sucker. He’s doing what he was groomed and hired to do: bring austerity to the masses and destroy the opposition. He’s not on your side. In fact, he’s destroying your side.

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  12. nahummer says:

    So many losses, so little to show for them. Couldn’t agree more with the theme of the post and the sentiment of many commentators. The ‘left’ has disappeared as a real force over the past 30 years leaving us in a place where we feel like we’re screaming at the top of our lungs into an abyss. For me, the Bush tax cut extension was the worst loss as it has set the stage for permanence while dooming the estate tax at the same time.

  13. Ron Alley says:

    Take no prisoners is not Obama’s goal nor the Democratic leadership’s goal. Their policy is get along by going along. I think you should realize that there is shared responsibility between Obama and the Democratic leadership. Senator Reid had the majority to change the filibuster rules in the Senate in 2009. His failure to do so allowed the Blue Dogs (some now dead dogs) and the Republicans to obstruct healthcare reform and to block the tax changes Obama promised in 2008.

    It also led to the House packaging legislation in an attempt to attract Blue Dog support to end filibusters. The Blue Dogs drove compromises and supported Republican obstruction in a way that made the Democrats look weak, contentious, ineffective and unworthy of support. Of course the Republicans found it much easier to ridicule the confused, compromised and failed policy reflected in healthcare reform than a bold change reflected in coherent legislation signed by a President who promised real change.

    The acid test will be whether Senator Reid changes the filibuster rules to put the Republicans on the spot for their obstructionist tactics. If he fails to make changes that put a name and a face on obstruction, Boehner will push through legislation that will McConnell will use to pillory Democrats in the Senate. If Boehner and McConnell succeed, the Democratic leaders in 2012 will remember fondly their success at the polls in 2010.

  14. bandit says:

    takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame

    Sorry – that’s a bug not a feature. That benefits no one and turns possible cooperation into competition. For long term success and the good of the country leaving the other side feeling screwed over isn’t beneficial.

    • Ron Alley says:


      “Takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame” is precisely tactic employed by the Republican leadership in Congress. Just look at how the voters responded to the Republicans’ crass tactics on Nov 2, 2010. Do you suppose that Boehner will look for bipartisanship opportunities during the next two years?

  15. We get conservative policy outcomes from Obama because Obama is a conservative.

    No matter what his dwindling faction of fans might believe, or at least say — Those are the facts on the ground.

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  18. ken whitley says:

    I hoped. But, I think he is too young and inexperienced for the job – the most important job at the most difficult time in my seventy-two years. At 72 I read the obits. Seems the decade of the seventies is the big one. I read today in the NYTimes obits about a Philosopher who died at the age of sixty-six. I thought how could one call himself a Philosopher at age 66. I thought I could tell him some stuff that he didn’t know simply because I had lived some years longer than him. I voted, pull, pray, hope for Barack Obama but I wish he would call on me. You know, just bounce some stuff off me. I want so bad for him to succeed. Perhaps he will, yet.

  19. Wat says:

    Here is a petition to reform elections, so that Congress will obey the people not corporations:
    If we act now, we might still save our country.

  20. yorksranter says:

    I don’t think much of arguments from will, but I do think there is an angle that’s been missed – the lobbies and interest groups that matter are, to a large degree, the ones that people believe to matter. If the prez chooses to behave as if the Roosevelt Institute was as influential as AEI was to Cheney, that alters others’ political calculations no matter what the objective situation of the RI.

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  22. David Okum says:

    CHANGE over the last two years
    January 2009 to TODAY % chg. Source
    Avg.. Retail price/gallon gas in U.S. $1.83 $3.104 69.6% 1
    Crude oil, European Brent (barrel) $43..48 $99..02 127.7% 2
    Crude oil, West TX Inter. (barrel) $38..74 $91..38 135.9% 2
    Gold: London (per troy oz.) $853.25 $1,369.50 60.5% 2
    Corn, No.2 yellow, Central IL $3.56 $6.33 78.1% 2
    Soybeans, No. 1 yellow, IL $9.66 $13..75 42.3% 2
    Sugar, cane, raw, world, lb. Fob $13..37 $35..39 164.7% 2
    Unemployment rate, non-farm, overall 7.6% 9.4% 23.7% 3
    Unemployment rate, blacks 12.6% 15.8% 25.4% 3
    Number of unemployed 11,616,000 14,485,000 24.7% 3
    Number of fed. Employees, ex. Military (curr = 12/10 prelim)
    2,779,000 2,840,000 2.2% 3
    Real median household income (2008 v 2009) $50,112 $49,777 -0.7% 4
    Number of food stamp recipients (curr = 10/10)
    31,983,716 43,200,878 35.1% 5
    Number of unemployment benefit recipients (curr = 12/10)
    7,526,598 9,193,838 22.2% 6
    Number of long-term unemployed 2,600,000 6,400,000 146.2% 3
    Poverty rate, individuals (2008 v 2009) 13.2% 14.3% 8.3% 4
    People in poverty in U.S. (2008 v 2009) 39,800,000 43,600,000 9.5% 4
    U.S.. Rank in Economic Freedom World Rankings
    5 9 n/a 10
    Present Situation Index (curr = 12/10) 29.9 23.5 -21.4% 11
    Failed banks (curr = 2010 + 2011 to date) 140 164 17.1% 12
    U.S.. Dollar versus Japanese yen exchange rate
    89.76 82.03 -8.6% 2
    U.S.. Money supply, M1, in billions (curr = 12/10 prelim)
    1,575.1 1,865.7 18.4% 13
    U.S.. Money supply, M2, in billions (curr = 12/10 prelim)
    8,310.9 8,852.3 6.5% 13
    National debt, in trillions $10..627 $14..052 32.2% 14
    Just take this last item: In the last two years we have accumulated national debt at a rate more than 27 times as fast as during the rest of our entire nation’s history.. Over 27 times as fast.
    Metaphorically speaking, if you are driving in the right lane doing 65 MPH and a car rockets past you in the left lane. 27 times faster, it would be doing 7,555 MPH!

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