Where Obama’s Gone Wrong

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Yesterday saw another round of the “should liberals be mad at Barack Obama” debate, spurred by this essay from my former boss Robert Kuttner who thinks the answer is yes. That prompted rebuttals from two other former TAPers, Jonathan Cohn and Jonathan Chait both of which I largely agree with.

But to give Obama critics their due, there’s a whole range of other topics on which I really do think the administration has been screwing up and where he’s largely been let off the hook. First and foremost in my mind has been the unaccountable delays in filling the vacant seats on the Federal Reserve Board. The names weren’t announced until late April of 2010 and the first committee hearing on the picks isn’t coming until next week. This is the kind of issue where the White House is very likely to get its way if it bothers to care, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered. Relatedly, I’m not sure that re-appointing Ben Bernanke was a mistake, but it seems problematic to me. And the combination of reappointing Bernanke and not acting expeditiously to fill vacancies has create the absurd situation wherein amidst global economic calamity it’s left to a conservative Bush administration holdover to anchor the left wing on the most important economic policymaking body in the country. It’s nuts and even though nobody realizes it, by prolonging the downturn this scant attention to monetary matters is sinking the rest of the progressive agenda.

A similar issue, about which I’m less well-informed of the details, is filling in the vacancies on the lower courts. It’s true that there’s been a fair amount of obstructionism on these topics (see, e.g., Goodwin Liu) but it’s also true that the number of nominees is far less than the number of vacancies. Presidents get more deference from the opposition party on judges than on legislation (look at Elena Kagan sailing to confirmation) and they get much more deference from their own party on judges. Precisely because the president’s powers are constrained in many respects, it’s crucial to really act in those areas where the constraints are fewer. After the midterms, getting judges confirmed will be a fair bit harder and very little progress will have been made in the first two years.