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The Forgotten Primary

Rebecca Traister makes a number of excellent points about looking back at the Clinton/Obama primary matchup through the lens of what we now know. One issue about this that I think people tend to under-emphasize, however, is the extent to which the Obama presidency has been dominated by issues that didn’t exist during the period when most people were making up their minds.

People forget how important the agenda space is. Right now, and for most of the past two years, most progressives have regarded believe in the desirability of large-scale deficit-financed fiscal stimulus (ideally spending focused) as importantly constitutive of progressive politics. That simply wasn’t the case in August of 2007 when I gave Obama $250. Conversely, at the current moment, the idea that we need to move beyond quick fixes and talk about resolving long-term structural issues in the economy is coded as a centrist or center-right view. Back in the first half of 2008, it would have been the reverse. The economy was clearly experiencing a recession, but the depth of the recession was unclear. A focus on demand-side stimulus to cure the recession was a kind of moderate view, while a real progressive would see the recession as simply illustrating the need for a more ambitious agenda of policy reform.

By the time the recession actually got terrifyingly bad, the primary was long gone. It’s a kind of strange quirk of history that the worst quarters of the recession were Q4 of 2008 and Q1 of 2009, corresponding to the lame duck and transition periods. Our experience of the Obama administration has been dominated by the fallout of events that mostly happened after the election. So when people say that they thought Obama would be like this or thought he would be like that, in many ways they’re misremembering. If you’re honest with yourself, three years ago you just weren’t thinking much at all about how Obama would respond to persistent 9 percent unemployment. That such a thing could happen was barely on anyone’s radar.

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