Jonathan Chait’s Not-So-Magical Thinking

As progressive criticism of the Obama administration has intensified, the critics of the critics have stepped forward to defend the White House. Much of the case comes down to saying that Obama’s lefty critics don’t know how the game is played in Washington.

Jonathan Chait from the New Republic had a New York Times Magazine piece this weekend (9/4/11) taking issue with Obama critics like Glenn Greenwald, accusing them of “magical thinking” about the power of the presidency. As the argument goes, Congress can stop what the White House wants to do, so you can’t blame Obama for not winning more progressive victories.

I am fairly certain that people like Greenwald or Paul Krugman know how Congress works. Their criticism of Obama is more substantive–that the policies he advocates aren’t very good even before one factors in what Eric Cantor or John Boehner are going to say about them.

The next part of his critique was even less convincing. Chait wrote that Obama’s liberal critics think he should have been bolder on the economy, but there’s a problem:

It’s worth recalling that several weeks before Obama proposed an $800 billion stimulus, House Democrats had floated a $500 billion stimulus. (Oddly, this never resulted in liberals portraying Nancy Pelosi as a congenitally timid right-wing enabler.) At the time, Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders–that is to say, just about everybody who mattered–as mind-bogglingly large. News reports invariably described it as “huge,” “massive” or other terms suggesting it was unrealistically large, even kind of pornographic. The favored cliché used to describe the reaction in Congress was “sticker shock.”

If I’m understanding this correctly, Chait is saying that media coverage of the debate over the stimulus was terribly misleading. That seems true. But how does that have any bearing on what his critics are saying? As this Firedoglake post pointed out, plenty of nonentities like Dean Baker, James Galbraith and Mark Zandi argued at the time that the stimulus wasn’t large enough. If Chait’s point is that these economists “don’t matter” in elite circles, he might have a point. But that’s a very different critique than the one he’s making–and one that actually makes a lot more sense than his other argument.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.