When faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. -- Drew Weston, New York TimesThe lead article in the New York Times' Sunday Review asks, What Happened to Obama? Since his inauguration, Drew Westen, persuasively argues, the President, with all his eloquence, has utterly failed to provide us with a compelling narrative of how our economy ended in tatters, who was responsible and how he would go about restoring it. And perhaps most importantly, he has not offered "a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it."
I have been searching for an explanation as to why Obama has been so ineffectual. I had not deluded myself when I supported him that he was some kind of great progressive visionary. But I did think he possessed core liberal values, was a genuinely compassionate human being, and was extremely smart. So, what to make of another spectacular capitulation where he appears to have been completely outwitted by the right wing?
Westen posits a few possibilities. Perhaps he has "succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that 'centrist' voters like 'centrist' politicians." Or "he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history." Another explanation is he "either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election." He may have been "corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars," and thus his unwillingness or inability to point to "the villain[s] who caused the problem," reflects not merely his aversion to conflict, but "an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors."
Westen's final explanation "is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation."
The disturbing truth, in my opinion, is none of these -- that while he would have preferred what he called a "more balanced approach" on the debt ceiling negotiations, he essentially got what he wanted. As Paul Krugman writes, when it comes to economic matters, it appears that Obama really is a "moderate conservative."
Thus, as Matt Taibbi had the audacity to ask: "Is it possible that by 'surrendering' at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?"
Tragically, the answer seems to be yes.
As Glenn Greenwald writes:
It appears to be true that the President wanted tax revenues to be part of this deal. But it is absolutely false that he did not want these brutal budget cuts and was simply forced -- either by his own strategic "blunders" or the "weakness" of his office -- into accepting them. The evidence is overwhelming that Obama has long wanted exactly what he got: these severe domestic budget cuts and even ones well beyond these, including Social Security and Medicare, which he is likely to get with the Super-Committee.
One of my favorite fiction writers, Kevin Baker, wrote a remarkably prescient article for Harpers, Barack Hoover Obama, three months into Obama's presidency, when Obama was already disappointing us with his now familiar combination of caution and compromise. At that time the catastrophic issues left us by the Bush Administration included a worldwide depression, a failing health care system, climate change, bank bailouts, the wars on terror, and Guantanamo. Baker's concern was that Obama was doomed to fail because while the times called for extreme measures, "Obama will be unable -- indeed he will refuse -- to seize the radical moment at hand." How right he was.
While Drew Westen contrasts Obama with FDR, Baker compared him to FDR's predecessor, Herbert Hoover, who when elected in 1928, "was widely considered the most capable public figure in the country." Like Obama, Hoover had great intelligence, education, and broad life experience. He had shown great compassion, generosity and bravery in providing food to Chinese Christians during the Boxer Rebelion of 1900, and to the people of occupied Belgium and France during World War I. As president during the Depression, Hoover clearly understood the suffering of the American people, but he "could not break with the prevailing beliefs of his day." Even if he understood that greater government intervention was required, he was locked into a world view that inherently trusted big business, volunteerism and that prosperity was around the corner.
Baker wrote that "much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past -- without accepting the inevitable conflict."
Now doubt that Obama has had to overcome huge hurdles, including "the utter fecklessness of the American elite," as well as the "torpor among Obama's fellow Democrats."
One might have assumed that the adrenaline rush of regaining power after decades of conservative hegemony, not to mention relief at surviving the depredations of the Bush years, or losing the vestigial tale of the white Southern branch of the party, would have liberated congressional Democrats to loose a burst of pent-up, imaginative liberal initiatives.Baker noted how Obama "with a laudable respect for the separation of powers, has left the details and even the main tenets of his agenda to be worked out by these same congressional Democrats." Baker may have been talking about the health care and climate change debates, but it applies equally to the budget and debt ceiling debates. This exercise in democracy, which may be drawn from his days as a community organizer when it might have been an effective strategy to help neighborhoods decide how to use their resources does not work in dealing with the Congress.
Instead we have seen a parade of aged satraps from vast, windy places stepping forward to tell us what is off the table. Every week, there is another Max Baucus of Montana, another Kent Conrad of North Dakota, another Ben Nelson of Nebraska, huffing and puffing and harrumphing that we had better forget about single-payer health care, a carbon tax, nationalizing the banks, funding for mass transit, closing tax loopholes for the rich. These men with tiny constituencies who sat for decades in the Senate without doing or saying anything of note, who acquiesced shamelessly to the worst abuses of the Bush Administration and who come forward now to chide the president for not concentrating enough on reducing the budget deficit, or for "trying to do too much," as it he were as old and as indolent as they are.
When you listen to Obama's speeches, it is clear that he grasps the magnitude of the problems facing the country -- just as Hoover did. "But like Hoover, Obama has been unable to make his actions live up to his words." Baker contended that Obama's acquiescence in ceding so much of the process "seems not so much tactical as a reversion to his core political beliefs."
Bill Clinton, according to Baker, is the politician Obama admires most. This is certainly borne out in the number of former Clinton officials and advisers that populate the Obama Administration. Baker quoted The Audacity of Hope, in which Obama appreciated that Clinton "instinctively understood the falseness of the choice being presented to the American people," and "tapped into the pragmatic, non-ideological attitude of the majority of Americans."
Baker explained that "just as Herbert Hoover came to internalize the 'business progressivism' of his era," Obama has "internalized what might be called Clinton's 'business liberalism." Unfortunately, this has resulted in "as much a capitulation to powerful and and selfish interests as was Hoover's 1920s progressivism." It isn't really pragmatism as much as it is "surrender to the usual corporate interests."
What Obama needs to do is be less like Hoover and more like FDR, who understood the "rough and tumble" of politics and had the creativity to "patch and borrow and fudge his way to solutions not only to the Depression but also to sustained prosperity and democracy." FDR, like Obama, "took office imagining that he could bring all classes of Americans together in some big, mushy, cooperative scheme." But after being disabused of this notion he quickly "threw himself into the bumptious give-and-take of practical politics."
As Baker concluded, Obama must similarly "seize the radical moment at hand," rather than like Hoover move "prudently, carefully, reasonably, toward disaster." Now that would be change I could believe in.