04.26.09 How’s He Doing?
Is Barack Obama too centrist and timid? Or is he brilliantly husbanding his political capital for the fights ahead?
We knew during the campaign that Obama was no super-progressive – there were often dangerously moderate pronouncements coming from the campaign on a variety of issues. And Obama’s post-election appointments hardly represented a departure from the past. But it was abundantly clear (especially to those of us who read Dreams from My Father) that this was no conservative. Here was a man of progressive instincts, combined with a strong sense of purpose and wisdom to get things done.
In one sense, Barack Obama is already the change we can believe in, simply by not being W. This is clearly not an evil president and administration, driven by hard-right ideology and showing utter contempt for the world, the future, and reality itself. The stark change from the last administration is a breath of fresh air, a cause for celebration every single day.
But there are devils in the details.
The Stimulus Package. In the name of bipartisanship, Obama gave away the store before the conversations in Congress even began, by including hundreds of billions in tax cuts. This maneuver, apparently aimed at getting Republican support, failed miserably as a negotiating and political tactic. First, one should never begin negotiations by caving – that guarantees an outcome distant from the original objective. Second, the GOP wasn’t interested in serving the country at all (big surprise, eh?), regardless of the incentives they were offered.
The tax cuts are also a component of the likely substantive failure of the overall package: they are not stimulative, producing only increased saving rates by the wealthy, rather than spending by the rest of us. And the whole package was way too small. A significant number of economists believe that the stimulus needed to be twice as large to jumpstart the economy.
The Bank Bailouts. With an economic team made up of Wall Street robber barons, it is no surprise that the Obama administration is taking piecemeal action whose main purpose seems to be preserving the financial sector, as we know it. Geithner & Co. are purposely covering up the magnitude of the banking mess so as to avoid having to tear it all down and start over. Instead of nationalizing the banks, firing the fools and scoundrels that run them, and wiping out the shareholders, huge infusions of cash are going towards keeping the sick beast limping along. We can expect the bleeding and cash infusions to continue, all so that Wall Street culture – and bonuses – might possibly emerge on the other side unscathed.
Secrecy Rules for “Terrorism” Trials. On this topic, there is apparently no difference at all between Obama and Bush. They both maintain that fair trials for the captives the US has been holding for years are impossible, because too much truth might come out. This is extremely disappointing, to say the least.
Torture. The picture has improved in the past week, but Obama is still more interested in moving on than in uncovering the truth and punishing evil. I can understand the president’s interest in avoiding partisan warfare that consumes political capital and prevents progress on other urgent issues. But investigating and prosecuting crimes against humanity is not optional.
Imagine Germany without the Nuremberg Trials. Imagine South Africa without the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Much more recently, imagine Peru without its conviction of Fujimori. (Big credit goes to Chile for having extradited the former despot.)
It is not sufficient for Obama to declare that the US will not torture, because the next president could reverse that decision as quickly as it was made. Only a thorough vetting of the past can allow the US to rejoin the community of civilized nations. Only the unvarnished truth can assure that we never again sink to such a level of barbarity.
Global Warming. From where I sit, I hear lots of nice noises from the administration, but see little real leadership. Instead of a carbon tax, the administration is speaking softly in favor of a much less effective cap-and-trade system. And it is deferring to a Congress that shows little enthusiasm for doing anything at all.
Guns. I’m not expecting Obama and Democrats to commit political suicide by taking on the NRA head on. But it is bitterly disappointing to see the issues of assault weapons and gun-show loopholes disappear entirely from the administration’s talking points and substantive agenda.
On the other hand:
Pragmatism. Just as we know that an uncompromising progressive could never be elected president of the United States, so must we accept that uncompromising pursuit of progressive policies could result in the accomplishment of nothing. Remember Clinton and gays in the military? That was a case of taking on the wrong issue at the wrong time, sacrificing an entire agenda to something that was noble, but unachievable. Frankly, I would rather see Obama bend on some issues, with an eye on larger prizes, than to sink under the weight of rigid purity.
Congress. It’s hardly about the GOP. Rather, it’s the fact that dozens of “Blue Dog” Democrats ardently oppose a progressive agenda. There’s also the little matter that Democrats love to destroy their presidents (see Why the Democrats Can’t Govern, by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic, for outstanding analysis of this perennial problem). Obama cannot afford to alienate Democratic congressional leaders, as Carter and Clinton did. He needs to coddle them to get any cooperation at all and he needs their votes to pass legislation. It is infuriating to watch, but there’s no way around it.
The Full Plate. The GOP claims that Obama is taking on too much. They are also denying the scope of the disaster Obama inherited, following the most evil and incompetent administration in US history. (I remain thankful that evil was coupled with incompetence, otherwise, the GOP would still be in control.) Obama has to take on everything. But it is also inevitable that he can’t give everything equal priority or expect to win all battles.
Where some see weakness and flexibility to a fault, might there not be sly strategy, instead? Perhaps the president is planting seeds everywhere to see which ones will sprout, giving ground where the results look less promising, and calibrating which issues and initiatives are worth standing firm on.
Health Care and Budget Reconciliation. Here is one indication that Obama might be clever and strong enough after all. In the past couple of weeks, the administration has been quietly and successfully getting congressional Democrats to line up for victory on this issue. Specifically, they are very close to adopting budget reconciliation rules to pass health care reform. This parliamentary tactic allows legislation to pass with 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the 60 necessary to cut off obstructionist filibusters. The GOP is screaming that this amounts to nuclear war, forgetting the Reagan and Bush record of using the same approach to passing their tax-cut agenda.
The significance of these developments is not to be underestimated. They show a willingness and ability of the young administration to stand firm and pick battles. Further, they show great skill in working with Congress. All this bodes well for the future.
So, is the glass half full or half empty? For me, there are daily disappointments, but they cannot blind me to the difference 100 days have made. Neither can they obscure the great – if uncertain – promise that remains in this administration. At the very least, Barack Obama will have reversed the worst of Bush-era excesses and lawlessness. At most, he will have taken on seemingly overwhelming problems and scored real victories on some of them.
©2009 Keith Berner