Thursday, July 02, 2009

President Obama: Betrayal or Failure?

A lot of us are not sure what we think of President Obama's leadership, six months into his Presidency. I didn't leap into the 100 days assessment fray -- the evaluating of the new administration on very little evidence back in April -- because I wasn't sure what I thought. On many important issues, the Obama administration was not doing all I hoped for. But why the repeated shortfalls?

The answer to the "why" matters. I don't think about politics for intellectual stimulation -- I believe enough in our democracy that I figure I have to participate in citizenship. When the government is, in my opinion, acting wrongly or not doing its job, I agitate. In order to agitate, I have to assess where the obstacles lie.

Since we had a candidate who promised "change," we've got a right to ask of Obama, over and over, "where's the change?" And if we don't see change, we need to consider, why? I find two categories useful in thinking about this:
  • Betrayal: the officeholder was just spinning gossamer moonbeams in order to get elected and has no intention of delivering;
  • Failure: despite good intentions, the politician discovers systemic obstacles to delivering on promises.
Obviously in real life the categories can blur -- but the distinction matters because the two categories suggest different political responses from engaged citizens. As a general rule, if the politician was just BSing a constituency in order to get elected, straight-up outraged pressure might work to turn him (her) around. Failure is more of a problem; useful political pressure may need to be directed at other systemic features besides the visible political leader in order to create circumstances that will enable the leader to come closer to fulfilling a promise.

In the light of this framework, here's a once over lightly on some of the ways the Obama administration is not delivering (or not yet delivering) the change we hoped for:
  • Economy: The big banks and Wall Street are pretty happy campers; it's hard to see why the rest of us should be. We've shoveled taxpaper money at them; Goldman Sachs in on track to have its best year ever; gazillionare CEOs waltz onward. Proposed regulations to prevent more of the same are weak and Wall Street is confidently shelling out our money to lobbyists to weaken them further.

    Meanwhile, Main Street is still screwed -- and not necessarily looking at turning a corner. Today it's announced that unemployment averages 9.5 percent: we know that means for Latinos it is probably 15 percent and African Americans it's close to 20 percent. That's change to riot over, or could be if it persists as long as looks likely.

    Obama got a stimulus bill passed; most economists think it is too small. And for practical purposes, that cash is just beginning to hit the streets (I did see a teenage trail maintenance crew out yesterday ...yeah!) On the economy, I give Obama a "good try" leaning toward Failure. He was never going to be a radical, but apparently he couldn't risk taking on the barons of finance, so he has bought them off with our money. What happens next time they get in over their heads? There is nothing to stop them.

    This kind of failure can only be corrected by an engaged popular movement advocating for numerous economic changes that tip the playing field back to the less than affluent majority. Looking for ideas? Try Dean Baker's The Conservative Nanny State.
  • Health care: a reckoning is still out. Congress is mucking about with various ideas, none of them really universal or equitable. All the people in power decided that the really sensible option -- tax-financed health care for all like Medicare -- couldn't be brought up because it would kill the insurance racket.

    They'll probably pass something. Whether it will cut costs or help sick people is still up for grabs, though it is not looking good. No grade yet, but lots of danger of Failure.

    Again, and the President has said as much, only organized people can turn this one around. I'm grateful to the folks from Code Pink and the Nurses Association who took the message to our smug Senators. Obama would probably prefer some other kind of citizen activity, but he'll get what he gets.
  • Energy/Climate Change: When action to prevent the planet from frying has to be billed as about "clean energy and security" in the bill title, you know you are already on the way to Failure. Nothing should be so important as trying to ensure that this generation's children get to live in a reasonably hospitable environment. But nothing can get through Congress that doesn't falsely promise we can painlessly use any resource we can pump, mine or steal to live as profligately we always have.

    The organized constituency demanding we change our economy and lifestyle entitlements to preserve the planet isn't there. Obama can't get out too far ahead of us, even if he wanted to (it's not clear he'd want to be out ahead, though he's smart enough to see necessity and he has kids.)
What is ever so noticeable about these three areas where we see Obama failing is that they involve an attempt at cooperation with Congress. This goes well beyond the guy's vaunted enthusiasm for "bi-partisanship" -- currently a chimera. What's really remarkable here is the lengths to which we're seeing Obama go to treat Congress as if it were a functional deliberative body that has a partnership role in democratic policy making. Have we seen a President take this attitude to Congress since perhaps Ford or Carter? I don't think so.

Even as we scream about Obama failing and try to create pressures that help get what we want from his administration, we need to recognize that we have a President who, to this point, has tried harder to make the ostensible Constitutional system work as far as legislation goes than any we've seen in a long time. This looks deliberate. It also looks like a recipe for failures the country can't afford.

Will Obama keep trying to make something of Congress? -- and apparently be limited to policy half-measures that don't do what he seems to know needs to be done? Or will he act like most of the imperial Presidents since FDR and try to run over Congress for his conception of the good? Would those of us looking at Obama's failures like that better? Time will tell.

This is part one of two posts on this question. I'll take up Obama's actions that are more clearly executive branch actions in part two.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

Time Magazine's latest issue features the boldness of Roosevelt in getting his legislation passed. It also points out his failures. If Obama doesn't learn from that history we are all doomed to failure.

Paul Krugman has an op-ed piece this morning in the NYT on the failure of the stimulus package and that much more is needed.

Obama is aware of what needs to be done. His words tell us that. What he is lacking, so far, is audacity. It has been proven to him that the Republicans are going to be obstructionists and that bi-partisanship is out the door. He must give that goal up soon or his whole presidency and the country are down the tubes.

In all fairness to Obama, we must remember that it was Bush who signed the first stimulus package where billions were doled out to the money lenders with no strings attached. However, Obama should have reigned in the banks with more restrictions the second time around. I hope the latest job loss statistic is a wake up call for him.

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