Friday, November 20, 2009

Whatever the president thinks he's doing, he can hardly claim to be a "pragmatist"


Will they be celebrating the new Gallup numbers
in the White House tonight? Will Master Rahm
be inviting Larry Summers and Tim Geithner?

by Ken

Okay, it's official now: Gallup has the president's approval rating down to 49 percent. ("President becomes fourth fastest to slip below the majority approval level.") Question for the Obama "brain" trust: With the combination of desperate economic and international problems, an all-out war of obstruction by the Right that is morphing into an all-out culture war, and next to nothing to show by way of accomplishments, what exactly were you folks expecting to happen with the poll numbers?

"Pragmatist" is a word that turns up a lot in discussions of President Obama, especially from people who have realized, sometimes belatedly, that he never claimed to be any kind of liberal or progressive and really and truly isn't one. Meanwhile, I've been so preoccupied with trying to figure out what the guy actually believes, and what he thinks he's doing as president and hopes to achieve, that I needed intelligent prompting to see how badly the term "pragmatic" fits his policies.

For this, as usual, I turn to the group of the Smartest People I Know, and my counselor points out the most obvious contrast between President Obama and an actual pragmatist like Franklin D. Roosevelt: FDR surrounded himself with brilliant people, and they tried things. They rarely got it right on the first try, but when something didn't work, they tried something else.

President Obama, by contrast, surrounds himself with people who, for the most part, either don't have much real policy-making authority (as I assume is the case with most of those "team of rivals" people who were cleverly removed from the streets and shoved into the government bureaucracy) or are much closer to being part of the problem than part of the solution. Do the names Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner ring a bell?

Now it's always dangerous to underestimate the extent to which the president's own views may actually favor the most narrowly corporatist strategy that can safely be gotten away with. A case can be made that artificially resuscitating the financial services industry (a fancy way of saying the banksters and Wall Street) actually is the president's economic program, and never mind that most of the country is still left in depression. By that standard, he and Rahm and Larry and Timmy can all go to bed each night feeling they've had another slammin' day and sleep the sleep of the blessed.

But even allowing for the magnitude of the problems the president inherited, you have to wonder how the great "pragmatist" fails to notice how badly so many of his policies are working for so many people. And because so many of those policies have been so badly misconceived and/or misdirected, tools that might once have been useful have become increasingly useless, the classic case being economic stimulus.

For reasons that only the president can explain, only two categories of economic "thinkers" have been included in the formulation of his economic policy, starting with the preparation of his "stimulus" package: (1) economists and economic players who either were instrumental in getting us into this mess or managed to miss it altogether, and (2) Republicans whose "bipartisan" support was deemed crucial, for reasons that were hard to fathom at the time and haven't become any easier to fathom.

The president's entire economic team falls into category (1). You would think there were no other economic thinkers to talk to. But just as policy on Iraq and Afghanistan continues to be made principally by the foreign policy dolts who botched the earlier stages, our deciders keep going back to economists and financial players who ought at the very least, to put it as politely as possible, to be invited to sit this round out. Input from people to the left of, say, Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh seems to have been virtually nonexistent.

In the case of the stimulus package, by the time the administration finished making concessions to Republicans who not only were never going to vote for it but planned to do everything in their power to prevent the administration from doing anything that might turn the economy around, as part of their plan to destroy the administration, while a certain amount was made available for sensible social purposes that might also have greased the economy and yielded new jobs, that was wildly outstripped by money that was either a pure giveaway to the banksters and Wall Street, with absolutely no way of getting them to use that money to get the economy moving, as opposed to lining their own pockets, or pure waste in terms of stimulus, as with the preposterous tax cuts. ("Bribes," my wise men like to call those portions of the stim package.)

Even money that is thought to have achieved such worthwhile goals as keeping state services flowing largely hasn't. Yes, money funneled to the states has been used to maintain services in the pampered groves of suburbia, but elsewhere in the states, naturally including the areas of greatest need, teachers are being fired wholesale and other "essential" services slashed.

It's not as if there were no warnings. For months now I've been reading people like Dean Baker (who has a splendid blogpost today responding to the preposterous WaPo column in which Village statesman Alan S. Binder claims that all serious economists, every last one, by which he means all those mainstream clods who watched blindly or even cheered as the economy went down the crapper, oppose auditing the Fed) and Ian Welsh and Stirling Newberry explaining why it wouldn't work, because it literally didn't even begin to deal with an economic system that is fundamentally broken.

And rather too much the way the right-wing maniacs have been screaming, we are piling up a ton of debt, hardly any of which has facilitated productive spending that might have gotten the wheels of commerce back in motion. One of my favorite phrases is "liberal Reaganites" to describe the people who tried this sort of stimulus all through the Bush years and failed every time.

And as Paul Krugman points out in his column today, "The Big Squander," writing not about the Obama stimulus package but about the Bush-era TARP bailout (adminstered, however, by our very own soon-to-be Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner), the net result is that the very idea of government spending to revive the economy has been generally discredited:
[T]he economy is still in deep trouble and needs much more government help. Unemployment is in double-digits; we desperately need more government spending on job creation. Banks are still weak, and credit is still tight; we desperately need more government aid to the financial sector. But try to talk to an ordinary voter about this, and the response you’re likely to get is: “No way. All they’ll do is hand out more money to Wall Street.”

So here’s the real tragedy of the botched bailout: Government officials, perhaps influenced by spending too much time with bankers, forgot that if you want to govern effectively you have retain the trust of the people. And by treating the financial industry -- which got us into this mess in the first place -- with kid gloves, they have squandered that trust.

So where is our great "pragmatist" president? As I've said before, I refuse to believe there's anything I know that he doesn't. Yet apparently he continues to listen to people like Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel. On health care reform, for example, we keep hearing the Master Rahm line that what the administration needs is "a bill" -- and never mind whether what's in that bill has any chance of achieving meaningful reform. Does the president really not see how screamingly cretinous this is? With all those gleeful obstructionists lying in wait to crucify him over every flaw, real or imagined? Does he truly not see the catastrophe -- national, political, and personal -- into which these people he continues to trust are driving him?

(As polls begin to show widening majorities against the health care package being cobbled together in Congress, we can certainly thank the massive sums of money being poured in by the economic interests that feel justifiably threatened by meaningful reform. But as one of my wise counselors points out, this is after a year of advocacy by the president who made health care reform a signature issue. As the opposition has thrown ever-increasing manpower and money at watering down and defeating a serious bill, the president as advocate, a role in which everyone agrees he has achieved his greatest successes in office, has virtually disappeared.)

As much as the times cried out for an FDR, I suppose it was too much to hope that we were getting one in Barack Obama. But what we got is an administration that seems constructed to be an anti-New Deal. One point my wise counselors make is that those brilliant people around FDR were mandated to come up with genuinely bold ideas, not the kind of incrementalist retread trash that mostly comes out of this administration. What's more, the architects of the New Deal didn't worry overmuch about whose toes they might step on. When the '30s banksters rose up in righteous wrath, the Roosevelt administration prided making them a centerpiece of the attack.

Candidate Barack Obama had a unique opportunity during the campaign to use the international and domestic crises brought on by years of conservative misgovernance as a teaching moment, to try to make Americans understand how the conservative philosophy had failed. The explanation was something about his not wanting to be "negative," because voters don't like that. It seems clear that once in office he and his people were consciously working to avoid the onslaught of a culture war.

The result, however, is that he's got his culture war, and no weapons with which to fight back. In my darker moments what I foresee is the wreckage of this administration being used by the forces of darkness as proof of the failure of progressive ideas -- when nobody tainted with progressive ideas seems to have been allowed anywhere near the levers of power. Meanwhle, the "centrists" who are responsible for the carnage will as always conclude that they need to hunker ever farther toward the center, which has moved so far right as to be no longer visible to the naked eye.

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At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn, that was depressing! It was also extremely wise. Thanks.

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Mikbee42 said...

Only a pragmatist could back the appointment of Dana Perino in any capacity. She who swims in the same slime bucket as Liberman, the ultimate backstabbers club.

At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote that you don't know anything the President doesn't know. That probably is true, but what if the President is a fundamentalist?

Despite what the right-wing nutjobs think, the President came of age in Kansas, raised by people of the Great Plains states. Why am I pointing this out?

Look at Italy, it can divided into three main areas: the Roman city-state, Southern Italy/Sicily, and Northern Italy. Each area has wildly different views on democracy and civic participation at least according to Putnam.

America can be divided in the same way. Personally, I've always found people from the Big 12 states, except Texas, to be "not rock the boat" types. They extol consensus above justice. This doesn't mean they don't believe in justice, but that its not necessarily as important. I'm exaggerating a bit, but Obama's ingrained values prevent him from being able to change. People have died before renouncing their faith in a sky god despite being offered wealth. Obama's belief in pragmatism is a crippling belief. Unfortunately for us, we need him to be something else.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I think you're on to something, Anon, tracing that deep-set yearning to "not rock the boat." Considering the state that poor boat is in, rocking would seem to be the least of its problems, but for people who are still above water, that powerful impulse you're talking about to leave well enough alone may indeed be operative.

Of course candidate Obama talked a different story. Does anyone remember all those stirring speeches about "change"?

But then, I'm the one who always cautions not to place much stock in campaign speeches.

Thanks for the good comments, all.


At 11:40 PM, Anonymous me said...

Obama has moved from "hope for something good" to "hope for something better" to "real disappointment". And he's heading for "total disaster" at top speed.

I knew he was a fuckup way back when, when he (like both those ass-kissing Clintons) endorsed Lieberman for Senate.

Krugman is only half right. Obama will give not only government spending a bad name, but all of liberal political thought. And he's not even a liberal!

At 11:45 PM, Anonymous me said...

When Obama said "CHANGE", what he meant was that he would CHANGE his tune after he got elected.

You know what's the real tragedy here? Hillary Clinton would have been even worse.

Look at the front-runners we had for the top jobs: Obama, Clinton, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, and SARAH PALIN. That's the best we can come up with. We are in very deep shit indeed.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I quite agree, me -- even with what we know now, Obama was still the best available choice in 2008.

Which raises the dispiriting question: Is it possible that he (again, NO sort of liberal or progressive) is the most "liberal" or "progressive" person who can get elected to the presidency?

Actually, I don't think so. Because while both he and Hillary campaigned in such a way as to allow uncritical progressives to imagine they at least shared some of our values, neither of them every tried to make the case for the things we believe in to the electorate. We're going to need someone who not only has Obama's eloquence but is prepared to use it -- to try to lift people above blind prejudices and irrational misperceptions, rather than trying to take advantage of them or simply ignoring them.


At 4:37 PM, Blogger Rick Perlstein said...

Ken, this is a fantastic essay--top notch.

At 7:22 AM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

"We're going to need someone who not only has Obama's eloquence but is prepared to use it -- to try to lift people above blind prejudices and irrational misperceptions, rather than trying to take advantage of them or simply ignoring them."

Spend political capital to actually achieve something for those who elected him, you mean? Dream on. I told my wife last year that the best thing for progressives would be if Obama was defeated by McWingnut. It might have brought a genuine crusader to the fore, instead of a man whose record was an endorsement for pre-neo-con business-as-usual.

And the Republicans have this guy pegged. He can and is being rolled all the time.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I hear ya, B!



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