Obama: Whither Next?
There are more than a few of us trying to measure the extent of Obama’s sudden outing as a leader of the progressive cause. After four years of varying attempts to inhabit the supposed grey zone between the two poles of politics he announced, rather forcibly, his allegiance to the left. Perhaps he grew tired of being made a fool. Perhaps he has finally realized that appeasement of extremists is self-defeating. Or perhaps he, without a future election to run in, can now be himself.
I hope it’s not the last of these because that implies he would still be the mushy pseudo centrist punching bag of that last four years were he thinking of re-election. And we have no room for mushy pseudo centrist punching bags if we are to turn the tide on the Reagan era at long last.
I have a number of friends who think I have been too harsh on Obama thus far. I am often accused of overlooking or under-appreciating his victories, whilst agonizing over his many defeats. Naturally I don’t see things that way at all.
My Obama skepticism stems from what I saw as his opportunity back in 2009. It was an epic moment. The financial crisis came as a natural and massive punctuation mark at the end of a long and accelerating period of right wing domination of our political conversation. Since the 1970′s, and obviously brought into stark highlight by Reagan, our national discourse has been held largely on right wing terms. The left has either been inept or defensive. At many points during the last three decades the left tried to redefine itself in order to stay relevant in this increasingly right of center discussion. The feedback between the Washington elitist agenda and the sentiment of the electorate moved the pace of our rightward shift and produced the odd spectacle of Democrats enacting right of center legislation to win popular support. Clinton’s surge of financial deregulation is an obvious example of this strange effect.
The economic crisis was a natural consequence of the politics of the entire Reagan/Clinton/Bush era. I am tempted to say it was an intended consequence in that the relentless focus on deregulation, de-unionization, and globalization that characterized the period were all expected to create more structural flexibility within the economy. And, obviously, more flexibility implies more possibility for extreme outcomes. We cannot, therefore, claim to be surprised when one such outcome hits us full square in the face. We designed the economy with that possibility in mind.
Obama arrived on the scene at our darkest moment. He could have seized upon the crisis and hurled us in a different direction. He didn’t. He misunderstood the problem. It was a massive misjudgment. He, mistakenly, imagined that our primary problem was the bitter schism in our politics brought into sharp focus by his predecessor’s peculiar blend of ineptitude and arrogance. It wasn’t. That bitterness was a symptom not a cause. The bitterness arose from a growing awareness amongst many that the economy and society had run off the tracks. At least for them. The noisiest reaction, ironically, was coming from the right where the nation’s demographic and social shifts were arousing an extreme nativist throwback counter movement. Having a black president gave this movement an easy target and it coalesced into the Tea Party of 2010/2011.
The noise coming from the far right hid a deeper and more permanent shift going on. The country was moving to the left. There was, and is still even more, a growing awareness that the policies of the Reagan/Clinton/Bush era ignore most of the population. Most of us are left out as irrelevant when big policy decisions are made. The result is a massive skew towards a privileged few who thrive even as the rest wither. This has caused the pendulum to swing against the far right which explains their ever more heated and bitter opposition. They seemed to know where we were headed before Obama did. His attempt at calming the debate by appeasing and taking a centrist stance cured nothing. It inflamed the right who thought they could bully him, and it incensed the left who thought he betrayed them.
So in policy after policy he fell flat.
The 2009 stimulus was hopelessly inadequate. Yes the political divide probably implied a less than optimal policy, but the lack of a fight for a bigger strike against the problem left many of us questioning Obama’s intent or understanding.
Health care reform was the same. Tepid leadership spoke to unsure policy direction. So what ought to be seen as a landmark is looked upon with suspicion. It is a policy that will need several alterations before it achieves the kind of game changing result we all hoped for.
Financial reform was a flop. Wall Street squealed, but managed to morph the legislation into and endless bureaucratic discussion that is still unresolved. Our most dangerous problem – the too big to fail banks – remains looming over us. Another crisis could break upon us at any moment.
These three policy moments stand out in the memory as instances where the Reagan era’s pernicious hold on society could have been decisively broken, but was not. At each occasion the discussion continued to be carried out in right wing language and on right wing terms. Obama did not bully. He was bullied.
This behavior continued right up and through the recent election.
The so-called fiscal cliff resolution bears a marked right wing tenor. The Bush tax cuts survive in large amount. They were a target of Democratic venom for a decade. Now they are enshrined as bi-partisan policy. That is hardly a left of center victory. In that same negotiation the temporary roll back of payroll tax – that tax that more people actually pay – was surrendered. Again hardly a left of center win. A couple of hallowed progressive programs were protected, so that counts as an Obama win. But the fact that survival counts as a win speaks volumes about the nature and direction of our debate. The right is on offense. It smells blood and wants more.
Then we arrive at inauguration and Obama’s avowedly progressive speech.
And we stop to reflect. Is he now of the left? Is he now going to defend the 47%? Is he now going to stop appeasing? Is he going to carry the fight onto right wing turf? Is he going to change the nature of our national debate? Is he really really going to lead us on offense rather than keep us on defense? Will he move from pretty speechifying to actual policy making?
I don’t know. I simply do not know.
The first big test is coming up. The budget debate will be upon us shortly. Will Obama declare that the budget is not in disrepair? Will he disdain all spending cuts? Will he point out that Federal spending has not ballooned out of control, but is well under control? Will he point to the longer term and avoid the shorter term? Will he stop debating right wing talking points?
I guess we are about to find out.