Monday, March 23, 2009

The Big Picture and the Strike: The Pit in Our Stomach

The Big Picture: I was really wrestling with myself on the train this morning, between trying to heed my own column of Saturday night, while also feeling pretty disappointed in Obama's banking plan, as well as his flippancy and lack of passion talking about the economic crisis and the financial bloodsuckers on 60 Minutes, and (and this is something that may merit a post) a huge disagreement I have with him about taxes. First of all, I think it's extremely disingenuous to say we shouldn't target taxes, because the tax code has literally millions of specific tax subsidies and surcharges, often ludicrous ones in fact (such as that tax subsidy to the rum industry that got the original TARP passed), and Obama just signed SCHIP, which gets ALL its money from a very targeted, punishing tax - on cigarettes. So it's highly misleading to say that we shouldn't have targeted taxation, it should only be broad - it really is very elitist: all those other taxes are fine, all the penalties people pay for being renters and various other things, and especially all those poor people smoking cigarettes, but don't come tax my million dollar bonus that I stole from average people! That's sacrosanct! Similar dynamic to contracts - which can be torn up for workers, but must be honored for bloodsucking AIG execs. And, I actually do think that a great role for taxation is to incentivize socially constructive behavior and disincentivize socially destructive behavior. I was hoping Obama would really move us in that direction. It makes me think about how there are different sides to Obama's philosophy and goals: there's the South Side/Dreams From My Father/Axelrod/Michelle side, which is populist-progressive, passionate, and then there's the University of Chicago/David Brooks/Tim Geithner side, which is detached, analytical, technocratic, the kind of side that laughs repeatedly at how funny it is, apparently, that on the one side the bankers want one thing, and on the other side the American people want another, they're so silly and immature we have to keep them in check. You don't work for the bankers or the professors, you don't have to consider their interest, the only interest that matters is the American people. Of course that may mean in this case that to save people we are forced to do some things for the bankers in the short term, but in no way is that our goal, is that who we're trying to help. He really needs to clarify that, because if that's my impression, I have to assume other people who are more economically insecure - and less enamored of Obama - feel it much stronger.

The Strike: First, I’ll say that I’m in complete agreement with you on the tax argument. That’s the reason liberals cringed when Bush talked about “simplifying the tax code.” It’s a great way to reward good behavior and discourage bad behavior. In fact, it’s an incredibly integral policy tool of democratic government. It’s the best way to control people’s behavior without being directly involved in their lives. Also, as I wrote the other day, every time we’ve tried to take ANY step to curb the excesses of rampant capitalism, the Wall Street “financial analysts” tell us that it will cause economic ruin. Why the hell would we ever listen to them again? And, it’s not even targeting one group. It’s targeting people making more than $250,000 whose companies took federal bailout money in excess of $5 billion. In other words, rich people who don’t deserve the money they’ve earned.

I think Obama fundamentally understands that, because his budget proposal reflects those views. Raising taxes on capital gains, cutting taxes on working families and small businesses, punishing big polluters. I think he’s listening too much to his cautious “University of Chicago” advisers on this bonus tax.

However, I think you need to heed your own advice on that 60 Minutes interview. You know in your heart that he cares far more about the American people than bankers. It’s also a very “John Kyl/Lamar Alexander grasping at straws” criticism about him laughing on 60 minutes last night. He needs to keep himself centered. One thing that you mentioned, that’s incredibly important, is that he maintains his cool and doesn’t govern through anger, but with policies that deliver for the American people. It’s sometimes frustrating to see him take the long view, but he has to do it.

For the two comparisons you’ve given in the past:

It must have been incredibly frustrating for the black radicals to see Martin Luther King Jr. meeting with Lyndon Johnson at the White House, and talking about loving his “white brothers and sisters,” because they were justifiably angry. But ultimately, the MLK/John Lewis did so much more to further the interest of civil rights in the long term.

John Edwards talked a good game about being a populist moral crusader, but he had a hedge fund, and was a philanderer.

Obama will continue to frustrate us with his effort to seek consensus and moderation on some policies. In fact, it will go beyond frustrating us, he will definitely make some policy mistakes, especially if he doesn’t keep the Geithners in check. But you have to have some faith not only that he knows what he’s doing, but that he has the right values.

The Big Picture: You're right about the core values and how it's absurdly missing the forest for the trees to question who Obama stands for. But, I still say there's a couple problems. While I would not say, based on the budget and what I know of his character, that Obama is too pro-banker, there is the concern that on an issue he doesn't know that much about, like the banking crisis, he gives in too much to the Tom Friedman/David Brooks "what do the really smart people think?" views. I think there's a tension there, because Obama at core has a healthy distrust of the "best and the brightest" as he said on 60 Minutes. The commentators we take most seriously have been saying their biggest concern with Obama is that in the realm of finance and banking, he's relying far too much on the insiders, the old hands. Obama chose, and is listening to, people like Geithner and Summers, and it is difficult to believe that Geithner and Summers will ever break free of the "restore business as usual on Wall Street" mindset when they are so much of that culture. It's part of that elite Washington-Manhattan consensus that the most powerful high-credentialed figures are the only serious ones, even when they screw up massively, and never admit the full extent of their errors.

The other big problem is messaging. People are very concerned that all those elites in Washington and New York don't really care about them, they're still looking out for their own interests even as they pretend to care, and that it's all sort of a big game to those people. I firmly believe that Obama's biggest political priority has to be set himself up against that crowd and that attitude as staunchly as possible, to show that he's not an insider at all, but an outsider, of the people, helping them. He doesn't have to be angry or call people out, but he does need to act like a) he really cares about ordinary people, and b) he is in no way part of the Morning Joe "let's laugh about all these huge problems that we're not addressing" culture. He had a great opportunity on national television to show his core values, how this stuff really does bother him, how he's here to clean up this mess - maybe we'll have to do some uncomfortable things, but this is about saving people's livelihoods, this is about saving the country, this is dead serious. We know Obama can and often has struck that tone about these issues. He also did strike that tone in the very same interview, when talking about Dick Cheney, in the most sincerely angry and intense I have ever seen Obama. He needs to show more of that side when talking about the banking crisis. That's where I agree with Maureen Dowd's column from Sunday, when she was saying we need Michelle and her staunchness, her "this is what we're going to do" attitude, as she said about pulling out the weeds in the White House garden: "Everyone, including the President, is going to participate - whether they like it or not." That seriousness of purpose, refusal to accept excuses, is what the American people are looking for.

The Strike: I’m worried less about the messaging than I am about the policy. I just can’t fathom that Barack Obama would ever suffer from being perceived as “too inside the beltway” or part of the Washington/New York elite. Polling shows that people overwhelmingly believe that he understands their problems. People like Bush said they were Washington outsiders, but it was obvious that they weren’t. Only the far right wing has ever called Obama elitist, and I think you and I both know what they are ACTUALLY referring to.

I think you are right on in terms of banking. My worry is that the banking crisis is Obama’s Vietnam. It’s an issue he doesn’t want to have to think about, but he’s been thrust into the middle of it and doesn’t want to be seen as not addressing the problem. So, he’s letting “the best and the brightest” take care of things. These people are so consumed with the conventional wisdom and the old way of doing things, that they are actually a huge part of the problem. The difference is that there was a much easier moral answer for Vietnam: get out. There’s no answer like that for the banking crisis. We need to do something, but nobody quite knows what the right answer is.

The other major difference is that Lyndon Johnson had huge underlying character flaws that corrupted his decision-making. He was very insecure and wanted himself and the Democratic party to be seen as “strong.” I don’t see those character flaws with Obama.

The Big Picture: That is definitely the fear that it will be Vietnam - although Afghanistan may compete for that dubious honor. Heart-wrenching watching Obama say his toughest decision was to send troops to Afghanistan. Especially when he said they decided it before they finished their strategic review! That's very Vietnam/Iraq-esque. Really disturbing. I very much agree that Obama lacks those character flaws, deep insecurities, that brought down Johnson and others, BUT there may be some of that with the military, needing to shore up his rep with the tough guys in there, because he didn't serve and he ran as anti-war candidate.

The Strike: You may be right and that makes me feel a real pit in my stomach.

The Big Picture: The reason it causes a pit in our stomach is that our faith in Obama is what's keeping us from really freaking out at the realistic prospect of a deep global recession and all the misery that would cause, and unwinnable wars that sap our lives, resources, and national morale. That faith is rooted in our conviction that a) despite surface appearances to the contrary, Obama is motivated by values and a long-term vision that is deeply right and necessary, and b) Obama makes his decisions based on an extraordinarily reasoned and perceptive analysis of the best move for the achievement of that long-term vision, and not based on personal insecurities, irrational fears or wishful thinking. Anything that makes us question those basic assumptions gives us a pit in our stomach because it shakes the very core of the faith that is keeping us from freaking out.

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