Monday, July 6, 2009

The Big Picture: Concerns with Obama's Focus and Priorities

It's the first Monday of the month, so it's time for both our grading of Obama's week, and our tracking of the progress of the Eight Big Goals of his Presidency. But first, today I'm going to give my overall thinking on my concern with the drift of the Obama Presidency.

This was a decent week for Obama - as usual, his week went MUCH more smoothly than than the week of the Republican Party, which endured the continuing confessions of Don Juan Sanford and the bizarre, probably career-ending out-of-the-blue resignation speech from Sarah Palin - but, and we've said this the last few weeks, it really was nowhere close to good enough given the challenges we face as a nation. Although we've been focusing on health care as the key domestic priority, Friday's dismal, depressing job-loss numbers for the month of June reminded me that for all the inside-Washington-and-the-blogosphere focus on health care reform, jobs, foreclosures, cutbacks, and economic security in general is by far the most important issue facing the nation and the one Obama must get a greater handle on if he wants to be a successful President. Since he won the election I have been able to gleefully dismiss all the desperate attack lines against Obama, but the one that may stick if he isn't careful, the one that may compromise his mandate, is the sense that he is not focused enough on restoring economic security to a deeply insecure country, not connected enough with the struggles and fears of everyday Americans, too removed in complicated dealmaking among the elite. I think of this when I read articles about states cutting summer school, dealing a devastating setback to equality of opportunity and to an investment in our most precious national resource, our children. I think of this when the unemployment rates climb higher and higher, where the underemployment rate is almost 1 in 5, where all the job gains from the previous 8 years are wiped away, wages decline in real terms.You read the personal story of the husband and father laid off, no other jobs in the whole region, and his wife and kids lose their breadwinner while the country loses a positive addition to our national productivity and a potential source of stability. Or the young worker, potentially full of energy to contribute to improving our country, languishing without a job, waking up at noon. I think Obama is most dropping the ball when it comes to banks and foreclosures. Frank Rich wrote an excellent, sobering column yesterday. When foreclosures continue to rise and Obama's plan is woefully inadequate, and he hasn't even mentioned the issue in months, while meanwhile his new regulations give the kid-glove treatment to the Goldman Sachs. crew that are responsible for millions of people suffering - people may be losing faith that Obama is on their side, and without that faith, they won't trust him on his priorities of health care and energy. In his Inaugural Address and State of the Union, Obama seemed to be beginning a campaign to really seize on the economic crisis to say that the old economic order, the ruling ideologies and institutions, had the wrong values and had failed the American people, and he was establishing a new approach, a new agenda, with a reassertion of our shared public values. As we learned from the mistakes of the past, people would be called on to sacrifice and serve, to build a more stable, just, and moral economic foundation that did a better job of providing security and opportunity. But this could only work if we exposed and confronted the people, institutions, and ideologies that failed us, and if we addressed people's pressing needs - jobs, wages, foreclosures, cutbacks to necessary services. Of course health care is a huge priority - both the Picturette and I had horrendous phone calls with insurance companies today - but with the way it's being watered-down to not threaten the powerful interests that are responsible for the system being so screwed up as it is, people will still feel that the system is pretty screwed up. And so far Obama has not done even an adequate job of personalizing health care reform, making it clear how this will really improve people's lives. Far too much attention is focused on the 10-years-down-the-line impact of the deficit, totally out of context, and more importantly it's hard to tell the average person that "bending the cost curve" is the big issue he needs to focus on, at the expense of jobs and wages and foreclosures, when it is so remote. Additionally, by necessity Obama has to travel abroad frequently, and this week he's going to Russia, Italy, and Ghana, and I totally agree with the Strike that while he may need to do these things, it's still a problem because he's not focused right here at home on delivering real change. When states like my home of California are on the verge of bankruptcy, cutting health care for poor children, laying people off to deepen the economic misery, we need all of Obama's attention on stopping the bleeding here. In fact, if I were to sum it up, I think there's a real concern out there that Obama did only a patchwork, incomplete job of stopping the bleeding before he's moved on, emotionally and substantively, and that's just not going to cut it during the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

By no means is this all his fault. As the euphoria of the election and Inaguration fade, I haven't lost faith in Obama so much as all the deeper concerns I had with corporate control and ideological rule are coming more and more to the fore. There are so many constraints on what Obama can do. We did change Presidents, but so many of the same people, institutions, ideologies, and general ethos that brought us into crisis remain powerful enough to thwart necessary change. Obama needs to do a better job of recognizing that and developing strategies to overcome them, to recognize that he can't play inside-the-Beltway, that he can't forget that for the crucial, make-or-break voters, it's about whether or not Obama and the Democratic Party can put a stop to this dysfunction and actually deliver real improvements, instead of spending too much time doing the same old things: enriching their friends and allies in various business lobbies, making excuses and pointing fingers and getting distracted from the most important things.

Still, there were some positive developments during the week. I may be chewed out for this by the Strike, but I believe that the key House committee passed a strong bill giving teeth to regulations protecting consumers of food and drugs, which is both very necessary and a great way to say you've tangibly helped people. Second, Obama continued to promote the energy/global warming bill. Third, he so far is standing up to the opposition from banks by promotiong a consumer protection agency, which seems like a good idea. Fourth, the administration officially changed Bush policy opposing California's stronger global-warming laws, basically ensuring that those stronger laws will become the de facto law of the land, a great step. And, perhaps most importantly, there were what seemed to be some real advances in the health care reform fight, with the AMA supporting the public option, Wal-Mart supporting the employer mandate, and a very good CBO scoring for the Senate HELP committee bill. However, health care reform is so complex, and every day I find out the element I thought was most important is actually not nearly as important as this other thing, and even as we advance on element we compromise on another, so it's hard to say right now where it stands, both in terms of whether it will get passed, and whether substantively it will be good policy or an incoherent mish-mash.

Given all this, we'll give Obama the barely adequate grade of a C+. We'll be with you tomorrow for the full accounting of progress on the Eight Big Goals.

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