Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Big Picture: Things we've learned in the past year

A year ago today I was drunkenly celebrating in the streets on the greatest night of my life (my birthday came at midnight, as Obama was finishing his victory speech). We all felt so happy and euphoric and excited to have witnessed this glorious moment in history. At the time I certainly was not considering the institutional obstacles posed by the Senate, corporations, media coverage, activist burnout, populist demogugery, or the challenges posed by the Great Recession and in general how difficult it would be to clean up the all-pervasive mess Obama was inheriting. Now that a year has passed, and the euphorida has been tempered by reality, here are some things we've learned:

1. We should remain happy and grateful that Barack Obama is President. First of all, all that his victory represents - the first black President, the first son-of-an-immigrant President, one of the very few Presidents who did not come from privilege and earned everything he's got against great odds, an intellectual and highly intelligent President who is extraordinarily perceptive about people and the world and does a minimum of pandering and demogagoic posturing - all this is very inspiring, totally redefines what is possible in this country, what is possible in politics, and has provided a great jolt of encouragement to people like me to be idealistic about what we can achieve, and committ my life to public service. Second, despite talk from every political persusasion to the contrary, his administration has accomplished a great deal. There have been five major accomplishments so far: 1) passing the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which saved hundreds of thousands of important jobs like teachers and police officers and firefighters and kept the country out of a Depression, as well as being the most activist piece of legislation passed in decades. 2) Stabilizing the economy and financial system - I think far more needs to be done to reform it (more on that below) but it's a whole lot better than it was when he took over. 3) Advancing health care reform to the point where it looks very likely that something major will pass, when it's very clear that if he wasn't pushing so hard, nothing would happen. 4) Re-orienting our foreign policy (once again not nearly as much as we would like, but still a vast improvement. And 5) Arguably the most important, he has NOT done so much of the loony, "sounds good", penny-wise pound-foolish, short-term over long-term, ideologically or greed driven extremist crap that we suffered under Bush and would have under McCain or Congressional Republicans. After the previous 8 years, just not making things a whole lot worse counts as a victory.

2. Still, some of the early doubts about Obama from the primary are proving to be justified. The big criticism from John Edwards, and later from Hillary once she finally found her message, was that Obama was ultimately too eager to be liked, to avoid offending people, that he would refrain from taking the big personal risks from confronting powerful entrenched interests. It's too early to cast any definitive judgment, but as we've discussed, from Obama's appointments of Geithner, Summers, Emanuel, and many others especially in the economic policy front, and his far too weak approach to reigning in the banks, to taking on the medical-industrial complex, and even the insurance companies with a strong public option that he has NOT advocated for, or big energy companies (cap and trade gave away 80% of the permits), or failing to press on pro-union legislation, or pushing for real campaign-finance reform, or taking much bigger steps to regulate business to protect health, safety, the environment, etc. etc. - from all this, on almost every issue, Obama has come out on the non-risky, play-it-safe, do just enough to pacify his base (and probably his own conscience) but little that would seriously reform the major problems, and the institutions and (lack of) regulations that caused those problems. He has GOT to start taking on these interests, both because it's the right thing to do, and for two different political reasons: 1) in the short to medium term, people need to feel like Obama is on their side. People are anxious and scared right now, looking for someone to blame and someone to take serious action. Obama needs to be the one fighting for them, against entrenched interests. 2) in the long term, Obama will be re-elected, and then judged by history, based on how well he delivers for ordinary people - better health care, better jobs, more economic security, a cleaner environment, a fairer and more progressive tax code, healthy food and drugs - and to achieve all of those goals he will need to do a lot more to take on the entrenched interests.

3. The only serious debate about the structure of the economy, better jobs, economic security, etc. is between the center-left and the progressive wings of the Democratic Party over whether this recession was a cyclical or structural problem. The center-left, best represented by Rahm Emanuel, has as its primary goal getting the economy better, GDP growth up, unemployment down, polls on the economy up, as soon as possible. The progressive wing says that the recession was caused by deep structural problems, dating back to decades of stagnant wages, declining security, declining and inadequate public investment, and rising inequality. That system can't just be restored, because it was unfair and unsustainable - it has to be substantially reformed. Obama's rhetoric is with the progressive wing: calling for a New Foundation because our previous economic structure was "built on sand", saying the economy needed to be reformed to work for average folks as it has not done for decades, that the old ways of doing business would no longer be tolerated, that we needed to transform our energy system and education system to compete and survive in the 21st century. However his policies have much more often been with the first camp of "end the recession". Although clearly I am in the second camp, I do empathize with the urgency of ending the recession, both because people need jobs NOW, and because politically, Obama needs to have an improved economy to retain popular support.

But the point is, that's the serious debate, and it's well to the left of the debate we see in the media. While the "reform the system" camp, which must surely represent a great number of Americans who were expressing serious disapproval of the economy and the mainstream economic agenda even before the financial crisis, is barely on the radar screen, there is enormous coverage given to the center and the right, neither of whom have a serious approach. The best that can be said for the center, with its "do as little as possible, focus on the deficit, too much too fast", is that it at least is intended to actually improve the economy. The right, on the other hand, has made their position clear: they want the economy to fail, for ideological reasons. But both approaches are so obviously woefully inadequate to dealing with a recession, display such a pathetic understanding of basic economics like that if we're in a recession the government needs to spend money and stimulate demand, not cut spending to rein in the deficit (which will prove impossible because cutting spending will lead to economic contraction leading to smaller tax revenues leading to more deficit), that they cannot even be taken seriously. It is not up for debate that the government needs to 1) spend a lot of money, 2) regulate financial institutions to prevent future crises. The big debate is over how we spend that money: do we spend it with the major aim of increasing GDP, getting people back to work, or do we have as the goal the transformation of the economy to the New Foundation? And do we regulate financial institutions solely to prevent future Black Septembers, but still accepting that they will have this enormous power, or do we seek to break up these institutions? These are serious debates. But unfortunately the media, and enough of the Senate (at least 40 votes) are just off the deep end, advocating policies that to "fix" unemployment and recession that would unquestionably make these problems far worse.

4. The biggest obstacles to real change are not the crazy ideologues but the structure and incentives of the U.S. Senate and big corporations. Because of all the scary rhetoric and insane decisions of the Bush Administration, Congressional Republicans, and the McCain-Palin campaign, we might have assumed that their crackpot ideology was our biggest obstacle to delivering for ordinary people. However, this year has proved that even with the Republicans structurally irrelevant, it has been very difficult to overcome the problems posed by corporate influence over Senators, Representatives, key figures in the Obama Administration, and the media, compounded by the outrageous necessity to find 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate. These are the big underlying problems, they enabled the Bush Administration, and even though we got rid of the Bushies we didn't get rid of the forces that made them possible. Obama has largely avoided taking on these interests but he will not be a successful President unless he can bend them to his will.

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