Monday, May 24, 2010

The Democrats' (Intentionally) Blown Opportunity

When Barack Obama was inaugurated last year, he enjoyed the extremely rare benefits of the Three Big Truths of early '09 - broad and deep personal support, broad and deep rejection of George W. Bush and the Republican Party, and the economic crisis seeming to shatter conventional economic wisdom. He should have done a much better job of persuading the American people that the Great Recession was caused by corporate power and economic libertarianism run amok. He needed to convince people that the pro-corporate, neoliberal policy agenda of the previous three decades was why they were either losing their job or in danger of losing it, why they were losing their health insurance or were in danger of losing it, why their kids couldn't afford college, why their wages weren't covering bills and they kept falling further behind and going into debt. He should have explained that transferring our society's resources from long-term investments in opportunity and security for most Americans to short-term windfalls for the top 1% was why most people were struggling. More, he needed to say that it didn't have to be this way, and showed people in a clear and compelling way why we needed to deficit-spend to invest in jobs and health care and education and green energy, and that we needed to cut corporate power down to a size where it could be managed and was not so destructive. With his personal popularity high, people eager for a new direction, and a 60-vote majority in the Senate, Obama could have done what needed to be done if he persuasively argued these things, who convinced people why deficits-for-jobs was the smart move for them. Yes the Obama Presidency has rung up a number of achievements, but what really matters is how that stacks up to what a) needs to be done, and b) could have been done if he had been a better and bolder persuader.

The bittersweet thing about being a liberal is that even when you lose the argument and the policy goes the wrong way, you're going to soon get another chance because that wrong policy will have failed and there will be an opportunity to explain the cause of the failure and why our way will make them better. In the last couple months, there have been plenty of opportunities for Obama to make up for much of failure of persuasion in '09. The criminal double-dealings of Goldman Sachs, in combination with the ugly contrast between the incredible profits of Wall Street giants even as most Americans are struggling - these events provided a golden opportunity for Obama to crusade against Wall Street and its entire culture, and cut it down to size. This was the perfect opportunity to expose why Wall Street's practices and incentive structures are terribly damaging to most of America and to the long term future of most of us. Obama had all the evidence there to make a compelling case that the financial industry was too big and powerful, and that the incentives of quarterly profits above all else was so distorting our priorities that they were stifling the "New Foundation". Most convincingly, he could have showed that unemployment, loss of pension, and foreclosures were caused by the power and interests of Wall Street, and the only way to solve these problems, to make people's lives more secure and less painful, was to break up the big banks, to end the Finance Above All culture. But Obama did nothing of the sort. Many others like Robert Reich have pointed out the substantive flaws in his approach, but it's also very dispiriting to recognize that this golden opportunity to expose how damaging Wall Street is to most Americans, and how it could be fixed, was lost.

Similarly, the coal miners' deaths in West Virginia and the BP Oil Spill have been devastating textbook example of why the pro-corporate, libertarian agenda is actively destructive to people's lives. Obama should have used the corporations' responsiblity for death and destruction as emotionally compelling evidence to persuade people that these corporations have too much political and economic power and need to be reined in. These disasters also show that the de-regulatory libertarianism that sounds so good in theory is, in practice, homicidal. The equation is simple: weak government = mine collapse/oil spill, death, horrible economic consequences. strong government = no death, no horrible economic consequences.

Additionally, both of these disasters provided an incredible opportunity to create momentum for addressing climate change and green energy. Obama should have shown how our addiction to fossil fuels, and the government's aiding and abetting that addiction, was responsible for this horrible death and destruction. As fossil fuels get scarcer and scarcer, we will need to make ever more dangerous and risky efforts to extract them, and these kind of disasters become more and more likely. Obama should have used these disasters to expose this fact, and to say that we HAVE to quickly switch to green energy. It's not too far a jump to say that we need to invest in better infrastructure. Finally, this can be tied back to jobs - we need to create good jobs in green energy and good infrastructure. That's where the millions of missing jobs will come from.

A great way to make these arguments is to put the other side on the defensive. Force Wall Street to justify its existence and its power, in the face of all the evidence of its destructiveness. Force the libertarians to explain how they can oppose government, in the face of the evidence that strong government is the difference between life and death. Force the fossil fuel companies to explain how we can continue with the status quo when we see the horrible consequences, and when there are clearly good alternatives. Force all the born-again deficit hawks to explain what they plan to do about the millions of missing jobs, to show that they have a better plan.

Making this case is not just about a change in content but in tone and in pace. They have to always be on the defensive, never able to catch their breath, while we continue to make our positive case, blanket the country with it, and give no time or space for the defenders of the status to come up with their typical specious counter-arguments or more likely distractions. When you're debating with someone and you have the better argument, the only way to blow that is to allow the other person a lot of time and to let him make a bunch of distracting points. You win by leaping at the opportunity and pressing on with the force of your argument relentlessly until the other side is completely discredited and loses its power.

It's hard to believe that Barack Obama and the Democrats aren't aware of all these blown opportunities, and aren't aware that the way to actually make change is to relentless pursue victory rather than the slack passive style he engages in. Nevertheless they continue the same mediocre style, settling for small victories when the big substantive victories, that could actually change society and people's fundamentals views, are left on the table, achievable but not even attempted. So that makes me question Obama's motives and how much he actually WANTS to see changed. We knew that he was a moderate in the sense of his willingness to compromise, his belief that change is accomplished through conciliation rather than conflict. All of that is acceptable and even good as long as he actually wants to solve the gigantic problems we face, and thinks that the moderate strategy is the best way to get there. But when golden opportunities to fix problems are consistently blown, I have question whether he believes in even trying to solve the huge problems. Many people say that Obama can't be FDR or LBJ because of Congress or the media or the deficit or other reasons. But when he doesn't take advantage of opportunities, it seems increasingly clear that Obama does not WANT to be FDR or LBJ even when he can. I have shed the illusions that I had about him and his motives and goals. I thought he was not of the Conventional Wisdom crowd, but it seems that he is.

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