by: Eli Zaretsky
on January 28th, 2010
Every President has to balance two imperatives: defeating his political opponents, and dealing with the problems that the country faces, but only a few Presidents get the opportunity to do both at once. Barack Obama was one of the few, and all of the media attempts to explain why 2008 was not 1932 or 1936 or 1964 or whatever cannot obscure the fact that he failed to rise to the occasion. Without grasping that failure, the significance of his State of the Union Address cannot be understood. When we do grasp it, we see that Obama’s Presidency rests on a carefully drawn contrast in appearance with ill-informed opponents, and on a careful convergence with their actual politics, and not on a program to lead the country in a new direction. This was especially clear in the central theme of his speech last night, deficit reduction.
The entire discussion of the deficit in this country rests on a misguided assumption, namely that the US is some sort of community that shares a common budget, common expenditures, and common debts. This misconstrues the nature of the federal budget. There are common expenditures in the budget, like defense (at least in theory), but the vast part of the budget known as “entitlements” are different. They were added to the budget because of the insight, whose validity is re-demonstrated every day, that the market by itself will not provide the health care, the old age insurance, the unemployment insurance, the educational needs, nor the jobs, that a modern citizenry requires. They were put there to complement and in crucial ways limit the scope of private capital. And they were of necessity to be paid for through taxation, which, like military service, is one of the obligations that make individuals into citizens of a common republic.
Once entitlements were introduced, the rich, the banks, and the large corporations tried to cut them, by using the argument that “we” cannot afford them, or that they were harming the working people who in fact benefited from them. The importance of the Democratic Party, until Obama, lay in its refusal to accept this argument. Obama, by contrast, took the historically most important of all entitlements, namely health care, and not only re-labeled it but actually changed its character into a cost-cutting device, at least in the Senate version. In his speech last night he advanced this strategy, through the budget freeze, through the new commission (aimed at Social Security) and by adopting the language of “belt-tightening.” As a Democrat, he also threw some sops to the left — thirty billion dollars for jobs; that is risible — and one statement for which I do credit him, his criticism of the Supreme Court. He thereby positioned himself just to the left of the current Republican Party, in other words, right-of-center as opposed to far right.
Even David Brooks, who would like to see the country move in a completely opposite direction than I would, understands that this means eight more years of stasis at best, or so he said last night on Charlie Rose. The Republicans will win the 2010 elections, Obama will win re-election in 2012 and until 2016, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman will get richer and richer by letting us know every night what the latest antics of the Neanderthal right looked like that day. The fact that our budget deficit is the result of a whole series of vast redistributions upward, the most recent of them, (TARP), undertaken by Obama, will be relegated to obscure, leftwing posts, like mine.
In my opinion, the problem with Obama’s presidency is that there needed to be an all-sided change; there needed to be a program which encompassed at least dealing with a) the mortgage crunch, b) job creation, c) healthcare, d) workers’ rights to organize, e) the bloated military budget, f) cutting back on US expenditures on foreign wars, so that more could be channeled to domestic needs, g) understanding the reasons for al Qaeda’s appeal in many parts of the world, h) the constitutional treatment — due process — of alleged criminals (including alleged “terrorists”), i) the closing of Guantanamo, Bagram, etc. (I just picked out my favorites; everyone has his/her own, including Eli’s references to the transfer of wealth upward.)
Obama promised us “change.” This slogan, empty of all programmatic content, allowed people to fill it in with whatever, in their wishful thinking, they believed needed to be changed. And after Bush’s disastrous tenure there were so many things that needed to be changed that everyone could stick his/her hand into the grab bag and pull out an issue. But the all-sided change that I alluded to above was never forthcoming. (One of the reasons for the healthcare debacle, in my view, was that it was seen in isolation, rather than as part of a larger attempt to transform — and make more egalitarian — the society.)
It should have been apparent to us that this was not in the cards, as one after the other of Obama’s early appointees were cut from the same cloth (even sometimes they even were the same people — Bush-era holdovers) as those from earlier, centrist administrations. But our desire and hope for “change” prevented many of us from seeing what was staring us in the face: whatever change there would be would not necessarily be in a progressive direction, and if it were it might be too paltry, precisely because there was no all-sided plan.
But, with all respect, Eli, I don’t think we can expect “stasis.” To me the prognosis is much, much worse. No crisis situation can maintain “stasis” for too long. The inadequate and wrong-headed measures being taken, and being advocated for the future, suggest to me just that: things will become more and more dire.
We’ve been comparing Obama to FDR, and seeing Obama fall short. Maybe we need to start comparing him with Herbert Hoover, instead….