Birenbaum, Roberts and Zucker on "Obama Caves"
Here are three very different responses to my post of a few days ago that accused Obama of caving in to the Republicans. Each places what happened last Friday in a different context.
A Case of The Stockholm Syndrome
I read your piece on Obama’s caving or, as I like to put it, suffering from the Stockholm syndrome. You must be angry because your sentences are very short. I agree that Obama has gone over to the other side by giving up on generic gut issues such as jobs and clinging to the trite “we continue to compromise in order to compromise.” He is faced with an arrogant group who has hijacked the political processes since they cannot be turned out until the next election but Obama doesn’t attempt to reveal who they are. Truly, the expression “the running dogs of capitalism” fits the Tea Partiers since they are simply tools. They speak of the purity of small businesses but they are fueled by the Koch brothers’ money. The new class war revolves around preventing income transfers, encoded as Grover Norquist’s cry of “starve the beast.” This all goes back to our failure in the 1960s to develop a full employment economy because of the bankers’ fears of inflation. This kind of policy would have realigned working class Americans with the Democratic Party the same way that collective bargaining created loyalties in 1936. What is interesting about Norquist, Reagan and others who fit the anti-statist mold is that they all started out from Democratic-voting families and even were Democratic voters before they saw the light. I think even Richard Nixon’s father was a Democrat who ran a failed business. Business failure is often blamed on excessive regulation.
Our President never had a conversion experience that was class-based. He never had any political culture to turn against. Obama’s marginal status as a biracial American with an odd name does not encourage him to sound angry for too long. His elite education makes him reluctant to sound like a someone who can help shape the future hand-in-hand with less educated citizens. The balanced approach, meaning going along, fits his wish to avoid appearing as an angry, out-of-control black man. Get him to see “Nothing but a Man” to find a steely hero to emulate.
Facing the Inevitable
I am not so sure Obama caved or that that is the appropriate way to characterize the administration's tactics.
Partly, the administration may be part of the growing recognition that America, due to the availability of credit of all kinds, was living beyond its means, e.g. from China vis-à-vis the national government's sale of bonds, to credit cards and mortgages for individuals. I agree with Obama that we have to cut back on spending and increase our revenue from taxation. I don't have any strong opinions on just how the cuts should be made or revenue enhanced, but the various commissions seem to have proposed reasonable alternatives.
Living above ones means seems to be a widespread human frailty or, perhaps, inclination to which we are all inclined and requires discipline (or perhaps a memory of bad times, i.e., a "depression mentality") to resist. Today's politicians and the public are not very disciplined. Keynesian economics makes sense to me, but it seems impossible to get politicians to raise revenue and pay down debt in good times to balance the subsidies and stimulus needed in bad times. When the government's income rises, the politicians either reduce taxes or find other admittedly worthy programs to fund. Perhaps Obama has come to the same conclusion and is using the crisis created by the irresponsible tea-partyers to get the good-hearted democrats to go along with changes that nobody likes to make.
Obama’s Internal Wars
I have stopped following Barack Obama’s struggles to forge a vital administration because when I do I am frustrated by his frustrations. He hasn’t forged a coherent debt proposal; he has allowed himself, by and large, to be attacked by Republicans as divergent and divisive as John Boehner and Michele Bachman. Bachman in particular goes for the president’s jugular because she is hungry for recognition of her Tea Party candidacy, which will probably go nowhere. In the meantime, however, she scores points with the right wing of her party and her evangelical base because Obama clearly represents to her all the evils of this world: intrusive government (which hasn’t intruded enough), secularism (O’s vague Christianity being an undercurrent on the right); and his race, never mentioned but a strong undercurrent also on the right. I don’t think a black man with an African and Muslim name will ever be acceptable to a large portion of the public. It’s an anomaly and sheer luck that he was elected at all.
But has Obama really caved? He is less vigorous now in speech and action than he was in his campaign and in his first few months in office. The complex fact is that he is thoughtful, a gentleman lawyer, a good debater, but unfortunately or not too cool as customer to be less of a policy wonk than Bill Clinton. How has he caved if he has? He doesn’t have the votes in Congress to push further agendas. He is treading water on energy, on climate, on logical extensions of his one great compromise toward a national health policy; he is winding down in Afghanistan even with no flourishes (not easy to keep the Pentagon on a leash); he did the logical and lucky thing in unleashing the Seals on Bin Laden. Not a great record but not a bad one. The world and the country are on its knees economically, the debt may be an unsolvable problem, and the wolves are leaping at him from every direction. He is a cool guy who manages defeats as well as victories gracefully. He is low profile in a time when a high profile would probably make things worse. He’s not FDR or LBJ, but they had huge majorities in Congress. He’s not caving. He also isn’t lucky. We may see the best of him yet.