Obama: Plus ca change?
In one of those join-the-dots exercises so crucial to understanding the meaning and trend of things, commenter skdadl got me thinking about the "real" Obama with her assessment a few weeks ago that she couldn't take an interest in Obama's career because he was continuing Bush-era rendition policies.
It's with skadl's comment in mind that I've noted every subsequent analysis of Obama's track record, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and earlier.
That fact is, in the most crucial policy areas, President Obama has indeed continued many practices and policies of the previous regime. It goes far beyond national-security.
1. Global financial rescue. This was accomplished, to great success, according to practices perfected by the Rubin-Summer-Geithner team in the 1990s under Clinton. It was Carter and Clinton, not Reagan or the Bushes, who initiatied the financial degregulation we now scorn. Carter's loosening of Wall Street restrictions resulted in the S&L crisis; Clinton's scrapping of the FDR-era Glass-Steagall protections, preceeded by an unusual half century of financial-markets stability, was soon followed by an unprecedented U.S. housing bubble. True, the latter was also made possible by G.O.P.-appointee Greenspan and a G.O.P.-appointed SEC chief who allowed brokers to set their own capital limits. But it was also accompanied by Dem-mandated deregulation, made worse by Bush II's starvation of the SEC enforcement for enforcement. (Abetted by Dems on the Hill, who'd long since identified Wall Street as a major source of campaign funds. You can see that now in the tepid reforms being proposed by Chris Dodd in the Senate. Dodd is a big recipient of Wall Street and insurance-industry donations, as is fellow Connecticut senator Lieberman.)
Obama will go down in history as having produced one of the fastest, most powerful economic turnarounds in U.S. history, from GDP in freefall when he took office in January 2009 to "positive" GDP growth by the third quarter of that same year, and truly robust GDP growth by the fourth quarter of that year. Europe and Japan, by contrast, are still mired in recessionary conditions. Job growth wo;; turn net positive in March, after succesive months of reductions in new jobless claims in all but one month since Obama took office.
This owes to the rapid-response approach of Geither-Summers-Bernanke, begun under Bush II. (And to Bush's credit; it ran against his "small government" principles but was the only chance at preventing a second Great Depression and Bush did the right thing). But that approach required the financial system to repair itself. and thus not fear retaliation. This might have come through bank nationalization, wholesale firings of inept or avaracius CEOs, and significant pay cuts or disgorgements of bonuses. The WH didn't do any of that because it fear that would scare away the private money required to prevent the taxpayer from having to shoulder the full burden of restoring stability. But it was a deeply anti-populist strategy, and strikes most level-headed Americans (and me) as profoundly unfair. Yes, it worked. But none of the culprits have been punished. And the looming re-regulations appear toothless. This is a president not interested in anything that can be construed as vindicativeness. An admirable quallity, that. But it' also letting miscreants off the hook, which is counter the American tradition of fairness.
I won't go into detail on the other five (mercifully), sensing, among other things, that there's a book in here about the true, gradualiist, pragmatic Obama - a conservative progressive, if there can be such a thing, without an ounce of radicalism in his body.
2. Healthcare reform. Robert Reich, Frank Rich and others have pointed out, but garnering no widespread attention, that Obamacare is a near-clone of Romneycare in Massachusetts. (We do hear about this, but only in reference to Romney's dilemma in currently denouncing now a program of which he was an architect while governing the Bay State). More disturbing, perhaps, is David Frum's accurate observation that Obamacare, as it evolved in Hill deliberations, came to bear a striking resemblance to healthcare-reform proposals developed at the hard-right think tank Heritage Foundation. As Reich and others will tell you, millions of Americans still will be "out in the cold" after these rerforms. And there's your reason why. It's reform-lite, just as the looming Obama Wall Street calling to account will also be industry-friendly and "reform-lite." It doesn't help that Obama cut a hugely industry friendly deal with Big Pharma ahead of the reform battle to keep "Harry and Louise" ads off the air. Or that the private insurers knew someday they'd have to make a trade-off between more customers (32 million of them in these reforms, all now forced by government to pay premiums for healthcare they might not want). And in exchange for that revenue windfall they'd start behaving themselves. The insurers knew that was coming - under Hillary Clinton, Edwards or Obama, whoever won the Dem nomination. And they were ready for and accepting of it. And why not. They would survive as costly middlemen. That's not much of a reform, to a true progressive. And no Trojan Horse "public option," the insurers' greatest fear. This HCR greatly enriches Big Pharma and the private insurers. But it's also probably as much as the Hill would have accepted by way of "reform," as we just saw. Yet, again, it's not the mark of a radical progressive. Obama conceived and campaigned on a public option, but not vigorously. And it wasn't among Obama's three key demands of Congressional drafters of the reform legislation.
3. On Afghanistan, which shows every sign of becoming the same kind of quagmire it was for the Soviets, and as Iraq quickly became for Bush II, Obama is committed to a victory he has yet to define. Because it can't be defined. Most of al-Qaeda's remaining threat to the American homeland and its offshore assets resides far from Afghanistan, indeed, far from the entire region. There are about 60 al-Qaeda cells, some in the U.S., some in Canada - they're all over the world. The way to fight them is with old-fashioned, low-key detective work among nations. And within nations, among alert citizens and police and intelligence services at every level. Instead, Obama, at least for now, has committed America to a war in Afghanistan that cannot be "won." And that's very much same hubris that led Bush II into Iraq (with plans to then topple the regime in Tehran and so on).
4. On national security, as skadl corrrectly notes, Obama has retained the odious practice of renditions. I'll have to flesh this out later, but reports I've seen indicate Obama is keen to carry forward those best parts of the national-security practices of the latter Bush II administration. This makes sense. You don't walk into the Oval Office for the first time during a period of danger to the Republic and promptly trash all the work that went ahead, much of it good. (In his last two years, when he stopped listening to Cheney, Bush II was fighting a very different "war on terror" than he had in the years following 9/11 - more along the lines of the detective work to which I've just alluded.) Still, Guantanamo remains open, the renditions to nations that torture continue, and the secret CIA "black sites" remain in operation. Again, the new president has made a decision to largely embrace what came before. My respect for Obama inclines me to give him the benefit of the doubt that he will so refine and adjust those inherited practices that in a year or two's time they will bear not much resemblance even to the best of Bush II's policies. But for now he has chosen not to change horses in the middle of a race against those who would cause harm to America.
I think, as his signature attribute, Obama's the sort of person who makes common sense the principal test of policy. Which means not pandering to those tens of millions of Main Street Americans who would like to see justice for the miscreants on Wall Street, but in doing so would crash the system. Or to those who would want America to extricate itself immediately from a feckless cause in Afghanistan, even if doing so rapidly would add to instability in the region. And so on. Obama's more gradualist than that. Unlike Bush II, who scrapped everything Clinton had done just because it was something the Clinton team had done - including destroying what had been a superbly run FEMA - Obama will embrace good ideas regardless of their partisan provenance.
But he will disappoint true progressives over and over with his pragmatic pursuit of what he regards as common sense when that clashes with past policies that were, in some measure, misguided and downright repugnant. It will be awhile, quite a while, before we see an Obama able to bring forth and champion an "Obama Doctrine" that is wholly different from what came before. He hasn't fashioned one yet - it's largely a trial-and-error exercise, after all. In the meantime, for my taste rather too much of what Obama has done so far as president looks like the product of a discredited past, both discredited Republicans and Dems in deep campaign-finance debt to Wall Street, as an example.
Progressives have reason to despair. All the more cause then, on HRC, to pick an example, to push hard and relentlessly for humane improvements to the inadequate yet substantive healthcare reforms just passed. To push for a new post-Cold War foreign policy that America has never gotten around to developing since the U.S. (and the West) was blindsided by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And so on.
For now, there will be a lot of plus ca change. As progressives, we'll have to deal with it. There are pragmatic reasons why Obama has chosen that course. And political ones: American majority opinion simply isn't ready for the truly progressive reforms like single-payer healthcare that every other industrial nation has, much less the state-financed pre-kindergarten enriched daycare that Japan, Italy, France, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Quebec, have long taken for granted. Progress is slow, arduous and encounters tremendous resistance. On that basis, I commend Obama for taking his nation in a better direction. But, as he warned us repeatedly in the campaign, his diluted reforms will often disappoint us.
With luck and savvy governance of which this president is capable, we will look back on these times in 2012 and and despair at how weak the early reforms were, in contrast to the more robust ones Obama and Hill Dems will later able with public opinion at their backs to bring about. That's my continued bet on this promising presidency. For now, though, Obama is mostly doing the right way things that discredited Dems and Republicans alike rushed into and botched in the past. Except on the renditions and CIA black sites. I simply don't get that. I can't defend it.