Quote of the Day
The Nation blog: January 26, 2010
Christopher Hayes on the news that the president is going to call for a
multi-year freeze on "non-security discretionary spending," in the State of
the Union address:
'I'm sure that in the short term it polls well. Most voters don't have a
great grasp of what makes up the federal budget and the fact that about
two-thirds of what the government does is security and social insurance for
the elderly. Thanks to decades of right-wing attacks on Big Government, any
people think that most of what the government spends money on are things
like food stamps and foreign aid.'
'That's why this is so inexcusably insidious: because it uses the full power
of the bully pulpit to reaffirm and endorse a kind of ignorance that the
right-wing has spent years stoking, and in so doing further erodes what
little conceptual and rhetorical foundation we have domestically for social
democracy. It may be a head fake, the fine print may basically have a lot of
loopholes, in which case the policy itself won't be terrible, but again it
reinforces the enemy's narrative: that government spends too much on
"programs," that defense and "security" spending doesn't count for the
deficit and that times of economic misery and widespread unemployment the
solution is fiscal austerity. '
By Eric Foner
The Nation: in the February 1, 2010 edition
The first year may not be the best way to judge a president. After one year
in office, Abraham Lincoln still insisted that slavery would not become a
target of the Union war effort, Franklin D. Roosevelt had yet to address the
need for social insurance in the wake of the Great Depression and John F.
Kennedy viewed the civil rights movement as an annoying distraction. If we
admire them today, it is mostly for what happened during the rest of their
Nonetheless, it is difficult to view Obama's initial year without a feeling
of deep disappointment. This arises from more than unrealistic expectations,
although his candidacy certainly aroused a great deal of wishful thinking
among those yearning for a change after nearly thirty years of Reaganism.
Nor does disappointment result from too exacting a standard of judgment. In
fact, the bar has arguably been set too low. Too many of us have been
willing to fall back on a comparison between Obama and his predecessor,
arguably the worst president in American history, and leave it at that.
Not surprisingly, given the global economic crisis, numerous observers
greeted Obama's election by comparing him to FDR. This was a serious error.
Obama is not a New Deal liberal. Rather, his outlook reflects how the
preoccupations of liberalism have changed under the impact of the social and
political transformations since the 1930s.
Obama came of age politically at a time when the decline of the labor
movement had eroded one social base of liberalism while new ones were
emerging from the upheavals of the 1960s and the changing racial and ethnic
composition of the American population. Personally, he embodies the rise to
prominence in the Democratic Party of highly educated professionals,
including a new black upper middle class that emerged from the struggles of
the '60s and subsequent affirmative action programs. He is also closely
identified with what might be called the more forward-looking wing of Wall
Street, which contributed heavily to his campaign and to which he has
entrusted his economic policy.
Obama has no evident desire to address the questions that defined New Deal
liberalism and remain all too relevant today--economic inequality; mass
unemployment; unrestrained corporate power; and the struggle of workers,
through unions, to enjoy "industrial democracy." Where Obama has been good
is on issues that were subordinate themes during the 1930s but have become
central to post-World War II liberalism--women's reproductive rights,
respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, environmentalism and racial
and ethnic diversity, especially in government employment.
Obama also embodies a strain of thought alien to the New Deal but associated
with the Progressivism of the early twentieth century, the desire to take
politics out of the hands of politicians. Like the old Progressives, he
seems to believe that the government can move beyond partisan politics to
operate in a businesslike manner to promote the public good (despite clear
evidence that the other side is not cooperating). As in the Progressive Era,
this outlook goes hand in hand with a strong respect for scientific
expertise (quite different from George W. Bush's approach).
Listing these characteristics of Obama's thinking makes it clear that the
president he most resembles is not FDR or Abraham Lincoln, as was frequently
suggested before his inauguration, but Jimmy Carter. Like Carter, Obama
seems to view economic globalization and American deindustrialization as an
inevitable process and to see the role of government as seeking to mitigate
their destructive impact. Like Carter, he has gone out of his way to appoint
a racially diverse administration. Like Carter, he does not have an
industrial policy or a robust jobs-creation program and seems uninterested
in addressing the hardships and structural imbalances caused by the decline
Obama's economic program reflects and, indeed, reinforces the long-term
shift from manufacturing to finance in the American economy. And his bailout
of the banks and insurance mega-company AIG with no strings attached has
aroused resentments that should not be ignored, even if they are often
couched in extreme and racist language. There is a widespread sense that the
rules of the game have been fixed to the advantage of the wealthy and that
the government is indifferent to the plight of ordinary Americans.
Ironically, for all the blacks appointed to highly visible positions in
Washington, the condition of most African-Americans has worsened during
Obama's first year. Blacks have suffered disproportionately from the decline
of manufacturing employment and mortgage foreclosures. It is unlikely that
an avowedly postracial president will directly address their plight.
On foreign policy, the parallels with Carter are even closer, down to a
joint preoccupation with Afghanistan. Both Carter and Obama reoriented the
rhetoric of American foreign policy toward international cooperation, yet
found it difficult to translate this ideal into practice. Carter continued
to support tyrants like the Shah of Iran, launched a military buildup that
paved the way for Reagan's and reinvigorated the cold war after the Soviet
occupation of Afghanistan. As for Obama, his recent address on Afghanistan
and his surprisingly bellicose speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize reveal
that he has comfortably embraced the role of wartime president, even
adopting Bush-like language about a titanic global confrontation between the
forces of evil and those of freedom. This has reignited the martial spirit
of the liberal interventionists, who applauded the invasion of Iraq, later
apologized (more or less) and now praise Obama's supposed "realism" in
recognizing that wars are sometimes necessary. Only "just wars," of course.
But was there ever a war its combatants did not consider just?
One lesson we should learn from Obama's first year is the difficulty of
effecting change, even in times of crisis. Fearful of popular democracy, the
men who wrote the Constitution created a government system designed to make
it far easier to prevent change than to implement it. Today this structural
inertia is compounded by the power of money in politics and by an entrenched
military establishment. Obama has failed to heed the lesson Kennedy learned
from the Bay of Pigs debacle at the outset of his presidency--not to accept
at face value the advice of his generals (a realization that served Kennedy
and the world well during the Cuban missile confrontation of 1962).
A crisis, however, also creates an opportunity. To seize it, the first
prerequisite is to "disenthrall ourselves" from accepted maxims, as Lincoln
urged Americans to do in 1862. "As our case is new," he said, "so we must
think anew and act anew." Obama still has plenty of time to do this. It was
only after their first year that Lincoln became the Great Emancipator, FDR
the architect of the Second New Deal and Kennedy a champion of civil rights.
Not one of these presidents acted simply on his own volition. All three were
pressured to change by engaged social movements--abolitionists, the labor
movement, the struggle for racial justice.
Given this country's tortured racial history, Obama's election will always
represent a symbolic watershed. To make sure that it amounts to more than
this, progressives must stop making excuses or falling back on extenuating
circumstances in assessing Obama. Without forgetting the differences between
Obama and his increasingly retrograde Republican opposition, we must reject
the outdated assumptions to which Obama clings on economic and foreign
policy and forthrightly press for genuine change, speaking truth to power
even when that power is held by men and women we helped put into office.