Monday, August 08, 2011


As I read Drew Westen's "What Happened to Obama?" in The New York Times over the weekend, I was extremely grateful -- finally someone was writing precisely what I've been feeling about the president. I recommended the piece to several people over the weekend. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it to you.

And yet:

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse....

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety.

... it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

But there was no story -- and there has been none since....

Yes, I hoped that Barack Obama would find a way to put America on a non-Reaganist course, and to eloquently explain why it was a good idea to do that. He didn't. But the problem is, I voted for the last Democratic president in the hope that, silver-tongued devil that he was, he'd do the same thing. And he didn't. He came into office in a much milder recession, talking about putting people back to work; he mentioned infrastructure spending ... and I thought policies rooted in liberal-leaning economics might would be applied and explained to the American people, in direct, patriotic language. Never happened.

A few Democrats have talked that way -- the most prominent after the rise of Reagan were Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson -- but nobody ever talked the talk and then walked the walk at a national level. Cuomo wasn't even a transformative governor, and neither he nor Jackson ever became president; Democratic congressional leaders may fight the good fight sometimes -- hello, Nancy Pelosi -- but those that do at a prominent level don't sell the ideas very well.

We thought Obama was different, but he's just a product of the modern Democratic Party. He talks New Deal language, but modern Democrats are afraid to cross their big contributors by acting the way FDR did. (Republicans don't have this problem: they can give their base precisely what they promise -- wars, Jesus, tax cuts, deregulation -- and the party's big contributors, obviously, don't complain.)

Skittishness about angering the economic elites has gotten worse over the past thirty years -- in the Reagan, Poppy Bush, and Clinton years, it was acceptable to raise taxes sometimes; after the S&L crisis and Enron, it was acceptable to prosecute wrongdoers. But, as far as I can tell, Obama isn't failing to live up to traditional Democratic values so much as he's embodying modern Democratic values all too well. Modern Democrats fear losing elections so much that they won't lay a finger on the rich, even if that means alienating so many actual voters that they lose elections anyway. That's how most people operate in the Democratic Congress from which Obama emerged. Obama's just one of them.

No comments: