His campaign rhetoric stirred the nation - exhausted and broke from six years of war and in the throes of a financial collapse not seen in four generations - into electing, for the very first time, a non-white president of the republic. Young and old alike believed in him and his promise that a new day had arrived: a day in which the excesses of a financial community gone mad with greed would finally be reined in; a day where the role of government playing a positive role in the lives of the governed - rather than being a rubber stamp for the monied classes - would be restored; where new rules would be applied to bring jobs back home to a population starving for meaningful work.
And for the first several months of his term, the President had nearly a free rein as the opposition party lay in ruins, disorganized, unbalanced and trying to make sense out of one of those great swings in public opinion which invariably occur in uncertain, tumultuous times. The new president’s moment for strong, young leadership was there for the taking.
For Obama’s most fanatical followers, there were immediate signs of weakness and inexperience. As he formed his cabinet he hired not Young Turks, as John Kennedy had in 1960, but the very same people who were from among the classes who overlooked, if not perpetrated, the greatest heist of wealth in American history: Benjamin Bernanke, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, restored to another term as chairman of the nation’s central bank; Timothy Geithner, who presided over the New York Federal Reserve Bank as Wall St. teetered and then collapsed, went to Treasury; Eric Holder, a cautious, risk averse prosecutor became the Attorney General; Hillary Clinton, a hard working, well intended junior senator from New York but who was from another time, became the nation’s chief diplomat.
Lost in the cabinet shuffle were the true prophets who in the beginning advised that strong, bold steps were not only necessary for an economic recovery but which steps, not taken, would lead to stagnation and prolonged agony for the nation. People like Paul Volcker, Robert Reich, and Paul Krugman admonished the new president that the time had come to do big things. And they were inevitably swept aside.
The Unraveling of Ideals: Health Care Forestalled
The first great missed opportunity was about to descend on the White House as it dithered incessantly about how to construct a new way to get health care to 45 million Americans without it. Over a period of nearly a year, Barack Obama conceded one important feature of the notion universal health care, adopted by every industrialized nation on the planet and a fair number of those in the under-developed world, until what emerged was a bill consisting of a web of sections, sub-sections, paragraphs and delay which, though a good start, was effectively unintelligible to the general public, leaving it vulnerable to the propaganda of the monied interests with most to lose in any kind of health care reform: the health insurance companies, hospital conglomerates, and pharmaceutical corporations. And most of all, it gave time for Obama’s political opposition to reorganize itself, with the aid of a generally conservative mass media, into an effective force to block change.
At precisely the time when Barack Obama should have been working the hustings, taking his case directly to the people, reassuring them that his ideas were solid and needed, using the enormous bully pulpit given the presidency itself, he sat quietly in the White House, pursuing a strategy of letting the Congress iron out policy; a strategy which was not only self-defeating but which allowed the opposition to define the issues in a way which frightened an already frightened public into believing that doing nothing was better than doing something. Even an ally and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, the first woman ever elected to such a position, who proved to be one of the most effective leaders of the House since Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neil, begged the president to lead the charge. It was not to be.
Financial Reform: More of the Same
In the midst of the financial free fall of 2007-2008, it was generally understood that Wall St. and the banks - both retail and investment banks - had created strategies to take risks which paid off in ways not seen in a 125 years. The creation of “products” like collateralized debt obligations, mortgage backed securities; the use of “stated income” loans, missleading corporate financial reports; the entrance of retail banks into the insurance and equities business; all led to the greatest expansion of home building in the nation’s history. As more and more marginally qualified or under-qualified borrowers had access to homes by the use of adjustable rate mortgages whose interest rate would adjust upward after an affordable “introductory” rate, the conventional wisdom was that home values would rise continually to where such loans would convert to fixed rate, refinanced mortgages. All would be well. All was, in fact, lost.
Moreover, the nation’s guarantor of mortgages, Fanny May and Freddie Mac, long since reorganized into for-profit companies by Congress yet backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, routinely underwrote hundreds of thousands, millions, of bad loans, now bundled into investment instruments held by Wall St. investment banks and their clients. In one case, the largest investment bank in the nation, Goldman Sachs, not only sold sketchy securities to its customers, but actually bet on them to collapse, thereby collecting billions in insurance from Freddy and Fanny. Talk about win-win!
To date, little or nothing has been done to either prosecute those whose companies and their executives who moved their weaknesses and their money around in a expert game of financial Three-Card Monte, or to change the rules of the financial game. The investment banks continue unregulated, “Enron holes” continue unplugged, and the retail banks, sitting on thousands of abandoned and foreclosed houses, are sitting on their money, unable and unwilling to loan to small businesses and startups, other than those who least need their money. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department seems more interested in doing nothing than something, to at least to tell the nation that the great financial feeding frenzy was over.
Rather than taking his case for systemic financial reform to the people, at the advice of his old-school financial advisors this new president has acquiesced and done nothing of significance. It is, in fact, business as usual.
War as Business
For nearly a decade this nation has been at war in the Middle East and South Asia. It is a war not started by Obama but certainly continues unabated under his administration. It is a war perpetrated and sold to the people who fight it, soldiers and citizens alike, first by the need to take down those who plot against us, then by the need to bring the blessings of democracy to people who have a two thousand years of being ruled by tribal and religious law. To call them civilized societies is a misnomer of the highest order. They are not.
In his campaign, Obama told us that we were focused not on the real problem, which is in Afghanistan. To date he has moved most of the military out of the Middle East and (and in fairness to what he said) has continued to spend, indeed augmented, our treasure and blood investment in Afghanistan.
We have exacted our retribution on Osama bin Laden and most of his lieutenants and it is arguable as to whether they remain any kind of effective terrorist organization. In the face of a perfect opportunity to declare “Mission accomplished” there is no sign coming from Obama that we are on our way out of that eternal quagmire of competing tribal conflict. Now, we are told, the issue is Pakistan, with its nuclear capability.
This nation spends 50% of its collected federal taxes on its war making capability. Nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars every year. It spends double what all other nations on earth collectively spend on their own defense. Still, there seems no intent on either the administration or the Congress to rein in defense spending. Indeed, Congress, in its new budget, added $17 billion to Obama’s upcoming defense budget; money that the Defense Department itself did not request, and even though Obama himself called for a record $708 billion in defense spending while sending the mixed signal to cut waste within the defense effort of the nation.
We have reached the point, it appears, where we simply cannot pull back on defense spending since it has entwined itself so thoroughly into the fabric of the economy itself. Too many jobs are at stake, too many people would be taken from the military rolls for the economy to accommodate with jobs. We have, in short, reached the point where an earlier president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned us about the military-industrial complex being the core of the American economy.
A nation which has eschewed standing peacetime armies for most of its 235 years of existence now stands astride the world as the most militarily powerful nation in human history, with a thousand bases and installations in 63 countries – while 10% of its workforce is idle; 45 million of its people are without a doctor; its infrastructure crumbles; its dependence on imported energy a focal point of its foreign policy; and while its system of education, once the envy of the world in it reach and quality, deteriorates, and all the while its people fighting skirmishes amongst themselves over dozens of lesser issues.
Perhaps worst of all, Obama’s opposition, the Republican Party, has formed an alliance with both its Big Business benefactors and a large segment of a frightened and ignorant public in its determination to unseat him in a second term. It has catered to the worst of our angels in demonizing this president to a degree unknown in modern American history.
Had Obama been more decisive in his first year, it is doubtful whether his opponants would have been as effective as they have been in their opposition to him. The current Republican Party is nearly devoid of rational thought. The party of Javits, Rockefeller, Taft, Lodge, Eisenhower, Ford, Dole and dozens of other moderates has devolved into a Roman mob calling for Obama’s head. To hell with the country!
The Decisive Moment Lost?
All this cries for leadership and a vision of who we are and where we are going and how we’re going to get there; and what are we leaving to our posterity. We are at a juncture which calls for decisive leadership - leadership which was promised but has yet to be delivered. It is one of those moments in our history which will determine whether the drift will continue and the Great Experiment prove a failure at worst and marginal at best, or whether we can muster the courage for a renaissance.
Barack Obama captured these sentiments, this desire for a rebirth of national purpose beautifully in his 2008 campaign for the presidency. Yet, as we approach the end of his first term, he has let the moment come and go and the nation wonders whether the rhetoric was empty.
There is no doubt the President has his heart in the right place but the times demand action and leadership. The spontaneous combustion of “The People” in Wisconsin, who will shortly throw the rascals out who so blatantly stabbed them in the back was a perfect example of a group whose power Obama could have rallied to his own causes but on a far grander scale. These same people were there in 2008, and whose imaginations were there to be captured.
Unfortunately, the degradation of the political debate, largely of his own making by his inaction, leaves us unable to agree on anything meaningful for our future. He has allowed his opposition to define the issues to their liking and enabled it to stall, obfuscate and deride him and his campaign plans.
There may be something of a Greek tragedy at play in this President. This man, who rose to the most powerful office on earth from the humblest of beginnings; who achieved on a scale which would enthrall even the most jaded and dispossessed by pleasing people, is so averse to confrontation that he cannot move the political football one way or another. Over and over again, Obama has conceded, rather than take a principled stand. In the rough and tumble of Washington politics, this is a disaster.
For those of us who boarded the Obama train in 2008, it is hardly a satisfying moment. It seems the train has yet to chuff away from the station. And we are still patiently waiting.