Article — From the July 2009 issue

Barack Hoover Obama

The best and the brightest blow it again

( 5 of 6 )

Much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past—without accepting the inevitable conflict. Like Hoover, he is bound to fail.

President Obama, to be fair, seems to be even more alone than Hoover was in facing the emergency at hand. The most appalling aspect of the present crisis has been the utter fecklessness of the American elite in failing to confront it. From both the private and public sectors, across the entire political spectrum, the lack of both will and new ideas has been stunning. When it came to the opposition, Franklin Roosevelt reaped the creative support of any number of progressive Republicans throughout his twelve years in office, ranging from New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to Nebraska Senator George Norris to key cabinet members such as Henry A. Wallace, Harold Ickes, Henry Stimson, and Frank Knox. Obama, by contrast, has had to contend with a knee-jerk rejectionist Republican Party.

More frustrating has been the torpor among Obama’s fellow Democrats. One might have assumed that the adrenaline rush of regaining power after decades of conservative hegemony, not to mention relief at surviving the depredations of the Bush years, or losing the vestigial tail of the white Southern branch of the party, would have liberated congressional Democrats to loose a burst of pent-up, imaginative liberal initiatives.

Instead, we have seen a parade of aged satraps from vast, windy places stepping forward to tell us what is off the table. Every week, there is another Max Baucus of Montana, another Kent Conrad of North Dakota, another Ben Nelson of Nebraska, huffing and puffing and harrumphing that we had better forget about single-payer health care, a carbon tax, nationalizing the banks, funding for mass transit, closing tax loopholes for the rich. These are men with tiny constituencies who sat for decades in the Senate without doing or saying anything of note, who acquiesced shamelessly to the worst abuses of the Bush Administration and who come forward now to chide the president for not concentrating enough on reducing the budget deficit, or for “trying to do too much,” as if he were as old and as indolent as they are.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—yet another small gray man from a great big space where the tumbleweeds blow—seems unwilling to make even a symbolic effort at party discipline. Within days of President Obama’s announcing his legislative agenda, the perpetually callow Indiana Senator Evan Bayh came forward to announce the formation of a breakaway caucus of fifteen “moderate” Democrats from the Midwest who sought to help the country make “the changes we need” but “make sure that they’re done in a practical way that will actually work”—a statement that was almost Zen-like in its perfect vacuousness. Even most of the Senate’s more enlightened notables, such as Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have had little to contribute beyond some hand-wringing whenever the idea of a carbon tax or any other restrictions on burning coal are proposed.

President Obama, with a laudable respect for the separation of powers, has left the details and even the main tenets of his agenda to be worked out by these same congressional Democrats. This approach looks like an exercise in democracy drawn from his days as a community organizer, the sort of strategy that helps a neighborhood to decide whether it wants, say, a health clinic or a youth center. What he doesn’t care to acknowledge is that, in the case of the U.S. Congress, he’s dealing with a neighborhood where maybe half want a health clinic and the rest are holding out for grenade launchers and crystal meth.

Some have suggested that this is a subtle strategy to ensure that the White House retains the whip hand, that Obama is reserving for himself the role of “decider” over competing plans. But what is the decision then? Half a health clinic and one grenade launcher? A plan for universal health care that is not universal and doesn’t cut costs will not work. A plan for combating climate change that perpetuates the shibboleth of “clean coal” will do nothing. Far from controlling the process, Obama’s procedure is more likely to commit him to one of Congress’s nebulous non-plans.

Yet Obama’s lack of direction, his lack of accomplishments in his Hundred Days and counting, cannot be attributed solely to his illusions about the august body he just vacated. Obama, like Hoover in his time, is almost alone among politicians in grasping the magnitude of the crisis. In his masterful February speech before the joint houses of Congress, Obama explained to the country why we cannot afford to continue with a tottering health-care system that has left 46 million Americans uninsured and that impedes our exports by adding, for instance, $1,500 to the cost of every GM car; why it is that climate change has to be addressed now, and how by addressing it we can regain our industrial base and actually begin to make things again; why it is that our financial system could not simply be bailed out and patched up but must be fundamentally reformed and re-regulated. Above all, he explained the necessary interaction of all these reforms, of how they were not just some liberal wish list but the actions that the radical moment demanded.

Speeches almost as powerful have followed, always linking these ideas together. But, like Hoover, Obama has been unable to make his actions live up to his words. Health care is being gummed to death on Capitol Hill. Obama has done nothing to pass “card check” provisions that would facilitate union organization and quietly announced that he would not seek stronger labor and environmental protections in NAFTA. He has capitulated on cap-and-trade in the budget outline and never even bothered to push for an actual carbon tax. Only minuscule portions of the stimulus bill or his budget proposals were dedicated to mass transit, and his indifference to the issue—what must be a major component of any serious effort to go green—was reflected in his appointment of a mediocre Republican time-server, Ray LaHood, as his transportation secretary.

Still worse is Obama’s decision to leave the reordering of the financial world solely to Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, both of whom played such a major role in deregulating Wall Street and bringing on the disaster in the first place. It’s as if, after winning election in 1932, FDR had brought Andrew Mellon back to the Treasury. Just as Herbert Hoover could not, in the end, break away from the best economic advice of the 1920s, Barack Obama is sticking with the “key men” of the 1990s. The predictable result is that, even as he claims to recognize the interlocking nature of the problems facing us and vows to solve them as a whole, the president is in fact abandoning most of his program, at least for the time being.

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