Obama’s Bland Bargain
A dispassionate president disavows the liberal idea.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
A dispassionate president disavows the liberal idea.
Maybe the most trenchant observation on election night came from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who called out President Obama for his failure, in his victory speech, to thank Bill Clinton or the Democratic Party in general:
The Democratic Party really wasn’t given any attention tonight. The president is the leader of the Democratic Party. Whatever forging of relationship he’s going to do with the other side, it’s going to start with unity . . .
They did very well, these Senate candidates, because they ran on the same platform, basically, as everyone pointed out tonight: stronger regulation of Wall Street, redress of inequality in income through tax policy, real fighting for that stuff. Dealing with industrial policy: We really go in and work for a company, like the auto industry, and save it. You don’t sit around and watch it. You don’t talk about bankruptcy.
There’s a real policy aggressiveness here that’s come about over the last several years with the Democratic Party at the front of it, and I didn’t sense that he acted as a party leader, or even as a leader of a faction. It was him, again, alone.
Now, I’m not so worried about the feelings of Bill Clinton, a ceaselessly solipsistic individual whose deregulation of the financial markets and abolition of welfare did so much both to bring about our economic collapse and harden the fall for millions of Americans. Nor am I all that concerned with soothing the feathers of many Democratic satraps, whose caution, conservatism, and even corruption have been just as responsible as anything Barack Obama did for squandering the mandate of 2006–8.
But what Matthews picked up on is the mindset of a president already signaling that he is about to consider a set of political compromises and policy reversals that promise to be destructive both to his party and his country.
The last major campaign speech Barack Obama will ever give for himself was no more than a shambling collection of platitudes and anecdotes, devoid of any vision, poetry, attempt to define America, or even a good quote. It was yet another diffident, offhanded effort by this most disengaged of all presidents, despite his attempt to rev it up a bit at the end by raising his voice and increasing the rhythm.
It was far too late for that—just as it is far too late for the great historic “legacy” that the group of prominent historical biographers he hosts at an annual White House dinner claim Obama wants for himself. The president meekly surrendered that hope, along with his sizable congressional majorities, over two years ago. There’s no chance of regaining it now—as both Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, made plain.
McConnell’s press release after this year’s election had to be the single most graceless congratulatory message in American political history. It was practically a snarl—a sneering shot at the president, combined with a threat that he’d better not try any of the things that tens of millions of Americans have elected him to do. Boehner’s reaction was both more conciliatory and more clever, welcoming Obama’s cooperation in forging the much-ballyhooed “grand bargain” of a budget deal while quietly suggesting that he cede on every major point—just as the president seemed about to do when we last approached budgetary Armageddon almost a year ago.
Boehner’s deputy, Eric Cantor, then threw some spine into this ultimatum by asserting that any budget deal would of course have to be accompanied by “entitlement reform”—an idea that most Americans resoundingly rejected this week, and that even most of the Republicans’ own base would probably reject overwhelmingly, if their leaders ever cared to explain it to them honestly and plainly. What happened on Tuesday was not a vote to slash Social Security benefits, it was not a vote to replace Medicare with vouchers, it was not a vote to turn Medicaid over the states and let them euthanize it . . .
. . . except among the various elites of both parties and the media, who now routinely feel empowered to overturn and distort any and all election results.
Obama himself is already sending out media feelers about his intentions, which aren’t good. He has, for instance, let it be known that his administration is looking to back the government out of the still-wobbly housing markets as quickly as possible, terminating or greatly downsizing the roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the quasi-public entities which have been used to guarantee home mortgages for decades.
It was exactly this same Tim Geithner–led “reform” of housing that stalled the economy’s recovery, let down millions of voters being forced from their homes, and probably prevented Obama from winning in a true landslide on Tuesday and ushering in a new era of true liberal reforms and activism.
That could have been the foundation for a helluva legacy, indeed. But no matter how many historians he invites to dinner, it never quite seems to dawn on Obama that those presidents who have built resounding, lasting historical legacies—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and, at least in domestic affairs, Lyndon Johnson—have done so largely by ignoring conventional wisdom, and instead empowering and providing for regular citizens.
Obama—like the neglected Clinton before him—will have no such legacy because instead of pursuing a vision for the welfare of the whole country, he remains trapped inside the rigid, small-minded, essentially conservative ideology of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). It is a mentality typified—as usual—by Thomas Friedman, who claimed his own mandate after the election. “The biggest domestic issue in the next four years,” he wrote, “will be how we respond to changes in technology, globalization and markets that have, in a very short space of time, made the decent-wage, middle-skilled job—the backbone of the middle class—increasingly obsolete. The only decent-wage jobs will be high-skilled ones.”
It’s quite true that many middle-skilled jobs are gone and, in the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, “they ain’t comin’ back”—partly because, in an act tantamount to treason, American industrialists shipped them off to foreign dictatorships while American politicians stood by and allowed them to do so. But it’s also partly true because it simply takes fewer and fewer people to do things like make steel.
We do need to look at the economy in a fundamentally different light. We need to figure how we can increase wages and improve the lives of the vast majority of our citizens who do not have college educations, and won’t have them anytime soon.
The old justification for capitalism was that, however gradually and bumpily, it was driving down the number of hours we had to work for someone else, increasing our compensation, and improving our standard of living. Why has this now been abandoned, even among Democratic and media elites, in favor of the notion that most of us must work longer and harder for less? Why is it that the vast new profits from deindustrialization and increased productivity are now to be handed over to the very wealthiest and most powerful? How long can our economy go on funneling so much of our wealth and our talent to a financial sector that operates more and more like a gigantic Ponzi scheme?
A truly liberal president—a president who might actually have a shot at a worthwhile legacy—would be trying to shift the national argument toward how we might both improve the lives of most Americans and do things that will truly increase mass buying power. He would be talking about making it much easier for workers to unionize, increasing the minimum wage to a living wage, shortening the work week at the same salary (there is no more reason now why everyone should have to work forty hours a week than there was for them to work seventy-two hours, or fifty-hour hours, in the past), and providing longer vacations, family-leave time, free public transportation, free health care, and free higher education—for starters.
It was a tremendous experience to walk through the aisles of the Democratic convention in Charlotte this summer and talk to the delegates. It was the most diverse single event I have ever attended, a gathering of America as America wants to think of itself. The conventioneers came in every conceivable size, shape, gender, and background. They were tremendously intelligent, involved, accomplished, and optimistic people.
They were also, in the end, the reason the Republican Party was so stunned that it lost this election. The American right doesn’t even grasp that such a Democratic Party exists, so obsessed are they with their straw-man notions of liberals as mooching, big-government, politically correct fearmongers.
Going into the election, the usual analysts misread this grassroots party as well, wringing their collective hands over the notion that the “loony left,” as Obama and his associates often seemed to characterize his most fervent supporters, were about to jump ship. They would ruin everything, turn the White House over to the right by mounting a quixotic third-party run at the White House by Howard Dean, or Russ Feingold, or the archfiend Ralph Nader.
Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Instead, displaying remarkable cohesion and maturity, the base stayed in the party, made the best of a bad situation despite their often bitter disappointment in Obama, and put him over.
They—we—put him over despite all the campaign promises he broke, and even the insults he offered us.
We put him over despite an unemployment rate of almost 8 percent, and that floundering housing market.
We put him over despite the avalanche of money dumped on this election by the right wing.
We put him over despite the fact that he gave no speeches of any great note, articulated no soaring vision, offered no new agenda and precious few proposals, and fell into an apparent fugue state during his terrifying first debate.
Obama did at least thank the millions of volunteers who put him across on Tuesday. But even so, pretty much all he offered was his personal gratitude.
We who are the base want more. Talking to those wonderful delegates in Charlotte, I was struck that none of them envisioned anything like the “grand bargain” Obama now figures is his last shot at legacy. To a man and a woman, they expected that a second Obama term would mean improvements in universal health care, new educational opportunities, and maybe a renewed battle against climate change. No one was inspired by the thought that vital programs for the old, the infirm, and the unfortunate might be struck down, even in exchange for making the wealthy pay a little more.
The modern welfare state, in which all of America advances together, is our legacy. It is one that has brought us unprecedented freedom, justice, and prosperity, and saved the world from tyranny at critical moments. We need to preserve, protect, and enhance that America—no matter what the history books may say about President Barack Obama.
More from Kevin Baker:
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am
And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis
Percentage of the 84,000 chemicals used commercially in the United States that are kept secret under federal law:
A study showed that the air pollution created by cigarettes is ten times worse than that from diesel exhaust.
It was reported that the wife of a former pork-roll factory employee filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit after her husband was allegedly fired for passing gas in the office.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”