Political Asylum — November 9, 2012, 3:59 pm

Obama’s Bland Bargain

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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Kevin Baker:

From the July 2018 issue

The Death of a Once Great City

The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence

Context November 25, 2016, 11:26 am

A Fate Worse Than Bush

Rudolph Giuliani and the politics of personality

From the July 2014 issue

21st Century Limited

The lost glory of America’s railroads

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Amount of aid Connecticut agreed in May to provide Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund:

$22,000,000

A survey of national narcissism found that Russians see themselves as responsible for 61 percent of world history, whereas the Swiss put themselves at 11 percent

Marvel Entertainment's CEO exerts influence over the VA; Mike Pence lays out plans for The Space Force; Paul Manafort's trial reveals his tax evasion (and much more)

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today