Improving on a crisis
Back in the days when the Obama Administration was more than a dream but not quite the nightmare it has become (i.e., after the election and before the inauguration), Rahm Emanuel famously said: “Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.” At the time it was well known that Emanuel was a centrist Democrat who help into office a number of Blue Dog congressmen. Nevertheless, we people of good will, liberals, well-wishers to our fellow man, people, in other words, totally unlike Emanuel, we thought we knew what he meant. And we put a happy face on it. Surely, we thought, the Bush Administration has created any number of crises—financial, economic, international, constitutional, legal—that the new administration was going to take the opportunity to fundamentally reorient the country back to the foundation that served it from the times of the New Deal up to the time that politicians began dismantling protections afforded the common man. Didn’t Obama actually talk of Reagan being a “transformational” president? Surely, Obama himself intended to be such a one that would transform the country in his own way, in a way that would give at least part of the power of running it back to the people and away from the oligarchs and plutocrats.
Whence did we get these notions? The answer is simple. We deluded ourselves. We thought Bush was so awful that anyone on our side that replaced him had to be from the angels. We were so eager to win that we cut corners in finding out what winning meant. Obama and his handlers channeled our aversion to right-wing policies so skillfully that we didn’t even kick the tires of the car we decided to buy. Obama had enough of a legislative background that he could point to a thing or two that showed he was a “liberal” (mainly not being around for the vote on the Iraq War) and we connected all the meager dots into an elaborate Rococo vision of Paradise, where our troops would leave Iraq, universal health care would be enacted, social justice for gays and immigrants would finally happen, the regressive Bush tax cuts would expire, torture and illegal surveillance would be ended and the former war and constitutional criminals would be prosecuted. As an added bonus, the prospect of global climate disaster would finally be addressed. When we look back at our delusions we can console ourselves by saying, “At least we didn’t give him the Nobel Peace Prize.”
There are those, even normally level-headed people, who claim that the President is in fact a liberal. I’m not talking about the toadies for Rupert Murdoch or the proto-fascists wing of the Republican Party. Nate Silver, for example, produced an incomprehensible chart purporting to show that Barack Obama is more liberal than FDR, LBJ and Truman. And yet (and here’s the thing that should have tipped Nate off that there was something wrong with his methodology) Obama was to the right of Jimmy Carter. So Carter too was to the left of those who had created Social Security, Medicare, the SEC and the NLRB and presided over the enactments of the modern financial regulatory scheme, the labor relations laws, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, Head Start, the War on Poverty and many other accomplishments. I suppose you have to chalk it up to coming of age after Watergate and only knowing neo-Democrats, all of whom are defined by their “seriousness” in explaining how we can no longer accommodate liberal principles. If the only “leaders” you ever saw in action were Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, you probably can be forgiven thinking that government has nothing to do with helping the weak and poor. And those guys who can only be seen in black and white grainy film and video clearly could not as hip, cool and liberal. Jimmy Carter was liberal enough to announce that government can’t solve unemployment or poverty. Bill Clinton dismantled welfare. (To his credit, he rejected the corporatist solution to universal health care that the current President embraced. We’ll never get to see the full operation of the current legislation-by-concession-to-corporate interest, however, since the Supreme Court is more than likely to gut it.) Barack Obama is likely to be the real hero of this group of neo-liberals. When he leads the party to dismantle Social Security and Medicare in order to preserve the Bush Tax Cuts and have enough money to conduct three overseas wars at the same time, we’ll know that “liberal” has acquired a new and perhaps subtly different meaning. Government will continue to help, according to these new liberals (more liberal they than FDR, Truman and LBJ), it’s just that now goverment helps those who help themselves, and themselves only.
Ah, but the explainers say, How can you blame the President? He’s doing the best he can in this political environment. I’ll skip this time the chance to again explain how this President has utterly failed to use his office to forcefully promote and explain the benefits of liberal economic measures. Let me just suggest that if Hubert Humphrey or Walter Mondale were designing the “stimulus” package (they would call it, and it would in fact be, a “jobs bill”), they would not have stuffed it with tax breaks for Republican cronies. And we would certainly not hear the inane drivel this President keeps up about how the national economy is like a family budget. (Perhaps he is suggesting this country solve is money woes by marrying a successful corporate lawyer and then writing a reflective book about its relationship with the father that abandoned it.) His speeches on this subject are so vapid and so condescending that it’s impossible to believe he himself believes them. If he does, he will keep in tact this century’s streak of presidents intellectually unqualified for the job.
But even if you conceded that a president is constrained by the composition of the Congress, it doesn’t explain how he has muzzled the Justice Department, which spends inordinately more of its energy pursuing whistle-blowers than those whose crimes were made evident by those whistles. Some have attributed his refusal to go after powerful wrong-doers as a sign of his personal aversion to conflict. But he’s shown no aversion to ruffing up the helpless, like Bradley Manning, or deciding who should be assassinated. No, it’s not that he avoids the rough and tumble. He just avoids it with the members of the elite class of rulers and wielders of money and power that he would like to think are his equals. Like the modern robber barons who enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of us with financial “products” which wrecked the world economy and enriched the miscreants (who, by the way, paid less of that income in taxes than they did in the era when white collar fraud was actually prosecuted). If Anatole France were alive today he would undoubtedly hail the majesty of the law that treats all the same: Both rich and poor will be jailed for stealing bread to feed their family. Neither rich nor poor will be prosecuted for bilking the capital markets of billions of dollars and bankrupting the private firms that our government believes its duty to keep solvent. Nor does our President have any taste for prosecuting torturers. These are his people. His own predilection runs toward assassination, but he can identify with the mindset of the torturer. Anyway those war criminals were integral parts of the administration that this one is most emulating. So prosecuting them would be like prosecuting those who made the decision to put Bradley Manning in solitary confinement.
You can see the why someone like Nate Silver can confuse Barack Obama with Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Rahm Emanuel with Benjamin V. Cohen.
This Sunday, the Great Healer will be at work to solve the matter of the Debt Ceiling. It will be exciting to see what he offers up to save our full faith and credit in the world capital markets. I suppose the Bush Tax Cuts are not part of the bargain after he spent so much effort last year betraying liberals and breaking his campaign promises to extend them. Or the military budget. Money being the sinews of war, and war evidently being the real passion of this Nobel Peace Laureate, that budget is sacred. So what really is left? He will be reluctantly forced to take money from the old and the sick and the poor, the people he is not averse to having conflict with. But cheer up. Although there are probably reasons that can’t improve their lot by marriage, surely each of them has a compelling person story they can turn into a book. And any liberal can see that a country with more books is better than a country where tax dollars goes to the old, the sick and the poor.
Rahm was right. Crises are the perfect time to profit. And so the moral, constitutional, environmental, political and economic crises that faced the country in 2008 provided the perfect opportunity to entrench the powerful, protect the war criminal, bolster the financial manipulators, license more offshore drilling, send more troops into combat and cut the taxes of the rich. This ambitious program, of course, can only be accomplished by gutting Social Security and Medicare. There simply isn’t any other piggy bank available. No one asked these people to become poor or old or sick, anyway. It was a life-style choice. The need being apparent, it took a liberal Democrat to accomplish it. Just like it took Republican Richard Nixon to recognize China.
So when you see stories of old people living in squalor and eating cat food, remember one man’s crisis is another’s profit. And remember whose side Barack Obama was on.