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Obama Fatigue

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Since President Obama first assumed office, it hasn’t been too difficult to find harsh criticism of the new administration.  One need only tune in to the Fox News, where an awkward Presidential sneeze could be interpreted as a “secret message” to Bill Ayers or George Soros.  Nevertheless, with the passing of time, voices from across the political spectrum have joined a chorus of frustration with the Obama agenda.

On February 26, 2009 – only one month into the Obama Presidency – I voiced my suspicion about the new administration’s unwillingness to address the problem of systemic risk, inherent in allowing a privileged few banks to enjoy their “too big to fail” status:

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” –  by avoiding bank nationalization — send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

By September of 2009, I became convinced that Mr. Obama was suffering from a degree of hubris, which could seal his fate as a single-term President:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history – not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.

Although the TARP bank bailout program was initiated during the final months of the Bush Presidency, the Obama administration’s stewardship of that program recently drew sharp criticism from Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP).  Beyond that, in his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Mr. Barofsky criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

Finally, the country was assured that regulatory reform would address the threat to our financial system posed by large banks that have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.  This promise also appears likely to go unfulfilled.  The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.  They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary.

*   *   *

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

*   *   *

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP – which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers – into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals – whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in – may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

Another unlikely critic of President Obama is the retired law school professor who blogs using the pseudonym, “George Washington”.  A recent posting at Washington’s Blog draws from a number of sources to ponder the question of whether President Obama (despite his Nobel Peace Prize) has become more brutal than President Bush.  The essay concludes with a review of Obama’s overall performance in The White House:

Whether or not Obama is worse than Bush, he’s just as bad.

While we had Bush’s “heck of a job” response to Katrina, we had Obama’s equally inept response and false assurances in connection with the Gulf oil spill, and Obama’s false assurances in connection with the Japanese nuclear crisis.

And Bush and Obama’s response to the financial crisis are virtually identical:  bail out the giant banks, let Wall Street do whatever it wants, and forget the little guy.

The American voters asked for change.  Instead, we got a different branch of the exact same Wall Street/military-industrial complex/Big Energy (BP, GE)/Big Pharma party.

Another commentator who has become increasingly critical of President Obama is Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration.  Mr. Obama’s failure to push back against the corporatist politicians, who serve as “reverse Robin Hoods” enriching CEOs at the expense of American workers, resulted in this rebuke from Professor Reich:

President Obama and Democratic leaders should be standing up for the wages and benefits of ordinary Americans, standing up for unions, and decrying the lie that wage and benefit concessions are necessary to create jobs.  The President should be traveling to the Midwest – taking aim at Republican governors in the heartland who are hell bent on destroying the purchasing power of American workers.  But he’s doing nothing of the sort.

As attention begins to focus on the question of who will be the Republican nominee for the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Obama Fatigue is causing many people to appraise the President’s chances of defeat.  The excitement of bringing the promised “change” of 2008 has morphed into cynicism.  Many of the voters who elected Obama in 2008 might be too disgusted to bother with voting in 2012.  As a result, the idea of a Democratic or Independent challenger to Obama is receiving more consideration.  Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi recently provided this response to a letter inquiring about the possibility that Elizabeth Warren could make a run for the White House in 2012:

A few months ago I heard a vague rumor from someone who theoretically would know that such a thing was being contemplated, but I don’t know anything beyond that.  I wish she would run.  I’m not sure if it would ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing for Barack Obama – she could fatally wound his general-election chances by exposing his ties to Wall Street – but I think she’s exactly what this country needs. She’s totally literate on the finance issues and is completely on the side of human beings, as opposed to banks and oil companies and the like.  One thing I will say:  if she did run, she would have a lot more support from the press than she probably imagines, as there are a lot of reporters out there who are reaching the terminal-disappointment level with Obama ready to hop on the bandwagon of someone like Warren.

If Elizabeth Warren ultimately decides to make a run for The White House, Mr. Obama should do the right thing:  Stop selling the sky to people and step aside.


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A Love–Hate Situation For The Stimulus Bill

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February 2, 2009

As the Senate focuses its attention on the economic stimulus bill, Republicans are putting up a good fight, after the measure sailed through the House of Representatives, despite unanimous Republican opposition.  Time magazine reports that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell believes that the bill will fail in the Senate because it does not provide enough tax cuts.  The Republican insistence on tax cuts has already been addressed by President Obama, who included more tax cuts into the measure.  In an editorial for Bloomberg News, Michael R. Sesit complained:

Obama’s proposed cuts are politically motivated — a bone thrown to Republicans, who embrace lower taxes.  The president’s desire to promote bipartisanship is a laudable goal.  Yet pursuing it at the expense of sound economic policy is a high price to pay.  Obama has enormous public support and doesn’t need Republican cooperation to pass his stimulus program.

Tax cuts are also politically hard to reverse, which will eventually be necessary once the economy is back on its feet and inflation picks up.

The Time article quoted Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank’s response to the cry for even more tax cuts:

“I never saw a tax cut fix a bridge. I never saw a tax cut give us more public transportation.  The fact is, we need a mix,” Frank said.

In his January 29 op-ed column for the New York Times, David Brooks reflected on what Larry Summers (the newly-appointed head of the National Economic Council) had to say throughout 2008 about the nature of a large-scale stimulus package, such as the one under consideration.  Brooks noted “three clear guidelines” established by Summers for developing a plan such as this:

First, the stimulus should be timely.  The money should go out “almost immediately.”  Second, it should be targeted.  It should help low- and middle-income people.  Third, it should be temporary.  Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

In criticizing this bill, Brooks argued that these parameters have been abandoned.  Among his suggested “fixes” would be the removal of the permanent programs built into the proposal.

Meanwhile, E. J. Dionne has written about how progressive Democrats are split into two camps, expressing different priorities for the measure:

One camp favors using the stimulus to focus on the needs of Americans of modest means.  The $819 billion stimulus bill that passed the House Wednesday night on a party-line vote, as well as the proposal being developed in the Senate, includes substantial new spending for the unemployed, for food stamps and for advances in health-care coverage.  The tax cuts in both versions tilt toward Americans with lower incomes.  Education programs also fare well.

But another group of progressives sees the bills as shorting investments for infrastructure:  roads, bridges and particularly mass transit.  This camp was buoyed by a report released Wednesday by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluding that it would take $2.2 trillion to bring the nation’s infrastructure into good repair.

Many sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have criticized this bill as being laden with “pork” projects, unlikely to spur economic growth or to create jobs.  Beyond that, Jeanne Cummings provided an interesting report on the Politico website, revealing how the business sector sees this “oversized legislation” as a “golden opportunity”.  The Democrats do not seem averse to this interest:

Senate Democrats, hoping to draw more bipartisan support, have already signaled they’re going to beef up the business provisions.  Versions of some of the most coveted tax breaks are already in the proposal by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

But business leaders and their trade representatives would like to see even more love in the stimulus.  And they’ve commissioned special studies, blanketed the committee with letters and recruited industry bigwigs to make their case.

In the face of this expanding government largesse, an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post called upon President Obama to remind those in Congress “including leaders of his own party, who are cluttering his fiscal stimulus plan with extraneous and counterproductive provisions” of the admonition he gave to the bad actors on Wall Street.  In his disgust with the misappropriation of over $18 billion in TARP money for bonuses, the President said:  “show some restraint and show some discipline and show some sense of responsibility.”  In a passage reminiscent of David Brooks’ emphasis on the “three clear guidelines” established by Larry Summers, the Washington Post editorial noted that:

Instead of giving the economy a “targeted, timely and temporary” injection, the plan has been larded with spending on existing social programs or hastily designed new ones, much of it permanent or probably permanent — and not enough of it likely to create new jobs.

Former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin fears that “money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted.”  Former Reagan administration economist Martin Feldstein writes that “it delivers too little extra employment and income for such a large fiscal deficit.”  Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs labels the plan “an astounding mishmash of tax cuts, public investments, transfer payments and special treats for insiders.”

Let’s face it:  the Republicans aren’t the only ones who are upset about the excesses in this stimulus plan.  In fact, most Republican governors favor this bill.  Last week the National Governors Association called on Congress to pass the plan.  Beth Fouhy reported for the Associated Press that Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Vermont Governor Jim Douglas are pushing Republican Senators to pass the bill.  Although such a measure may be distasteful to Republican ideals, these hard times demand that Republican governors follow the procedure described by Rush Limbaugh as “bending over and grabbing your ankles”:

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is widely viewed as a potential presidential contender in 2012, said governors have little choice but to accept the relief being offered.  “States have to balance their budgets,” he said.  “So if we’re going to go down this path, we are entitled to ask for our share of the money.”

As the stimulus bill makes its way through the Senate, it will be interesting to see whether the final version involves dispersal of more than or less than $826 billion.  Don’t be surprised if it hits the One Trillion mark.