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Looking Beyond Rhetoric

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As a result of the increasing popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement (which now gets so much coverage, it’s referred to as “OWS”) President Obama has found it necessary to crank up the populist rhetoric.  He must walk a fine line because his injecting too much enthusiasm into any populist-themed discussion of the economic crisis will alienate those deep-pocketed campaign donors from the financial sector.  Don’t forget:  Goldman Sachs was Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions, providing more than one million dollars for the cause.

The Occupy Wall Street protest has now placed Obama and his fellow Democrats in a double-bind situation.  Many commentators – while pondering that predicament – have found it necessary to take a good, hard look at the favorable treatment given to Wall Street by the current administration.  A recent essay by Robert Reich approached this subject by noting that Obama is as far from left-wing populism as any Democratic President in modern history:

To the contrary, Obama has been extraordinarily solicitous of Wall Street and big business – making Timothy Geithner Treasury Secretary and de facto ambassador from the Street; seeing to it that Bush’s Fed appointee, Ben Bernanke, got another term; and appointing GE Chair Jeffrey Immelt to head his jobs council.

Most tellingly, it was President Obama’s unwillingness to place conditions on the bailout of Wall Street – not demanding, for example, that the banks reorganize the mortgages of distressed homeowners, and that they accept the resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act, as conditions for getting hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars – that contributed to the new populist insurrection.

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But the modern Democratic Party is not likely to embrace left-wing populism the way the GOP has embraced – or, more accurately, been forced to embrace – right-wing populism. Just follow the money, and remember history.

Another commentator, who has usually been positive in his analysis of the current administration’s policies – Tom Friedman of The New York Times – couldn’t help but criticize Obama’s performance while lamenting the loss a great American leader, Steve Jobs:

Obama supporters complain that the G.O.P. has tried to block him at every turn.  That is true. But why have they gotten away with it? It’s because Obama never persuaded people that he had a Grand Bargain tied to a vision worth fighting for.

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The paucity of Obama’s audacity is striking.

As I recently pointed out, any discussion of our nation’s economic problems ultimately focuses on President Obama’s failure to seize the opportunity – during the first year of his Presidency – to turn the economy around and reduce unemployment.  Despite the administration’s repeated claims that it has reduced unemployment, Pro Publica offered an honest look of that claim:

Overall, job creation has been relatively meager during the Obama administration, particularly compared to the massive job losses brought on by the recession.  According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, even if job creation were happening at pre-recession levels, it would take us 11 years to get back to an unemployment rate of 5 percent.

Ron Suskind’s new book, Confidence Men provided a shocking revelation about Obama’s decision allow unemployment to remain above 9 percent by ignoring the advice of Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers).  I discussed that issue and the outrage expressed in reaction to Obama’s attitude on September 22.

At The Washington Post, Ezra Klein wrote an engaging piece, which provided us with a close look at how the Obama administration was fighting the economic crisis.  Klein interviewed several people from inside the administration and provided a sympathetic perspective on Obama’s decisions.  Nevertheless, Klein’s ultimate conclusion – although nuanced – didn’t do much for the President:

From the outset, the policies were too small for the recession the administration and economists thought we faced.  They were much too small for the recession we actually faced.  More and better stimulus, more aggressive interventions in the housing market, more aggressive policy from the Fed, and more attention to preventing layoffs and hiring the unemployed could have led to millions more jobs.  At least in theory.

Of course, ideas always sound better than policies.  Policies must be implemented, and they have unintended consequences and unforeseen flaws.  In the best of circumstances, the policymaking process is imperfect.  But January 2009 had the worst of circumstances – a once-in-a-lifetime economic emergency during a presidential transition.

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These sorts of economic crises are, in other words, inherently politically destabilizing, and that makes a sufficient response, at least in a democracy, nearly impossible.

Klein’s apologia simply underscored the necessity for a President to exhibit good leadership qualities.  Despite a “Presidential transition”, the Democratic Party held the majority of seats in both the Senate and the House.  In July of 2009, when it was obvious that the stimulus had been inadequate, Obama was too preoccupied with his healthcare bill to refocus on economic recovery.  As I said back then:

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.  As a result, President Obama will need to re-invent this aspect of his public image before he can even consider presenting a second economic stimulus proposal.

Weak leadership is hardly a justifiable excuse for an inadequate, half-done, economic stimulus program.  Beyond that, President Obama’s sell-out to Wall Street by way of a sham financial “reform” bill has drawn widespread criticism.  In his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP) 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.

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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.

Running as an incumbent President presents a unique challenge to Mr. Obama.  He must now reconcile his populist rhetoric with his record as President.  The contrast is too sharp to ignore.


 

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