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Hullabaloo


Monday, May 10, 2010

 
Shop Teacher In Chief

by digby

Robert Kuttner gets to one of my major gripes about Obama in this piece for Huffington Post in which he points out that Obama repeatedly fails to use the political moment to give an ideological lesson to the public:


This has been a providential month for teachable moments. They have included the details of the government's civil fraud case against Goldman Sachs; the gruesome and needless corporate murder of miners in West Virginia; the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico; and then to complete the circle, the stock market going berserk because a technical error caused a domino effect of computerized automatic selling.

What do these events have in common? Every one of them demonstrates why the private profit motive cannot be relied upon without some steering or harnessing mechanism by government. A president committed to rallying public opinion to the cause of a more balanced economy would be all over these teachable moments, connecting the dots, rebuilding the ideology of managed capitalism, making the case for tougher government action in the public interest, and rallying the citizenry to his cause.

Let's review how President Obama has actually done. read on


He's been unlucky/lucky enough to govern in a period of great volatility and it's a great disappointment that he's failed to use the one gift everyone agrees he has --- oratory --- to educate the public about liberal values. As Kuttner points out, other presidents have not hesitated to do it when they are given the opportunity:

So let's pause for a moment to review the bidding. The market economy has had a meltdown and regular people are still suffering. The administration is getting little credit for the half-steps that it has taken. The public is still uncertain whether government is part of the problem or part of the solution.

You might think, with these well timed gifts, that a progressive president would demonstrate leadership. Had the tables been turned, and the government rather than the private market perpetrated a series of disasters, you can just imagine how Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush and their strategists would have gone to town.

But after 16 months of pummeling by the right, this presidency is still pursuing his Quixotic quest for common ground. Obama's most notable speech in recent weeks was his May 1 commencement address at the University of Michigan. The White House had plenty of time to decide what message the president wanted to send. It was characteristic Obama and the president had some very good lines about the importance of government:

"Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad. (Applause.) Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. (Applause.) Government is this extraordinary public university -- a place that's doing lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small. (Applause.)"

But then he said this:

Now, the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate....[so] if you're somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. (Applause.) It is essential for our democracy. (Applause.)

Now, while we should appreciate the plug for the Huffington Post, there is something profoundly offensive about the presumption of moral equivalence....as if we are fringe left the way Limbaugh is fringe right. The fact is that Limbaugh, Beck, and the Wall Street Journal routinely lie. HuffPost and the New York Times editorial page don't. And while writers like me push Obama to be more resolute and more effective, we don't demonize him. Obama's juxtaposition of the moderate left and the lunatic right as both worthy of attention reminds me of Robert Frost's definition of a liberal as the fellow who is so high minded that he won't take his own side in an argument



I complained about that as well.

At this point there's no longer any reason to assume that Obama doesn't get it or is just trying to get his legislation through and doesn't want to alienate Republicans. He is what he appears to be, which is a dry, pragmatic, status quo, technocrat who makes symbolic leftward gestures while offering center right policies. The power of his iconic status is enough to create the illusion of idealism, which keeps him interesting. The Right is freaky enough to keep the left wary of going too far in challenging him.

But the right smells that he prefers to avoid fights, whether for psychological or ideological reasons, and they are successfully pushing him ever rightward while portraying him as a radical socialist. It's very clever. But then they are far more clever at macro-politics than anyone on the left*.

Kuttner lays out a speech he'd like Obama to give:


"My fellow Americans, in the past weeks we have witnessed a string of avoidable tragedies caused by the excesses of corporations and their executives. Millions of innocent people have suffered economic losses and dozens have lost their lives. The heedless rapacity of BP will cause suffering to the fishing industry, damage to the Gulf's fragile ecology and new economic losses to a region that is only beginning to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

"The mining disaster is another reason why we cannot rely on corporations to act in the public interest. Unless government vigorously policies mine safety, more miners will lose their lives, more wives will lose husbands and more children will lose fathers. But better enforcement of oil and coal safety will never solve the entire problem. We as a nation must do what BP cynically professed it was doing. We must move beyond petroleum and beyond carbon.

"And the mother of all economic catastrophes, the financial collapse, is further proof that markets must not be left to their own devices. We need the toughest possible regulation of Wall Street so that the rest of the economy can recover.


That would be a great speech. But I think it's fairly clear that it wouldn't be a speech that Obama would give because he doesn't believe that, or if he does, he certainly doesn't think it's politically expedient to talk about it.

He knows that the "savvy businessmen" have made some boo-boos along the line, obviously, but it's not at all clear that he doesn't chalk it all up to some sort of act of God (or Invisible Hand) that was beyond the capacity of mortal humans to prevent. After all, these companies and banks are all run by very smart guys, who can't possibly be so stupid or greedy to create this mess by virtue of their own inadequacies or self-centeredness. They are The Best and the Brightest this country has to offer, and by the technocrat's definition that means they are important but dispassionate cogs in the great machine that makes the world work. If they are actually human fuck-ups and greedheads, what ever shall we do?

Kuttner concludes with this:


Gentle reader, presidents on occasion have actually made speeches like this. Roosevelt did. Lyndon Johnson did during the civil rights era. You could look it up. They used events to move public opinion. They built popular support for progressive interventions.



That's because they believed in those things. At this point I think Obama is better compared to Herbert Hoover (hopefully without the full-blown depression.) He just wants the government to operate efficiently with a minimum of fuss.



*They have a different set of problems right now, which are evening up the score for the moment. But they have many years of brand identity to get them through this momentary blip --- especially with the Dems failing to take the opportunity to damage their project.


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