Friday, January 22, 2010

Obama's Flawed Strategy: Responding to the Wrong Crisis

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." - Rahm Emmanuel

Rahm Emmanuel, the president's chief of staff once told the Wall Street Journal Digital Network that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste" since it provides the administration in power at the time to do things that might not otherwise be done during normal times. Obama's predecessor responded to the 9-11-01 World Trade Center bombings to consolidate agencies designed to locate and track terrorist organizations, weaken the barriers that allowed them to share information, and ultimately, created a system that allowed them to detain those it considered enemies of the United States as "war combatants" indefinitely without any opportunity to challenge their legal status.

The Supreme Court and, belatedly, Congress, pushed back. In Rasul v. the United States, it held that United States civil courts can hear the legal challenges filed foreign nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay. On the same day, an eight-member majority issued a judgment (I say "judgment" since no one single "opinion" commanded the respect of a court majority) upholding limited due process rights of a U.S. citizen whom the government classified as a an enemy combatant.

Congress would later reassert some of its Congressional oversight when the PATRIOT Act was renewed.

The Bush administration's national surveillance and detention policies polarized the nation. Conservatives thought the president was asserting his role as the chief law enforcer of the land and commander-in-chief to effectively fight a war against a network of terrorists. Liberal-to-libertarian-leaning scholars thought he was usurping Congress' constitutionally prescribed role to make law and/or abridging the accused war combatant's legal proceeding rights in his effort to do so.

As constitutionally dubious as these policies were, the public at large forgave the president as did a number of conservatives and liberals who thought the president condoned the use of torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. President Barack Obama cut off any attempt to prosecute former Vice President Richard Cheney and anyone else who involved in the decision-making process, for war crimes since doing so might offend a public that does not want to rehash arguments made in "the heat of battle."

I say this because 9-11 was, for all intents and purposes, a crisis which some used to re-assert executive powers once curtailed after Watergate and if it was not for 9-11, the public in all likelihood would have pushed back.

The public won't grant a president anything he wanted. The president's agenda must in some way be "closely tailored to" or otherwise related to the problem which it purportedly is designed to fix. Water boarding was rationalized, national security letters that circumvented the FISA court, and the indefinite detention of suspected "enemy combatants" were excused in the interest of national security. Our intelligence agencies, it was asserted, needed to gather as much intelligence as they possibly could and that required an ability to obtain warrants more easily and scare prisoners into disclsing information they might otherwise withhold from the proper authorities so that al Qaeda could not strike American soil again.

President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt too faced a crisis. The Great Depression provided him with an opportunity to enact legislation that would not have reached his desk in an age of prosperity.

A president who appears to respond to a crisis by enacting legislation that increases the size of its government will be viewed more favorably than a president who uses a crisis to enact legislation designed to pursue his or her agenda. The former will be viewed as a pragmatic response to a dire situation while the latter would be viewed as a government takeover.

I think this contributed to Obama's declining poll numbers and why the demagoguery coming from the Republicans on health care seemed so credible. Conservatives and independents thought the president was engaging in a "takeover of" a significant part of the economy at a time when (a) most people who are gainfully employed (full-time) have it and (b) the job market is in a state of decline.

The president wasn't elected to fix health care (not that reform isn't needed); he was elected to fix the economy. His Republican opponent, it should be recalled, had closed the gap after he selected the charismatic but under-qualified one-term governor of Alaska as his running mate, and the president only pulled away from the his Republican opponent when the stock market went into a free-fall.

Obama was charged with reversing the trends and to some extent he succeeded. He bailed out the banks, thereby saving some pension plans and he pushed an economic stimulus package through Congress. Though it wasn't big enough to reverse the decline and get more Americans back to work, the stimulus package saved jobs that were marked for elimination.

He did, however, shift his focus to health care before his job was done and so the president and his advisers used the crisis to push through Congress legislation designed to provide affordable health insurance coverage for more Americans. By shifting their focus, however, they let the "crisis go to waste," for the time he wasted pushing that bill through a reluctant Congress was time he could have used to fix our financial regulatory system.

The public would not have objected to these attempts to restore the regulatory regime dismantled by his predecessors. In general. Voters would have scoffed at any Republican portrayals of ending "too-big-to-fail" and consolidating regulatory agencies as "government takeovers." Wall Street's practices, after all, made victims out of everybody who did not work on Wall Street.

To offset the potential loss in jobs which will occur if the big banks cut their lending practices even more and to reverse the trend in overall job losses, the president could have pushed for some major government works projects (rebuilding schools, roads & bridges in disrepair, new railroad connections), issue new loans to smaller banks and credit unions with the hope that they would restart businesses, and cut payroll taxes, something Lawrence O'Donnell suggested on Wednesday's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

Had the president started with this agenda, he might have saved the seat in Massachusetts and minimized the losses we would be expecting in November. Whatever fears the public may have in our national debt would have been offset by their fear in further job losses. Only now, when the president had squandered a year, focused on the health care bill, is the president ready to shift his focus.

The president compounded his mistake by letting Congress write a health care bill which he then refused to defend or otherwise comment on. He refused to say what must and need not be in the final bill. He squandered precious time letting Senator Max Baucus reach out to a Republican Party that had shown no willingness to work with him on the less controversial stimulus bill.

By Thanksgiving, the president was asking Congress to pass any bill and call it health care reform. He offended the progressives by ceding the public option, something they consider the more cost-effective approach, too early and then he lost virtually everybody else when the deals had to be made with Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) , Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) and Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska). Senators and governors from both parties objected to the special giveaways designed to win their votes. By Christmas, no one liked the bill. Progressives like former Governor and DNC Chairman Howard Dean said they should scratch the bill and go through reconciliation.

In sum, the president managed to anger everybody. He angered the independent moderates because they felt he wasn't doing enough to create jobs and reign Wall Street under control. Then he offended the liberals within his own party by squandering his time pushing for a bill that, in their estimation, subsidized the insurance companies it was supposed to regulate.

The Obama administration is finally getting its act together. Yesterday he vowed to enact legislation designed to curb Wall Street's practices. We will see, however, whether the Republicans will let him get these measures through Congress, when he had a filibuster-proof majority in the senate. Since he squandered his political capital tepidly fighting for a weak, uninspiring health care bill that even Democrats are now running away from (and consequently won't even get passed) the president's financial agenda will now be in the hands of the Republicans, who now will be in the position where they can block any legislation that might come their way.

I don't think Obama's performance on the domestic policy front merits a B+ he gave himself , even if it is weighted. He gets a D+ from this blogger.

1 comment: said...

Do you use Democratic Underground? If so please post this on DU. In anycase please forward this to your public and private email lists.

See my letter to President Obama that I faxed to him today.