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Friday, May 17, 2013

The turning point

This is a big month for yours truly, marking the end of my formal full-time academic career.  But I suspect it will live in history as a critical month for another reason: the end of any hope that the Obama Administration will accomplish anything further, and, quite probably,. of the modern era of liberalism.  Several years ago I made a new friend who spent some time reading through the posts I had made since 2004, and she complimented me that so many of my predictions had come true.  I'm afraid the time has come for more predictions. The Republicans will gain a few seats in the House and Senate in 2014, and it's quite likely that they will regain the White House in 2016.  The will precede to the final dismantling of the work of the Great Society, having finished off the New Deal some time ago.

Barack Obama entered office five years ago possessed of solid majorities in the House and Senate, and facing a national crisis that everyone had to acknowledge.  But from the beginning, he chased an impossible dream: the restoration of a bipartisan spirit in Washington.  He never had the slightest success, but he has not, as we shall see, given up the dream yet.  And this was the key to the mistake he has made again and again.  This quintessentially political young man, who had parlayed his considerable assets into fame, fortune, and high office at every stage of his career, based his proposals on what could easily be passed, rather than upon what the country might in the long run really need.  Even if the stimulus was a much as he could get, he could have put more of it into infrastructure spending and less of it into tax cuts designed (hopelessly) to draw Republican support.  He appointed an entirely centrist economic team, one that saw nothing fundamentally wrong with our finance-dominated economy.  He did not realize that the whole future of his Presidency depended on improving the lot of the bulk of the American people by the time of the 2010 elections--the feat which Franklin Roosevelt accomplished in 1933-4.  And he decided after the stimulus to put all his remaining capital into health care reform, even though it would be years before it had any measurable effect.  That reform, too, was written so as not to offend any powerful interests, on the assumption that we could fix the real problems we face without offending them.

To be sure, even in his first two years Obama had much less to work with than it seemed. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are in thrall to financial interests.  Democrats are very weak at the state level in much of the country.  Nearly 35 years of constant anti-government, free market rhetoric have left the vision of the middle of the century behind.  To make government effective again Obama had to revive them, and this he has never really tried to do.  We will never know whether any one else could have, but it is worth noting that Obama brought many of the same people back into government that Hillary Clinton would have.

Despite Obama's re-election victory, the Republicans have been driving the national agenda since 2011.  Their debt-limit brinkmanship forced Obama into the sequester, again on the absolutely mad assumption that today's Republican Party would shrink from actually implementing the cuts involved.  In fact their only regret, as they see the federal government crippled and the country threatened with a new recession as a result, is that they did not go further.  Destroy the government and the economy and blame the Democrats has been their motto for a long time, and they were not going to abandon it for him.  The same drama is playing out in many states, although California is now back on a more responsible track.  I was shocked that Obama actually told a New York fundraiser that he thought his victory last November would "break the fever" among the Republicans and make them start working with him.  They will never work with him. They want to destroy him and, more importantly, everything he stands for.

I must admit that I thought Obama's decision to make a new stand on gun control might make political sense.  His own Generation X voted for him in the last election, but his response to the school shooting might well appeal to that generation's hyperprotective parents and thus change the political calculus for some Republicans.  Clearly, however, I was wrong.  The NRA brushed the challenge aside and the House of Representatives wasn't even forced to vote on what was, once again, a very moderate bill.  Even before the events of the past week I was very doubtful that Obama would get substantial immigration reform.  Yes, the Republicans are losing the Hispanic vote over this issue, but they might lose it even worse if the President actually gave millions of Hispanics a path to citizenship.  The mantra remains what it has been since Newt Gingrich: don't let a Democratic President accomplish anything meaningful if you can help it, because that will once again show that government can solve problems.  By making it ineffective, we can kill public faith in it.

And now, three "scandals" have given the Republicans a new life.  None of them is really very significant.  The Benghazi accusations are made almost entirely of whole cloth.  The subpoena for AP records is a troubling reminder that this is the hardest Administration on leaks in history, and it has alienated much of the Democratic base.  The IRS scandal is a perfect reminder of Talleyrand's famous words to Napoleon: "Sire, it's worse than a crime, it's a blunder."  It will re-mobilize the Republican base as nothing else could, and the Republicans, aided by the entire media, will drag it out for months and months, just as they did Whitewater.  There is already considerable talk in the House about another impeachment of the President.  Don't rule it out.  And incredibly, no one has raised what seems to me a rather obvious question: why should Tea Party groups, or any other political organizations, receive tax exemptions as charitable organizations?  I'd really like to know.

Another crisis is looming over health care.  Republicans constantly declare that many businesses will cut their workers back to part-time status so as not to have to buy insurance for them--and that might well turn out to be true.  The implementation of the reform may be a public relations disaster. 

The United States has been in a second civil war since the election of Bill Clinton.  The Republicans are winning perhaps it was because it was their historical turn--a subject for another day--but surely because they are the only side that has really been fighting.  Clinton and Obama have been status quo Presidents, offering very little that was new and almost nothing that appeared to the mass of the American people to make their lives better.  Again and again they have bee willing to compromise, while the Republicans never do.  And the growth of Republican power has indeed reduced the federal government to ineffectiveness on many levels.  A Democratic victory in 2016 is anything but assured. A recent study--and not a right-wing one--argued that only the black turnout won the election for Obama last time, and the next Democratic candidate will not be black.  Nor can we be sure that Hispanics will continue to vote Democratic if the state of the country continues to deteriorate.

Obama, it seems to me, could do the country some good by talking, at every opportunity, about the economic steps the country really needs: more spending, not less; much higher taxes on the wealthy; a reduction of the influence of the financial sector; and better public services.  The only thing he can do now is to position the Democrats for the moment when it becomes clear that things are getting worse again.  Instead, he is more likely to look for a "grand bargain" that will implicate him and his party in a new series of disasters. Meanwhile, the younger generations are completely losing faith in politics.  In my last full-time college class last week, I mentioned that Kennedy had inspired much of my generation, and Reagan had inspired Generation X.  "Has Obama inspired you?" I asked the class, which was certainly composed mainly of liberals.  A long silence followed. "Well, maybe until he was elected," one young man replied.  That, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of Barack Obama--and of the present-day United States.


Larry said...

I fear David that the wealthy special interests in this country have safely bought off both major political Parties in this country. If one of their puppets becomes too offensive to the voting public they then find a suitable candidate in the other party to challenge him or her who will essentially continue to follow an agenda that keeps the wealthy special interests soundly in control

tructor man said...

Sadly, you are correct: Republican intransigence has reduced our government to ineffectiveness and has ended the remnants of the Great Society.
We are headed for a Hobbesian future. If GOP wins in 2016, they will use the very 'big brother' apparatus Bush created and Obama accepted to turn the country into an outright oligopoly, and even marshall law when segments of the have-nots try to rebel.
The 3 phony 'scandals' are troubling, but also the absense of US garment unions' protests at the factory atrocities in Bengladesh is ominous. It seems the deathnell is unionism is here.
One question: why haven't the Democrats stated the obvious: that much of GOP animosity toward Obama is pure racism. True, the GOP and its apologists on talk radio have been coy in their euphemisms and code words, but it's there.
You corectly cite Obama's major failure as having chased the illusion of bipartisanship to the neglect of job creation and infrastructure development. GOP stalwarts have passed a House bill that would end 'Obama Care" and they are even successfully blaming 'sequester' on him. Mid-terms will be a greater loss to Democrats than you have predicted. Ironically, only a massive collapse of the stock market or hyperinflation may bring Congress to its senses, and at what cost? We are in deeper yogurt than we ever could have imagined 5 years ago. Very depressing!
Perhaps with your new freedom, you might address how we might reconstitute political forces representing the 99%: renewed unions? co-operatives? a 'new' Democratic party?

steveftw said...

There are many changes afoot, and I believe the arc has not yet been changed.

I see the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands; the middle class in developed nations is being squeezed to meet the rising middle class from developing nations, and I don't see equalization for another generation or two.

I see government being defunded in most developing nations - here, through cutting the % of GDP in national revenue, and in Europe the austerity that has now been pretty well debunked, but not yet accepted as "failure".

Business will step into the void (continue stepping into the void) they themselves have created, and will achieve (again, there ain't anything stopping it at this point) the relegation of political boundaries into nothing more than convenient markets to "niche" into and out of for labor and sales.

One of the gifts of the information age - for better or worse - is the effective collapse of previous rules of order, and democracy is ill suited to combat the firmly entrenched ruling class.

Until the 90% are no longer satisfied with the loaves and circus provided, I honestly don't know how to change the system.

steveftw said...

If there is still "hope" of "hope and change", then an idea - which struck me as I was watching the House IRS hearings - would be for O'Bama (he's kissed the Blarney Stone for real) to concentrate on fixing as much of the broken bureaucracy as he can in the 3 years remaining.

The speech would include "it's obvious, with the VA, IRS, CIA, State, etc, that great and gross problems have become entrenched in our governance deliverance systems."

"We all know that Congress isn't going to act on anything I'm willing to ask for, and it's a waste of energy - and more importantly time - in getting those fine people to agree with me on the weather forecast, let alone national policy".

"therefore, I commit my remaining time to restoring the effectiveness of the Federal government, and announce the following changes, effective immediately...."

I know - I need to stop watching reruns of The American President - but somebody needs to say it.

xjsd said...

The joy of seeing this great nation elect it's first black president is eclipsed by my disappointment in his inability to exhibit the strong leadership necessary to over come the petty intransigence of his know nothing opposition. This inability to lead was foretold in his book, "The Audacity of Hope" where he identifies politics as the art of compromise. Oversimplification is a slippery slope, but when the opposition refuses, the only option is to carry a big stick. Make use of the "bully pulpit".

Bruce Wilder said...

In the election years, 2006 and 2008, I hoped that Obama and the Democrats might well rise to the occasion, see a revolutionary moment for what it was, and do what needed to be done. It seemed to me that the crises of Peak Oil and Climate Change on the horizon might combine with the immediacy of financial crisis and the disgust with Katrina and the general disgust with Bush, to produce a new outlook and a reversal of Bush-era policy.

Obama betrayed that hope, and I think he did it deliberately. He has continued Bush policy. He minimized stimulus spending, and maximized transfer to banks. He failed to prosecute banksters. (I won't repeat the litany.)

How Obama handles these "scandals" is revealing. He is validating the Republican assault on the IRS; he could have turned around and simply told the truth: the Tea Partiers are not entitled to tax exemptions for their political activities. Instead, we will get a weakened IRS and an extension of Citizens United: not only are for-profit entities entitled to dominate politics, they will get tax exemptions while doing so.

The AP story is a warning shot at what little remains of an independent press. The real scandal, which is completely lost in the smoke, is that John Brennan, Superspy, exposed a British spy inside Al Qaida in Yemen, and probably got him killed.

The real scandal in Benghazi is that the CIA was using the consulate to run a secret war inside Libya, incompetently as usual. We'll wait a long time hearing anything about that.

Your narrative analyses would become much clearer, if you would stop attributing good intentions to Obama. Obama is more tied to financial interests than any other Democrat, and more dedicated to authoritarianism and building the fascist state.

tructor man said...

Professor (emeritus?),
I agree with the above commentors: I too feel I couldn't get myself to see how much Obama was in the pocket of the powerful, and his shining rhetoric blinded me to the extent to which he was/is totally compromised.
How cynical would it be to think that this was all a 'kubuki' theater, with no serious challenge to the financial elite and no reversal of heinous Bush policies?
Perhaps this explains the fatigue and lethargy of Hillary CVlinton...

Paul Warfield said...


You are a superb blogger, an excellent historian, and I appreciate your work. Unfortunately, though, your understanding of economics is, based on the lead-in to your final paragraph, apparently deeply misguided.

More spending and more taxes? Really? Are you aware of the fact that the U.S. is hopelessly bankrupt, and that its obscene and accelerating debt obligations neither can, nor will ever be repaid?

There are only two ways out of the disastrous trap that has been created by the Fed: default (which is, of course, politically a near-impossibility) or hyperinflation. Either we pre-emptively default on our debt obligations (the honest approach) or continue the can-kicking fantasy that there is light at the end of the tunnel (the dishonest, though politically palatable approach). Both would be extremely painful, but the latter undoubtedly much worse.

There is no third option.

Your prescription above, unfortunately, has the effect of encouraging those who still believe in a neo-Keynesian solution to remain hopeful. And I can, I'm afraid, assure you that anyone who clings to such hopes will not only find themselves bitterly disappointed at the end of the day, but much more importantly, will have missed crucial opportunities to have positioned themselves to weather the impending storm.

cc said...

Another great read Professor.

While you wind down your teaching career, I hope you continue to share your views on this subject.

Do you have theory or prognostication on how it plays out? Will there be a redux of the 1913-1929 era...does it have to get worse before it can get better?

I happened across a site called Kickstarter. Thought of you and you work as you perhaps have ore time on your hands.

Would definitely kick in a few bucks to get you to elaborate your thoughts beyond your weekly views.

Most appreciative of the read. Thank you.