Saturday, August 28, 2010

An Obama report card

In the midst of media crazy, I offer a time-out to evaluate our helmsman.

As Republicans and their media lackeys demonstrate an ability to lower our political debate to unforseeen depths, out of range of reality force fields, I reluctantly wade into politics on this otherwise wider-ranging blog and try to make sense of the first half of Barack Obama's administration.

Grade: A

I give Obama a solid A. He has shown steadfastness and moral fortitude in the face of enormous challenges and maddening political headwinds, not to mention large piles of garbage left on the premises by his predecessor. He has also shown great intelligence in his policy and political actions. Do I wish for more? We all do. But Clark Kent he ain't. And the system he heads has serious problems translating even the best intentions and wisdom into practice.

What is going on, then, with the mood of the country and the polls, which show Obama and the Democrats slipping? Some of it is rational, since every leader's position degrades once he or she gets into the weeds of actual policy, unseemly legislative compromises, and the inevitable scandals of a far-flung bureaucracy. Also, the economy is bad and getting worse, much to everyone's chagrin. Republicans are polling worse even than Democrats, however, so we seem to remain with what is apparently only one responsible, if unloved, governing party.

But some is also not rational, as the "ground zero" mosque flap has shown. Republicans know the erogenous zones of their base, if not the electorate at large. So while Obama keeps appealing to our better angels, the party of crazy appeals to our demons, whether Muslim, Mexican, or fiscal. While Obama puts together centrist, even Republican-flavored policies, Republicans cry "No, No, NO", and somehow their base comes to believe that this is the way politics should work. Well, it isn't, not unless you are a Bolshevik bomb-thrower.

But enough of the happy talk. I'm a critic, so herewith we'll get into the deficiencies of the Obama administration.

Economics: Not enough spending

The reason that we are in a rut, with a double-dip looming, is that the Federal government hasn't spent enough money to restore the loss of aggregate demand from private sources. Simple as that, and as Keynes explained, this shortfall can become chronic, even downward-spiralling, if the Federal government doesn't use its powers properly. The Fed has done all it can. Wall Street has been tended to with fond solicitude and gobs of money. Banks have been flooded with reserves and liquidity. But they still aren't lending because of the above drop-off in economic activity, as well as their near-death experience with bad loans (a death experience for many smaller banks without political pull or systemic bigness).

Politically, Obama got as much as he could get from Congress in the first stimulus, so it is hard to fault him. The political culture is economically illiterate, which is not his fault either (but see below). The current Republican mania against deficits and spending is an alliance of the crazy and the greedy, using short-term demagoguery (not to say hypocrisy) to pursue class warfare and take the country to the cleaners. It is shameful that US citizens can be so easily bamboozled by false analogies between federal and private debts, not to mention amnesia with regard to Republican fiscal and political intentions.

Not enough has been done to bring order to the financial system either, especially instituting fundamental reforms like charging a tax on every transaction, which would serve to put an important brake on the whirlwind of financialization our economy has been through in recent decades. The proposed systemic risk panel will do nothing when the next risk looms over the horizon, since every crisis is caused by blindness on the part of the major actors. This is well-covered by Hyman Minsky's theory of the financial cycle.

On other fronts, like putting the car industry through bankruptcy and funding new energy initiatives, the administration has done an excellent job. In areas within its power, aside from excessive solicitude to Goldman Sachs, it has put forward-thinking policy into practice. But without congressional support, a president can only work around the edges.

Justice: Lamentable perpetuation of executive privilege on intelligence matters

We all thought the new administration would be a breath of fresh air for civil liberties, NSA snooping, wiretap laws, perhaps even airport security theatrics. But virtually nothing has changed from the Bush administration. As covered extensively by Salon's Glenn Greenwald and NPR's On the Media radio program, the Obama justice department has perpetuated the cases and attitudes of the Bush administration, keeping the burgeoning intelligence establishment in clover and giving short shrift to transparency and civil liberties.

I don't fault the administration for failing to close Guantanamo prison on time. That remains a legal nightmare, not to say quagmire. But it would be helpful if the administration worked with Congress on a better legal framework for non-POW prisoners in general, so that coining new names (enemy combatant) doesn't give the executive carte blanche within a legal black hole. The long-term nature of these conflicts, and the non-state nature of the enemy, needs to be faced and addressed humanely and effectively for the long term. The same goes for enemies before they become prisoners, since the battlefield has become world-wide and other countries deserve some transparency on what framework we use to assassinate their citizens.

Foreign policy:  Good intentions beset by some inconsistency

While Obama got off to a good start by capitalizing on his election to mend relations with the Muslim world and most remarkably with Russia, other areas have been less productive. Iran policy and Israeli policy have been captive to the Jewish lobby and stuck pretty much where they were in the Bush administration. The biggest enemy of Israel is its own moral decline, as it dehumanizes the Palestinians and loses its legitimacy inch by inch to the orthodox and others of its own leaders trapped in the past, whether the Arab-Israeli war past, or the Biblical and Roman past.

Iran is not the enemy, but is just gathering street cred/making hay with the Sunni world by its flamboyant hatred of Israel. It is a veneer over the more fundamental Sunni-Shia divide. Iran remembers well its war with Sunni Iraq, and for all its professed craziness would not bring another such war on its head. Pakistan is Islamic too and has a nuclear bomb. Is Pakistan any more of a strategic threat to anyone with the bomb than without it? No- it has made no practical difference, except domestically in national pride and some sense of security. The same low-level wars, terrorism, and foreign policy go on with or without such bombs.

More deeply, the Obama administation has failed to fully put its principles into practice. We should say to Iran, for instance, that we don't accept its government as legitimate and look forward to true democracy instead of the theocracy / autocracy they have now. While sanctions have limited, and sometimes counterproductive effects, our words and actions have great effect, and should with all countries side consistently with the people and with progressive elements over autocratic governments. This goes for friendly countries as well. In Afghanistan, we can work with the government while deploring the election fraud and corruption that makes it such a wretched partner and servant of its own people. More principled consistency, while sometimes costly in the short run (viz our various military agreements & bases with Central Asian autocracies), is critical to our long-term legitimacy in a world where our leadership only goes as far as other people's perceptions and allegiances.

Senate policy: Obama's kowtowing to the Senate has been disgraceful

We need the "nuclear" (or "constitutional") option, and  we need it yesterday. No decent policy can be made with such a sclerotic and corrupt institution. Answer? Warfare, all-out. A recent New Yorker article has described the dysfunction of this institution in some detail.

The basic dynamic is that senators as a body have given themselves powers (holds, filibusters, other procedural roadblocks) that are not in the constitution, but leverage off the constitutional necessity of the Senate to make of each Senator a little Prince of No. Combine that with rampant corruption / influence peddling, and the originally unrepresentative Senate has turned into a place where all decent legislation either dies outright or by a thousand cuts. America can not long survive with such a moribund institution standing in the way of true representation and rational policy. Nor does the trend towards an imperial presidency, which has continued under Obama, get better when oversight from Congress is absent, due to its own institutional sclerosis.

Obviously, the modern 60 vote requirement has protected some liberal causes when the Senate was in Republican hands. So there are dangers to eliminating it. But its flagrant abuse in Republican hands has created total gridlock, and the time has come to end it. More generally, such super-majority requirements sap the institution itself. In California, we have a similar problem, where all budgets require a 2/3 majority. Any minority can hold up a budget, the legislature becomes gridlocked, and its role in state government diminishes (at least any positive role it might have). One can say that the empowerment of individual legislators directly disempowers their institution as a whole. So we need to get back to the original design of majority rule, to strengthen legislative institutions, restoring their responsibility and effectiveness.

Incidentally, Obama needs to use a few sticks when dealing with the Senate. He has been far too deferential to its dysfunctions and prima donnas. It has been all carrots and no sticks. And as the battle lines have hardened and senators have learned that there is little cost to opposing the president, compromise has become more chimerical. I don't know details of how LBJ ran the Senate, but I suspect there was some hardball involved.

Climate policy: Little gains, big loss

I am sympathetic with Obama's basic decision to deal with health care and economic issues with the limited attention span available from the Senate. The House has passed a good climate / energy bill, but the dysfunctional Senate has completely betrayed its putative role as the far-seeing, responsible institution of US government. Indeed, the Senate has betrayed our common future for a few pieces of silver- the corrupt contributions they get from the fossil fuel industry.

So here we are, with the most important issue of our time lying moribund on the operating table, a victim of its very scale, of its long-term and global nature, and of criminal disinformation campaigns by our society's malefactors of incumbant wealth. As I said at the outset, Obama is a superhero, but he can't do everything. The administration has taken bold steps in its stimulus composition, in new vehicle standards, in EPA regulation of CO2, and more. But the overall policy needed to address the true costs of our fossil fuel addiction had a heart attack in the Senate over the summer, and it is not clear whether our political system will ever deal with the issue effectively.

Pulpit policy: For all Obama's speeches, he has failed in critical educational missions

Obama has been very good as a consistent and thoughtful exponent of his administration. The stentorian tone can sometimes grate, but he is clearly engaged and expresses good policy. At a deeper level, however, there has been a failure to educate the electorate about critical realities that all his policy depends on. The president is not just a manager but a leader, who must go beyond expressing what he wants Congress to pass and how he is running his administration, to bringing a sometimes reluctant electorate with him to new views of the metanarrative- how the world works. Granted, with a firehose of hate and misinformation spewing from FOX and related media, he has his work cut out for him. But I believe he could do more.

For example, the current economic debate is shameful in its superficiality. The national debt is "high". How high is "too high"? How high is bad? Media answers to this question have been a Rorschach test of one's politics, having nothing to do with economics. In fairness, Obama's own advisors seem confused on the matter, showing how deep the rot has progressed within the economics profession. But ideally, Obama would come out and say that the US presents zero credit risk of any kind. Investors, far from running scared, are stocking up private savings and buying US debt despite historically low interest rates. And whether they did or didn't wouldn't make any difference to the government's ability to spend the currency it prints as needed to restore economic activity and more importantly, jobs. When times are better, investors will be less interested in buying government debt, will withdraw their savings, and the situation will naturally reverse itself.

These are very simple facts, and go right to the heart of economic theory that was so painfully learned through the Great Depression. Economics seems to be controlled by ideologs opposed to these views, who claim that (Democratic) government is "bad", and that government "meddling" is bad, and that banks will lend when they have less regulations, and any number of other fairy tales. What is needed is a presidential education campaign in serious economics to forestall the floundering inaction that is sending us into further depression/recession.

In all the above issues, (the Senate, foreign policy, economics, climate change), the president needs to develop deeper intellectual knowledge, more fundamental critiques of our current dysfunctions, and clearer rhetoric so that he can lead more effectively from a position of greater authority, cutting through the clouds of chaff thrown up by incumbent interests. Trimming corners works much of the time, and pious hopes make easy speeches. But someone as talented as our current president can do better, and I hope he does.

  • Charles Blow on Jews turning Republican. No wonder, as Israel loses the moral high ground and plumps for attacks and a new world war. That sounds Republican to me.
  • Economics of the depression, here we come!
  • Krugman really, really gets it. In fact, he gets it before it happens.
  • Bernanke to Earth ...
  • A little more on the real attitude of Pakistan, to the Taliban and Afghanistan.
  • Some excellent reflections on the establishment and foreign policy.
  • David Yost tells of himself.
  • Bill Mitchell: No quote- rather, some ragged clips from his 80's Aussie reggae band.

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