The Long Winter of Our Discontent

I like President Obama more than any other political figure in my lifetime. I like the President for the same reason the Conservatrons hate him: he seems like one of “us”. He’s the only major political figure  to hail from the “us” that I recognize myself to be a part of.

Objectively, Obama’s first two years have been a sterling success. The economy was saved from Depression, two Supreme Court justices were confirmed, the auto bailout saved thousands of jobs and three huge companies, fundamental health insurance reform and financial reform were passed, and the ball was generally moved forward on issues from womens’ equity, to green energy, to nuclear disarmament. Unnoticed by most, Obama has also done a tremendous amount of healing beneath the skin by inserting earnest and sophisticated citizens into Cabinet and under-Cabinet positions that were once the province of Bush junta “Brownies”. The Education Department is utilizing venture capital style experimentation through the Race to the Top contest. Steven Chu is the best Secretary of Energy in the Department’s history having oriented it towards resolving cutting edge technological problems while personally participating in small ventures like orchestrating the ultimate capping of BP’s gushing oil well in the star crossed Gulf of Mexico.

Obama’s first two years are also a self-evident failure. If you could time travel back to Inauguration Day 2009 and tell an Obama supporter the result of the 2010 midterms, the supporter at first would not believe you and then conclude that the two intervening years were a disaster.

There are two obvious horseshoe-and-hand-grenades failures from Obama’s first two years. The first was the Stimulus that was too small, but advertised as being just as right as the Third Bear’s bowl of porridge was for Goldilocks. Paul Krugman, who has only been correct about almost everything since the daisy brained days of W’s 2000 presidential campaign, has written extensively about this on his blog. The second would be the bonus imbroglio with AIG and other bailed out Bankster Rats’ Nests. Yes these bonuses are just a goofy form of delayed compensation, and maybe there is little legally that the government could have done about them. But gut feelings are not always wrong. The sense that the same corrupt Master of the Universe nimrods that caused the Great Economic Collapse only to be bailed out by the serfs were then somehow deemed to important to risk losing, and were thus rewarded for their destructive errors was logically infuriating. My participation in this blog flatlined after Obama was ineffectual in contending with the bonuses either substantively or through oration. Of course I argued, donated a few dollars and voted early in 2010, but my enthusiasm was deflated.

It’s not clear how Obama could have given voice to this populist fury or exactly how Obama should have played the Stimulus. Maybe he chose one of the best possible courses in each case – perhaps alternative actions would have turned out worse. Regardless, the 2010 elections are proof positive that what he did do failed. It’s even possible that he wasn’t the right man for the job. Obama’s Hope message resonated in the early rounds of the Democratic Primary because it was the antidote to the low morals and manipulations of the Bush regime and the agony of the Fear Years. Clinton seemed to “connect” better on the economy after the Ohio primary (whatever that means), but her foolish vote in favor of Generalissimo Bush’s Iraq War II cost her the Democratic nomination and, with it, the Presidency. Would HRC have succeeded in these two make-or-break areas where Obama didn’t? Who knows, but the “spiritual thirst” of America was far more meat’n’potatoes in the fall of 2008 then it was in the summer of 2007 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina finally obliterating Generalissimo Bush’s string of fooling all of the people (or at least a preponderance of them) all of the time and the agony of deceit began to permeate workaday life.

Maybes, wouldas, couldas, and who the hell knows? Oh well. Whatever. The tragedy is that we are where we are and it is hard to see how Obama’s failures leave America any real way to get out of the Great Economic Collapse. There was a fluffy tech bubble in the 1990s, but computers, the Internet and cellphones were also tangible improvements that created wealth and new businesses. The Web 2.0 Facebooks and YouTubes of the 00’s also added real economic development to the empty calories of the housing bubble. Today, corporations are sitting on heaps of dollars like hens atop an egg, but what is it that they should spend it on? Who is going to buy the products that corporations create with their ample capital in sufficient quantities to generate self-sustaining wealth and jobs?

Obama’s able Cabinet and their underlings can still heal beneath the skin, the Fed can give the Market more quantitative easing hand jobs, and Obama can surely make his mortgage program more effective. Still, the huge Stimulus spending that must be done on infrastructure, the smart grid, and a bevy of other initiatives; the Stimulus spending that objectively would end the Great Economic Collapse will not get done. America is settling in for a long long winter of meager growth, diminished expectations, and near-feudal wealth concentration, meanwhile the Conservatrons and the junior varsity fascists in the Tea Party will use the resulting disorder to pit dispossessed groups against each other while distracting them with fake issues (Ground Zero Masque!) and phony scandals (Obama’s a Muslim!). Obama and Progressives will be playing defense, stopping the barbarians at the gate and keeping them from smothering the infant recovery in its oxygen tent.

I Hope We Can….

Obama Appears to Choose the Eisenhower Model

Obama campaigned as a 21st century update of Andrew Jackson, but it appears that his model for governing is going to be Dwight David Eisenhower.

Obama and Ike are surprisingly similar. Ike was adored for being vital to winning World War II, but was a political ink blot. No one knew if he would run as a Democrat or Republican at first. Although he had to throw the Conservatrons of his day a bone by Veeping Nixon his administration was centrist to the point of being almost non-ideological — Nixon had almost no portfolio as VP (today Ike seems more Democrat than Republican). Obama is an obvious liberal, yet his calls for post-partisanship and his relatively thin voting record coupled with the acknowledged practice of others grafting their own aspirations onto his barrier breaking story makes Obama, oddly, a vague quantity akin to Ike despite Obama’s detailing of his policies in the 08 campaign.

Ike and Obama are both unlikely Presidents. Ike wasn’t a politician, but his military expertise was ideal for 1952 when the quagmire in Korea appeared unsolvable. Obama has less experience than most Presidents, but his newness and potential energy are the canvass on which the 2010s will be written; in 2008 Obama was the necessary redeemer for what Leonard Cohen calls America’s “spiritual thirst” in the bitter wake of the venal Bush occupation.

Eisenhower translated his novelty into action by delegating. Due to his dowdy public persona, Ike was criticized for being a hands off or even clueless president. We now know that he was intent and engaged behind the scenes. He took his military experience and applied it to his cabinet by giving his subordinates room to succeed and fail, while using the bully pulpit and the ceremonial aspect of the presidency to maintain his own personal popularity rather than trying to sway the polity to his vision, which was largely “post-partisan” anyway.

Obama has chosen more of a Team of Experts than a “Team of Rivals”. His cabinet includes sitting politicians like Salazar and Clinton with their own power bases and political capital. For the more technical work like energy and environmental policy (despite the broad passions stirred by these issues, actual work on them is all about nuances of details) Obama has chosen able technocrats that will be led by Carol Browner in a new energy/environment coordinator role. Vice-President Biden will be the point person on the economic stimulus activity.

Obama appears to be updating the Eisenhower Model by giving substantial ownership of policy to his cabinet members/subordinates, while largely staying above the fray himself. Hopefully, he will also use his preternatural talent as the greatest Persuasive Leader of his generation to create the space for his team to succeed.

This is brilliant politics for three reasons. 1.) Giving ownership of policy to subordinates makes Obama harder to hit. Early in the reign of the Bush junta Progressives were driven to distraction by the very visible Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, but Bush remained popular and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft only became unpopular when Bush did. The Public at large does not care about Secretaries, but ideologues do. By leading with his subordinates Obama will force the Conservatrons to swing wildly to try to hit him. Their foolish fixation on trying to link Obama to Blagojevich is an early example of this and has, of course, been a massive FAIL. Subsequent attempts by Conservatrons will be cat-chasing-tail exercises because scandalmongering for the sake of scandalmongering does not reflect the seriousness of the times, but Obama’s “no red America, no blue America, just the United States of America” trope does. That the Conservatrons have completely abandoned this high ground is astounding in its stupidity 2.) When Obama does stake political capital on a policy outcome it is more likely to be effective and decisive because it will occur relatively rarely and only after his subordinate has spent his or her political capital. 3.) Everyone prefers a boss that does not micromanage. I imagine that one of the reasons that Obama’s campaign was so tight is that he let his people do their part their way. Obama is more likely to win the devotion of his Team of Experts by following Eisenhower’s model.

Eisenhower’s governing style was not a complete success. After his heart attack in his second term Ike appeared to lose some control of his administration and it became mired in silly scandals and transgressions. The Republicans got trounced in the 1958 mid-terms. The U2 Spy Plane incident seemed to be a sign of Ike’s detachment. Still, when all was said and done and remembered Ike was popular and maintained the Leadership necessary to make a credible warning about the Military-Industrial Complex in his farewell address.

Team Obama is filled clever, able people that are also keen students of history. I think they can perform even better than Team Eisenhower.