Nudging Obama

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Obama’s First Year: It Could Have Been Worse

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Dissent UpFront

Obama’s First Year: It Could Have Been Worse

AFTER OUTRAGE, disappointment is probably the easiest emotion of the left. I am always disappointed before the fact, so as not to be too disappointed afterwards. Right now, though, I am resisting disappointment. Granted, Obama’s first year has not seen a radical transformation of American society—not even the transformation that Roosevelt wrought in his first one hundred days. But there is a reason for that. Roosevelt came into office after three years of severe depression and frighteningly high unemployment. The country was ready for radical experiments. Obama came into office after only a few months of recession, and the country wasn’t ready for much more than he has done.

He brought with him a group of economic advisors and policy-makers who were committed to the restoration of the status quo ante—not to any radical reconstruction of the economic order. Had they been social democrats, rather than conventional liberals, they might have recognized the urgency of job creation and invested more heavily in it. But any more significant economic reconstruction was not a felt need in the country; there had been no political preparation for it; there was no movement mobilizing support for it and nothing like agreement on its necessity in Congress, not even among Democrats. The mere fact that we, on the left, wanted reconstruction is no reason to be disappointed that it didn’t happen. We are not entitled to get what we want, and we shouldn’t expect to get what we want until we convince a majority of our fellow citizens that they should want it too. And that we plainly haven’t done.

Popular anger against the bankers might still force a stronger reform of the financial system than Obama’s advisors originally endorsed. That would be a good thing. But I am not disappointed that Obama has refused to summon up and then exploit a wave of populist fury. Populist politics is always more available to the right than to the left, and the anger it arouses tends to float freely from bankers to Jews to immigrants to “communists”—to all the standard objects of resentment. Our politics is different. We need to make the case for structural reform, build public support for it, and strengthen the intermediate associations—like unions and consumer groups—that can educate and mobilize their members.

A lot more of that sort of work has been done to reform health care than to reform the banking system, but not enough, not nearly enough, to enable Obama to avoid the compromises that have been forced upon him—and the further compromises that will be forced upon him after the debacle in Massachusetts. For a while it looked as if we were going to get a piece of legislation that writers like Paul Krugman and Paul Starr described as a great achievement. That may be unachievable now, but even then it wasn’t quite the achievement that we dreamed about. We have been told: “In dreams begin responsibilities.” So where are the responsible agents of a real reform? Obama’s election did nothing to change the fecklessness of Democrats in the House and Senate. The left needs other agents—and so does Obama.

Many Americans are going to be better off because of Obama’s first year than they might have been. The recession didn’t turn into a depression; unemployment stopped at 10 percent (though it’s actually higher and in any case, much too high); some, not enough, foreclosures were prevented; some, not enough, small businesses got loans they wouldn’t have gotten; family savings were saved and pension funds stabilized. And it may still happen that in a few years (which is too long) many more (but not all) Americans will have access to decent health care, paid for—one way or another—by the federal government. The costs will continue to rise; the insurance companies will have too much power, but…

It could have been worse.

Michael Walzer is Dissent’s co-editor. He and Nicolaus Mills edited the Dissent-Penn Press book, Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.


Written by bearmarketnews

February 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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