A Liberal Lament: When Will Obama Do His Reagan?

January 29th, 2010 at 12:42 pm | 11 Comments |

| Print

President Obama’s SOTU address was politically shrewd, but ideologically circumscribed.  He sought to box in his Republican rivals by posing political choices that cannot redound to their benefit.  The sight of Republicans in unanimity deciding that America’s largest banks not be taxed, in both senses of the word, with the obligations of corporate citizenship after the non-corporate citizens of the nation had saved them from extinction will linger through election day.   He also called attention to the dysfunctional nature of the Senate:  its extra-constitutional de facto supermajority requirement (unique among democracies, especially egregious in a bicameral legislation with an additional choke point of a presidential veto, and within a body which is already undemocratic in that the smallest and largest states have equal representation); and the old-boy tradition of “holds” which serve to weaken the executive branch of all presidents in order to cater to the narcissistic whims of a single petulant Senator.

The Republicans’ chronic use of a politically cost-free filibuster has, essentially, ended Obama’s domestic presidency.  So this speech was really an opportunity to begin to change how the political culture thinks about the enormous challenges facing our country.  But other than the bank tax proposal and mild chiding about Senate obstructionism, Obama sought to engage Republicans not by demarcating a sharp line of policy contrast, but, rather, by essentially conceding to Republican arguments regarding budget freezes, tax cuts, nuclear power, offshore oil drilling, and even in the smallness of his jobs proposal.  His stimulus plan, as AEI’s top economist noted in an analysis supported by other professional economists, added several points to the nation’s GDP, and prevented ever more severe unemployment.  However, many Americans don’t grasp the counterintuitive notion of the necessity of government spending to generate demand at a time when they themselves aren’t spending (precisely the problem!).  And Obama, at the time of the stimulus and during the SOTU, did nothing to disabuse voters of their misconceptions.  He has allowed the inane Republican narrative that spending cuts during a massive recession or depression—precisely of the kind that plunged the nation into a second crippling recession in 1937 – are wise. Similarly, the budget freeze will only cripple his economic program and, by excluding military spending, only add to the fantasy that the we can ever eliminate the large, structural deficits that face us in the future without reducing military spending (eliminating all discretionary domestic spending—the parks, the roads, the environmental protection, the home heating oil for the poor, all of it—would by itself merely cut 500 billion or so from the deficit).

As always, this moderation will be viewed as the second coming of Danton.  The health care plan, whose passage he again urged, is essentially identical to that passed by a Republican governor in Massachusetts, and supported by both the Republican Senator-elect from that state and 68% of its voters, according to a new Washington Post poll.  It is also less comprehensive and liberal in every respect than the 1994 Clinton plan, while taking ideas from the Republican alternative of that year.  Indeed, it is a less liberal plan than that proposed by Richard Nixon in 1973!  Still, we hear the tired refrain about a “government takeover of health care.”  How could that be?  Roughly half of health care has already been taken over by the government—the VA and Medicare—and the citizens love them.  The other half—the employer provided part—is precisely what the bill, unfortunately, leaves untouched—yes, the part whose costs are growing even faster than the government programs.

So faced with a childish political culture, exemplified by his conservative political adversaries, who cannot even properly categorize Obama’s pragmatic, moderate liberalism for what it is, Obama himself has conceded even more ideological ground to these adversaries.  He accepts with only marginal modifications the essential rhetorical frame that, since Ronald Reagan, they have constructed to explain American politics and economics:  render unto the Market what is the Market’s, and render unto the Market what is the State’s and civil society’s.

Only once during his presidency has Obama given a speech – his Lincoln Day address in Springfield, Ill. last February – which sought to do what Reagan did during his first SOTU address in 1982 (and on many other occasions): make an argument not merely for discrete policies but on behalf of his world view.  In Obama’s case, this speech advocated the use of the State as the vehicle for the collective aspirations of the American people, and thus to advance the aims of social justice.  Conservatives should feel relieved that Obama—who is at his best when he is calmly professorial, rather than hortatory—has decided to drop this defense of liberalism from his presidency, and merely try to soften the edges of a Reaganist narrative he has decided to let stand.

Conservatism has failed, but its story lingers on.

Recent Posts by Eugene Debs



11 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    So faced with a childish political culture, exemplified by his conservative political adversaries, who cannot even properly categorize Obama’s pragmatic, moderate liberalism for what it is, Obama himself has conceded even more ideological ground to these adversaries.

    To a large degree, this is because his own party has not “had his back” on this count.

    Republicans simply do a much better job of marching in lockstep behind a leader. Democrats consider it an insult to be expected to do so. And the media revels in that dissention among Democrats, as the fastest pathway to a mic is to disagree with the President. I remember a Meet the Press panel on healthcare in November, that featured Sens. Nelson and Coburn, and Reps. Wasserman Schultz and Blackburn.

    So while majorities in both the Senate and House both favored a public option – the bill was being discussed by two Republicans who were outright opposed to any healthcare reform (except for effectively eliminating the right to sue for malpractice, and eliminating the ability of states to regulate health insurance), one Democrat who would grudgingly accept health care but would in no way accept a public option, and one Democrat who favored a public option.

    The President can only speak so loud, if those who support him aren’t given a voice in the media. And that has largely been the case during the healthcare debate.

  • teabag

    Bravo!

  • WillyP

    OK, delete my comments…
    but seriously, if you haven’t figured out that Obama isn’t Reagan, is not even Clinton, I’m not sure what to say.
    He’s a partisan ideologue.

  • WillyP

    “render unto the Market what is the Market’s, and render unto the Market what is the State’s and civil society’s.”

    Maybe one day Mr. Debs will realize that the “market” IS civil society. You doubt me? Then what is it exactly?

    And what exactly are conservatives proposing to take away from the state, except what its seized from “the market?” I don’t hear anyone talking about talking about privatizing the military, or fire departments, or public roads. I don’t hear protests over the space program. I don’t hear that the court system should be publicized.

    What exactly are you referring to? I dare say you can’t name one thing that conservatives would give back to society that wasn’t originally society’s before the state took it over.

  • balconesfault

    I don’t hear anyone talking about talking about privatizing the military, or fire departments, or public roads.

    Clearly you haven’t been paying attention as Indiana sold their highway system to foreign companies, Rick Perry in Texas has been trying to do the same, and a big push to lease the Alligator Alley freeway in Florida to corporations was barely averted.

    And Sean Linnane is regularly on this site extolling the privatization of much of what our US military did just 30 years ago.

    Meanwhile, while California laws starve its tax revenues, and services plummet, private firms are popping up in fire-prone areas like Ventura County to supply fire protection services to upper class customers.

  • WillyP

    balcones, I’m not against it.

    Clearly if people are paying for the services (people, not government’s through tax dollars), they want/need the service.

    California ruined itself.

  • balconesfault

    balcones, I’m not against it.

    Against what?

    Clearly if people are paying for the services (people, not government’s through tax dollars), they want/need the service.

    Yes. Because there is a failure of government to provide fire protection on an adequate scale, so wealthy people can afford to contract private fire protection services, while poor people know that when the fires come down the canyon their home is almost certainly gone for.

    California ruined itself.

    There we have agreement. The referendum system has been democracy at its worst. Voters always were willing to add more costly services, and voters were always willing to pay for more limits on tax revenues. And politicians were punished at the ballot box if they ever tried to tell people they had to grow up. The resulting train wreck was very predictable.

    That said – privatization of government assets and critical services represents a combination of poor governance and corruption.

  • WillyP

    And like I said, government originally seized these functions from society to begin with, with the exception of the judiciary and a national military. As Lilanne pointed out (I believe), the employment of paid militiamen is a very old practice.

    There’s no reason why roads should not be privately managed, although I’m not going to use my limited amount of time to rail on this particular point. If roads were the only thing they were in…

  • sinz54

    I’m surprised that President Obama has never explained to the American people just why the issue of public health doesn’t map neatly onto the basic axioms of a laissez-faire free market.

    I could explain that easily, and I’m not even a liberal!

    And until everybody–including conservatives–accept the need for a significant public-sector component to dealing with health care, Obama and the Dems are going to continue to be on the defensive–to the point that there’s a real chance that no health care reform will be enacted at all. Because a totally free-market approach to health care is unworkable for a humane society. It must necessarily end up with Soylent Green or Logan’s Run scenarios–in which if you’re sufficiently sick, you’re not worth caring for unless you can go begging to churches or private charities, as was the case in the 19th century. (That’s also the case with a totally socialistic single-payer system, as we’ve seen with the British NHS.)

    The debate between liberals and conservatives should be over HOW MUCH public sector involvement and HOW MUCH private sector involvement is appropriate to the health care problem. Health care is one of these complex issues that doesn’t map neatly onto socialism and it doesn’t map neatly onto capitalism.

  • balconesfault

    I’m surprised that President Obama has never explained to the American people just why the issue of public health doesn’t map neatly onto the basic axioms of a laissez-faire free market.

    You mean like this?

    Our collective failure to meet this challenge — year after year, decade after decade — has led us to the breaking point. Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy. These are not primarily people on welfare. These are middle-class Americans. Some can’t get insurance on the job. Others are self-employed, and can’t afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer. Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or too expensive to cover.

    But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem for the uninsured. Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today. More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you’ll lose your health insurance too. More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won’t pay the full cost of care. It happens every day.

    I thought you called that speech weak at the time.

    Because a totally free-market approach to health care is unworkable for a humane society.

    Alan Grayson did frame this accurately, albeit harshly.

    The debate between liberals and conservatives should be over HOW MUCH public sector involvement and HOW MUCH private sector involvement is appropriate to the health care problem.

    Exactly right.

    But that debate is impossible when the Republican Party believes their primary pathway to return to power is to make sure that this debate doesn’t really get airing, and that everyone just hears “Socialism” whenever health care reform that takes positive steps to increase coverage is proposed.

    No – Obama made that speech Sinz. Very clearly. And all everyone wanted to talk about after was Joe Wilson yelling “you lie” … instead of talking about what Obama meant when he said the following, and what everyone in Congress could do to work with him to craft a healthcare bill that met his criteria.

    There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s — (applause) — where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everybody. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end employer-based systems and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

    I’ve said — I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both these approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have. Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch

  • sinz54

    balconesfault: I thought you called that speech weak at the time.
    That’s right,

    because that wasn’t what I was talking about.

    What I was talking about was Obama (or anybody else) speaking to the American people, reviewing the basic axioms of a free market one by one–rational choice, atomistic buyers and sellers, and especially the law of supply and demand–and then explaining why public health just doesn’t map neatly onto those axioms. I know that’s what you liberals really believe. And you’re right! But you seem strangely reluctant to hammer that point to the American public.

    I’ve already explained that here on FrumForum numerous times. For example, with health care for human beings there are no concepts of depreciation or replacement cost which would act as a cap on demand for health care services, as they do for automobile repair services or home remodeling services, or even (sometimes) for veterinary health care services for animals. (At least not until the science-fiction dream of human reproductive cloning is realized, at which point all bets are off.) If you try to value human beings like commodities in a free market for the purpose of apportioning health care services (which are never unlimited), you end up with Social Darwinism, Soylent Green, or Logan’s Run–or maybe some combination of these. That may be O.K. for China, but not for America. (That would be a good point for Obama’s speeches, don’t you think?)

    The GOP has been claiming that the way to solve the health care problem is to make the system even freer, with tax cuts and purchases of insurance across state lines. The assumption is that you can make a free market in health care work. The argument I had hoped to hear from Obama (or ANY other prominent liberal official) is why a free market in health care cannot work.

    Oh, sure, I can read such arguments in The New Republic or occasionally on American Prospect. But comparatively few Americans read The New Republic; and the immediate pivot to proposing a single-payer system (which many Americans reject) tends to obfuscate the main point.

    Mitt Romney is a capitalist and a staunch opponent of socialism. Yet the RomneyCare he created for us here in MA has guaranteed issue and a public option for the truly needy. He’s smart enough to know when free market axioms break down.

    Reagan used to defend the basic axioms of patriotism, capitalism and free trade as philosophical concepts representing (to him) the highest good. Publicly, in his speeches to ordinary Americans. They didn’t have to read National Review to hear those things.

    What attracted even non-conservatives to Reagan is that they saw he had a philosophy and vision that at least was clear and could act as a framework for policy. What’s bothering many Americans about Obama is that, if he has a clear philosophy about such things as capitalism and America’s role in the world, he’s not stating it clearly as a philosophy, without recourse to cheap gimmicks like having Americans as examples sitting in the balcony that he can point to.

    OK, rant over. :-)