Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama: Jackson or Cleveland?

Jack Balkin hopes that Obama will become a Jacksonian Democratic President rather than a Clevelandian one. (As in Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland.) In Is Barack Obama a Preemptive President? Balkinization 01/27/10. Balkin makes a distinction between "reconstructive" Presidents like Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan who in some important way redefined the framework of politics, and "preemptive" ones. A preemptive President, he explains, is one "who works within a political regime that is largely hostile to his aims, accepting its basic premises and making comparatively minor adjustments."

At the current moment, Balkin thinks Obama is looking awfully "preemptive":

There is still time, of course. Andrew Jackson did not become a truly reconstructive president until his second term in office. But one does not begin a reconstructive presidency by apologizing to one's political opponents and giving in. At the end of his first year, Obama seems to have responded to adversity by capitulation, and to opposition by throwing in the towel. [my emphasis]
Here's what he means by Obama's seeming "preemptive" approach at this point:

Obama has largely continued the construction of the national surveillance state and followed many of the anti-terrorism policies of the Bush Administration while eschewing only their worst features.

Domestically, Obama has effectively conceded that the Republican party's vision of the world is correct and that the greatest danger to American prosperity comes from increased government spending during a time of recession. Hence his proposed spending freeze on non-discretionary spending. This freeze is transparently a gimmick. But it is important because it suggests that Obama has chosen to accept Republican themes and play politics on Republican terms, even though his party controls the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Although he himself knows better, Obama has decided to adopt a public stance that is actually pre-Rooseveltian in framing how to deal with a severe recession.

Obama also seems, for now, to have accepted that his signature domestic initiative, health care reform, is going nowhere and will have to be put on the back burner.

This is not what reconstructive presidencies are made of. [my emphasis]
That a supposedly reformist Democratic President is adopting "public stance that is actually pre-Rooseveltian in framing how to deal with a severe recession" is a sign of the extent to which the Democratic Party has been captured by the neoliberal ideology of "free market" deregulation/tax cuts for the wealthy/cutting government's social functions. Otherwise known as Reaganism and Hooverism.

Don't get me wrong. I'm very confident that a McCain Presidency would have been worse in about every way imaginable. McCain would have probably been at this point with unemployment of 15% and climbing. But he would have successfully jammed through more massive tax cuts for the wealthy, put even fewer restrictions on the Wall Street giants bailed out with public funds, let General Motors be liquidated to destroy the auto workers union, and maybe started a war with Iran.

But I'm assuming that most voters, and certainly most Democratic voters, were hoping to have more at this point from an Obama Presidency than "at least he's better than John McCain".

A Grover Cleveland type Presidency, by the way, would be the sort that follows that conservative Democratic President's philosophy of government: "Cleveland's philosophy of government was, "Though the people support the government; the government should not support the people." Or, in another of his versions of it, "while the people should patriotically and cheerfully their Government its functions do not include the support of the people."

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"It is the logic of our times
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