Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When Obama is underwhelming

Michael Tomasky writes an article to half-scold, half-encourage liberals frustrated over President Obama's seeming unwillingness to lead the charge for progressive policies: Against Despair Democracy Summer 2010. He does so by reminding us that the significant reforms we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society didn't come overnight.

He mentions some of those he is scolding/encouraging by name. But he also makes his criticisms vague enough that almost anyone could decide he wasn't referring to them. Then he confuses matters even more by saying that there are good reasons to be frustrated at Obama's missed opportunities, even saying that Obama "did founder as a leader for much of his first year." Did he mean flounder? Because despite being often frustrated with him, I wouldn't say he foundered in his first year. Because that would imply something like a total collapse!

In the end, Tomasky's article is informative but confusing. The basic message is, instead of "the fierce urgency of Now" that Candidate Obama talked about, we should settle for the tired expectation that things will probably get better someday, somehow, even though it may take decades.

Shoot, by 2030 or so, maybe BP's oil geyser in the Gulf of Mexico will stop spewing!

As usual, Obama's Oval Office speech Tuesday had some inspiring moments. The man does give a good speech. My favorite parts in this one include:

Because there has never been a leak this size at this depth, stopping it has tested the limits of human technology. ...

Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.

But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy. ...

One place we’ve already begun to take action is at the agency in charge of regulating drilling and issuing permits, known as the Minerals Management Service. Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility -- a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves. At this agency, industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Oil companies showered regulators with gifts and favors, and were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and write their own regulations.

When Ken Salazar became my Secretary of the Interior, one of his very first acts was to clean up the worst of the corruption at this agency. But it’s now clear that the problem there ran much deeper, and the pace of reform was just too slow. And so Secretary Salazar and I are bringing in new leadership at the agency -- Michael Bromwich, who was a tough federal prosecutor and Inspector General. And his charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog -- not its partner. ...

The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.
This language challenges the too-long-prevailing neoliberal consensus that forgets the fact that there are important aspects in which the democratic government can only do its job to represent the people by acting as "industry’s watchdog -- not its partner." There are conflicts between the interests of private corporations and the public good. We need all Democratic politicians to be stating that clearly.

But, as I've also come to expect, Obama's grander words didn't seem to be matched by any commitment to an actual program to kick-start "the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

And, come on, appointing the stock study commission is nothing but a stall to postpone moving ahead with reforms that are obviously needed. Needed right here in "the fierce urgency of Now," we might say.

The Republicans managed to work themselves into a frenzy over Obama having been a community organizer in the Saul Alinksy tradition. Having once been one of those myself, I think that political analysts may be missing something important about what the real influence of that experience may have been on Obama's thinking. Alinsky's organizing put a premium on rousing people with inspiring appeals. But it also put emphasized the need to carefully control the expectations of the activists being inspired, so that the activism could yield reliably visible results of which the organizer could be reasonably confident. In more timid or careerist hands, that can be a prescription for do-just-enough-to-get-by approach.

It doesn't have to be a restrictive approach. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) went a long way and accomplished a lot with that approach. But they were focused on policy goals of winning union elections, wages and benefits, and legal protections for their primary constituency, the farmworkers. It's not so clear that Obama and his team are committed to the large policy goals on which they ran, as distinct from a do-just-enough-to-get-by approach focused on Obama's own political position.

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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

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