Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Obama on Reagan, 2008

Republicans will be using the upcoming 100th anniversary of St. Reagan's birthday February 6 to celebrate his mythological legacy. Given the strange dedication to achieving an equally mythological post-partisan state of affairs by President Obama, it's worth looking back at Candidate Obama's praise of St. Reagan. This is from his interview of January 6, 2008, with the Reno Gazette-Journal on Jan. 14:

In this video segment, Obama brags that he had been the most-request surrogate campaigner for Democratic candidates in swing districts in the 2006 election because he is "somebody who can reach out to independents and Republicans, uh, in a way that, you know, ah, doesn't, uh, doesn't offend people". (my emphasis) I'm showing the quotes here with the kind of "uhs" and "you knows" that journalists typically edit out of quotes like these. Because they illustrate the observation David Bromwich about Obama's two kinds of diction:

Any observer of Obama realises that, by contrast, he is always slow, always circumspect, and he has two distinct registers of diction: one for talking to very clever but abstracted people, the other for talking to well-meaning people who are very young or very old and certainly need remedial help. In the higher idiom he talks of a 'critique' of policy and 'trend lines' and the ways to 'incentivise' better care and 'prioritise' the next steps of government assistance to show that we are 'doing everything we can to accelerate job creation'. It is the language of a technocrat, the man at the head of the conference table. In the lower idiom, there are lots of 'folks', 'folks who oppose me', 'a whole bunch of folks', interspersed with vaguely regional comfort words like 'oftentimes'. [my emphasis] (The Fastidious President London Review of Books 11/18/2010)
In his Reno interview on the video, Obama was operating more in the second type of diction.

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, uh, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He, he, he put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.

I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the Sixties and the Seventies and you know, government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. And, I think, you know, people just tapped in, he tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want, uh, you know, a return to that sense of dynamism and, and, and, you know, uh, uh, entrepreneurship that had been missing, all right?.
He says there that he thinks voters are tired of seeing the two parties "bogged down in the same arguments". He notes that the Republicans had been the Party of ideas and had challenged conventional wisdom, though he adds that their current solution for almost everything, tax cuts, can't actually solve problems like the energy issues.

It's striking now that Obama then in 2008 was promoting his value as a Democratic Party candidate and Party leader on the basis that he could appeal to independents and Republicans by speaking in a way that "doesn't offend people". Because you can't change the prevailing narrative to a more Democratic one without offending Republicans. Because to hear the we're-the-victims whining that regularly issues from Republican spokespeople and propagandists, their delicate feelings are very easily offended.

And in that 2008 statement, Obama reinforced the Republican narrative about "all the excesses of the Sixties and the Seventies" and the evils of Big Gubment. Sadly, he's still doing it today.

Robert Perry in Obama's Dubious Praise for Reagan 01/19/2008 provided a reaction at the time that focused on the concept of accountability in government:

Though Obama's chief point was that Reagan in 1980 "put us on a fundamentally different path" – which may be historically undeniable – the Democratic presidential candidate went further, justifying Reagan's course correction because of "all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability."

While Obama later clarified his point to say he didn't mean to endorse Reagan's conservative policies, the Illinois senator seemed to suggest that Reagan's 1980 election administered a needed dose of accountability to the U.S. government. In reality, however, accountability wasn't part of Reagan’s medicine for America. Indeed, one could say the opposite. [my emphasis]
Perry goes on to talk primarily about Reagan's anti-accountability approach in foreign policy, especially his Administration's policies in Central America, which was the area in which St. Reagan let the neoconservatives run wild. Perry argues that St. Reagan's foreign policy "was one of the most brutal, most corrupt and least accountable in American history." The Cheney-Bush Administration, of course, far surpassed the Reagan Administration's in all those ways.

But he also connects Reagan's anti-accountability position to his neoliberal (to use the economics term) economic policies:

On the domestic side, Reagan oversaw the dismantling of regulatory structures that restrained the excesses of Wall Street investment banks, the energy industry and other economic powerhouses. Many of today’s problems – from the mortgage meltdown to the nation's wasteful energy policies – can be traced to Reagan's contempt for that type of accountability.
The Obama Administration's approach to accountability is far too close to that of the Reagan Administration. As Bromwich also points out:

The truth is that Obama exposed himself to the worst the Republicans can do by his conciliatory tone from the first days of his administration. He gave assurance when he entered office that he would not look exactingly into the conduct of the last administration. Bush and Cheney received from him a legal indulgence for any conceivable transgression, on the theory that after the bombings of September 2001, anything that public servants did was a hasty but honourable response to a dreadful emergency by well-meaning persons. To Obama at the time, this must have seemed a magnanimous deed as well as a signal of non-aggression to tamp down the savagery of the Cheney circle. Yet his decision to make justice begin today achieved a different end. It made sure that none of the people from whom Obama had most to fear would ever fear him. It also robbed of reality all his talk of a profound commitment to justice – a justice which he had suggested went beyond considerations of bridge-building for the sake of domestic policy or national expedience. By broadening the claim of state secrets to prevent the disclosure of evidence of torture and extraordinary rendition, the Obama administration has lent credence to the original claim of Bush and Cheney that their actions were dictated by necessities of state. In doing so it has foregone the only assurance the law affords against the repetition of such acts. [my emphasis]
On the regulatory front also, this Administration's approach to accountability has been awfully permissive toward reckless financial Masters of the Universe who crashed the world economy in the financial crisis of 2008.

The full text of the recently-released Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee Report is available online. And it gives a damning account of the fecklessness of federal regulators under the Cheney-Bush Administration in the face of clear signs of serious problems in the mortgage business and the derivative securities based on mortgages.

But Obama's position on such matters is to Look Forward Not Backward. And in doing so, he passes up opportunity after opportunity to discredit the stewardship of the Republican Party during the last Administration and also to shift the general political and economic narrative toward a more Democratic-friendly viewpoint. St. Reagan was weak on accountability for his foreign policy and on accountability for reckless business practices that damaged consumers and endangered the general health of the economy. But he was very good in blaming the previous Carter Administration for all his own Administration's problems. President Obama doesn't want anything to do with that kind of accountability, either.

After all, holding people accountable isn't easy to do in a way that ""doesn't offend people" who are being held accountable.

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