Monday, June 25, 2012

Obama's "cynicism as art" and Krugman/Wells on the problem with Obama (and the American nation)

An anonymous contributor to Naked Capitalism accuses President Obama of practicing "cynicism as art". (The Source of Barack Obama's Power to Trick Us Comes from Our Willingness to Be Tricked 06/25/2012) But isn't that just another way of saying he's a practicing politician?

I don't want to disregard the points Anonymous makes. He gives a good example of Obama's corporate-Democratic way of thinking and how willing he is to disregard commitments made to Democratic base voters, even commitments that are more generally popular, in order to please Wall Street. It's a good example, though it employs a bit of pop psychology:

Jokes ... show how someone really sees the world, and the joke I’m thinking of is one he made during a speech in March 2009, when the revelations of AIG’s massive retention bonuses became public. It had been less than two months since Obama’s inauguration, but the major policy framework of the administration – the bailouts – had been laid down. The AIG bonus scandal was outrageous to the public, a symbol of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars being funneled to an arrogant corporation that had helped destroy the economy.

Barack Obama had stepped up to the lectern to deliver a stern rebuke to AIG executives who had taken bonuses with taxpayer money. Obama talked of the outrage of an irresponsible company, and how his administration would do everything within its power to get the money back. But a few minutes in, he coughed, slightly, choking a bit, as his mouth was a bit dry. But after he coughed, he stopped, and reflected on the gesture with a joke. "I'm choked, choked with anger", he said. Obama chuckled. Reporters laughed. And it was funny, really funny. Because everyone in the room knew that Obama wasn't actually angry about the AIG bonuses, and never intended to do anything about it. No one there was angry about the bonuses, and everyone knew nothing would happen to AIG executives. The House would pass bills, which would die in the Senate. The only people angry were Americans at large, who could not believe that their government worked for Wall Street. So the joke was funny, ironic, cool. But the moment wasn’t right for it, because this was a serious time for outrage – so Obama quickly reverted to form, and the teleprompter took over.

Pundits didn’t reflect on this "joke". No one really noted it. [my emphasis]
That description capture a stereotypical Beltway Village moment. It was all theater. Neither the President nor the brave watchdog press was concerned about the subject.

Now, it wasn't a bad joke. And it only looks like a "tell" or a Freudian slip because we know now that Obama didn't intend to do anything about it and that he was by any reasonable measure excessively focused on pleasing the bankers. To the point of looking the other way when it comes to prosecuting crimes committed in the course of the events that brought on the financial crash of 2008. In retrospect, the performance does look remarkably cynical.

Anonymous also has a good point about Obama's failure to follow through on his commitments on international trade agreements. During his campaign, he had criticized the worker-hostile nature of the NAFTA and other "free trade" agreements under the standard neoliberal approach:

Obama had shown this breathtaking tendency to con people as they knew they were being conned before, the most public time during the campaign being his cynical answer when he was asked about his promise to renegotiate NAFTA. He had said, when fighting for union votes with Clinton, "I will make sure we renegotiate (NAFTA)." Even as he said this, it turns out that campaign advisor Austan Goolsbee had gone to Canada to assure them this was a lie (sure enough, Obama’s trade policies are identical to Bush's, or worse).
After the election, he responded testily to reporters that reminded him of it, brushing them off by saying, "This is fun for the press to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign."

Again, if he had taken a policy position as President more in line with his 2008 campaign commitments, that would look like a throwaway line of momentary impatience. Given the reports we're hearing on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, though, it's hard to credit him with any seriousness now on those 2008 commitments to better trade agreements. (On TPP, see for instance, Lori Wallach, A Stealth Attack on Democratic Governance American Prospect 03/13/2012).

But my discomfort with Anonymous' presentation is that it comes very close to a liberal "concern troll" spiel. Sincerity is a greatly over-rated virtue in political leaders. What matters is what they deliver. And Obama is delivering the wrong stuff on trade agreements, as he did on AIG bonuses.

But he was quite sincere, or at least consistent, about his promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan, which he did. It was a bad policy when he was advocating it on the campaign, it was a bad policy when he was implementing it, and the country would have been better off if it had been a cynical political pitch on which he didn't follow through.

But anonymous argues that Obama's cynicism is particularly pernicious:

Politicians play hardball all the time. They lie on a regular basis, it’s one of the tricks of the trade. But Obama’s politics, and his career, are built on an exquisitely and brilliantly constructed narrative of integrity and progress. He is the outsider become the insider, the multi-racial meritocrat whose black and white heritage came together into the ultimate conciliator and political leader. His is the story of America, that of a brilliant Harvard Law school educated striver with roots in community organizing, who became a powerful orator, and then America's first black President. Progressive in spirit, cautious in temperament, he first and foremost understands the challenges facing the nation, the powerful injustice of slavery's heritage, even though he ultimately finds solace in his belief in America, in American institutions, and in the ultimate goodness of the American way of life.

But there is another narrative, a real narrative about Barack Obama and his administration. Obama is the ultimate cynic, a dishonest, highly reactionary social and corporate ladder climbing con artist. [my emphasis]
And clearly that is the "narrative" that Anonymous prefers.

Would any Republican object to such a characterization of the President right now?

More importantly, in my mind, it elevates some phony concept of sincerity to a role which has little relevance in the real world of politics. I would like to think political leaders I support or admire are sincere. But what counts is the quality of their policies and what they actually deliver for the good of the people. An argument like the one just quoted is great for making the speaker feel holier than those lowly politicians. But it gets back to the "Lemmings Lament" phenomenon:

Between the politicians' polarizing power trips
We're just too pure and peaceful to decide
So we got our heads together while the planet fell to bits
Never once had yet to take a single side

Paul Krugman and his wife Robin Wells provide a recap of the President's undoubtedly excessive deference to the financial lobby in Getting Away with It (07/12/2012 issue; accessed 06/24/2012) without falling into concern troll mode.

But at the risk of bordering on that mode myself, I'm uncomfortable with their formulation at the very end. Referring to Thomas Mann's and Norman Ornstein's It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (2012), Krugman and Wells write:

They argue that Congress — and indeed the whole American political system—is close to complete institutional collapse. We have entered a new politics of "hostage taking," they tell us, epitomized by but by no means limited to the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling. And they strongly suggest that the ongoing fiasco of macroeconomic policy may be only the beginning. ...

But ultimately the deep problem isn't about personalities or individual leadership, it's about the nation as a whole. Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it's hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed.
I don't see Mann's and Ornstein's warning about the level of crisis in our political system, which I heard the two of them deliver in person in a presentation recently, as excessive or alarmist. They seem to be serious in their diagnosis of the degree of the problem, and they are justified in taking it seriously.

But I am uncomfortable with Krugman's and Wells' formulation, "But ultimately the deep problem isn't about personalities or individual leadership, it's about the nation as a whole. Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation."

Conservatives made such drastic statements, and even more apocalyptic ones, on a routine basis. But blaming it on "the nation as a whole" sounds too much like the kind of postpartisan we're-all-to-blame viewpoint that Krugman regularly and effectively criticizes.

And since I know a lot of Krugman's perspective, I'm willing to read that line in a Jacksonian sense of "the nation" as a democratic collective who collectively have a responsibility for the health our democratic institutions. But it's a formulation that strikes me as a bit too close to a blame-the-victim posture. With big money magnifying the voices of the One Percent as never before and a mainstream press that provides only the most imperfect of filters to enable even the most concerned citizens to understand the real challenges the country is facing, some culprits are more equal than others in their responsibility for the current state of affairs.

And speaking of concern trolls, I've thought for the last two decades that Tom Edsall is one of the worst practitioners of that dubious art. Even though the phrase "concern troll" didn't enter my vocabulary until more recently. My favorite part of the Krugman/Wells article is that they make it very clear that the analysis in his latest book should be treated with considerable care. That is, the arguments that he makes for his central thesis in the latest book don't hold up to scrutiny. In his professional concern-troll manner, Edsall argues the anti-Keynesian, anti-progressive notion that we are entering into an era where the politics of austerity will inevitably dominate. "A brutish future stands before us," Edsall writes, in a framing that favors Republicans' cuts to civilian government while posing as someone who regrets the sad but unavoidable development. In reality, an era of austerity politics is not at all inevitable. The fact that we are living one at the moment is the result of bad economic ideas and corporate corruption of our politics.

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