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Jim Sleeper

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Why Obama Defaulted In The 'State Of The Union'

Posted: 01/25/2012 4:20 pm

In his State of the Union address two years ago, in 2010, President Obama kept alive faltering hopes for our fraudulent and now broken political system by appealing movingly to Republicans for bipartisanship and civility. As Ryan Lizza reminds us in a New Yorker article that "everyone" is discussing, Obama had made such appeals even before his inauguration by meeting with George Will and a gaggle of Reaganite pundits.

But even in 2010 Obama was addressing a Congress -- including its Democratic-controlled House, which had been elected with him -- that was stuffed to its gills with frauds, as I put it in Pearls Before Swine, because it was owned lock, stock, and barrel by the banking, real-estate, insurance, oil, and myriad other corporate interests that have nearly ruined the country.

Congress still is stuffed to the gills with frauds, and last night's State of the Union address had the slightly edgy, at times faintly desperate tone of a man who knows it better than he did in 2010. "Beyond the few measures on which there is a rare alignment of stars," I wrote then, "nothing Obama called for will happen, unless his road trip unleashes a firestorm in the American people against Congress for the systemic sins mentioned above. " Should I change a word now?

The only firestorm that followed Obama's road trip two years ago was the Tea Party's, which drove the Republican victories in the congressional races, all of it on steroids provided by the powerful interests I've mentioned and by some people's eternal inclination to seek scapegoats (from Kenya or from the government ) rather than to admit that they've been had and to find the real courage and discipline they'd need to stand up to the owners of the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, totalitarian credit-rating cages we're living in.

When Obama spoke in 2010, Democrats in Congress had outstripped Republicans in a race to be owned. As the political scientist Jane Mansbridge notes in the lead article of the current Political Science, Democrats had rushed to prostrate themselves before finance capital.

Mansbridge cites Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's report in Winner-Take-All Politics that "In the 2007-2008 election cycle, the Democratic Senatorial Committee raised four times as much from Wall Street as its GOP counterpart did.") For this you can thank, among others, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who has chaired that committee and led in deregulating banks in the 1990s.

But Obama was encircled back then, as now, not only by the bought-and-paid for buffoons in Congress but also by advisors who -- as Lizza's report shows but doesn't exactly tell -- were sending him memos, framing the hard choices before him, that also reflected Obama's choices of the advisers themselves -- especially Budget Director Peter Orszag, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner, and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers.

Ryan doesn't discuss those hard choices of advisers or remind us of who the reasonable alternatives to these people might have been. He does report the decidedly minority, pro-Keynesian-spending view of Christina Romer, chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. But Lizza recycles uncritically the other advisers' view (which became Obama's, perhaps increasingly as he read their memos) that congressional and other political realities rendered Romer's views unrealistic.

Do they, though? Once again, we find ourselves within the conventional Beltanschauung (Beltway worldview), which holds that in our system of divided government and free markets presidents can't really lead as much as they can facilitate the system's functioning within narrow parameters, however monstrously destructive those have become, and perhaps cajole a few of the players.

In this logic, the 2010 rollback of Democratic gains at the polls "proves" that presidential speeches can't arouse or mobilize people anywhere nearly as much the political psychologist Drew Westen insisted they should in his game-changing New York Times essay of last summer, "What Happened to Obama's Passion?," which enraged the neoliberal Beltway pundits from Fareed Zakaria to Jonathan Chait, as I reported here then in Bluster in the Beltanschauung..

In this Beltway view, presidents really only "preside" over most of what goes on in our free-market republic, with its system of independent branches of government; they can execute the laws but not frame or shape them. That isn't how "Decider" George W. Bush saw or did things, of course, but look where he got us! And he was really only deciding how best to advance the above-mentioned corporate interests! His Republican Party won't let Obama decide anything, and they're trying to persuade the American people to dump him.

What's stupefying is that Obama's advisers and neoliberal apologists accept this logic as binding and that Obama does, too, his rhetoric in this year's State of the Union to the contrary notwithstanding.

I sensed this as I watched him milk the Bin Laden kill and shout out some bromides about irresponsible bankers and challenge Congress to change the tax code in some ways that Republicans themselves once supported but won't now that he does, ways that he knows even the Democrats will eviscerate under the ministrations of lobbyists and a public stampeded by the Supreme Court-enhanced conservative noise machine.

Unless Obama does take the lead in offering us a counter-narrative to all this and to the fables we've been accepting about the magic of markets, his efforts will go nowhere. Most of them are already dead in Congress, as one could tell just from looking at those trolls, including those who crammed the aisle like children, seeking his autograph. In his speech Obama was trying to go over their heads as much as to get to them, because he knows now, after three years' of trying, that Henry Adams was right a century ago to lament that you Congressmen are hogs that can be gotten away from the trough only if they are beaten over their snouts with an iron bar.

So Obama is concentrating on getting himself re-elected. But his State of the Union didn't serve that purpose effectively, either. He, his advisers, and his apologists in the press haven't examined the possibility that one reason Democrats lost in 2010 is that everyone knew that they were just as "owned" as Republicans, and that the latter at least make a virtue of their slavery as they press the old, reliable scapegoat buttons to distract us from that slavery's ever-more intimate scars.

Nothing in Lizza's account, beyond its obligatory mentions of dissents such as Romer's and Paul Krugman's, challenges the Beltway wisdom that this is the field that Obama and the rest of us must play on. That leaves poor Obama standing wholly alone, as he did in delivering his address to Congress.

A president can't be a prophet, of course, But he can tell more of the truth than his advisers and apologists think he can about our entrapment in the slippery web of contracts and lies that is closing in on us. Everyone outside Washington knows it; Obama himself acknowledged the divide between Washington and the American people. But he didn't describe that divide and the demons and poisons it harbors, and by defaulting on that, he left us standing alone, too. I still think that he was put on earth to do better.