Wow, what a week. Anyone who wants to try and give a clear, uncomplicated picture of President Obama and his party this week has to end it a little befuddled. The picture is murkier than ever in terms of the course Obama is trying to chart, his boldness and that of his party, and their willingness to stand up to the biggest, wealthiest and most powerful special interests on behalf of the hard-pressed middle class and poor.
The week started with an inaugural address that was a clarion call for progressive policies, a speech that made progressive hearts sing by laying a strong clear vision of our movement's historic values. As I argued on Monday, whatever else Obama does or doesn't do policy-wise, a speech like this matters: it has the weight of history behind it, and it makes the case in an important moment why Americans should move forward rather than backward.
The speech was not complicated, it was as clear as a bell. Other than the speech, though, the rest of the week was pretty damn messy:
- Harry Reid waved the white flag and surrendered on Senate reformers attempt to make the body less dysfunctional. In what was a massive disappointment, especially after much macho talk about how this time was really going to be different, Reid once again agreed to a package of very modest reforms signed off on by McConnell. This is exactly what he did two years ago, and within days things were moving just as slowly as before. In these dysfunctional days of our government's impairment, I think some Senators have decided they would rather have the power to block things rather than accomplish anything positive. That is a very bad sign for our democracy -- and a very bad deal.
- A staffer for another of the Democratic party's leadership, Chuck Schumer, confidently predicted that Democrats would agree to cuts in Medicare and in the "chained CPI," D.C. speak for cutting Social Security benefits. This trial balloon was quickly and vehemently shot down by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and other progressive forces, and by the end of the day Schumer's office had formally recanted, issuing a statement that he didn't support such cuts. While it was good to see such a quick backtrack on the trial balloon being floated, no one I have talked to is the least bit reassured that Democratic leadership won't continue to dangle that option to Republicans who want a scalp on Social Security (and who want to unleash their super PACs to attack Democrats for cutting Social Security).
- On the Wall Street accountability agenda, the signals are all over the map. Yesterday, two big things happened, both of them good signs but not conclusive. A woman with a reputation as a tough prosecutor, Mary Jo White, was nominated by Obama to chair the SEC, signaling to both Wall Street and progressives who want them held accountable for their dirty deeds that Obama wants to be tougher on Wall Street fraud. The fact that she's also been a lawyer for some very bad bankers mitigates my happiness over this, though -- I'm just not certain how good she will end up being. But I'm willing to take it as a good sign that Obama appoints someone with a rep for toughness to the SEC spot.
And in other very good news, two days after a devastating piece from Frontline which was scathing in its reporting on how the DOJ was choosing not to prosecute bankers, Lanny Breuer announced his resignation. According to all of my sources inside the administration who I have talked to about this, Breuer has been the biggest roadblock at the DOJ in terms of holding Wall Street bankers accountable, particularly in the last year in terms of slowing down the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Task Force. A former Wall Street lawyer, Breuer's leaving is an unqualified good thing.
What we don't know, of course, is who will replace him, so we will see who gets put in that key DOJ slot next. The big question now is what happens next on the task force. Although I know NY AG Eric Schneiderman is pushing hard on the cases he has brought and is exploring other avenues, he is getting little help right now from the rest of the task force. Breuer seems to be doing everything in his power to slow things to a crawl; Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan is completely focused on Hurricane Sandy relief; the White House has no one focused on making sure the task force is working, leaving that to the DOJ -- which seems focused instead on making sure it doesn't work. Now the DOJ point person for the task force, Breuer, is leaving -- which is a good thing overall but it doesn't exactly make things move faster. In the meantime, the task force's work keeps being undercut by the terrible settlements that have been announced by other agencies, like the OCC and Federal Reserve's overwhelmingly pro-bank settlement with a bunch of the biggest banks over wrongful foreclosures.
So we've got little progress on the ability of Republicans to block any decent legislation in the Senate; powerful Democrats who keep saying they are open to a deal that cuts Social Security; a complete muddle over being tough on Wall Street, some good news and some bad; and a clear, confident progressive clarion call of an inauguration speech. There is no narrative to all this. Wealthy special interests, especially the big boys on Wall Street, and the opponents of progress, continue to win out over middle and low income folks most of the time, even inside the Democratic party. Yet the president clearly wants to be seen as a progressive champion. It's a mix and a muddle. I hope we get to the point when this president finally and fully decides which side he wants to be on, and doesn't hesitate to take on the wealthy and powerful on behalf of the middle class and poor. If his administration stops being a mix and a muddle, and starts consistently in word and deed fighting for us regular folk, he will go down in history as a great president.