Monday, 15 August 2011

Farewell to The Fierce Urgency of Now

My previous post asked what Martin Luther King Jr might say to President Obama were the two men to meet today.  Were he fully up to speed, MLK would know that Obama coyly portrayed himself as the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream.  He would know that Obama's rhetoric, patterned so closely after his own message, has in fact not been fulfilled.  In all likelihood, Dr. King would be dismayed with the way Obama has tainted his legacy and the imagery of "the dream", and he would be deeply saddened by the historic opportunity that Obama has squandered.

And then we read in the Sunday NYTimes that Obama's White House is considering its next move on economic issues in advance of the coming election campaign.  The report, based on comments from White House operatives, indicates that the general tone is one of caution.  The favored options shy away from the more combative approaches such as highlighting on the campaign trail the substantive differences with Republicans in Congress.  Instead, the report states, Obama's political advisors are prepared to wait, "aware that their prospects may rest on persuading voters that the results of the first term matter less than the contrast between their vision for the next four years and the alternative ideas offered by Republicans."  I say again, Obama's advisors are,
"aware that their prospects may rest on persuading voters that the results of the first term matter less than the contrast between their vision for the next four years and the alternative ideas offered by Republicans."
This must be deeply troubling (if not sadly familiar) to the 25 million Americans unable to find work, the millions more underemployed, and the millions facing financial ruin through foreclosure -- wait for the next election, and then we'll fix it.  First, the idea that Obama could persuade enough people a second time with his threadbare rhetoric is, itself, unpersuasive.  There is no magic left in "Yes, We Can", or "Change We Can Believe In", or any new catch-phrase he might conjure.  Second, I find it shocking that his advisors -- and, by extension, Obama himself -- would have the audacity to suggest that the failure of his first term could be expunged with the promise of a second term that is so much superior to the Republican alternative.  Many would argue that Obama has governed as a Republican in all but name anyway, so the difference is negligible.  This political calculation portrays the kind of criminal indifference that Martin Luther King could not at all have tolerated, and against which he would have surely spoken out.

The Times article captured a warning from a former official of the Obama administration.  Christina Romer was until recently the chairwoman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers.  The article reported her as saying:
"Playing it safe is not going to cut it.  Not proposing anything bold and not trying to do something to definitely deal with our problems would mean that we're going to have another year and a half like the last year and a half -- and then it's awfully hard to get re-elected."
As much as I agree that "playing it safe is not going to cut it", I must dissent from Ms Romer with respect to her rationale.  She's correct that waiting another year and a half, till after the election, before taking any substantive action represents an unacceptable burden to those millions in need.  But that it serves the political calculations of a first term president seeking a second is truly reprehensible.  These discussions currently taking place in the White House simply can't be reduced to getting re-elected.  And to amplify this point, let's return for a moment to the central theme of my last post.  

Barack Obama employed the language, oratory and symbolism of Martin Luther King, and in this he was so successful as to propel an unknown and unseasoned one-term US Senator to the presidency.  He wove the whisperings of MLK together with a skillfully crafted personal narrative that resonated across a nation, and around a world, that had been traumatized by his predecessor.  Words matter.  And so does symbolism.  And Obama used these like few others in recent memory, recalling the image and the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.  He even went so far as to acknowledge in his campaign rhetoric that most campaign rhetoric is often vacuous.  But not his!  He said,
"I know that in every campaign, politicians make promises about cleaning up Washington.  So it's easy to become cynical.  I know that for me, reform isn't just the rhetoric of a campaign; it's been a cause of my career."
Obama also recognized (at least in his rhetoric) the imperative to link action with words.  And when he spoke of this, he invoked Dr. King,
"This is how Dr. King led this country through the wilderness.  He did it with words. He led with words, but he also led with deeds.  He also led by example. Dr. King understood that unity cannot be won on the cheap; that we would have to earn it through great effort and determination."
Obama, too, has led with words -- words that Martin Luther King Jr would have greeted warmly.  And he said those words repeatedly, in his books, in his Senate speeches, in his announcement for the presidency, in the primaries and in every stump speech, in the presidential debates and in his inauguration.  He used language and oratory and symbolism to project a very specific message, for which words like "hope" and "change" became its shorthand.  But it was an empty message, one that he has yet to even begin to fulfill -- in far too many instances Obama's actions have actually veered to the right in support of monied interests.  And now, with the need so great, we learn that he'll likely defer any further action until after the election is won (which is the real objective, is it not?).

So much for the fierce urgency of now.

It can't simply be about a second term for Obama.  It must be about more.  And with the millions unemployed and underemployed, millions facing foreclosure and financial ruin, it is rapidly becoming about the social fabric of the United States.  As wealth becomes more heavily concentrated, as Republican candidates openly defend the idiotic notion that corporations are people, as a Democratic administration initiates a drive to austerity (!) in the face of economic collapse, the social fabric of America may soon become FUBAR.

There is much speculation in the press that the riots in Britain and Israel and in the Middle East may presage similar events in the US.  And well they may.  The policies of Barack Obama, the man elected to deliver hope and change, may now ignite this very conflagration.  The man who wrapped himself in the mantle of Martin Luther King would be confronted on the streets by the Reverend, fighting against the injustices and inequalities that Obama had promised to eradicate, injustices he now seems prepared to perpetuate.


Update: My inbox pinged this morning (the 16th) with an update from Dean Baker and the Center for Economic and Policy Research. His article said this, in part:

"A front page story in Sunday's New York Times gave the country the bad news.  President Obama is no longer paying attention to economists and economics in designing economic policy.  Instead, he will do what his campaign people tell him will get him re-elected, presumably by getting lots of money from Wall Street.

The article said that President Obama intends to focus on reducing government spending and cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare.  This is in spite of the fact that:
"a wide range of economists say the administration should call for a new round of stimulus spending, as prescribed by mainstream economic theory, to create jobs and promote growth."
In other words, President Obama intends to ignore the path for getting the economy back to full employment that most economists advocate.  Instead he is going to cut government spending because his chief of staff and former J.P. Morgan vice-president Bill Daley, and his top campaign advisor David Plouffe, both say this is a good idea.

While people are justified in having little respect for economists -- almost the entire profession missed the $8 trillion housing bubble that crashed the US economy -- it is still scary to see that policy will be determined by people with no knowledge of economics whatsoever.  After all, do Daley and Plouffe even have a theory as to how cutting government spending could help the economy?"

The answer to Baker's question is, of course, no.  Obama's advisors have no theory on which to base the economic outcomes of their actions.  But they do know that winning a second term is Obama's primary goal as a first term president.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day:  Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni); L'inverno (Winter), Concerto No. 4 in F Minor; Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman.  Enjoy.    

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