We’ll see what happens tonight, but since Massachusetts, Obama has essentially offered no leadership either publicly or privately. On health care, all over Capitol Hill members of Congress are asking: what does the White House want? What is it willing to fight for? What risks is it willing to take?
And the answer is: no one knows.
For several days, we have been treated to stories about the White House looking to enact a smaller piecemeal package, which makes no sense as policy and is ludicrous as politics. Nancy Pelosi has been carrying the ball essentially all by herself, getting hung out to dry by the Senate and then the White House. And then — at a time when people want to know what Obama stands for — right out of the box we get talk of a “freeze”, which completely plays into the right-wing, Reaganite frame.
The fact of the matter is that of the major problems facing the country right now, “fiscal discipline” isn’t even close. And if it were, then it might be useful to propose something that, you know, enacts fiscal discipline. Instead, we a gimmick so devoid of substance that it can be punctured in a subhead to the effect that it handles virtually none of the budget.
Oh yes, as Mark’s unnamed friend suggests, theoretically if you put all the right caps in all the right places, then that could transform the federal budget. But we know what happens in the real world: powerful interests win and the vulnerable get screwed unless there is real leadership at the top that is willing to take political risks.
And so far, we have not seen Obama willing to do that. At every opportunity, his administration has backed off. Tim Geithner and Larry Summers bailed out Wall Street and got exactly nothing in return. He has not fought for any of his appointees hung up in the Senate. He has failed to make a continual argument for vigorous government action. He has not repealed the odious use of the state secrets doctrine, prosecuted Bush Administration war criminals, or even released the Inspector General’s report. He has not suspended a single dismissal for Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, despite his clear authority to do so. He negotiated against himself on the stimulus, setting an intial target too small and never speaking up for important priorities like helping out beleaguered state and local governments. He shut out progressives from his closest circle of advisors and left them out of all the key Cabinet positions.
And through all of this, the thing that kept running through my head was: we’re deferring it all because of health care. Just wait for the health care bill. With all of its flaws, it is a big piece of social legislation that represents the biggest advance since the Great Society. It’s okay; just wait. And for the last week, the message coming out of the White House has been basically that we’re not going to get that, either.
Contrary to what Mark says, I’m not willing to believe the worst of Obama: I’m willing to believe what the evidence shows. So far, the evidence shows that when the going gets tough, he has nothing to say except reinforcing right-wing frames and backing off doing the tough thing. I really hope I’m wrong about that; I’d love to be proved wrong.
But one thing we all learned from the Bush Administration is that faith-based politics does not work. I see no reason to resuscitate it now.