On Leadership and “Fiscal Discipline”

Mr. President: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

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  He has not repealed the odious use of the state secrets doctrine, prosecuted Bush Administration war criminals, or even released the Inspector General’s report.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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

7 thoughts on “On Leadership and “Fiscal Discipline””

  1. Can I add some CO2 limitation policy to the list of endeavors that Obama must still fight for. It's a social advance for the world of 2050, as much as HCR is, if not more.

  2. Obama recently revived the tired old rhetoric: I will fight for you.

    My question: Mr. President, never mind who you claim to fight FOR. I want to know who you plan to fight WITH.

    Give me fight or give me bipartisanship, but don't insult my intelligence by talking fight and begging for bipartisanship. Fight, and I'm in your corner. Keep looking for ways to AVOID a fight, and I want my money back.

    –TP

  3. Contrary to what Mark says, I’m not willing to believe the worst of Obama

    Really? You mean your criticisms aren't "just short of calling him The Black Hitler," as Oliver Wills characterizes liberal attacks in the post Mark approvingly links to?

    Gee, that phrase really inspires me to take Wills's lecture to heart. I mean, what an incisive, reality-based analysis.

  4. Contrary to what Mark says, I’m not willing to believe the worst of Obama: I’m willing to believe what the evidence shows.

    Awesome line. Entire post is great.

    I'm growing tired of some of my favorite blogs (cf Balloon Juice), given that so many people in the comment section are discounting the evidence in favor of some kind of illusion.

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