Probably many of us are getting urgent e-mails asking us to express our approval of President Obama on the eve of his departure and, not so incidentally, back up sentiment with a generous donation to the sponsoring organization. Generally, I am heartily glad to see the back of a leader who has led a failed administration. On the other hand, considering who will replace him, I would rather he stay in the White House and keep Trump out.
Bill Press, reporter, broadcaster and former Chair of the California Democratic Party, probably also has mixed feelings. It’s safe to say, I think, that he wrote this book with the expectation of a different outcome to the election. Perhaps he would have pulled some punches had he expected that any of his words would have helped Trump. However, the book he
did write is a useful cautionary tale for progressives in the future.
The most important take-away from the book is the overwhelming importance of the person who
occupies the Presidency. He or she sets the priorities and strategy. He/she hires the chief advisors and administrators who will help set policies and supervise their execution.
The choice of assistants, however, is not a value-free process. As Elizabeth Warren has said, personnel is policy. People who are eligible for high government positions typically have histories and agendas. Thus the President knew, or should have known, what he was getting when he chose Larry Summers and Tim Geithner for the chief economic positions in his administration. Summers had bounced around Harvard, government and Wall Street, picking up
animosity and several million dollars along the way. Geithner was head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and it would have been difficult, geographically and ideologically, for him to be closer to Wall Street. As the President wrestled with greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, he chose how he would address that disaster when he chose Summers and Geithner.
Their first concern was to restore “confidence” on Wall Street. This was done by massive bailouts and friendly sympathy, extending even to allowing bailed out companies to pay bonuses to the executives who had presided over the actions that had led to financial collapse. Understandably, as millions of houses went into foreclosure and entire communities cratered, the average American understood that “Socialism for the rich” was alive and well.
Not so healthy was concern for the millions of workers who lost their jobs. Of course, capitalism was trying to solve the problems it had created by throwing its burden on the backs of the working class. There were two broad ways put forward to alleviate the problem of unemployment: government austerity, which meant cutting expenditures for social services,
and the Keynesian method of large, pump-priming government expenditure on public works and social services. Obama more or less chose the second method, whose planning exemplified the process that would characterize many other decisions over the next eight years. First, the
Council of Econmic Advisers estimated the bare minimum of government expenditure necessary
to maintain employment at its previous level (not at full employment, of course; that would have been socialism for the poor). Summers, et al., were aghast at the political naïveté of
the economists. Congress would never approve such an outrageous number, said they, so they cut the proposed appropriation approximately in half (Congress was still in Democratic hands), meaning that it was bound to fail to restore adequate employment. When the already compromised measure got to Congress, it was met with further demands for compromise. The result was a bill that was a mixture of tax cuts and public works projects, one that was totally inadequate to stem the avalanche of unemployment
Press observes that Obama and his appointees did not seem to know the first rule of bargaining: you never present your final offer first. Everyone in government understands that the first offer is just the beginning of negotiations. Repeatedly Obama’s positions had been compromised within his administration before they reached Congress, where they were further whittled down. Look at the Affordable Care Act, the President’s signature achievement, as an example of this model, and it’s apparent why it has been at best a modest success.
A related part of the Obama failures was his apparent unwillingness to follow a basic rule in negotiations with others and especially negotiations with opponents: you have to fight your corner. You have to believe in your own case and,as Elizabeth Warren has said, be prepared to leave blood and teeth on the floor. Certainly compromise is probably necessary in the end, but the other side has to know that it has been in a fight. Otherwise, the President will be in Obama’s position: the Republicans sized him up as a wimp and would not bargain with him; and, after all, they didn’t have to negotiate. After 2010 and 2012 the Republicans took the House and then the Senate. A courageous, progressive President- the kind that Obama told us he would be in 2008- might well have held the Congress.
So I think I will skip signing the sorry-to-see-you-go card.