Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Implications of Brown's Victory - Part Two

Matthew Rozsa
Left-wingers learned the wrong lesson when they believed Barack Obama's victory in 2008 was a popular mandate for liberalism; likewise, right-wingers are learning the wrong lesson when they believe the half dozen successes they have had in local elections over the past three months are a popular mandate for conservatism. With rare exceptions, American voters tend to cast their ballots as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent party. The Democrats won in the midterm elections of 2006 and in the presidential election of 2008 because Americans were dissatisfied with Republican rule, just as Republicans have won in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts because people are growing unhappy with Democratic governance. The finer points of political ideology are of secondary consequence to most people; what they want is for America to be safe at home, powerful abroad, and with a prosperous economy that guarantees jobs with high wages for all who are willing to work for them. Any party that wishes to attain power on a more perennial basis will only be able to do so by bringing about the realization of these ideals through the implementation of effective policies. Until then, each will keep getting tossed in and out of power every couple of years by a public that is increasingly disgusted with their fecklessness.

Matthew Rozsa
For the record:

Had I been Barack Obama in January 2009, I would have done more to capitalize on the unique circumstances surrounding my ascent to power (the fact that I had been elected with the largest popular vote percentage in twenty years, the fact that I had risen to power during a great economic crisis in which people were clamoring for change, the fact that I had two houses of Congress controlled by my own party, the fact that I had an unusual amount of attention as a precedent-breaker by being the first black president). Although Obama spoke often of being a "game changer", and his Chief of Staff famously declared that one should "never let a crisis go to waste", the reality is that they failed to end the right-wing ideological paradigm that had dominated America's political landscape since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 for two reasons:

1) Instead of engaging in their discussion with the general public on liberal terms (in the language and on the philosophical premises of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson), they instead continued to look at the world through the prism created by Bill Clinton - i.e., as a place where the conservative assumptions of Ronald Reagan remained prevalent, and where progressive objectives would need to accomodate them by being modified and watered down. In short, by believing that liberalism could only be rendered viable if it was sufficiently deferential to conservatism, they rendered the ongoing predominance of conservatism a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2) They seemed to operate on the assumption that the mere fact of Obama's being president was enough to satisfy the need for change. The reality, on the other hand, is that the American people needed to see tangible evidence that their new leaders were having a markedly positive impact on the issues that mattered most to them - ending the economic recession and putting Americans back to work at decent wages. By doing only the bare minimum of what was required of him on each of these issues, and then investing inordinate political capital on other public questions that - though important - were not nearly as immediate or urgent (health care reform, cap-and-trade legislation, the war in Afghanistan), Obama forgot that the very reason a crisis gives you the opportunity to be a game changer is that SOLVING the crisis increases public esteem in your leadership, thereby enabling you to enact your will in areas unrelated to it. A crisis is an albatross instead of an asset when the leader who inherits it fails to resolve it.

See part two below...

Matthew Rozsa
Had I been Barack Obama in January 2009, I would have done the following:

1) I would have used the pulpit of the presidency to jettison the oratorical fashions of the Reagan Era. Since Reagan's victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980 (with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than that received by Obama in 2008, since a large number of voters disliked both Reagan and Carter and defected to liberal Republican John Anderson), members of both parties have addressed the public and framed issues in the terms that he established - i.e., of preaching small government whenever it came to spending money to help the working poor and middle class OR of using government to restrict the disproportionate power of large corporations and the wealthy, while simultaneously advocating interventionist government when it came to imposing a specific set of religious values on the American people or pursuing belligerent foreign policy goals. This trend wasn't simply indulged in by the major Republican leaders of the Reagan Era (Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush), but even by the major Democratic leaders who believed ideological appeasement was a more secure route to power than boldness (Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council). As president, I would have identified this trend and denounced it, and then proceeded to aggressively discuss all major social, economic, and international issues within an ideological framework of my own making, one that would have synthesized the economic populism of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt with the humanitarian internationalism of Jimmy Carter and the cultural libertarianism unique to the newest generation.

2) I would have solved the ongoing crises with which I was confronted through a four-pronged set of policies, which I would pass within the first hundred days of my presidency using every fiber of political muscle in my possession:
A) I would have passed a new WPA, one that would have put people to work immediately in countless ways, thereby significantly reducing unemployment and increasing wages while solving various infrastructural problems at the same time. Not only would this have alleviated much of the immediate suffering in America, but the enormous influx in consumer spending that would have resulted from these measures (caused by the increase in purchasing power that would have been seen by all WPA beneficiaries) would have stimulated, if not a full recovery, then at least a significant mitigation of the more pernicious effects of the Great Recession.
B) I would have called for highly publicized and rigorous investigations of the various government agencies responsible for monitoring our country's largest financial institutions, and would have exposed all of my findings. Those found guilty of incompetence or corruption would have been immediately fired, the agencies themselves would have been overhauled so as to improve their effectiveness, and regulations that had been weakened over the previous thirty years would have been strengthened and imposed with newfound strictness.
C) I would have passed as strong a version as possible of the Employee Free Choice Act, so that America's working class would have the political and economic power necessary to guarantee the high wages and fair working conditions that not only create a humane society, but also facilitate high employment, sustainable wages, and thus a cycle of economic prosperity for all (much as we had from 1945 to 1980).
D) I would have called attention to fiscal waste in various sectors of our government - from the military-industrial complex and the war on drugs to pork-barrel projects and bureaucratic overlap - and fought for significant slashing in all of those areas, so as to significantly reduce our taxes and work toward a balanced budget.

These measures would have been ideal for three reasons:

1) The best politics is good government. Had they been implemented in the manner described above, they would have alleviated the economic suffering of the country, created an air of government accountability that would have prevented a recurrence of this fiasco while giving people a sense that the culprits (at least on the political side) had been punished, and created a feeling of constant government action that people in the midst of crises such as these are desperate to see, almost regardless of the ideological composition of the action in question (see the equally enthusiastic public responses to the liberal activity of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and the conservative activity of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s). These successes would have increased Obama's popularity, thus improving the quality of his political brand and giving him enormous leverage to pass other important aspects of his agenda (health care reform, global warming measures, et cetera). In short, by handling the crisis well which he had sworn to not let go to waste, he would have become a game changer.

2) They would have forced our ideological paradigm back onto the liberal terms on which it had been from Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 to Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980.

3) They would have robbed conservatives of many of their most effective political weapons - by fighting the bureaucratic incompetence that got us into this mess, he would have made liberals the ENEMY of wasteful bureaucracies instead of their advocate (and de facto made Bush and the Republicans the culprits behind their existence). What's more, it would have given Obama the image of being a powerful man who fights against power, a necessary paradox for any leader who wishes to be successful in a nation that prides itself on being free (all effective presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, have consolidated their political support by being perceived as opponents of power even as they become the most powerful people in the nation). Likewise, Obama's emphasis on slashing fiscal waste - especially after the profligacy of the Bush years - would have denied the Republicans one of their most compelling arguments (that they support fiscally responsible government) and given it to the Democrats, even as Obama used this issue to pursue liberal goals (to cite just one of many examples, he could have legalized marijuana, thus cutting the budget from the war on drugs while creating an influx of tax revenue).

Let me make this much clear: I still believe Obama has achieved more in his first year as president than many of his liberal critics are willing to admit. Even so, I think he could have - and should have - done things very differently. This is what I would have done had I been Barack Obama during his first hundred days as president. Just for the record.

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