It is not surprising to me that a technocratic Kevin Drum
and an insider like Scott Lemieux
cannot see Thomas Frank's
point that Obama blew his mandate in 2008. Drum and Lemieux are smart guys and I most often agree with their analysis on most issues.
But here they are wrong.
First, Obama premised his campaign on being transformative. That is why there was such emotion from so many of those who voted for him.
Second, the economy cratered to a point not seen since the Great Depression within the two months before the 2008 election, and the coolness of Obama compared to the strange zigs and zags of McCain, and the meltdown of McCain's vice presidential choice, led many in the elite who otherwise feared his transformative promises, to embrace Obama as a serious person to lead during a growing perilous time.
Third, Obama had a great opportunity to speak to the nation in December 2008 and January 2009 and go around the nation to show all the potholes, roads, bridges and dams that needed fixing or redevelopment, to stand by shuttered buildings and say, "We can fix this! We can build this together!" and I can guarantee you that even a third of the white folks getting ready to join the Tea Party Express would have been saying, "Yeah, that black guy's gonna get me or my child a job! I'm with him!" Infrastructure redevelopment was the right response to a deflationary spiral and destruction of the stock market.
Fourth, Obama always wanted, despite his rhetoric, the Grand Bargain of the banking class, which is to undermine Social Security and Medicare and just make the rich pay a little more in income tax. His solution to the health insurance problem was to make it more complex and leave the insurers with the ultimate power in the marketplace. If he had any real sense of the tradition of Clay to Lincoln to TR to FDR and LBJ (and RFK), he would have sought a different Grand Bargain, one that many of his supporters, including my Dad, for starters, wanted to see; a bargain that said:
1. We will rebuild the nation from the inside out;
2. You, business people, will make money from government contracts for that rebuilding;
3. You, business people in return will allow for union law reform so that the profits you make are reasonably shared.
There is also a political aspect that Obama completely missed, but which Republican leaders often understand. For example, Republican governors who took over shortly after the 2010 midterms, which occurred as result I would say of Obama's failure to seize the moment,* understood structural ways to undermine the opposition and pursue their policies. They went after public employee unions with a vengeance and demonized them and delegitimized them. They knew if the public unions are weakened, and undermined, it took away a major funding base of the opposition and galvanized their own constituencies. That had already happened with the destruction of private sector unions over from the 1970s forward. As Pat Robertson said to a television reporter on Election Night 2004, Dems used to get out the vote in union halls. Republicans get out the vote in churches in a world of few or no union halls.
If Obama had an ounce of what the aforementioned political leaders understood, he would have started with infrastructure redevelopment and made the Grand Bargain union law reform, starting with card check. He'd have gotten it as the business leaders and financial leaders were scared out of their wits and ready to compromise. I had a moment where I thought Obama was truly going to grasp the FDR mantle, particularly when Time Magazine had a cover photo of Obama as FDR
for two concrete examples behind the thought of the Time Magazine cover. I thought, if Time Magazine gets it, it must be clear to a significant portion of elite opinion this needs to happen.
But after all is said and done, Obama was not FDR. He was also not Lincoln, contrary to Evan Thomas in Newsweek in late 2008
. Lincoln, unlike Obama, was a trial lawyer who knew how railroad magnates thought and how regular folks thought by virtue of representing both. In short, Lincoln knew how the world worked and knew how power was exercised. Obama was a community organizer who lived by consensus-seeking from a position of no power, and then became an academic cog in a university machine. He did not know how to exercise power and did not believe in transformative power, despite his rhetoric in his campaign. And because he was not of the patrician class, like TR, FDR and RFK, he did not realize how overrated financiers and magnates really are. I've met quite a few myself. What they have is either inherited wealth that gives them enormous advantages or they are psychopathic about money. That is all Obama's failure, and consequently, that is our failure as a nation.
And please, folks, let's not pine for Hillary. She has never understood the utility of labor unions, has always been a cheerleader for trade deals that undermined our industrial capacity and has no understanding of what Alexander Hamilton and John Quincy Adams and Albert Gallatin understood about nation building and nation sustaining. She is merely a Republican from the late 1960s, as is Obama. It is why I called them in 2008 Hillobama. She would not have fought for these things or understood the political import of moving to change structures that improve the power of one's constituents, either.
The derision from Drum, Lemieux and other neo-liberals against Frank exposes the limits of these critics, who lack what C. Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination." And frankly, they just don't understand how leadership works.
* Compare the 1934 mid-term election results, which were in a backdrop where FDR had put millions to work already and had stabilized the banking system simultaneously. The Dems won big in 1934, and political scientists still scratch their collective heads not understanding why that occurred. Oy, is all I can say to these clueless academics.