Making Obama do it

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. tells the story of FDR approached by people who wanted the U.S. to increase its involvement in confronting Hitler in Europe.  FDR replied to them:

“I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

This is how the president tacitly assigned to them the task of bringing their case directly to the U.S. people, at the time hesitant about taking a bigger part in the European conflict.  If the national attitude towards the conflict shifted, FDR would “follow” suit.

If we check our hopes and illusions at the door, it is far from clear at this point the extent to which Obama is truly committed to promoting a progressive agenda in the U.S. and the globe.  The opportunity is definitely there.  But, consider — for example — his choice of economic cabinet.   The people he’s recruited are, to put it mildly, not known as strong reformers.  In the management of the economy, people like Austan Goolsbee, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and — in the background — Robert Rubin, people who have advocated the type of policies associated with the lead to the current economic disaster, have been tapped and are actively shaping up Obama’s economic plan.

Others, like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, and Dean Baker, have been largely ignored, in spite of the fact that they were critical of the policy climate that led to the current crisis, and that they have been forceful advocating measures to fight the crisis that place the broader public interest, the interest of working- and middle-class people, at the center of these policies.

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman continues to speak his mind about the timidity of Obama’s plans, in stark contrast with the urgency of his words.  Basic arithmetic indicates that, in the current conditions, a less than 1 trillion dollar “stimulus” is insufficient to move a 15-trillion dollar economy and tax cuts (especially tax cuts for large businesses) are largely wasted resources, because their “bang for the buck” is significantly smaller than that of a dollar directly spent.  (Apparently, even strongly pro-establishment Democrats of the Nancy Pelosi type oppose Obama’s intention of not phasing out the tax cuts for the rich that W. Bush passed!)  Yes, there’s uncertainty, but — precisely — the nature of economic uncertainty during a crisis is such that timidity in the response is the greater evil.

The excuse, as Krugman suggests, seems to be political.  Like Krugman, I’m deeply skeptical of Obama’s alleged approach.  It seems, for what we know, that Obama wants to have a large majority behind his actions, including a solid support in Congress, which requires compromising with staunch Republicans.  By temperament — the press has been telling us — Obama prefers a pragmatic focus on solutions, rather than political confrontation.

That is fine as long as the interest of the majority of working- Americans is truly the top priority.  As a tactical stance at this point, there’s nothing wrong in principle with opening the tent to more people.  But, if history is any guide, the special interests that oppose the economic security of working Americans, the reform of our disfunctional health care system, the reform of our foreign policy, etc. won’t be pacified with friendly gestures.

If Obama begins to compromise to them, always at our expense, they will only confirm that stiffening their opposition works.  Just like in economics, tax incidence is avoided by those more willing to walk away from a market deal, and falls on those forced to take it; in politics, the stubborn prevails and the compromising paints himself into a corner.  This is not an argument in favor of partisanship for partisanship’s sake.  It’s an argument in favor of partisanship to advance the public interest.

Ultimately, it is not an ideological disagreement, but the clash of their vested interests against the needs and interests of the majority of Americans which makes the right wingers so stubborn that only the effective derailment of the popular effort that gave Obama his victory, can pacify them.

Obama has said that he’ll listen to the people.  During his campaign, he emphasized that his election was not about him, but about us, rank-and-file Americans.  We need to test his claim continuously, from the get-go.  Let’s press on.  After all, we’re fired up and ready to go.  So, let’s bring the discussion to our relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and everybody willing to engage in a conversation with us.  Let’s use all means at hand to impress upon the new administration that we’re stubborn in demanding satisfaction to our needs as working- and middle-class Americans.

Let’s make him do it!

[UPDATE 1/10/2009: Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein, from Obama’s economic team, have estimated the impact of Obama’s plan (AARP) on employment.  Since they admit that the impact of the plan as presented is rather underwhelming, they seem to be asking us to make them do more.]

[UPDATE 1/13/2009: John Nichols, a The Nation correspondent, has followed Obama closely.  Here’s his view on how to push him to the left:]

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