by Jonathan Todd
“Obama is forty-seven years old”, noted Russell Baker prior to the 2008 presidential election. “McCain is seventy-two, old enough to be Obama’s father … In classical mythology the son must kill the father to allow for the earth’s renewal.”
Has Obama’s vanquishing of McCain really brought the renewal that it might have done?
Yes, he arrived in office in the midst of the biggest economic calamity since the Great Depression. But, unlike FDR, he has not reformed Wall Street, often seeming keener to pacify than challenge financial interests.
Yes, Obama became president with America’s moral capital debased. But Guantanamo bay remains open. And his escalating use of drone attacks threatens to recruit violent anti-Americans as effectively as Guantanamo bay. His failure to meaningfully support those who oppose the Assad regime in Syria also seems to be increasingly driving them towards extremism.
Yes, China’s rise is about decisions taken over the past 30 years in Beijing, not anything done in DC or on Wall Street. But the tone and content of Obama’s attacks on Romney has hardly encouraged America to look outward to the great opportunities that are opening up as a consequence of Chinese communists doing capitalism better than American capitalists. Nor has any substantive reform of global institutions been secured to make them more democratic, inclusive and credible in a world where economic and political power shifts ever more south and east.
Yes, the American political system is designed to necessitate compromise and Obama was confronted by a Republican party determined to not compromise. But it took him an age to accept this. And he still struggles to adapt to it. He thinks, for example, that his re-election will sufficiently wipe the slate clean that the fiscal cliff will be averted via a deal somewhere close to the Simpson-Bowles plan. It is unclear, though, why Republicans who have not voted for any tax increases since 1990 will suddenly do so.
Obama misapplied the exhortation of Rahm Emmanuel: Never let a serious crisis go to waste. There are at least two crises that Obama has failed to fully exploit.
The crisis of capitalism was not used to kick out the cronies and build something fundamentally changed. The scale of this crisis means that Republicans would have struggled to resist such a concerted effort launched from the beginning of Obama’s presidency. Not least as popular anger against Wall Street – demonstrated not only by the Occupy movement but also in part by the tea party – has been so pronounced.
Obama has not pivoted from the crisis in America’s moral authority created by the Bush presidency to the through-going reform of global institutions required to really recover this authority. The world bank remains as essentially American as the world series in a century that will be much more Chinese than the last two. Rather than build afresh global institutions fit for this century – an updated Bretton Woods, for example, remains the best way out of Chimerica – America seems, to paraphrase Dean Acheson, yet to find its role in a world in which the American empire withers. Instead Obama grabs the latest Robert Kagan, so as to deny any such decline. Yet in foreign affairs Obama’s ability to set a new course is less constrained by Republicans.
The crisis that Obama choose to tackle is the crisis of American health care. When over 60 percent of your bankruptcies are due to medical bills and nearly 46 million Americans do not have health insurance then you have a crisis. And it is wonderful that Obama has done something to tackle it. While Obamacare now resembles what the Republicans countered as an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s proposed health reforms in the 1990s, Republicans deride it as evil socialism and it can be seen as the most substantial piece of social legislation since LBJ’s Great Society.
But where would America be now if Obama had LBJ’s cunning? And Bill Clinton’s empathy and ability to frame a policy argument?
It is, of course, impossible to say. It is, though, hard to argue that Obama has made the most of the cards he was dealt. Nonetheless, when LBJ became president he became one of only four people to have held all four elected federal offices in the US: representative, senator, vice president and president. Clinton came to the White House with over a decade’s experience as Governor of Arkansas – including the hard lessons of defeat after his first term.
Obama is about to complete his first term in executive office and the heat in DC is hotter than in Arkansas. Obama needs to learn lessons from his first term as urgently as Clinton needed to do so following his first term in Little Rock – in particular, he cries out for a more effective strategy for dealing with uncompromising Republicans.
It would be a betrayal of the millions that Obamacare has assisted to hope for these lessons to be learnt anywhere other than in the White House. And a capitulation to America’s deep-rooted conservatism.
But renewal requires that Obama kill the weaknesses of his first term. Which are bound up with the limitations of his no-red-states-or-blue-states strategy, which is itself an extension of a lifetime defined by wishing to build bridges. Killing a decorated Nam vet was so much easier.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist