Monday, September 21, 2009

Seize the Anger/Seize the Time

A conventional wisdom is crystallizing in liberal and mainstream circles, according to which the tea parties and town hall meetings and Congressional outbursts aren’t just expressions of racism and status anxiety egged on by corporate PR firms and Fox News; they are also, perhaps mainly, expressions of “populist” outrage at Wall Street and Big Government. I suspect that the conventional wisdom was more on target a few weeks ago when the bruhaha was attributed to corporate-funded “astro-turfing.” But however that may be, the idea has emerged that President Obama should do something dramatic to seize the anger and get his mojo back.

Thus, in its September 28 edition, The Nation editorializes that Obama should turn the rising tide of anti-Wall Street anger to his advantage by issuing an executive order forbidding executive compensation at institutions rescued by the federal government from exceeding $400,000 per annum, the salary of the President of the United States. That’s not a bad idea – it would mark one small step for equality and one more substantial leap (well, maybe not exactly “substantial”) for putting the banking system back on track. Of course, actually putting the banking system back on track by restoring the Roosevelt era regulations Bill Clinton and his Wall Street hands -- now they are Obama’s Wall Street hands! -- undid would be a better idea still, and reforming the banking system to better serve the people would be even better. But in the Pelosiite world of contemporary liberalism, just about everything to the left of Eisenhower Republicanism, and a good deal to the right of it too, is “off the table.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains: if it makes sense to seize the anger for electoral advantage, it makes even more sense to seize the time to move the country forward. To that end, measures like the one The Nation proposes fall short, and the measures the Obama administration has been proposing fall shorter still.

The administration fumbled on health care not just because it was dead-set on “bipartisanship,” but also, relatedly, because it was determined to ameliorate the dreadful – indeed, shameful and unsustainable – situation in which decades of “capitalist medicine” have left us only to the extent that the “stakeholders,” i.e. the profiteers, could be brought along. But if liberals stick to their guns, as enough of them may, some good might come out of Obama’s feeble reform efforts nevertheless. There is still a chance, albeit a slim one, that we will get a “public option” worth having – one that is susceptible to being transformed into something that, in time, will save lives and money by displacing private insurers. But if, in the end, things work out not too badly, it will not be because Obama has seized the time; it will be because the times are pushing his administration and the Democratic Party forward, forcing them to do some pale semblance of the right thing. [It goes without saying that the Republican Party is beyond ever doing the right thing, and that no force on earth can make them.]

Health care reform was one area where Obama could have seized the time, but didn’t. There are many other opportunities, however. Obama could, for example, insist on a full restoration of the rule of law by holding Bush era war criminals accountable for their lawlessness; in other words he could bring Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld and the rest of them to justice. Or, in the next few days, when he meets with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in New York, he could force Israel to make peace with the Palestinians by closing down its (patently illegal) settlements in the portion of mandate Palestine that the international community recognizes as Palestinian, and then to acquiesce to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. In this, as in bringing our own torture regime to justice, he’d have ample support. After all, where support for Israel is concerned, it isn’t just AIPAC any more: there’s now a pro-two-state-solution, pro-Israel lobby as well, J-Street; they are large enough already to give even a timid politician like Obama cover. Indeed, with just a tad of courage, Obama could easily turn Netanyahu’s jerking the U.S. around to the advantage of the peace camp, by mobilizing U.S. public opinion against the Israeli settlements and against Israel’s multi-party prevarications on the question of a Palestinian state. Obama has all the cards. If only he weren’t afraid to play them, he could make a giant leap forward for peace; while, not incidentally, diminishing the threat of Islamicist terror attacks in the Middle East and in what we nowadays call “the homeland.”

One more thing Obama could do in that regard is accede to common sense by conceding that the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were lost a long time ago, not that it was ever clear what it would have meant for them to be “won.” There are many Democratic legislators who believe this; many Pentagon bureaucrats do as well. So do most Americans. There are also other impeccably sound moral, economic and strategic reasons to end these wars. All that it would take, at this point, is a little courage; a virtue in short supply in Democratic precincts.

Of course, for Obama to seize the time in these and other ways he would have to reinvent his administration; to make it more like what most Obama voters thought they had voted for. He has the vision to do it, and the knowledge. What he lacks is the will. He could and should seize the time; so far, though, he seems unwilling even just to seize the anger.

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