Sunday, January 25, 2009

All this we can do. All this we will do.

President Barack Obama has been accused of being a celebrity and a poet, but we now know that his ambitions for our country go beyond personal theatrics and lyrics. In his first week in office, the President signed executive orders banning his aides from lobbying any executive agency for the lifetime of his administration, as well as ending the Bush administration’s policy against the release of presidential documents in a move to signal his administration’s commitment to transparency. He also signed orders to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, and to order that all interrogation techniques should follow the instructions laid out in the Army Field Manual.

These are sweeping changes, even more tangible than they are symbolic. But we already saw this coming from his startling departure from inaugural protocol that we witnessed last week. No, not the Chief Justice’s oath-of-office gaffe, but rhetorical patterns so stark and yet so barely noticed that it reveals the national mood in which we are in, and the transformative agenda of the President.

In the long history of Inaugural addresses, President Obama’s address was a sharper repudiation of the previous administration’s policies than any we have seen in our lifetime. For a rhetorical genre traditionally dedicated to the celebration of continuity, shared values, and unity, President Obama’s jabs at the previous administration stretched the boundaries of inaugural protocol. He spoke of the triumph of “hope over fear” - a reference to the tactics he perceived the Republicans used in previous elections. He rejected the artificial choice between “our safety and our ideals,” an indictment of water-boarding and Guantanamo bay. He promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” implying that science has been relegated to the backburner in recent times. Even in his statement to foreign nations, he made clear that “we are ready to lead once more,” implying that we haven't in a while. Usually, Presidents have appealed to Scripture to articulate timeless, and unifying truths, but President Obama used Scripture to chastise the political knaves of the past, saying, “the time has come to set aside childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

So this is not a president bound even by the time-honored traditions of the Inaugural Address. He would not even dwell on oratorical flourishes – and the Inaugural Address is just the place to celebrate and rehearse our shared civil religious values – even though we know that he is perfectly capable of rendering it. President Obama does not care for memorable words which can be carved on monuments, but words which will brace a country for the “gathering clouds and raging storms” in the horizon. Campaigning orator Obama is no more. Now he is President.

Like all great presidents before him, Obama is attempting to rewrite even the parameters by which we disagree with each other so that he can carry the country forward according to his script. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works” he proclaimed. Obama will not sanction these old-fashion antitheses. They are “worn out dogmas” and “stale political arguments,” binary conceptions of Left versus Right that will necessarily leave him with only one half of the national majority. Just like Lincoln redefined the meaning of federalism, and FDR redefined the meaning of liberalism, Obama wants to radically reconstruct our understanding of government, to create a new ideological synthesis. He intends, quite simply and perhaps naively, to build a government that works. And he is confident that he will succeed: “All this we can do. All this we will do.” These bold words parallel the cadence of the Jewish people responding to Moses’ rendition of the 10 Commandments: “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) They do not exemplify pragmatic liberalism or rhetorical bipartisanship, but aggressive and ambitious leadership.

If the Inaugural address is a ritualistic celebration of democratic continuity, President Obama’s departure from its genre imperatives reveals a distinct desire not for transition but transformation. The fact that his recriminations and boldness have received little notice suggest, for better or for worse, that the American people are pliable, ready, yearning for leadership. I hope President Obama handles this trust with abundant care.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

President Bush's Last Press Conference

Parochial, unrepentant, pugnacious, malingering, incoherent, but well-meaning to the last.

Defending his (in)action during Katrina, he said, "then your questions, I suspect, would have been, 'How could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge, and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?'" This president seriously thinks that action means appearing in public for a photo-op.

"You know, not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment, he also said. So he would rather have found WMDs in Iraq? This could have been an infelicity of language - and we know Bush has a penchant for them - but it is precisely moments like this that have lead Bush's critics to believe that he is an administration first, America second president. Call it what it is President Bush, you made mistake. You were complicit in creating the expectation that there were WMDs so that it is disingenuous that you register disappointment at their absence as if this were some god-given circumstance handed to you.

"Go to India and ask about, you know, America's -- their view of America. Go to China and ask," Bush said in disagreeing with the premise of a reporter's question that he had damaged America's standing in the world. Clueless, presumptous, and pugnacious to the end. Take a stand, assert it and don't bother to prove it - exactly what got Bush into trouble with practically every mishap in his presidency.

Continuing on this tone in his press conference, he got fiesty again on Katrina: "But when I hear people say the federal response was slow, then what are they going to say to those chopper drivers or the 30,000 that got pulled off the roofs?" Yes, use the chopper drivers and the Katrina victims as a human shield against political accountability. Perhaps Bush ain't so different from his frenemies in the Middle East.

When asked why the tone and rhetoric got out of hand, he quipped, "I don't know why. You need to ask those who -- those who used the words they used." Yet just earlier on, Bush had admitted that "Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake." President Bush is so indifferent to the fundamental law of consistency that is the necessary condition for truthfulness that his critics can hardly be blamed for accusing him of lacking integrity.

So these are the best words in his press conference: "But I wish him (Barack Obama) all the best. And people say, 'Oh, that's just a throwaway line.' No. It's not a throwaway line. The stakes are high. There is an enemy that still is out there." Terrible, but well-meaning president, Goodbye!

Monday, January 12, 2009

On Barack Obama's "Pragmatism"

What is a pragmatist? Someone who is unmoved by cookie-cutter ideological commitments and is flexible with the means to achieve certain ends. S/he can be contrasted to the ideologue, who is steadfast in his/her commitment to certain fundamental values and their policy instantiations.

Well, we are almost all pragmatists then. Even George Bush and Ted Kennedy have been known to compromise on education and immigration policy. To use "pragmatic" as an explanatory label is entirely unhelpful and quite misleading, because it implies that if only other people weren't crazy ideologues, Washington would be in agreement all the time.

It's not just the fundamentalists that are an obstacle to political consensus. "Pragmatic" people disagree on means and ends all the time, because everyone has his or her own vantage point and interests or constituents to protect and there is no built-in incentive for anyone in Washington (except the president, who is the only official elected to serve a national constituency) to appreciate the electoral imperatives of someone else. Our constitution was written as a Newtonian system in which every elected official has been incentivized to care only about his/her institutional and electoral priorities such that governmental solutions emerge via the invisible hand of political contestation and negotiation. The winning politician isn't just a pragmatist; s/he must understand and deal in the coinage of his/her opponents' and collaborators' self interest.

Calling President-elect Barack Obama a pragmatist relegates (at least some of) his political interlocutors to hard-headed fanatics. It underestimates the political challenge all presidents must undertake to bring together a nation of self-serving political strangers. It isn't irrational knavery that prevents consensus in Washington. In fact the reverse is exactly true: everyone is looking out for his/her state, his/her district, his/her department, and for good reason, because their job depends on it. American politics is a frustratingly complex web of good intentions projected toward different and often contested ends.

So let us stop saying Obama is pragmatic. It tells us nothing that he is or is not, and it obfuscates the reality that even if he were not committed to any preexisting values, he still might not have his way with those that disagree with each other. Few people are really ideological in politics (they are the talk-show hosts), but everyone is self-interested. The self-proclaimed pragmatist seeks to confuse the two, and to accuse those as self-interested as s/he is as fanatical ideologues in order to delegitimate their points of view. If politics were so easy our national anthem would be the Kumbaya.

"Centrist," "bi-partisan," "post-partisan," "independent," belong in the same family of unhelpful words as "pragmatic." What does it mean to stand in the center - not have any beliefs? Presumably a bipartisan politician believes in Life and Choice. Post-partisanship seems to imply that our disagreements are trivial and we should just get over them as quickly as we can coin a new word. And what is it to be independent? It is nearly impossible to expect any politician to be free from his or her instinct to do whatever it takes to get (re)elected. Now that's pragmatism, but it is exactly the kind of pragmatism that ensures dissensus and havoc in Washington, not the misconstrued pragmatism Obama's panglossian supporters believe he can change the world with.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

In the Short Run Keynes is Right

President-elect Obama's big stimulus package is getting bulkier and more complex by the day. No longer confident that the Congress would be able to move quickly to deliver legislation for the newly sworn in president to sign, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has tampered expectations by rejecting a "false deadline" for such a delivery.

As is always the case in Washington, we are scheduled for a clash of ideologies even as we seek a solution to our current economic woes. The Republicans want deliberation (or delay) and fiscal restraint and the Democrats want, well, big government. Cognizant of this, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already registered his wariness of "very big systemic changes" proposed in the stimulus package. Republican leaders have taken to calling the proposed $800 billion stimulus package a "trillion dollar" package even though about 40% of it will pay for tax cuts all sides agree on.

But Democrats are likely to prevail in this battle not only because of their store of electoral goodwill locked into congressional majorites, but also because economic history is presently on their side. Traditional monetary policy becomes increasingly ineffective as interest rates fall (because rates cannot fall below zero). The fact is that the banks are still not lending enough. Just in the last three months, cash holdings in banks have tripled to over 1 trillion dollars, according to the Federal Reserve. Other drivers of growth are also unavailable to us this time round. Inventory rebuilding was a powerful engine of growth in 1976, as was residential construction 1992, while consumer spending helped in 2002 (recall President Bush's invitation for Americans to go out and shop after Sep 11). The private sector in 2009 is moribund.

This is why Fed officials and economists have come out in support of a fiscal stimulus package. “If ever, in my professional career, there was a time for active, discretionary fiscal stimulus, it is now,” said Janet Yellen, San Francisco Fed president. According to Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics in New York, “When we do recover, the engine will be government spending, not home building or the consumer.” John Maynard Keynes, not Milton Friedman, is the dead economist du jour.

Since the September 2008 Wall Street crash, the S.& P. has moved more than 5 percent in either direction on 18 days. There were only 17 such days in the previous 53 years, according to calculations by Howard Silverblatt, an index analyst at S.& P. If the invisible hand of the market cannot calm its own nerves, then government must.