Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Timid Presidency

On May 7, prior to the nomination of Elena Kagan to the United States Supreme Court, New Republic legal expert Jeffrey Rosen wrote of his admiration for possible choices Merrick Garland, Diane Wood, and Kagan. Nevertheless, he lamented, "none of the leading candidates for the Court appears to be an economic populist (and) like all the current members of the Roberts Court, Democratic and Republican alike, none can be described as an economic populist in the Brandeis or Douglas tradition."

Rosen explains that the dearth of Justices committed to economic is partly because

Since the 1960s, grassroots progressives have focused on non-economic issues: reproductive choice, for example, or civil liberties in an age of terrorism. That means that the current Supreme Court candidates had their legal sensibilities shaped in a political environment that was less preoccupied with questions of economic justice. There is simply no contemporary equivalent to the Progressive movement out of which Brandeis emerged, and there hasn’t been in a long time.

That’s a shame, because the most important issues the Roberts Court will confront over the next decade involve the constitutionality of environmental measures and economic regulations passed in the wake of the crash of 2008. In contrast to the Warren Court era, these battles will pit conservative judicial activists (who will be attempting to use the courts to reverse political defeats) against liberal proponents of judicial restraint (who will be seeking to uphold laws enacted by Congress).

Little chance that The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner would disagree. In the same way that "the progressive legal community needs to begin focusing on issues of economic justice," as Rosen argues, Kuttner points to "the teachable moments" which lately have arisen. The "details of the government's civil fraud case against Goldman Sachs; the gruesome and needless corporate murder of miners in West Virginia; the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico; and then to complete the circle, the stock market going berserk because a technical error caused a domino effect of computerized automatic selling" all offer the nation's Chief Executive a golden opportunity to use the bully pulpit to explain "why the private profit motive cannot be relied upon without some steering or harnessing mechanism by government."

Though a nearly unparalleled orator, the President seems unable or unwilling to make this argument. Instead

You might think, with these well timed gifts, that a progressive president would demonstrate leadership. Had the tables been turned, and the government rather than the private market perpetrated a series of disasters, you can just imagine how Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush and their strategists would have gone to town.

But after 16 months of pummeling by the right, this presidency is still pursuing his Quixotic quest for common ground. Obama's most notable speech in recent weeks was his May 1 commencement address at the University of Michigan. The White House had plenty of time to decide what message the president wanted to send. It was characteristic Obama and the president had some very good lines about the importance of government:

"Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad. (Applause.) Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. (Applause.) Government is this extraordinary public university -- a place that's doing lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small. (Applause.)"
But then he said this:

Now, the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate....[so] if you're somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. (Applause.) It is essential for our democracy. (Applause.)

Now, while we should appreciate the plug for the Huffington Post, there is something profoundly offensive about the presumption of moral equivalence....as if we are fringe left the way Limbaugh is fringe right. The fact is that Limbaugh, Beck, and the Wall Street Journal routinely lie. HuffPost and the New York Times editorial page don't. And while writers like me push Obama to be more resolute and more effective, we don't demonize him. Obama's juxtaposition of the moderate left and the lunatic right as both worthy of attention reminds me of Robert Frost's definition of a liberal as the fellow who is so high minded that he won't take his own side in an argument.

It's hard to tell whether like the last Democratic president, Obama is a triangulator, a neo-liberal in liberal clothing or simply risk-averse. Perhaps he has very progressive insticts but is an unusually cautious politician, as when he refuses to move aggressively to rescind Don't Ask, Don't Tell, an unpopular policy with the populace but one which the military prefers he revoke only with all due deliberate speed; or to bring a speedier end to the Iraq War. But more important is his reticence in dealing with the financial crisis, wherein his Administration has shown little or no support for the boldest, and necessary, measures to address the stranglehold the mega-banks have on the economy. Clearly, the President will support only the most minimal change unless the left exerts upon him its influence. But as Digby puts it, "the Right is freaky enough to keep the left wary of going too far in challenging him."

Whether the right is "freaky" or reactionary or hateful, President Obama is able to keep the progressive community at bay by invoking the specter of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Jim DeMint, or Fox News. And he need not often refer to them because these avatars of the far right are ever-present, with the implication from the Administration that Barack Obama is the only thing standing between those extremists and their bid to control the country.

But if President Obama continues on the path he has so far chosen, the rallying crys of "Si Se Puede" or the slightly creepy "we are the ones we've been waiting for" increasingly will appear as empty campaign slogans.

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