Fair. Balanced. American.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Obama: Style and Substance

Jon Meacham gets this right:
This is not an apology for the president. He has grandly failed so far in doing what presidents must do, which is to lead the nation emotionally as well as rationally. It would be great if politics were fact-based, but it is not, and it is surely not nuance-based. What works in a classroom or a think tank does not work on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Obama sometimes seems to be running the Brookings Institution, not the country.



Like all of us, Obama has the vices of his virtues. He is cool and steady, but can seem cold and remote. He is thoughtful and thorough, but can appear eggheady and out of it. He appeals to the intellect, but often fails to make the visceral case for something. The question now is whether his presidency has simply hit one of those unavoidable grim moments when nothing seems to go right (such moments come to every White House) or whether a tactical shift could improve his chances of accomplishing more of what he wants to do.

And Frank Rich, even more so:
When it comes to economic substance, small symbolic gestures (the proposed new bank “fee”) won’t cut it. Nor will ineffectual presidential sound bites railing against Wall Street bonuses beyond the federal government’s purview. There’s no chance of a second stimulus. The White House will have to jawbone banks on foreclosures, credit card racketeering and the loosening of credit to small businesses. This means taking on bankers who were among the Obama campaign’s biggest backers and whose lobbyists have castrated regulatory reform by buying off congressmen of both parties. It means pressing for all constitutional remedies that might counter last week’s 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision allowing corporate campaign contributions to buy off even more. [...]

It’s become so easy to pin financial elitism on Democrats that the morning after Brown’s victory the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee had the gall to accuse them of being the “one party who bailed out the automakers and insurance companies.” Never mind that the Bush White House gave us the bank (and A.I.G.) bailouts, or that the G.O.P. is even more in hock than Democrats to corporate patrons. The Obama administration is so overstocked with Goldman Sachs-Robert Rubin alumni and so tainted by its back-room health care deals with pharmaceutical and insurance companies that conservative politicians, Brown included, can masquerade shamelessly as the populist alternative.

Last year the president pointedly studied J.F.K.’s decision-making process on Vietnam while seeking the way forward in Afghanistan. In the end, he didn’t emulate his predecessor and escalated the war. We’ll see how that turns out. Meanwhile, Obama might look at another pivotal moment in the Kennedy presidency — and this time heed the example.

The incident unfolded in April 1962 — some 15 months into the new president’s term — when J.F.K. was infuriated by the U.S. Steel chairman’s decision to break a White House-brokered labor-management contract agreement and raise the price of steel (but not wages). Kennedy was no radical. He hailed from the American elite — like Obama, a product of Harvard, but, unlike Obama, the patrician scion of a wealthy family. And yet he, like that other Harvard patrician, F.D.R., had no hang-ups about battling his own class.

Kennedy didn’t settle for the generic populist rhetoric of Obama’s latest threats to “fight” unspecified bankers some indeterminate day. He instead took the strong action of dressing down U.S. Steel by name. As Richard Reeves writes in his book “President Kennedy,” reporters were left “literally gasping.” The young president called out big steel for threatening “economic recovery and stability” while Americans risked their lives in Southeast Asia. J.F.K. threatened to sic his brother’s Justice Department on corporate records and then held firm as his opponents likened his flex of muscle to the power grabs of Hitler and Mussolini. (Sound familiar?) U.S. Steel capitulated in two days. The Times soon reported on its front page that Kennedy was at “a high point in popular support.”

Can anyone picture Obama exerting such take-no-prisoners leadership to challenge those who threaten our own economic recovery and stability at a time of deep recession and war? That we can’t is a powerful indicator of why what happened in Massachusetts will not stay in Massachusetts if this White House fails to reboot.

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