Frank Rich has a smart, tough column today on where Obama has gone wrong—and what he can do to get back on track.
Obama’s plight has been unchanged for months. Neither in action nor in message is he in front of the anger roiling a country where high unemployment remains unchecked and spiraling foreclosures are demolishing the bedrock American dream of home ownership. The president is no longer seen as a savior but as a captive of the interests who ginned up the mess and still profit, hugely, from it.
That’s no place for any politician of any party or ideology to be.
Rich, who’s always shown an interdisciplinary streak, brings in the anti-NBC sentiment that’s been pervading late-night TV as an example of our anti-big corporation mood. It’s a smart linkage, and I think it helps explain why that anti-NBC sentiment has really caught on, because that whole thing has been deeply weird to watch and otherwise hard to explain.
Obama has also been too deferential to Congress, Rich argues, and failed to communicate to the American people the essential parameters of his health care bill. This too seems exactly right. One can understand why Obama took this tack—the Joe Liebermans of the world have something to do with it, and it would be politically damaging to say “we must have a public option” or whatever and then have Lieberman oppose it just to get attention and be forced to capitulate—but there are no giants in this Congress; these legislators (Harry Reid? Nancy Pelosi? Sigh.) diminish what they touch.
Since most voters are understandably confused about what the bills contain, the opponents have been able to attribute any evil they want to Obamacare, from death panels to the death of Medicare, without fear of contradiction.
Sad, but true—and Obama has been slow to address this lacuna. As Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece on Obama and the press details, it took the White House something like four days to respond to Sarah Palin’s “death panels” charge, largely because they didn’t think anyone would actually take it seriously. But Palin and Fox News filled the vacuum they had failed to fill.
The greatest Obama failing, in my and Rich’s opinion, has to do with the sense that he is too close to Wall Street and too far from Main Street. The blame here really lies with his reliance upon the Goldman-Rubin-Summers-Geithner team.
[Obama] has stepped up the populist rhetoric lately — and markedly after political disaster struck last week — but few find this serene Harvard-trained lawyer credible when slinging populist rhetoric at “fat-cat” bankers. His two principal economic policy makers are useless, if not counterproductive, surrogates. Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, was probably fatally compromised from the moment his tax lapses surfaced; now he is stalked by the pileup of unanswered questions about the still-not-transparent machinations at the New York Fed when he was knee-deep in the A.I.G. bailout. Lawrence Summers, the top administration economic guru, is a symbol of the Clinton-era deregulatory orgy that helped fuel the bubble.
This is where, also, the $8 million Summers earned from hedge fund D.E. Shaw and from popping in for lunch at various investment banks in 2008 really hurts. If you want to say or believe that Summers is too close to Wall Street, all you have to do is point to his pocket and the $8 million dollars fat cats shoved into it. And the fact is, you’d be right.
The White House clearly knows this duo is a political albatross. After the news broke that 85,000 more jobs had been lost in December despite some economists’ more optimistic predictions, Christina Romer, a more user-friendly (though still academic) economic hand, was dispatched to the Sunday shows.
It’s an amusing irony that Romer, of course, is the economist whose tenure nomination was rejected by Drew Faust in one of the biggest mistakes of Faust’s presidency.
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.
Obama’s presidency depends on how well he understands and and reacts to the popular sense that he is too elitist and has focused insufficiently on the real economic pain of working people. (And more and more often, non-working people.)
So I’m surprised to see the Administration showing signs that it’s going to fight for Ben Bernanke. The Tea Party-types are going to kill him on this one. Why is he doing it? As the Times reports, “to quell fears in the financial markets.”
Obama has from the get-go been too deferential to “fears in the financial markets.” They’ll survive. Nominate someone who isn’t in the Street’s pocket. Not Paul Krugman—too irascible. But how about Joe Stiglitz?