Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Dear Barack

    Dear Mr. President:

    I'm a big fan of pragmatism. And I've been a big fan of yours, defending you in the intramural arguments of Left Blogistan. I'm not even especially angry about this particular compromise with the Republicans, which was better than I'd feared it would be. But apparently you're angry. Your press conference yesterday made that very clear. And instead of being angry at the conservatives who've hobbled you, you're angry at the liberals and progressives who've phone banked for you, knocked on doors for you, and written you campaign checks. And that's not okay. So let me break some hard news to you:

    You are not a pragmatist.

    Don't kid yourself. If you want to put results ahead of abstract principle, that's great. I'm all for it. And most of your critics on the left would be pleased with that. We're not angry because you don't quote Howard Zinn enough. We're angry because you do not get results.

    Pragmatism is about facing reality and dealing with it. Ten percent unemployment is a reality, and it needs to be dealt with. (I know, it's "only" 9.8%, up from "only" 9.6%, and next it will officially be 9.92% and then 9.9871% and then 9.999661%. Save it. Everyone who buys groceries understands what $2.98 on a price tag means.) Your economic strategy, trusting the big-money players to fix the economy from the top down, has been a colossal bust. The massive corporations you counted on to get things moving are enjoying record profits while letting the rest of the economy go to hell. This is reality. You have to deal with it.

    I know, I know, you have to deal with the reality of what's practical in Washington, given the Senate rules and the Republican opposition and Ben Nelson's mood swings. You think of yourself as a pragmatist because you're dealing with the way the game is played. You're wrong. Dealing with the "realities" inside a Beltway that refuses to cope with what's actually happening to our country doesn't make you a realist, or even a political realist. Didn't that midterm election get through to you? You can't win by the old Beltway rules. You shouldn't play by them. You had a tax proposal that the voters like, and the Republicans had one the voters don't like. But they could defeat your plan in the Senate with only 36 votes. The game in Washington no longer reflects what the voters want or what our national economic crisis requires. If you play the game by the existing rules, you will not be able to fix the real problems. If you are not able to fix the real problems, you will be punished, no matter how principled your efforts were. You need to change the game.

    I know this is not the presidency you wanted. Radical change was never on your agenda. But the Presidency of the United States has never been the job that the President wanted it to be. It has always been the job that history demands at that moment. John F. Kennedy had no intention of taking on civil rights, let alone becoming a civil rights president. Abraham Lincoln did not want to be a war president, let alone a civil-war president. Thomas Jefferson wanted to be a limited-government constitutionalist, until Napoleon offered him a very large piece of real estate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was talking like a traditional laissez-faire capitalist in 1928; it took the Depression to turn him into someone else, and World War II to transform his presidency yet again. You will not be measured by the success of the agenda that you originally planned. That agenda is already out of date. You will be measured by your response to a changing world.

    For you, that means taking on a major structural overhaul of our economy and a structural transformation of our politics. If that sounds like idealistic hype, it usually would be. The things that you need to do now would be folly in ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. A surgeon who operates on patients who could be treated with aspirin commits malpractice. But so does the surgeon who prescribes aspirin to a patient who needs a triple bypass. Necessity is the heart of pragmatism, and you can not call yourself a pragmatist if you do less than is necessary.

    I know you don't view yourself as the messianic figure that some voters wanted and needed you to be. I know that image strikes you as a fantasy. But the voters really wanted and needed that savior figure. They had reasons for voting for him. Those reasons aren't fantasies, but responses to the hard realities around us. We're not talking about the voters' psychological needs. We're talking about their everyday practical material needs. I know you are not that guy. I know you don't really want to be that guy, or feel equipped to be him. But the country voted for that guy because the country needs him. If it hadn't been you, it would have been somebody else. But our country really does need that guy, and you're all we've got.

    Wake up, Barack. Reality is calling.


    I wish he'd read this, Doctor Cleveland.  What's telling to me is how Obama described his position as somehow weaker because the Republicans have a "Holy Grail."  Well, it's true, a Holy Grail (or two or three) strengthens the opposition because they can say (and even people who disagree with them will admire them for it) "this far, no farther."  It's also true that it's easier to be the blockade than the blockade runner.  Right now, the minority is the blockade.

    I wish Obama would consider that if Holy Grails strengthen the Republican position, they could strengthen his positiont too!  I don't want him to become wildly dogmatic but he has to articulate 3-5 things that are the goals he will not give up on.  Obstruct him, he'll just come back.  Block him, he'll be back.  Vote him down in the senate and he'll find another senator to bring it up again.  Cross him and he will punish.  He does run the government after all.  Conrgess can allocate funds but only the executive can deliver.

    But I no longer know what he stands for and I don't think I'm alone in that.  Pragmatism, as you say really well, does not mean not having goals.  Obama seems to stand for "whatever he can get passed into law."  That's okay for a Senator.  Not so much for a president.

    Obama is acting like a senator rather than a president.  All his deals have been back room deals like the senate.  Meeting with lobbyists for pharma and insurance companies to craft the insurance bill and meeting behind closed doors with the republicans and the Chamber of Commerce for the tax bill.  The president should be the mouthpiece and megaphone for the people.  That's what the bully pulpit is for.  Set your goals and tell us the steps that are needed to get us there, then make it happen!  The dems have just been flitting from one issue to another like throwing dough at the wall to see what sticks.  In their case, nothing sticks.

    Damn good post.

    You put into words my feelings.  I can't figure out why he is mad at the democrats.  I am already worn down from the daily finacial struggles right now and I can't muster the enthusiasm for his deal.  There is some real pain out here and if some of it don't go away by primary season.  Well...who knows how I will vote?      

    Yup. He's failed to rise to the REALITIES of the occasion. Bingo.

    Great post. "..taking on a major structural overhaul of our economy"--I think you're absolutely right that he didn't and still doesn't want this job, but it is now essential. Obama recruited some experienced hands to identify all the traditional levers to manipulate. That hasn't worked. The structure is faulty. And I think the worst part of the structure is the financial industry itself. Capital is simply not getting out to the communities and small businesses. This crisis has overwhelmed the traditional levers of making things "go". Radical systems change is needed.

    Anytime there is radical systems change, there is at least the risk that things will not go smoothly as adjustments are made, resistance is overcome, and new approaches are discovered.  As of right now I basically just hear from left, right and center to get the unemployment numbers down.  If people are going to make the call to do some serious restructuring, then there also needs to be the qualifying statement that one is willing to accept a short-term rise in unemployment (maybe for the next year*) for the payoff of a better system for the long haul.

    (*of course that put it smack dab into the election cycle, and we know that business won't start beginning to invest in expansion and jobs then in the hopes of ushering in a Repub into the White House)

    I think this is what is behind some of Obama's "anger" we are seeing right now.  People want jobs they say, people want the economy to get back in gear they say.  So when he makes the decision for the best way (which is partly a function of what is doable) to get some more stimulus into the economy right now, everyone tweaks out on him.  In a sense he was being criticized for not acting, then when he does become the "decider" he is criticized for that.  Not saying he is necessarily justified, but I think that is partly what is behind it.

    Anytime there is radical systems change, there is at least the risk that things will not go smoothly as adjustments are made, resistance is overcome, and new approaches are discovered.

    Yes. And that explains his initial reluctance to do this (as Destor points out), and his original reliance on a Rubinite economic team. Why cut the patient's chest open if you might be able to keep them healthy with meds? Once you crack the chest, there are big risks, guaranteed downsides, and a lot of scary unpredicatability. I'm not surprised that Obama went with the boardroom boys to start with, especially since he'd never thought that much about economics himself and since the financial crisis hit just before the election (leaving him basically no time to think an economic strategy through).

    But once we've gotten to the point where it's heart surgery or letting the patient die, you need to do the surgery as soon as you reasonably can. You're going to have to do it one way or another, and every day you delay the patient gets sicker and the cure gets harder.

    I think a closer analogy would be some serious addiction treatment.  The surgery analogy tends to leave the impression that 1) Obama would in near total control of the outcome while the patient is put under during the operation and 2) the effort would be done in a singular sweep of activity.  The reality is that 1) the patient would have to be an active participant in the treatment, and there are many of them, some of who are not exactly thrilled to be doing it and 2) it is a long term process that will have many days where it may not seem that things are getting better.  In fact, there will days when things will seem to be much worse.

    Part of my point is basically America is coming in for their addiction, they want to get clean, but they don't want to suffer.  They want to be on the other side of the tunnel from the start.  They don't want have to go through the detox process.  They don't want to have to look at the wreckage that the have left behind in their wake as a result of their addiction.  They don't want have to go through the long difficult process of making amends nor look at their internal wounds and demons.  That is if they are even willing to admit they personally have a problem.

    In such a case, Obama the therapist asks, knowing the patients are not going to be able to do the hard work to get clean and sober, instead asks what short-term goals want to be achieved.  "Find a job you say.  I think we can work with that."

    Barack baby, just slip a tax cut under the tree, for me,
    Been an awful bad year,
    Barack baby, just raise the deficit way out of sight.

    Barack baby, extend the unemployment stuff too, I'm blue,
    I'll sure vote for you dear Barack baby, just raise the deficit way out of sight.

    Excellent. The game in Washington no longer reflects what the voters want or what our national economic crisis requires. If you play the game by the existing rules, you will not be able to fix the real problems.

    It seems the only thing O has real passion for is defending himself.

    While I understand Obama's intent. I don't think he realizes the opposition is too entrenched in their vision-thingy to see where he wants to steer the political discourse. The middle ground is a no-man's-land and they are content with the political landscape as it currently is and are resisting any and all attempts to plow and cultivate a new one where both sides can find common ground.

     If Obama truely wants to steer both Party's to that middle ground, he has to make both sides willing to disarm and move their political brigades there. As it now stands, capitulating to the opposition has raise concerns from the other side and they are now revolting and leaving Obama alone on the middle ground high and dry. 

    Intent never trumps reality. That's a lesson I learned long ago. I would think Obama should have enough on the ball to realize he needs to move his goal posts if he wishes to make any worthwhile achievement the public will appreciate. So instead of the middle ground in no-man's-land or shifting closer to one Party or the other, he should find some plot of land in the public arena to make his stand that would encourage people to demand those in both Party's to attend on their behalf. That's the tricky part, but those in both Party's do claim to represent the public and so have stated they are following their wishes.

    So Obama needs to bend reality to realize his intent otherwise he's wasting his time.

    the lede on the NPR report tonight mentioned the WH was "pulling out all the stops" to get the Dems onboard with his Republican tax cuts. Never mind the obvious question about his absence as an advocate for the Dem position in the run-up to this vote. What's done is done. But for now, I think the appropriate response is to invite Obama to a meeting to see if we can work out a compromise. 0;)

    I doubt anyone  is capable of planning a major change in the economy. I won't wave the bloody shirt of the Communists- even the talented ,motivated post war UK Labour Government couldn't.

    And certainly no one is capable of implementing one.  The most that we reasonably can expect of Barack or anyone is incremental improvements.

    Save the mental effort you're expending castigating him for something that can't be done.

    That doesn't mean we should let him off scot free. Do the hard work of identifying those key incremental changes that are both possible and far reaching. Campaign for those. Keep his nose to that grindstone.

    AOBTW , be specific.

    I suppose incrementalism is about as good an excuse for inept and ineffective leadership as anything else we've been offered. Barack Obama: The Incremental President. Do you reckon he gets the whole act together before the end of his term? OABTW your OABTW is quite insulting to those who have leveled very specific and withering criticism of this poseur who would be a leader. But I suppose discounting any criticisms with such a flip comment makes these failures palatable, in an incremental sort of way.

     I suppose AOBTW was flip. Let's try it the long way. The world wasn't created yesterday. The economic system we have was arrived at after lots of incremental changes . I wish it were  better and would like to make it better but I don't think that can happen with sweeping across the board changes.

    I agree that the criticisms above were specific. My suggestion is what we need is not specific criticisms but specific suggestions.

    Here's one. Drastically change the US labor laws to reverse the 70 yeas of restrictions imposed since Landrum Griffin in the 40s- that's right , the 40s. It's not just tax policy which has skewed income distribution, even more it's been the inability of Unions to obtain a fair day's pay for the now mostly ununionized work force.

    Here's another. Then impose tariffs so that Capital can't evade the need to pay US workers, by buying from China instead.This country is large enough and spans enough climate zones to be essentially self sufficient ,trading for the few thngs we can't provide for ourselves.

    AOBTW bring home the troops stationed in 100 countries and let them join the work force making things for ouselves.

    As to Obama I profoundly disagree.He's just arranged for the necessary second half of the stimulus. The price he had to pay was to protect the maximum incremental tax rate for those earning over $200K. For two years. Which is not in itself a depressant on the economy. But in exchange for that arguably wasteful tax expenditure of $160 Bn he got $700 Bn of vitally necessary stimulus.

    When the history of his administration is written we'll see that this was the point where he finally got it right.

    I've delayed responding to this in order to make sure I responded politely.

    As I read your comment, you take me to task for oversimplifying, and then tell me that no leftist government has ever made major changes in the economy. And you provide a list of leftists attempts at ecpnomic restructuring that leaves out the New Deal.

    I'll leave my response at that.

    It's exactly the presidency Obama wanted - he sways to the right, flogs the left, and accepts no blame. Who knows, might even get himself re-elected.

    I objected to his press conference: both the content, I don't attack your supporters. And the tone, querolous. Harry had it right: if you can't stand the heat , get out of the kitchen.

    But I liked the deal Biden cut.

    Imagined New Yorker cartoon depicts two retired politicians a few decades from now huddled to protect themselves from some semi-permanent, global climate-change inflicted storm, where (James Hansen's book is titled Storms of My Grandchildren) one says to the other: "You know, George, back then I thought we were being pragmatic."

    Good post, spot on in its comments on the bastardized use of the term "pragmatic" in the tragically cramped politics of our day.


    Ezra Klein for today's Washington Post:

    2) Obama is better at the inside game than the outside game. Sarah Palin likes to ask the president "how that hopey-changey stuff" is going. The answer, it seems, is that the changey stuff is going well, but the hopey stuff is proving more troublesome. Obama might have campaigned in 2008 as the inspirational newcomer who had no patience for the broken ways of Washington, but he has governed like a Washington veteran with little patience for inspired outsiders. In health-care reform, in the stimulus, in financial regulation and in the tax-cut deal, Obama has been a tough negotiator able to move his agenda through a gridlocked Congress - but he has not been able to enthuse Democrats or inspire popular support for his initiatives. He has been prickly when questioned about it.

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