Frank Rich Is Back

This piece by Frank Rich in New York Magazine got a lot of traction over the weekend, and deservedly so as it’s incredibly well-written, powerful, and all-encompassing. It’s a fairly long read that resists easy distillation, so I recommend reading the whole thing. Not surprisingly, the most interesting parts to me relate directly to the failures of the Obama administration to pursue accountability for the people who are responsible for the financial collapse and still-unfolding destruction of the housing market. Rich writes:

What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent a repeat catastrophe. Time may heal most wounds, but not these. Chronic unemployment remains a constant, painful reminder of the havoc inflicted on the bust’s innocent victims. As the ghost of Hamlet’s father might have it, America will be stalked by its foul and unresolved crimes until they “are burnt and purged away.”

Rich goes on to look at the twin failures of the President to push for accountability with his penchant for hiring Ivy Leaguers with a background in Wall Street. While I don’t buy the notion that association with elite academic institutions is bad, the optics Rich identifies are certainly a problem, especially as it means that Obama left an opening for the right to embrace anti-elite, anti-immigration, anti-Obama populism.

Obama had taken office at a true populist moment that demanded more than this. People were gagging over their looted 401(k)s and underwater homes, the AIG bonuses, and the bailouts. Howard Dean rage has never been Obama’s style—hope-and-change was an elegant oratorical substitute—and had he given full voice to the public mood, he would have been pilloried as an “angry black man.” But Obama didn’t have to play Huey Long. He could have pursued a sober but determined execution of justice and an explicit, major jobs initiative—of which there have been exactly none, the too-small stimulus included, to the present day.

By failing to address that populist anger, Obama gave his enemies the opening to co-opt it and turn it against him. Which the tea party did, dishonestly but brilliantly, misrepresenting Obama’s health-care-reform crusade as yet another attempt by the elites to screw the taxpayer. (The Democrats haplessly reinforced the charge with marathon behind-the-scenes negotiations with insurance and pharmaceutical-­industry operatives.) Once the health-care law was signed, the president still slighted the unemployment crisis. A once-hoped-for WPA-style public-works program, unloved by Geithner, had been downsized in the original stimulus, and now a tardy, halfhearted stab at a $50 billion transportation-infrastructure jobs bill produced a dandy Obama speech but nothing else.

I think this is exactly right and remains true today, even with a number of missed opportunities in the last few years. Obama could have well stepped into office as the sober, smart adult who was going to put his foot down, hold people accountable for breaking the economy, and fix it with massive jobs creation initiatives.  And no, following the Tea Party’s lead on austerity and spending cuts on the backs of public workers, retirees, young people, and the sick is not the sort of turn towards “popular” anger that should be pursued at this point in time (well, or any other).

Rich struggles with the extent to which Obama should be held personally accountable for the policy choices Tim Geithner has advocated for, saying at one point:

Geithner has pushed deficit reduction as a priority since before the inauguration, the Washington Post recently reported in an article greeted as a smoking gun by liberal bloggers. But Obama is the chief executive. It’s his fault, no one else’s, that he seems diffident about the unemployed.

Rich shifts away from this position later in the piece, as he tries to provide a justification for insufficient action on joblessness, refusal to prosecute Wall Street criminals, pursuit of Wall Street campaign donations and (until a few days ago) a lack of viciousness in fighting the Republicans in the debt ceiling/deficit debates. Rich writes:

There’s not much Obama can do to alter the economy by 2012, given the debt-ceiling fight, the long campaign, and nihilistic Capitol Hill antagonists opposed to any government spending that might create jobs and, by extension, help Obama keep his own. But the central question before the nation couldn’t be clearer: Who pays? The taxpayers bailed out the elite; now it’s the elite’s turn to return the favor. Massive cuts to the safety net combined with scant sacrifice from those at the top is wrong ethically and politically. It is, in the truest sense, un-American. Obama knows this, and he hit a welcome note last week when he urged some higher corporate taxes for hedge funds and the like. But his forays in this direction are tentative and sporadic. You have to wonder why he isn’t seizing the moment to articulate and fight for the big picture instead of playing a lose-lose game of rope-a-dope with the Republicans on their budgetary turf.

“A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous,” Obama declared at his inauguration. What he said on that bright January morning is no less true or stirring now. For all his failings since, he is the only one who can make this case. There’s nothing but his own passivity to stop him from doing so—and from shaking up the administration team that, well beyond the halfway-out-the-door Geithner and his Treasury Department, has showered too many favors on the prosperous. This will mean turning on his own cadre of the liberal elite.

I think this is a case of Rich not really wanting to accept the consequences of the arguments he’s put forward. It’s undoubtedly scary to think that the reason the President has not pursued a course separate from the one advocated by people like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Jeff Immelt is it’s because it’s the course that he agrees with politically and ideologically.  It’s not a matter of passivity, it’s a matter of not wanting to do the things Rich wants him to do. Time and again we’ve seen the President be an incredibly effective advocate for the things he wants to accomplish. From a strictly legislative standpoint, there really isn’t a time when he’s sought after something in a committed way and not gotten it, whether it’s restructuring the auto industry, passing health care reform, or funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

More importantly, for the President to turn “on his own cadre of the liberal elite,” he would have to agree with Rich’s assessment that this group of advisers have lead him to a place that he is unhappy with politically, economically and ideologically. While I would say that’s a move he should make, I don’t think the evidence is there to say that the President has taken away the same conclusions about what has and has not worked and what should be done differently as Rich, let alone me. All of that said, I do think Rich is right in his final assessment of the consequences for more of the same choices pushed by the same advisers:

The alternative is a failure of historic proportions. Those who gamed the economy to near devastation—so much so that the nation turned to an untried young leader in desperation and in hope—would once again inherit the Earth. Unless and until there’s a purging of the crimes that brought our president to his unlikely Inauguration Day, much more in America than the second term of his administration will be at stake.

But yet again, the issue is, “Does the President agree with liberals like Frank Rich?”  In a sense, Obama needs to get back to his liberal roots to change course. I’m not sure that it is a reasonable expectation for this to happen.

Since the start of the Obama administration there have been frequent citations by folks on the left of the famous FDR story of  wherein he told reform advocates, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” The implication was that this, too, was what President Obama thought of the left. But Obama has never said this and there has been little willingness within the administration to accept pressure from outside to move him to the left. That makes it harder for outside groups to organize around things like job creation or holding Wall Street banksters accountable for criminal behavior.

For President Obama to turn around in the direction that Rich is advising, he’d have to first have his own “now make me do it” moment with the left. There would need to be a call for people to help in a way that hasn’t really happened to this point. But it’d be an important first step and one that would show me that Obama and his administration were ready to get serious about accountability, joblessness, and fighting back against poisonous Republican populism.

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