Thursday, January 29, 2009

Psst, Obama: your party won the election!

The Republicans lost, but it's as if nobody told Obama.

Republicans lost for a clear and simple reason: their ideology of deregulation and lack of oversight over critical financial institutions spoiled the US and global economy. The Republican Party is as bankrupt as Lehman Bros, Bear Sterns, or GM -- in spirit if not in name.

Therefore, I am perplexed by Obama's behavior. Having won an overwhelming victory in November against bankrupt opponents, Obama has been busy expending his political capital placating Republicans. He has put together a so-called stimulus package that is loaded with tax cuts favored by Republicans, but that seems unlikely to give much of a jolt to the failing economy. And what did the Republicans do today?

They voted against Obama's $900 billion stimulus package -- a bill constructed with a view to placating the demands of the Republicans! The bill passed today with not a single Republican vote.

Someone ought to remind Obama that -- since he launched his American unity-themed campaign -- the times have changed. There is no opposition party in Washington D.C. that any well-informed person would bother listening to. Do you care what Republican politicians are saying? I doubt you do.  In the laboratory of real life, the Republican party's ideology has been tested and found wanting.  Economic reality has consigned the greater part of the Republican legacy to the trash-heap of history.  

Yet, Obama talks as if he is afraid of doing anything without GOP approval. He fears being too "divisive."

We know that Obama wants to be a unifier. But there are two ways to unify. You can go this way, and that way, listen to everyone, finally enticing people to join you in your big tent. Call this strategy "expanding your tent." Or, in the second instance, you can be a magnet. You can stand firm for what you think is most likely to work, and by the power of your convictions, the gravity of your ideas, attract people to your own position. Bring others to where you now stand. You can be a weighty object in the universe of scattered minds.

I get the sense Obama is far more comfortable with the first approach. The first way is not altogether loopy. Clinton used it effectively to govern in the relatively stable 90s. But it is unlikely to produce results today. A strategy of "expansive inclusiveness" and "accommodation" is not likely to prove an effective strategy for governing during this time of nation crisis.

So what should Obama do?
Obama would be well advised to declare what we all know to be the case: that today's Republican Party is bankrupt. He should make it clear that will guide the economic recovery on the basis of the recommendations of those wise economists and financial planners who had themselves foreseen the impending financial crisis. Obama should put all the effort he has expended placating insatiable Republican demands into selling his own plan. The last thing we need is for Obama to consult with Republicans about what to do next.

The new president should declare that members of the Republican Party who hope to get re-elected have a clear choice: get with us or get out of the way. Republicans (who want to survive) should be reaching out to Obama, not the other way around.

Finally, it needs to be said that the stimulus package debacle attests to a deeper problem concerning the young Obama Administration: the president and his men are thinking too small. Probably, Obama's approach to date was to be expected. From what I understand of Obama's political career, the president is a world-class tweaker; he favors improvement by increment. It is not a coincidence that one of Obama's philosophical mentors, Cass Sunstein, recently co-authored a book called Nudge. There is a lot of wisdom in this approach, and Obama rightly considers this quality -- his passion for consensus politics -- to be one of his strengths.

However, so long as banks are not loaning money, and massive layoffs continue, tweaks and nudges won't be sufficient. These times call for nothing short of a revolutionary agenda.

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