Saturday, June 20, 2009

We've Got Your Back, Mr. President

By now, many democrats have found some or several reasons to feel disappointed with the President and his administration; that he’s too compromising or too timid on health care, financial reform, union rights, gay rights, immigration and more.

Yet most of us still clearly see a remarkably talented leader with enormous potential.

Republican strategy - a familiar replay of their nasty and torrid attacks on President Clinton and Senator Kerry – is already succeeding in peeling away some support among independents. Democrats are confounded by their options.

What’s the best way to blunt republican criticism and help Obama succeed with Congress and the public?

Choices being made right now will have enormous political and historical consequences.

My approach is to give this president tremendous latitude to decide how to tackle these challenges.

I know how difficult it is to subordinate deeply held values and principles for a vaguely authoritarian notion such as loyalty.

My tendency to defer is based partly on having spent 25 years in the Labor Movement and a willingness to accept the premise that what workers want is not based on my vision of their world, but on their experience of their own lives. Likewise, I usually accord union leaders - notwithstanding the enormous range of talent, commitment and integrity among them - a great deal of respect.

The point is that I’m used to living with very imperfect solutions, engineered by very imperfect leaders on behalf of members whose values may be quite different from mine.

Progressive democrats right now may be feeling that President Obama is losing his bearings, and that he’s giving away too much, too soon. Maybe so.

But it is extraordinarily difficult to shift power, resources and opportunities from economic elites toward workers - and to do it in a political culture skeptical of government and collective action.

I’m convinced that that’s what our President wants to do. And I’m with him 100 percent of the way.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quiet Down. Stay Patient. Support the President

The near unanimous vote by house republicans against short-term funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show how much the GOP is willing to risk in their effort to disparage, discredit and destroy Obama.

While they explained their opposition to the $106 billion bill because of a provision which included financing for the International Monetary Fund, typically republicans would never leave themselves vulnerable to charges of deserting our troops.

Combine this with Republican criticism of the President’s restrained remarks on the Iran election – a response dictated by diplomatic considerations and approved by foreign policy operatives left to right – and it’s increasingly apparent that republicans are positioned to fight just about everything which comes from this administration.

Health care reform, financial re-regulation, green energy, Sotomayor - all hang in the balance. This is an absolutely pivotal period when Obama must demonstrate that he can defeat congressional republicans and win these battles.

I disagree with my friends who earnestly believe that the Prez needs pressure from the left on gay rights, labor law reform, troop withdrawal and other critical issues. This is not a good time for the administration to have to contend with division and distraction.

It won’t be easy. Single-payer advocates must be genuinely offended when Obama rejects the approach and then uses that position to showcase his independence from progressives.

But please remember, this is not Bill Clinton triangulating. This is the boldest and broadest effort at progressive change since LBJ (yes, LBJ).

The republicans are playing for all the marbles. They’re good at it.

So quiet down. Stay patient. Support the president.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Republicans Play It Both Ways

Forget for a minute all the complexities of the bank and auto bailouts, the stimulus plan and even health reform.

The broad political debate around these issues is taking a very familiar turn. Each step by the Obama-led democrats to fix capitalism is met by a disapproving and disdainful rebuke by republicans.

There’s an obvious paradox here. It’s the republicans, after all, whose political identity is most directly linked to the success of free enterprise.

In some respects, the republicans have an advantage. They can criticize Obama every step of the way but, in the long-run will benefit by his success.

Conventional thinking gives FDR credit for saving capitalism and for enabling the enormous prosperity of the post-war period. If true, that means that the ideologues who took control of the economy in the Nixon / Reagan / Bush years could only exist because the capitalist system was salvaged by New Deal programs.

Today’s republicans know that they don’t have the votes or the clout to stop Obama even if they wanted to, which I don’t think they do. So they stake out their opposition. If the economy tanks, they can claim the cause as overregulation, excessive taxation and an administration butting in where it has no business. And if the economy recovers, they can say “but look at the price we paid.”

Some believe that the republicans are committing political suicide by rejecting Obama’s reforms. I’m not so sure. Over the next several years, we’re likely to see mixed economic results with the republicans playing both sides. While Obama-backers will recognize the contradictions, we know from experience that merely pointing out republican hypocrisy is not enough.

Let’s not fall into the trap of believing that our opponents are too inept to succeed or that their deceptions are so obvious that they won’t be taken seriously.

The leaderless republicans won’t stay that way. And it will be our side that will bear the burden, once again, of rescuing capitalism from the economic savages who can’t resist biting the hand that feeds them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pres. Clinton vs. Pres. Obama - So Far, No Contest

Obama’s strikingly bold agenda contrasts sharply with Bill Clinton’s early months as President.

Though circumstances were certainly very different in 1993 - the economic problems Clinton inherited were obviously less acute than they are now and Clinton won the White House without achieving a majority of the popular vote – the new president was the first democrat in 12 years and he came to office with his party controlling both houses.

We knew that President Clinton was brilliant, remarkably articulate and perhaps a political genius, but that wasn’t enough. What was missing? The new administration was stumbling badly after five months (Remember “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). By 1994, with the defeat of health reform, we were teed up for the 1994 Congressional takeover by Republicans.

It could be argued that Americans were not ready for progressive leadership in the early 1990s - that the electorate was still in a Reagan frame of mind - and that Clinton’s political skills were keeping conservatives at bay. Many democrats made the case at the time that “triangulation” was a practical approach to governing.

Clinton the centrist promoted sound fiscal policy, presided over a period of economic growth and stability, expanded environmental protection and appointed moderate and reasonable federal judges. But he did little to thwart - and in many cases supported -financial market deregulation which would contribute to the economic blow-out a decade later. And then, of course, there was that issue which our opponents would exploit very adroitly, leading Clinton and the nation to the humiliating spectacle of impeachment and then on to Republican rule.

Obama and Clinton are both extraordinary achievers, enormously successful and self-made. One difference between them is their time in history. But what may really separate Obama from Clinton is that this president is not engaged in a public struggle with his internal demons over his identity. Barack Obama, so far as we can see, knows who he is.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Prez Tilts Toward UAW

Nearly 28 years ago President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, in an action widely acknowledged to signal a new era of anti-unionism in America.

The American Labor Movement was in decline before the Reagan years, but the disastrous PATCO strike is seen symbolically and substantively as a turning point.

President Obama’s determination to save Chrysler and General Motors does not offer a great “historical moment”, but it may prove as pivotal for our era as the Reagan -PATCO event did in the early 1980s.

The United Auto Workers, like most American unions, has had triumphs and failures, has had great leaders and pathetic ones, and has been bashed from the right and the left.

Some in the media conclude that Obama is obliged to defend the UAW because unions are part of his base. That’s simplistic.

In his remarks explaining the GM bailout, the President said that the government’s commitment to the domestic auto industry is an “investment” so that “our children can grow up in an America that still makes things.”

And his dedication to the autoworkers is an affirmation of his belief that wage earners deserve decent income and security.

Closing the income gap in the country will be enormously challenging to this Administration. By going way out on a limb for the auto industry – and its unionized workforce - Obama is tilting public policy to institutions which advocate and agitate for increased wages.

With the asset wealth bubble popped – along with some of the myths about the “free market” - Americans want to know how they can recover their middle class status.

That should certainly make the union option a little more appealing.

And even more so with Obama’s willingness to stand firm with the UAW.