Is Barack Obama’s "presidency in peril," as the title of Robert Kuttner’s new book suggests? When the book went to press in early March 2010, things certainly seemed that way. After a year of tortured debate, healthcare reform legislation appeared dead. Financial reform legislation looked toothless and pathetic. Obama’s popularity—and that of his party—was plunging. Republicans had just picked up a Senate seat in deep blue Massachusetts. The author of Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, published just months before the 2008 election, had every reason to fret.
What happened to the progressive moment that was supposed to follow Obama’s historic election? Well, Kuttner argues, it was hijacked by financial elites, thwarted by White House economic advisers who prioritized Wall Street over Main Street, and squandered by an unexpectedly passive and status quo occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This was not how events were supposed to turn out.
Kuttner, a co-editor of The American Prospect and fellow at the think tank Demos, calls Obama’s appearance on the political scene "an almost providential rendezvous of man and moment." In his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston, Obama "displayed a superb facility for framing boldly progressive ideas as reassuringly patriotic," Kuttner writes. Following his election, Kuttner believed, "the stage was set, seemingly, for a great ideological and political reversal, comparable to the Roosevelt revolution. Obama was poised to create a new majority coalition, built on the premise that rapacious private finance had to be contained so that the rest of America could thrive." Of course, that’s not what happened, which is why Kuttner wrote his latest book. He notices "startling continuity" between the new president and his predecessor on economic issues and warns that "a rare opportunity for realignment and reform is being missed."
Kuttner identifies four main reasons for why BHO is thus far no FDR. "One is his own character as a conciliatory consensus builder," he writes. "A second is that economics was never Obama’s strong suit. A third is the residual power of Wall Street; without a president personally committed to Roosevelt-scale change, even a national financial collapse has not been able to shake the hegemony of finance. And a fourth is that the social movements that were so prevalent during the other eras of crisis and great presidential leadership are largely absent today." Such an outcome was by no means inevitable or preordained, Kuttner believes, despite the awful hand the new president was dealt. "In Obama’s fateful first year, there was a road not taken, a possible road to radical reform, broadened prosperity, and the mobilization of an appreciative citizenry," he writes. Kuttner faults Obama for this, but is far more critical of the president’s top advisers, who he believes led an inexperienced leader astray. "In many respects, the path Obama chose was determined by the people he appointed," Kuttner asserts.
Rather than breaking with the failures of the past, Obama largely reinforced Washington’s entrenched establishment. The book’s lead villain is Robert Rubin, the former treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and Goldman Sachs alum who contaminated Clinton’s administration with deregulatory fervor, helped run Citigroup into the ground and managed to emerge from the economic collapse with his prestigious reputation somehow unsullied, as two of his protégés, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, assumed top economic posts in the Obama administration. "Obama felt he needed men like Rubin and Summers for tutelage, access and validation," Kuttner writes. "Instead of the team-of-rivals model that Obama had often invoked, Obama hired a team of Rubins."