Notes on Change

Notes on Change

Three months into the Obama era, the euphoria of the election has begun to dissipate.


“But I don’t understand. He has a mandate.”

I’m at a cocktail party (they really do have a lot of them in this town) talking to a woman who’s frustrated. I’ve had this conversation dozens of times. She fears history repeating itself.

“With Clinton we could see it coming. I mean, he was from Arkansas–all you had to do was look at the record in that state. But Obama came in with a real mandate. He didn’t have to put all the same people in.”

At first I say, “Well, it’s not really Obama; it’s the Establishment.” An amorphous term, sure, but a very real thing to see up close. In my head I’ve created a rough taxonomy of the people in center-left Washington: those who are Down for the Cause and those who are part of the Establishment. It’s a rough and visceral divide, more instinctual than analytic; I know it when I see it. There are people who are Down for the Cause who go to work in the White House every day, but they are generally not the people calling the shots.

Which is Obama? He’s the only one I can’t peg.

“You’re right,” I say finally. “I have no idea why he gave the keys to Summers. It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating.”

* * *

With all the talk of balance sheets these days, I’ve taken to tallying up each side of the “change” ledger: forces pushing toward reform on the left and those that maintain the status quo on the right. After 100 days, this is what I have.

On the right: three decades of accelerating inequality and oligopolistic rent-seeking that has produced a sophisticated set of entrenched interests whose sole mission is to expand the reign of the corporations and the wealthy people they represent; a constitutional system engineered to stymie change and moderate the influence of the rabble; a Senate whose rules and customs bestow maximum power on each sitting senator so that a lone reactionary like Tom Coburn can hold up funding for national parks for more than a year; a degraded (albeit slightly revived) culture of civic engagement; a class of Democratic operatives who seem to have no beliefs, principles or commitments, or who once had them but have been co-opted; a mammoth, ferocious national security bureaucracy willing and able to conduct what Bob Gates cheekily called “guerrilla warfare” to defend its turf; a president who seems to have little appetite for a fight.

On the left: control of both houses of Congress by large margins; dozens of progressive legislators; a wildly popular center-left president who ran on the most ambitious progressive domestic vision in a generation; a polity disgusted with conservative rule and conservatism, so much so that “socialism” has been staging a reputational comeback; a financial crisis that has exposed the bankruptcy of the elite economic consensus; a savvy progressive infrastructure built up during eight long, dark years; and finally, what should perhaps be definitive, healthy majorities who favor a progressive agenda–ending torture and the Iraq war, providing universal healthcare and pursuing a clean energy economy.

Amid the euphoria of election night, it seemed the left side of the ledger was all that mattered. For the past three months it’s been hard to ignore the right side. Now it all feels balanced on a knife’s edge.

* * *

Congratulations on recognizing the importance of agriculture in America!… As you go about planning and planting the White House garden, we respectfully encourage you to recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the US in feeding the ever-increasing population, contributing to the US economy and providing a safe and economical food supply. America’s farmers understand crop protection technologies are supported by sound scientific research and innovation.
    –Letter from the pesticide industry trade group
    Mid America CropLife Association to First Lady Michelle Obama,
    expressing its displeasure with her organic garden

* * *

I’m pretty sure the Germans don’t have the filibuster, but if they did, they’d have a word for the soul-wrenching misery you feel watching a press conference convened by a handful of preening, self-congratulatory “moderate” senators who have just succeeded in making a bill decidedly worse in deference to some incoherent, abstract notion of “moderateness.”

We should have killed off the filibuster when we had a chance. It’s got a sorry history: marshaled ignominiously to defeat civil rights and labor legislation. When it comes to the much-needed large-scale reorientation of the American social contract involved in passing universal healthcare and cap-and-trade, the fate of the nation rests largely in the hands of about five senators.

* * *

It is very hard to disappoint many friends who have supported me over the years, on either side, who are urging me to vote their way…. In a highly polarized Senate, many decisive votes are left to a small group who are willing to listen, reject ideological dogmatism, disagree with the party line and make an independent judgment. It is an anguishing position, but we play the cards we are dealt…. I am announcing my decision now because I have consulted with a very large number of interested parties on both sides, and I have made up my mind. Knowing that I will not support cloture on this bill, senators may choose to move on….
    –Senator Arlen Specter, announcing his intention
    to filibuster the Employee Free Choice Act,
    which he had previously supported

* * *

The first 100 days of the new incarnation of American conservatism has been a fascinating train wreck. Without four decades of culture war gimmicks to rely on, conservatives have rolled the clock back to their Liberty League, Andrew Mellon, Joe McCarthy, gold-bug roots: Rick Perry talks secession; Alabama Representative Spencer Bachus darkly warns of socialists in Congress; and during a commercial break in Glenn Beck’s show, I saw an ad for Rosland Capital, a company that will take your money and invest in gold bars. It features G. Gordon Liddy holding up a dollar bill and decrying its declining value. “Buy your gold where I buy mine!” he says.

I have to admit to liking this right better, the one that is contemptuous of the “losers” facing foreclosure, mythologizes its heroic John Galt-ness and rails against exceedingly popular elements of the welfare state, rather than the insidious “compassionate conservatism” and humanitarian imperialism of the past eight years. An honest right is the left’s best friend.

* * *

I think [Obama] overestimates his ability to take people–particularly our colleagues on the right–and sort of charm them into being nice. I know he talks about being postpartisan. But I’ve worked frankly with Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and the current Republican leadership…. When he talks about being postpartisan, having seen these people and knowing what they would do in that situation, I suffer from postpartisan depression.
    –Barney Frank, on Obama’s decision
    to invite Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation

* * *

My understanding of how Washington works has two chapters: Before TARP and After TARP. A little more than a year before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I moved to Washington amid a fierce debate over whether we could afford $35 billion for healthcare for children. So it was eye-opening, to say the least, to watch us fork over twenty times that amount to Wall Street to cover its bad bets.

On July 16, 1877, railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, responded to a 10 percent pay cut with an impromptu strike that quickly spread to rail lines far and wide. Within a few days the Great Upheaval, a nationwide general strike had shut down most of the economy. How did the government respond? With the bayonets and battalions of the Army, which President Rutherford B. Hayes sent into the streets of Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis.

The specter that has haunted Capitol Hill since September is a twenty-first-century inversion of the Great Upheaval: a general strike by capital. There are no organizers or grand coordinated plans, but the demand is familiar: we won’t do our jobs until you give us what we want. In so doing, Wall Street has declared intellectual bankruptcy in order to remain financially solvent.

“Much later,” John Steinbeck wrote of his era’s banksters, “when business picked up and business leaders howled with rage against Government control and Mr. Roosevelt, they seemed to forget that they had laid their heads in his lap and wept, begged him to take over, to tell them what to do and how to do it.”

At least back then they had the manners to beg.

Honestly, sometimes I think all the money we paid the banks would be worth it if no one was allowed to talk shit about poor people ever again.

* * *

This is a big ocean-liner; it’s not a speedboat. It doesn’t turn around immediately.
    –Barack Obama, describing the ship of state
    at a press conference

* * *

In his first 100 days, Obama has been compared to Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan. I wonder, though, if we won’t look back and see him as a figure similar to Nixon. I don’t mean we’ll see him as a tragic, corrupt man driven by his pathological attachment to sundry resentments but as a president whose visionary understanding of a new political dynamic didn’t translate into policy changes on a sufficient scale. The ship of state was subject to many of the same inertial forces during Nixon’s time as well, and despite Nixon’s genius in harnessing the power of the culture wars, when it came to domestic policy, he more or less maintained, even expanded, the liberal state.

Conservatives had to wait for Reagan to start the revolution. We are, I believe, at the beginning of a long era of progressive ascendance. It may be that this is the last administration conceptually handcuffed by the residual dogmas of late twentieth-century conservatism.

* * *

I know quite a few people who spent months working in the trenches on the campaign. It was grueling, punishing work: sixteen-hour days, living out of duffel bags and eating late-night Taco Bell. But it felt real unlike anything before or since. Now they’ve won and, in their own small bureaucratic way, are running the country. But they’re trapped inside an office building with ID badges.

* * *

One hundred days is one-fourteenth of a four-year presidential term. Take a circle the size of a quarter, then divide it into fourteen equal wedges. Look at the outside edge of each segment individually, and you’ll hardly be able to tell that it’s curved.

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