“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.