Never mind 100 days, the Obama era thus far can be summed up in the 10 days since Congress returned from Easter recess—remarkable, smartly articulated policy goals on one hand and, on the other, a paralyzing reluctance to engage the bare-knuckled brawls that those goals demand.
Obama came roaring into last week eager to talk about reining in credit card companies (even though torture sucked up all the media oxygen). The president summoned industry bigwigs to the White House and told them the jig is up on their predatory behavior. “The days of any time, any reason rate hikes and late-fee traps have to end,” he lectured as the cameras rolled.
The meeting signaled the sort of bold-stroke policymaking that’s both desperately needed and long overdue in a nation crippled by consumer debt. Change, it declared, is finally on its way to Main Street. This is where Obama has been terribly impressive; the man swings for the fences.
The problem, so far, has been on the realization side of his big ideas. Anyone in the weeds of lending policy, for instance, couldn’t have missed the irony of the credit card meeting. The same industry players the president brow beat on Thursday had already spent the week fending off the most crucial aspect of Obama’s foreclosure relief plan, which he unveiled with similar fanfare back in February.
The banking lobby has quietly conspired with Senate Republicans (and some Democrats) to block a provision that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify unaffordable home loans. Without it, the president’s carefully crafted, multi-billion-dollar foreclosure plan is just so many words. Obama has repeatedly vowed to fight for the bankruptcy reform he proposed, but he’s repeatedly stood by as industry has kneecapped it. This is a pattern.
The Obama administration began with more political capital than any in recent memory. Unemployment is 8.5 percent and climbing, and yet 48 percent say the country is headed in the right direction—a number that’s fast rising. That kind of stat contains some serious political clout.
Yet Obama holds his political coins like a man living on his last dime. He pushed through his massive stimulus, but sacrificed its smartest elements. He’s wise to let Congress publicly carry the health reform water, but he’s given up so much control that his central vision—creating a strong, accessible public plan—is suddenly up for debate. He can’t even staff his administration because he won’t take the political hit of reversing course on ethics standards that have proven clearly unworkable.
The peculiar math of the Senate is part of the problem. The 58 votes the Dems have held since Obama’s inauguration have proved no better than five when it’s come to controversial measures; if you can’t get to 60, you can’t move the bill past a filibuster threat. But threat is the keyword, and O’s 56 percent approval rating makes him the town bully. Arlen Specter’s defection and Al Franken’s ultimate victory will help, but the real trouble has often been grumbling “centrist” Democrats like the dead-end-career Evan Bayh. The idea that these Blue Dogs can’t be beaten into compliance is absurd. Instead of doing so, the White House has worked to keep its supporters off their backs.
Republican critics fret that the White House’s agenda is too large, that the president needs it to focus. And it’s true that the list is daunting. But Obama doesn’t have the luxury of managing one battle at a time. And that’s all the more reason to start cracking some political skulls. He should take a page from Nancy Pelosi’s book. She stormed into Harry Reid’s office to demand that the majority leader get control of his caucus and then muscled the 2009 budget through.
Obama’s vision is strikingly ambitious. Pick just about any once-middling policy debate, and you’ll find a game-changing proposal. Green jobs. Universal health care. Carbon pricing. Iraq drawdown and Afghanistan ramp up. Heck, he even wants a high-speed rail network. But he’s gonna have to spend some serious capital if any of this is to become reality.
The first place he’s going to have to spend it is in making the banking sector understand what the rest of the world already knows: Times have changed. Rather than getting frustrated with Paul Krugman, the White House would do well to heed his caution.
The “green shoots” of a resurgent economy that Fed chair Ben Bernanke noted last month are already being discussed as a false spring. The bottom line remains that until the banks start lending again, the economy will remain stalled, at best. Cleaning up the banks—call it restructuring, call it nationalization, whatever—is going to be costly, both economically and politically. But it’s nonetheless inevitable. The sooner the White House stops whittling at the margins and attacks the problem at its core, the better off we’ll all be.
Obama’s appeal is his even-tempered rationale, the antithesis of the swaggering brawn of his predecessor. Even more appealing is that it is likely not just branding, but a genuine reflection of the president’s political temperament. Still, as he’s fond of reminding us, tough times call for tough measures. And if he wants to make the kind of history to which he openly aspires—FDR, Abe Lincoln and all the rest of it—he’s going to have to push not only the nation’s boundaries, but also the boundaries of his comfortable, can’t-we-all-get-along politics.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.