WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Stucknation: Impassioned Hope of 2008 Nowhere to be Found in Passive 2011 Obama
Wednesday, August 03, 2011 - 03:39 PM
I have been in close quarters with President Obama only twice, but what happened between those two occasions tells a lot about the arc of his presidency and the trajectory of the nation he's charged with leading.
The candidate I met in March of 2008 was a man with unlimited potential thinking out of the box. He talked about pulling nations together to insure "that capital" would "not just flee from one country to the other to avoid oversight and avoid regulation" and in the process "endanger the economies of all."
Our first encounter came in a 15-minute ride to a midtown fundraiser after which then-Senator Obama gave a major speech on the economy. I remember how close the cheering crowds were to the candidate and the way he projected "the urgency" for real change "now." Something was wrong and this young man was going to work tirelessly to fix it with the aid of the people.
In our interview he said he was going to rebuild America's infrastructure "financed in part by bringing and end to the War in Iraq." And once he got the U.S. out of Iraq, he reasoned that NATO would step up in Afghanistan.
He slammed President George W. Bush's leadership style in the aftermath of September 11, noting that "we were never asked to make some big sacrifice by the president of the United States. We were told to keep shopping to pretend that everything was the same and what we failed to do was ensure we were going after the big problems in the country that could have made us stronger over the long term like energy independence."
By the time he gave his nomination acceptance speech in Denver, his well-rehearsed campaign cadence about change echoed the oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr. The fast-talking Junior Achievement guy from Chicago with a thin resume had come to sound like the leader of a social movement that was going to do more than promote himself.
Senator Obama had always been a pragmatist, but he kindled particularly in the young a euphoric idealism that once he got elected did not endure past his election, and I think that disabled the Obama hope machine because he needed them as much they needed him.
Our paths crossed again last summer, when President Obama came to Edison, N.J. to a tiny sandwich shop to promote small business. By then, it seemed like the president had become captive to the trappings of his office. Everything was so staged it felt more like a living diorama than a spontaneous exchange of ideas.
I remember thinking that if only the president had been able to engage the huge crowd outside with remarks, he would have been reminded of his promise of "hope." But if you get spontaneous, unpredictable things might happen. Supporter Tanesha Lyles told me she felt dejected when she and her sons Joshua and Emmanuel were pushed blocks away from the president.
"We would like to get a good look at our president that we voted for to get him into office," she said. "Now we can't even get a simple glimpse of him."
I remember a disabled man in his late 40s who had come to the event in hopes of thanking the president for a mortgage modification he had gotten so he could stay in his house. He was pushed back a quarter of a mile.
In a campaign, advance people work the crowds looking for these kinds of authentic people and stories. But on this day the White House operating assumption was that all the assets they needed were traveling with the president. And on that day the "message" was small business.
How could such a brilliantly executed campaign stand down once the candidate was victorious? If America's circumstance were as dire as Obama's speeches suggested, that same movement needed to stay intact to ensure that Republicans were not the only ones defining the Obama program.
It seemed like when the president pulled off something like saving Detroit through the auto bailouts, he never got the credit it for it - in no small measure because there was no apparent campaign machinery to tout the president's accomplishment.
The millions who voted for Obama dropped the ball on their part of delivering change they could believe in. Candidate Obama had been quite clear, the lift was heavy and he would need grassroots help to win but also to govern.
Instead in this void, across America, conservatives organized themselves, galvanizing into the Tea Party - change they could believe in. Meanwhile, a lot of Obamaites must have concluded their activism could be confined to voting for Obama. It was as if righting your nation was as easy as dropping your car off to get the oil changed.
By 2010, the Tea Party had the exact kind of passion Obama's base had two years earlier. The conservatives campaigned 24-7 like the Republic's very fate was on the line. They hammered on the idea that government had grown too large and the growing debt and social entitlements needed to be reconsidered for the 21st Century. The Democrats, who could point to only a health care reform few people understood and a stalled economy, lost the House.
The seeds for that defeat had been sown when House Democrats were ambushed at Town Hall meetings and found themselves on the defensive. Where was the blue calvary?
Meanwhile the depth and breadth of the decline of America's middle class was continuing unabated. All the very trends that Obama had blamed Bush for, the concentration of wealth at the top, the widening of the nation's income disparity all continued under Obama.
There was an odd kind of passivity to how President Obama got things done by governing defensively. The bold campaign rhetoric of major change gave way to the creeping incrementalism of governing from the middle out of a kind of Ghandhi-esque passive resistance. And don't you know, the Republicans still picked fights.
After the hundreds of billions in local, county and state Federal stimulus spending failed to do the trick of sparking the economy, the White House went into denial - it had underestimated the underlying damage done by the wreckless behavior of the banks. Team Obama had not realized that unlike the last Depression, local, county, states and special authorites were also awash in hundreds of billions of dollars of debt.
They did not have a granular grasp of the macro economy they were trying to turn around. They thought they could do it from the beltway but the rot of debt and deferred decisions in town halls, county seats and state houses would have required the kind of objective intel from the heartland Frankin Delano Roosevelt had. The President plays golf with a very small circle and everybody else it seems has to be from Chicago.
While the administration was learning on the job, neighborhhods were being hollowed out by foreclosure. We did not see the president do the kind of RFK walk-through Bobby Kennedy did in the South Bronx. So the bank's predatory behavior remained an abstract as if in the Obamaview, the banks were living up to their obligations under the bailout even though independent reviews found they were not.
During Obama's tenure, U.S. multinationals continued their third worldification of America: Stashing trillions offshore and leaving Main Street to pay for a U.S. military that makes the world secure for the corporations to plunder. His administration has tried to go after the billions in illegal off-shore tax cheats, but the legal structural stuff the world's biggest companies bank on to get away with it, the Obama White House left alone.
What Obama has instead offered is a comforting continuity for the corporate interests that gained so much under his predecessor President Bush. He did resurface the 'tax the rich' rhetoric, but when push came to shove, he extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and in the last debt ceiling deal once again left that populist battle for yet another day.
Yes, there were signs of life in the president's healthcare reform and if it ultimately includes coverage for pre-existing conditions and extended coverage for young adults in the 20s under their parents' plans, real people will see a benefit.
But there was the lost opportunity cost that was paid when the president put the ailing economy on the back burner to press for his "health care reforms" that still conceded huge swaths of turf to pharma and the insurance companies. The Obama Chicago merchantilist wing of the Democratic Party just can't help itself.
We have opened up more anti-terror war franchises and the ones Bush started are still producing U.S. and civilian casualties. The Obama Administration's unprecedented reliance on the use of predator drones does the Bush White House one better.
To be fair, even before he was elected the President signaled just how much continuity there could be between President Bush's worldview and his own depending on the situation. In October of 2008 when he raised his stature by meeting with President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson to endorse the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP), he became complicit in what in retrospect appears to have been the biggest bank heist in world history.
Since the bailout, the preferential treatment of the financial behemoths has continued in the form of the banker's getaway. No matter how widespread the robo-signing and other mortgage backed chicanery, the pillars of global capitalism are not held to account.
And so in the grand continuity Wall Street went back to living large while Main Street continued to sink because its TARP never seemed to materialize. Now RealtyTrac reports 29 percent of American homeowners are "underwater" owing at least 20 percent more on their mortgage than their home is really worth.
It's almost 2012. And from the "land of Lincoln," the president looks like a Republicrat who can win!
Remember fighting unemployment means saving one job at a time.