It makes perfect sense for us to do so, for such policy positions are the bread and butter of any presidency, and arguably the most consequential part of the job. Are we going to invade a country, or not? Are we going to have national health care, or not? Will we saddle our children with unconscionable loads of debt in order to lavish upon the super-rich yet more discretionary income, or not? These are the sorts of questions that go to the heart of what government is and does, and the consequences of their answers can be seen most starkly in the difference between the America a Franklin Roosevelt would make, for example, and the one a George W. Bush would create instead.
In short, policy decisions will matter immensely. And, what is more, they already do, just a scant one month into the Obama presidency. Already he is reorienting America programmatically – ending the Iraq war, closing Guantánamo, building a national health care system, negotiating seriously on global warming, spending heavily on education, energy and infrastructure, and taking strides to reintroduce some small measure of economic justice to the country. We sometimes lose track of this as we contemplate the national politics of these decisions, but they are not abstract propositions – they have enormous consequences in the lives of individuals. To pick just one narrow example close to home, I might very well not be writing this column today, had it not been for the completely unexpected GI Bill which sent my father to college after the war, the first person in my family to make that leap. Meanwhile, six thousand miles away, perhaps a million people lie dead amongst the rubble that George W. Bush made out of Iraq.
Yep, these things matter, and we are completely justified in devoting so much attention to what presidents do in making such decisions.
Sometimes, though, other effects of presidencies can be quite subtle compared to their overt policy decisions, though equally if not more profound. In much the same way that the application of soft power – in addition to or instead of hard power – can be a hugely consequential instrument of foreign policy, a similar effect applies on the domestic front. Who can say that George Washington’s policy decisions as president were more consequential in the long run than the ethos he brought to the presidency as its first occupant and the impact that had in launching and sustaining the new republic? Who can say whether it was more important that FDR created Social Security than it was that he inspired hope across an entire nation’s beaten-down and frightened population? Who can say whether Ronald Reagan did more damage by tripling the national debt than he did by getting Americans to believe that their own democratically elected government was the enemy? And I think all of us can say that, with the possible exception of his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy’s inspirational ethos entirely dwarfed in impact much of anything he actually did policy-wise during the brief thousand days of his presidency.
Similarly, a successful Obama presidency – and my guess is that he will turn out to be regarded by history as one of the best, even if he doesn’t turn out to be among the most progressive (though he might do that too) – will have powerful effects of a very tangible nature, such as (hopefully) rescuing the economy, ending the Iraq folly, and creating a real national health care system (only about a hundred years behind the curve, but who’s counting?). But it will also produce a raft of far less immediately tangible effects, which may well even surpass in magnitude those of the policy decisions.
It’s worth thinking a bit about what those might include.
An obvious place to begin is with race relations, the open wound of American politics from more or less the time there was an America to have politics. Racism has not, and will not, be destroyed on the altar of the Barack Obama presidency. There are definitely places in America where killing racism will require no less than the death of dyed-in-the-wool racists, to be replaced by more enlightened generations. But apart from those cracker boxes, imagine the effect Obama can have among the less committed core of racists in the majority population. If this guy becomes a Lincoln- or FDR-like figure, how palpably ridiculous will it be to continue to maintain the notions of superiority that are at the core of racist attitudes? How absurdly unsustainable will it be to continue to believe those fallacies? The very fact of a successful black presidency could do more than a thousand federal programs toward the changing of pernicious attitudes in American society. And changing attitudes is the key that unlocks all kinds of other doors, including bringing changes both to other attitudes and to policies.
Likewise, imagine what the effects of a successful Obama presidency will mean to the black community in terms of subtle but profound attitude changes. I’d be shocked if the impact on how blacks see themselves, and therefore on what they demand of themselves and what they demand of others, isn’t changed substantially – and, again, in ways that government programs could probably never replicate even at their most successful. This transcends the old cliche about anybody being able to grow up to become president of the United States. This is about a champion who carries on his shoulders the aspirations and self-assessments of a nation. For better or worse, this is a common psychology that cannot be ignored, and the black community has been overdue for its manifestation in a big way. Probably the last person to carry even a fraction as much national pride for African Americans was Thurgood Marshall.
But even Supreme Court justices might as well be room furnishings compared to the visibility of the president, and therefore, there has really been nothing comparable to this moment. Of course, implicit in all this is the ‘if’ of whether or not Obama has a successful presidency. I expect he will, but there is also a very edgy flip side here. If things go sour for him with the country, a la, say, Jimmy Carter, that will only add ammunition to the racist arsenal, and perhaps even diminish rather than enhance self-esteem within the black community. Eh, Colin? Eh, Condi? Eh, Clarence?
A second obvious effect of the Obama administration has to do with reorienting American attitudes toward government. Again, there will be hard policy decisions that will determine things like how we get our health care and whether industry can pollute the atmosphere unregulated. But what is also likely to emerge from this period, and this presidency, is a new and infinitely more sane relationship between American government and Americans. We’ve always had a real wide paranoid streak in this country when it comes to this question, and one that is both unique among comparable democracies and simultaneously unjustified by any particular historical experience. We had nasty King George III – over two centuries ago, mind you – whose greatest crime seems to have been imposing taxes on the colonists without letting them vote on the legislation. Bummer, man. A sub-optimal governance system, to be sure. But this in a world which has given us Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot – each of whom have eradicated millions of their own people – let alone a plethora of your garden-variety thuggish dictators ranging from Pinochet to the Shah to Marcos and Sudan’s al-Bashir. Given the relative levels of oppression – not to mention lethality – in these and scads of other cases compared to the American experience, even our revolution let alone our raging and congenital public antipathy toward government seem pretty silly.
Of course, there’s money to be made from fomenting such nonsense, and now we get to the heart of the matter. If you fear and loathe government, then you’ll oppose programs like Social Security or national health care. And if you do that, rich people won’t have to pay taxes in order to support such programs. Hence, the attitude, and hence Ronald Reagan and the contemporary conservative movement which loves war and regulating other peoples’ sexuality, but is fundamentally at its core about cutting taxes.
It still astonishes me to this day that an American president – democratically elected, no less – could actually say, “Government is not the solution, government is the problem”. All the more astonishing that it could resonate powerfully with the electorate. But this is actually precisely my point here. Just as FDR’s New Deal broke the psychological barrier of a government functioning to assist its public (what a concept, eh?), so I believe Obama’s programs and attitude will go a long way toward burying the regnant political ethos of these last three miserable decades – that government is bad, and that the less it does the better. Grover Norquist, noxious anti-tax enforcer for the noxious anti-tax right, once said his goal was to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”. My sense is that the American people, having experienced life under his vision and life under the FDR/Obama alternative, will turn decisively, and finally, from the former to the latter. And, again, this will be the result of a hugely consequential change of attitude more than any particular programmatic or legislative development. If we get very lucky, we can shrink this deceitful and pernicious regressive sickness down to the size where we can flush it into the sewer where it belongs.
A related phenomenon concerns the American mythology of government competence. This notion is fulminated by greedy elites and propagated by the legions of dumbed-down dittoheads who not only take their attitudinal marching orders from Rush Limbaugh, but who actually think he is amusing. Anyhow, the song goes like this: Government is incompetent and screws up everything it touches, whereas the captains of industry in the private sector are infallible (you know, like the ones at AIG, GM, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, etc.). Here’s George F. Will this week with an off-hand but typical example, as he desperately launches a rear-guard salvo against Obama’s attempt to rescue us from poverty: “The stimulus legislation, a.k.a. No Social Worker Left Behind, offers financial incentives for states to enlarge their welfare rolls. This looks like the beginning of a semi-stealthy repeal of the 1996 welfare reform. So it goes, as government, with a confidence disconnected from its current performance, toils to make more and more people more and more dependent on it.”
You know, god forbid we should put some money in the hands of poor people made poorer by this crisis. That smells an awfully lot like godless socialism to me. But, more to the point, the little snipe at government’s “current performance” says it all. Given that the one-month old Obama administration’s policies cannot possibly be measured for effectiveness yet, I think we can agree on just whose performance we’re talking about here. George W. Bush was a walking case of self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only about the dangers of genetic lottery in a monarchy, of course, but especially about what happens when you put buffoonish kleptocrats in charge of running institutions they don’t believe in. Heckuva job, Bushie.
The truth – mortal enemy of the entire regressive movement – is that the success of government is dependent upon the same factors as the success of any given corporation or any other major institution. If the mission makes sense, and the people involved are top quality, and the resources are there, and the timing is right, then the chances of a happy outcome are high. What has the private sector ever done that can match the Manhattan Project, going to the moon, or defeating totalitarianism for daunting tasks, whatever one thinks of the merits of any of those projects? And, even when you see some impressive stuff – like for example the creation of the Internet – guess who’s behind the private sector in making it happen?