A year ago, as Barack Obama was assembling his administration, he was at a crossroads with two paths going off in very different directions: one would have led to a populist challenge to the Washington/New York political-economic establishments; the other called for collaboration and cajoling.
Faced with a dire financial crisis and two foreign wars not to mention a host of long-festering problems like health care, the environment, debt and de-industrialization Obama's choice was not an easy one.
If he took the populist route and further panicked the financial markets, the nation and the world might have plunged into a new Depression with massive unemployment.
There were also political dangers if he chose the populist path. The national news media rests almost entirely in the hands of corporate "centrists" and right-wing ideologues, who would have framed the issues in the most negative way, blaming the "radical" Obama for "wealth destroying."
This media problem dates back a quarter century as American progressives have mostly turned a deaf ear to those calling for a major investment in media and other institutions inside the Washington Beltway, as a way to counter the dominance of the Right and the Establishment.
So, if Obama had nationalized one or more of the major banks, the stock market would likely have dived even more than it did in early 2009. And there would have been lots of commentary about the inexperienced and inept Obama making matters worse.
He would have confronted media denunciations as a "socialist" or worse. The CNBC "free-market" crowd, led by Larry Kudlow, would have used their influential forum to rally the business sector; Fox News would have cited nationalization as proof they were right about the "communist" Obama; Washington Post editorials would have chastised him.
A new Depression might well have been pinned on Obama.
Similarly, if Obama had ordered aggressive investigations into torture and other crimes committed by George W. Bush and his administration, there would have been howls about Obama's vindictiveness; about how his promises of bipartisanship had been lies; about coddling terrorists.
Given the tiny size and marginal influence of the progressive media, any cheers for Obama's courage and principles would have been drowned out by the condemnations that would have bellowed forth from CNN, Fox News, the Washington Post and other powerful media voices.
In other words, the populist route would have traversed some very dangerous territory. At least superficially, the collaborationist route looked less daunting.
By continuing Bush's policies of bailing out the banks, Obama might succeed in stabilizing the financial markets. He could reverse the collapse of the stock markets (which had wiped out trillions of dollars invested in middle-class retirements and union pension funds, as well as the paper wealth of many rich people and top executives).
By reaching out to Republicans and Democratic "centrists" on health reform and by adding lots of tax cuts to his stimulus bill Obama also could blunt right-wing attacks portraying him as a crazed radical. By "looking forward, not backward" on Bush's crimes, he could show independent voters that he was serious about his campaign promises regarding bipartisanship.
By retaining Bush's Defense Secretary Robert Gates (a Washington Establishment favorite) and by recruiting his primary opponent Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, he could win applause from the mainstream media for his "team of rivals" and maybe win over a few influential neoconservatives who would see these hawkish appointments as continuity for Bush's war policies.
This course also would mean turning to Bill Clinton's retreads, from John Podesta as transition chief to Rahm Emanuel for White House chief of staff. After all, the Clintonistas had defined the strategy of "triangulating" against the Democratic "base" to win a measure of approval from the Washington/New York powers-that-be.
Indeed, choosing the collaborationist route would mean replaying much of the Clinton playbook: reject calls for accountability on the outgoing Republicans; treat anyone who wants to know the full story of the GOP crimes as extreme; join in covering up Republican wrongdoing in hopes of some reciprocity; continue most of the foreign policy initiatives to avoid charges of "softness"; behave "responsibly" on domestic matters even in the face of GOP attacks and obstructionism; devise a health-reform plan that protects the interests of private insurers.