I’ve Got a Problem With Barack Obama

Why Has the President Abandoned Indignation and Urgency?

By Leonard Fein

Published June 15, 2011, issue of June 24, 2011.
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Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but the United States has some problems. Fear not, however; for two reasons, I am not going to present here a catalog of our problems. The first reason is that there is not sufficient space to do that; the second is that by now, we are, most of us, quite familiar with the problems our country faces.

No, I am going to focus on just one problem, the solution to which might go a long way toward solving a number of the daily problems we encounter. The problem I have in mind has a name: Barack Obama.

I say this with great reluctance. I was an early and avid supporter of Obama, and I managed for the better part of two years to give him the benefit of every doubt. I can no longer do that. I cannot do it because the times cry out for a healthy dose of populism, and he offers instead a detached, almost bloodless centrism that accomplishes far less than circumstances require.

I have in mind, for example, the president’s dereliction with regard to climate change, a problem of growing gravity, a threat to us all. I am aware that many of us yawn when we read about that threat. But the president does not. He knows. He acknowledged early on the imminent (if not entirely clear and present) crisis. He kicked off his tenure with a number of impressive appointments, top people who shared his view that a science-based analysis and response to the climate problem were critical. But now? Silence, for all practical — and educational — purposes.

To take a larger example, there is much (and growing) anger across the land. For some time now, that anger has become coherent among only Tea Party types. Their genius has been their capacity to mobilize and package anger. For most Americans, the anger remains inchoate, unformed. I have given up waiting for Obama to address that anger and to use it to mobilize people.

Every serious economist — all right, very many serious economists — agrees that this is exactly the wrong time to be cutting the federal budget. Yes, we have a deficit problem, and there are compelling reasons to address that problem. But it is a long-term problem, and to accept that it must be implemented immediately, as the Republicans in Congress believe, is to prolong the rotten fruit of the recent recession. The president, however ill-advised he may be (by the likes of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner) knows this. He is remarkably intelligent and well informed. But it is as if the passion that so marked his candidacy was finite, a nonrenewable source of energy now nearly depleted. He does not fiddle as Rome smolders; he dabbles.

That’s a macro-economic issue. Do we continue to “starve the beast,” using the deficit problem as our excuse for scuttling programs that would fuel economic growth? Or do we make such decisions as may be required to bring the deficit under control (including tax increases), but hold on their implementation (except for the tax increases) until the economy is well on its way to repair? That’s the key choice we face.

The micro elements of that macro issue include, among altogether too many others, government’s anemic response to the foreclosure (that is, eviction) crisis. Whatever happened to the idea of a Troubled Asset Relief Program for homeowners? Banks yes, people no? (People: Time magazine reports in the June 20 issue that half of all Americans could not raise $2,000 within 30 days without selling off personal possessions.) Or: On May 31, the House Appropriations Committee approved a large cut in the WIC program (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), which serves low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and infants and children under the age of 5. The effect of the cut, if it wins final approval, will be to turn away 200,000 to 350,000 eligible women and children next year, breaking a 15-year commitment by administrations and Congresses of both parties to provide enough WIC funding to serve all eligible women, infants and children who apply.

So: Yes to extending all of president Bush’s tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest households and to offering lucrative tax breaks for oil companies at a time of huge company profits, but no to poor moms and kids? In Massachusetts, where I live, the proposed reduction in WIC funding will mean that between 3,000 and 5,000 people who today benefit from the program will be dropped; in New York, between 11,000 and 20,000; in Texas, between 23,000 and 40,000; in California, between 32,000 and 56,000. Where is the appropriate indignation? What happened to the community organizer we elected? What happened to “the fierce urgency of now”?

It may help to recall that those were Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, quoted with enthusiasm by candidate Obama. King then added a sentence that Obama seems to have forgotten: “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”

Yes, of course I will vote for Barack Obama next time around, and not only because no announced or prospective Republican candidate deserves to be taken seriously; I will vote for Obama because I want to believe that if only we can repair his faulty ignition system, indignation and urgency will yet win the day.

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