Thursday, February 26, 2009

The State of the Presidency

In his first speech before a joint session of Congress, President Obama leveled with the American people about how deep and difficult the economic collapse will continue to be. This president was straightforward with American citizens, speaking to us as adults, hiding nothing from us – unlike some presidents of the past.

Obama explained how the need for more stimulus money for banks with greater accountability than the last TARP release, and the need for common sense regulatory reform to prevent unsuitable financial products from being marketed, are all interconnected with increasing the flow of credit to consumers and small businesses. Obama also indicated that the economic crisis offers opportunities for fundamental shifts in national policies related to the economy, energy, education, and health care. The current calamity provides us with the moment to proceed rapidly and ambitiously on these fronts.

In showing his desire for fiscal responsibility, Obama promised to cut unnecessary government spending, saying that his staff had already found 2 trillion dollars in wasteful spending, and to hold a bipartisan summit on Social Security. He also presented an honest and vigorous case for increasing taxes on the wealthiest citizens by ending the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent. He also emphasized the role that government can play in bettering our lives and dared the Republicans to come after him as a tax-and-spend Democrat by restating once again that anyone making less that $250,000 per year (and that is the majority of us) will not pay one single dime in new taxes – not one single dime.

For decades Republicans have dominated our political discourse promising that if we just got government "out of the way" and eliminated regulations and taxes, the private sector would create an "ownership society" where the rising sea of American capitalism would "lift all boats." But the collapse of the economy has brought about a collapse of these myths that sustained the laissez-faire ideology. Obama's speech cut through the Republican mirrors of illusion.

The GOP's laissez-faire policies not only caused this economic crash, but also caused an enormous, widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. The income and wealth gap is wider now than at any time in our nation's history, wider than it was in the Roaring 1920s or the Gilded Age (late 1800s). The Republicans' supply-side economics has produced a demand-side crisis. Due to lack of backbone in asking the wealthier citizens to support necessary government activities with taxes, our nation's infrastructure has been crumbling for the past 30 years. Our health care system spends more money per citizen than any other industrialized country, weighing down the profitability of businesses that still provide employer-based insurance. We have huge trade imbalances, devastated labor unions, a burdensome healthcare system, a barely functioning education system, and a dependence on foreign oil so extreme that conservatives like T. Boone Pickens, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, and California State Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are pushing for reform.

One of the most difficult challenges President Obama faces, along with the recession and two wars, is nurturing a new attitude in America that emphasizes our spirit of community and interconnectedness. Yet, it is obvious that Obama is up to the challenge of leading this nation toward a new progressivism that values ordinary Americans and communities while dethroning the Republican worldview that has no room for shared sacrifice among all citizens, including the wealthy.

Although the speech was tilted more toward our economic problems, it contained plenty of Reaganesque-type acknowledgments of the spirit of the American people, reminding us that it was an American who first walked on the moon and put together a GI bill that created our middle class. Here’s more:

History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history.”

President Obama came across as confident and in command, laying out a bold blueprint for the future and voicing his intent to usher in a new way of thinking. There is no way to predict if he will be successful, even if he wins the legislation he seeks, in reviving America with his policies. But he did provide reasons for the citizens of the United States, and the world, to hope for a better future. Many polls are showing that the American people have embraced Obama’s spirit of change.

The State of the Economy may not be so strong at the moment, but the State of the Presidency clearly is.