Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Presidency in Peril

Robert Kuttner, A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Streets’s Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, (White River Junction, VT, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010), 274 pages, $25.00

In his second book on the Obama presidency, Robert Kuttner contrasts what President Obama promised in his campaign with what he is delivering as president. He promised a progressive program of change from his predecessor: George Bush. By 2010, the Obama promises started looking like more of the same.

The book opens with a short declaration: Barak Obama is at risk of being a failed president. Kuttner delves briefly into the Obama personality before going on in journalistic fashion to explain how and where he deserted his campaign promises and stopped doing what he said he would do in his campaign.

Following the introduction, the next five chapters take the reader through the issues and policies of Obama the campaigner compared to Obama the President. First, in the Politics of Capture, Kuttner contrasts the campaign and the campaigners with the group that took over after the election. The careers and experience of those that took control had a record of policies and positions from previous work on Wall Street or in previous administrations. The record left by Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Rahm Emanuel and a few others lets Kuttner differentiate the influence of the new people from the progressive speeches of the campaign.

Chapter two titled Continuity and Collusion sketches the fateful choices and feeble policies toward the mortgage mess, bank failures and the timid recession stimulus plan. The discussion emphasizes the similarities of the Bush policies with the Obama policies. Even though Kuttner evaluates the Bush-Obama policies in historical perspective and makes alternative policy suggestions chapter two and the three chapters that follow become a well documented issue oriented narrative of disappointment in Obama, the President and politician.

When Kuttner narrates the reform efforts of former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volker to restore the Glass-Steagall banking act, Obama voters feel what they voted to change slipping away. When Kuttner recounts the reform efforts of Elisabeth Warren to create a new consumer financial protection agency, and describes the tepid efforts to control financial derivatives, Obama voters feel disappointed as the Obama administration abandons reform for the status quo.

In crony capitalism we meet the insiders from Citi bank and Goldman Sachs and the double standard of negotiations and policies between financial bailouts and the bailout of the auto industry. By now readers realize Kuttner was taking daily notes and doing regular interviews as he followed the path of the Obama administration during its first year. Readers get details of policy discussions between Obama insiders and their differences with dissenters in Congress, the independent agencies and the administration.

Chapter six, titled Political Malpractice, returns to the theme of a presidency in peril. It starts with a reminder that a Republican, Scott Brown, easily beat a Democrat, Martha Coakley, in the Massachusetts special election to fill Senator Kennedy’s senate seat. In a famously democratic state the Republican won by 57 to 37 percent as disgusted voters switched parties. Kuttner cites other polls, commentary and events to reinforce the mood of the voters and their growing refusal to accept the President’s apparent identification with narrow financial interests or his refusal to fight for the changes he supported before the election.

The final chapter begins by comparing Obama in the first year with other Democrats, especially Bill Clinton and Harry Truman. The feisty and blunt talking Truman abandoned private negotiation for public confrontation: highlighting differences between the parties in the process. The Harry Truman review stands out in stark contrast to Obama with his bland explanations of behind the scenes dealing.

Kuttner digresses with fiscal, tax and global economic policy suggestions that deliver more for working people, before returning to Obama the organizer and the need for a social movement. In a section, It takes a Movement, he remembers the “stunning capacity to inspire Americans after decades of dashed hopes and failed politicians,” but then admits Obama the organizer is dead, or transformed into an organization man who wants to be accepted by the group he needs to confront.

It is clearly hard for Kuttner to accept his own words because he takes nearly nine pages to describe the historical trials and tribulations that go with organizing effective social movements and the part presidents might play in them. When he writes “Interacting with a President who has been a source of both great hope and disappointment is a tricky affair,” he expresses the same frustration there was with President Clinton and President Carter. Their label was Democrat but they failed to lead social movements or stand up for working people and Democratic causes.

Kuttner ends with a note of optimism that the economy is weak enough, the Republicans empty enough and President Obama practical enough to bring change for a larger social and national interest. Maybe, but Kuttner does a better job showing that the disappointed are a large enough group to elect a Harry Truman candidate who will think big. Who that might be is a good question. I have to confess that reading A Presidency in Peril makes me doubt it is Barak Obama.

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