Much the same can be said for the Afghanistan escalation, long-term social investment spending, torture and detainment policies, the new defense budget, the value of post-partisanship, the degree of progressivism in Obama administration appointments, and much more. The debate within progressive circles we are experiencing over these issues is primarily based on a question of trust, and only to a lesser extent on analysis, research and facts. It is a debate with which almost anyone who consumes progressive media is familiar: give President Obama a chance, aka trust the Obama administration and stop criticizing it, versus make him do it, aka President Obama's administration will only pursue a progressive policy direction if it is forced to do so by popular pressure. Within progressive circles, these attitudes are demonstrative of either a fundamental trust or distrust of the intentions of the Obama administration.
The more I've followed the back-and-forth on this, the less actual disagreement about the facts I think I'm hearing. What the critics are saying is that Geithner's plan couldn't possibly recapitalize the banks in an adequate way unless it was implemented as a horrible giveaways. What the defenders are saying is that if you implement the plan the correct way, it will be a helpful step toward resolving the situation at a time when it's difficult to imagine the congress appropriating the volume of extra funds necessary to full resolve the issue.
Ultimately, these two points aren't in conflict with one another. They're different interpretations of the situation that are based on different assumptions about the competence and good will of the people involved. If you assume that the key policymakers are smart people doing their best, then you're going to line up with Spence. You'll predict a degree of success from the Geithner Plan followed by the need for additional action. And you'll be concerned that over-the-top criticism of Geithner and the Treasury Team is going to undermine the political support that will be needed for further action. But if you assume that the key policymakers are inept, or unduly under the sway of big finance, you'll see that a sound implementation of the Geithner Plan wouldn't generate the needed volume of money, so the plan "must" be for a large giveaway.
There is very little to disagree with here. One might take issue with policymakers being "smart" or not as relevant, since very smart people can also be under the sway of big finance and / or not generally have the public interest at heart. Still, overall, given the intra-progressive arguments of the last five months, and also the incompatibility of "expert" predictions on the outcome of various policies, it is difficult not to conclude that one's degree of trust in the Obama administration specifically, and the leaders of our powerful financial, media, cultural and political institutions more generally, is the fundamental source of disagreement about the efficacy of many of the policies that are being implemented in response to the many crises the country, and the world, must face.
Given all of this, perhaps we should step back from debating the future efficacy of policies for a moment, and instead have a discussion about why or why not progressives should trust the Obama administration. Such a debate is important not just in terms of theoretical orientation, but also in whether or not it is best for progressive activists to spend their time primarily supporting, or pressuring, the Obama administration.
It probably comes as no surprise to Open Left readers that I place myself in the "distrust." Or, at least "more distrust than trust" camp, as obviously there are degrees of trust and mistrust. (For example, I clearly trust the Obama administration more than I trust the Bush administration or John McCain. There are degrees of everything.) As such, in the extended entry, I provide the case for distrust. Since I am well aware that this is not a one-sided issue, I am eager for comments to supply counter-arguments for the "trust" camp. Tomorrow, I will work to compile such arguments, and offer up an article that serves as a rebuttal to this one: "the Case for Trust."
For now, I will start things off in the extended entry by providing the case for distrust, and a largely pressure oriented activist stance.
Here are the primary reasons why I largely fall into the "distrust and pressure" camp rather than the "trust and support" camp:
Because it isn't just the Obama administration we are dealing with: Before I even address my lack of trust in the Obama administration itself, it first must be emphasized that in finding ways to solve the economic crisis, we are dealing with a lot more than just the Obama administration. Outside of a few top executives, and the governments of Iceland and the United States, the greatest worldwide financial crisis since at least 1948 is being handled by the same individuals and institutions who brought us the crisis in the first place. Generally speaking, the same administrations, the same financial institutions, the same executives, the same policymakers, the same "experts," the same media pundits, the same pretty much everything that f*cked the people of the world is now in charge of unf*cking the people of the world. In fact, many of these players have actually become even more powerful then they were before they caused the crisis.
While the Obama administration is a highly visible change in the leadership of elite institutions, given the global scope of the crisis, as well as the role played in causing the crisis by non-governmental institutions, it actually isn't a very big change. As such, even if you assume the Obama administration has nothing but the best intentions and public interest at heart, it is still nearly impossible to fathom how they could possibly change everything all by themselves. To again quote Matthew Yglesias, this time from yesterday (emphasis in the original).
Whenever there's a suggestion that there's a need for housecleaning and clean hands, apologists for the status quo immediately leap in with the point that you need some veteran people with hands-on experience. And surely you do. But there's a huge middle ground between firing everyone associated with this fiasco and firing nobody.
And we've done the reverse! Lurking beneath the amusing John Stewart versus Jim Cramer faceoff was the reality that even though CNBC is in a sense more discredited than ever, the financial crisis has made it a more influential news source, not a less influential one. Major financial institution CEOs seem to have more access and influence to high-level policymakers than they did before rather than less. And it's not just that the top levels of economic policymaking haven't been filled with people who were prescient about the severity of this crisis, nobody at all who was prescient about it seems to have been brought on board.
And it's not just in the United States. We at least managed to have a change of administrations scheduled for a propitious moment. But outside of Iceland there have been basically no topplings of incumbent governments, no resignations of key officials, no nothing. The behavior is as if the financial system has, like Italy, been struck by a terrible earthquake and now the officials in office need to deal with it. Even the popularity of the term "black swan" seems to entrench the notion that some wild and unpredictable occurrence happened. But while this turn of events is pretty wild, it was unpredictable-plenty of people predicted something similar. And while I don't think you ever should expect a wholesale turnover in elites and powerful institutions, if a shock this big doesn't produce some kind of discernable change then I'm not sure what would or could.
Overall, on a global scale that considers more than just governmental institutions, there has been virtually no change in power as a result of the economic crisis. If anything, the people and institutions who caused the crisis are more powerful than ever. That is a major reason for distrust, pessimism, and continued pressure as any.
Because there are too many dirty hands: Now, taking a more Obama-administration specific viewpoint, the primary reason for my lack of trust comes from the dirty hands of many key administration players in causing the financial crisis in the first place. As someone who preferred Obama to Clinton largely because President Obama had shown the good judgment to oppose the war in Iraq before it began, it is particularly grating and worrying that he did not consider the same judgment on economic matters to be a worthwhile criteria in choosing his economic team.
Consider the following article from November 5th, 1999, when President Obama's top economic advisor, Larry Summers, praised an easing of bank regulations that helped lead to the current disaster. In particular, check out how Summers praised the easing of regulations in terminology that sounds exactly like Obmaa administration calls for new regulations. Emphasis mine:
Congress approved landmark legislation on Thursday that opens the door for a new era on Wall Street in which commercial banks, securities houses and insurers will find it easier and cheaper to enter one another's businesses.
The measure, considered by many the most important banking legislation in 66 years, was approved in the Senate by a vote of 90 to 8 and in the House Thursday night by 362 to 57. The bill will now be sent to the president, who is expected to sign it, aides said.
It would become one of the most significant achievements this year by the White House and the Republicans leading the 106th Congress.
"Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century," Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said. "This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy."
"We can no longer sustain 21st-century markets with 20th-century regulations," Obama said following an Oval Office meeting with his top lieutenants and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate panels overseeing the financial industry.
Why on Earth should I trust an administration's dealings with Wall Street when that administration's top economic advisor praised a regulatory re-write that help allow Wall Street create our current economic disaster only a few years later? This is especially since the Obama administration is now saying we need new financial regulations for the 21st century, even though its top economic advisor told us we achieved just that ten years ago. Color me extremely skeptical when I hear this talk again, ten years later.
Further, it isn't just a few key advisors in the Obama administration who have dirty hands on leading to this crisis. Back in 1999, the Clinton administration pushed for the lax regulations, and only seven Democratic Senators voted against them. Among the 37 Democratic Senators who voted in favor were Joe Biden, who is now Vice-President, Harry Reid, who is now Senate Majority Leader, Chris Dodd, who now heads the Banking Committee, and Kent Conrad, who heads the Budget Committee. Almost everyone's hands on dirty on this one. Virtually everyone still in power favored a pro-Wall Street reworking of the financial regulatory regime, which in turn played a huge role in our financial crisis. Among Senators, the lone remaining dissenters are Barbara Boxer, Byron Dorgan, Russ Feingold, Tom Harkin, Barbara Mikulski and, surprisingly, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama.
There was a broad, pro-Wall Street consensus in the 1990's. Virtually everyone in power bought into it. There are dirty hands everyone, and I don't trust them.
Because they keep telling us to tone down the pressure on CEO's and Blue Dogs. One caveat to the previous bullet point is that while almost everyone has dirty hands in the financial and economic crisis, some hands are certainly dirtier than others. Wall Street financial institutions, along with most Republicans and conservative Democrats, played a larger role in causing the financial crisis than say, average Americans and most progressives.
This brings me to my second reason for distrust: the Obama administration keeps telling people to ratchet down their criticism of the players who were most responsible for the crisis. In particular, the Obama administration has recently toned down its anti-Wall Street rhetoric, and told certain progressive groups to stop criticizing Blue Dogs. Further, Obama's anti-partisan language that at least partially implies Democrats should criticize Republicans less frequently and / or vehemently, is quite famous.
Some might argue that the President Obama and the Obama administration urge a reduction in angry rhetoric toward the players most responsible for the crisis not because they largely side with those people and institutions, but either out of political necessity or a desire to change political culture. However, I do not agree with this. The AIG bonus scandal demonstrated that massive public anger can push even most Blue Dogs and Republicans into supporting some pretty strong anti-Wall Street policies pretty quickly. Given the information and resources at its disposal, the Obama administration could regularly fuel such public anger and use it as a means to pressure Congress into passing sweeping policy reforms. For example, the Obama administration could even have broken the AIG bonus scandal itself a couple months ago, and used the resulting outrage to hammer through sweeping financial regulations.
Instead of political necessity, I worry that the Obama administration is trying to ratchet down rhetoric against Wall Street and Blue Dogs largely because it considers those groups to be more valuable allies than the people who are vehemently criticizing those groups. Given its vast political capital, the Obama administration could seize the current populist sentiment to pressure those groups. Instead, the Obama administration is bowing to pressure from those groups to try and reduce the level of public criticism they receive. They aren't pressuring the groups that caused the crisis, but are pressuring the groups that are criticizing the people who caused the crisis. And I don't trust that.
Because I don't trust anti-partisan and anti-ideological rhetoric: From the Obama campaign to the Obama transition to the Obama administration, anti-partisan and anti-ideological rhetoric has been a staple of its public persona. The bottom line for me is that I do not, and probably will never, trust anti-partisan and anti-ideological language. During my entire adult lifetime, Democrats who use such language have consistently done so not in the interest of holding good-faith discussions with Republicans and conservatives, but rather to pressure progressive Democrats to cave to Republican and conservative positions. Over the last twenty years, the "non-ideological" and "bipartisan" position has always meant unanimous Republican support couple with substantial, but still minority, Democratic support. Back in December, Matt and I posted about 20 examples of this pattern on key policy fights over the last ten years.
When I hear "let's get beyond ideology and partisanship," it doesn't mean "reach out, sit down, and have a good faith discussion." Instead, it means "let's cave to Republicans on economic issues, foreign policy issues, and gay rights." I just don't trust Democrats who use language like that. Twenty times burned, thirty times shy, I suppose.
Because I don't trust the Obama administration more than I trust other Democrats: Quite a few progressives who trust the Obama administration do not trust congressional Democrats. For example, according to a recent Pew poll, 70% of the country trusts President Obama on the economy either "a great deal" or "a fair amount," but only 55% trust congressional Democrats to the same degree. This is an attitude I do not grasp as all. Given that President Obama came from the Democratic congressional caucus, and voted with them the vast majority of the time, it isn't clear to me why President Obama should be viewed as noticeably different from congressional Democrats at all. He is probably somewhere to the left of Harry Reid and the right of Nancy Pelosi, and thus not substantially different from the legislation the Democratic Congress passes.
This has been a longstanding pattern. Right after the election, even though Democrats in Congress had actually won over 53% of the vote, slightly larger than President Obama's total, according to a CNN poll, 59% of the country would trust President Obama when he disagreed with the Democratic Congress, while only 24% said they would side with the Democrats. Part of this might have been fueled by Republicans reflexively wanting to oppose Democrats in Congress, but it still shows that there are a lot of people who trust President Obama, but do not trust Democrats in Congress. By contrast, it really isn't clear to me at all how President Obama is noticeably distinct from Democrats in Congress.
Because President Obama flip-flopped on FISA: Finally, I don't trust President Obama himself because he flip-flopped on FISA due to right-wing pressure in the campaign. During the primaries, he vowed to fight telecom immunity tooth and nail, but once the primaries were over, he just flat-out flipped his position. This was a straightforward case where President Obama changed a position as a result of shifting political pressure. The conclusion I drew from that event is that it is possible to change Obama's public positions if there was enough political pressure for him to change, and that such pressure was necessary because he was willing to cave into right-wing demands if they applied enough pressure.
In short, FISA was the "distrust and pressure" object lesson for me. From that point on, there could be no benefit of the doubt. If you wanted Obama to side with you, simply trusting him and supporting him would not suffice. Distrust and pressure became requirements.
And that's it. Thanks for reading this far, as it is the longest article I have written in about five or six months. I hope you found it a useful insight or compendium into why I, and many other progressive bloggers, fall more into the "distrust and pressure" camp than the "trust and support."
Now, I want to hear from you. Please offer up reasons as to why you fall more into the "trust and support" camp than the "distrust and pressure" camp. This is the fundamental divide for progressive right now. As such, we all might do well to just air our feeling out.