Has America Become Entirely Dysfunctional?
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And, while America's political problem is indeed bigger than Barack Obama, he certainly could play an important role by finally engaging in that debate he keeps promising about what an effective government can do for the people.
Arguably, one of Obama's early mistakes was in surrounding himself with advisers who were committed to making today's broken-down system work, rather than undertaking a dramatic overhaul of the entire process.
Many top aides were recycled officials from the Clinton administration, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Some were longtime Republican operatives, like Defense Secretary Robert Gates, or bureaucrats closely tied to Wall Street, like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Together, their limited vision was confined to simply patching up the old system - both domestically and globally - achieving more "continuity" than "change" from the Bush administration. While that might have been understandable given the economic crisis and the two wars, their approach shut out any serious structural reform.
So, instead of subjecting the gambling banks to the shock of short-term nationalization and stringent new rules, Obama continued a policy of stabilizing them with taxpayers' money. Instead of terminating the stalemated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he kept them going with promises of gradual withdrawals.
Instead of demonstrating that the United States really meant what it has said regarding international law and human rights, Obama let Bush and his subordinates off the hook on torture and other war crimes. He didn't even authorize a serious public inquiry into these abuses.
Granted, to have taken these actions would have risked a major disruption to the system as it now exists. You would have heard howling from the trading floors of Wall Street to the editorial-page offices of the Washington Post. Obama would have been called an angry black man, an out-of-the-closet socialist. Conservative Democrats and independents might have bolted.
It's also not clear that a more aggressive strategy toward the immediate national problems would have worked. Indeed, such an approach might have made conditions worse.
If the "too-big-to-fail" banks rebelled, the economy might have toppled into a depression for which Obama would have gotten the blame. Powerful institutions, like the Pentagon and the CIA, might have turned their political guns on the new president. The mainstream media would have joined in the uprising against him. His public popularity likely would have sunk even faster than it has.
Plus, the Left is extremely weak in the United States. At times when I've noted the Left's tendency to criticize but not do much, I've been told bluntly by progressives that "there is no American Left." But whose fault is that? And how do people on the Left expect politicians to make these fights without a political movement behind them?
The bottom line is that whether Obama can summon up the nerve to make bold job proposals or not, they won't happen unless the American people can demonstrate that they understand the lessons of the New Deal, that only effective action by a democratized federal government can counter the recklessness of Wall Street and reduce the suffering of the unemployed.
It's hard to understand why supporters of Social Security and Medicare can't be as potent a political force as the Tea Partiers who want to dismantle these government programs. There may be rich right-wingers, like the oilman Koch brothers and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, funding the Tea Party, but there are wealthy progressives, too.
This movement could make the reasonable argument that many of the fortunes of America's super-rich were not simply the result of their own industriousness, but rather their ability to piggyback onto major advancements paid for by the taxpayers, from the Interstate Highway system to miniaturized computers built for the space program, from microbiology to the Internet.