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Change We Can Believe In?

December 14, 2009

Last night on Christmas at the White House, President Obama told Oprah Winfrey that he would give himself a “good solid B-plus” grade for his 2009 performance. Given Obama’s grading criteria – the economy, Iraq, America’s credibility, and so on — a B-plus seems fair. Suppose, however, that we hold Obama’s achievements up next to his campaign promises: does a surge in Afghanistan or health care plan devoid of a public option represent hope and change? I don’t think so.

Of course, politicians routinely make promises they can’t keep. George H.W. Bush said he wouldn’t raise taxes, and then did. Clinton said he would reform health care, and then didn’t. Last year, however, Obama promised far more than policy reform: here was a politician – a new kind of politician – who was going to change Washington and, with it, the nation.

Such change looks increasingly unlikely. Obama’s Afghanistan doctrine, as set forth in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, outlines a foreign policy agenda that would reel in some of Bush’s worst excesses. Yet, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the speech affirms many Rovian conservative core beliefs:

Obama insisted upon what he called the “right” to wage wars “unilaterally”; articulated a wide array of circumstances in which war is supposedly “just” far beyond being attacked or facing imminent attack by another country; explicitly rejected the non-violence espoused by King and Gandhi as too narrow and insufficiently pragmatic for a Commander-in-Chief like Obama to embrace; endowed us with the mission to use war as a means of combating “evil”; and hailed the U.S. for underwriting global security for the last six decades (without mentioning how our heroic efforts affected, say, the people of Vietnam, or Iraq, or Central America, or Gaza, and so many other places where “security” is not exactly what our wars “underwrote”).

The Afghanistan doctrine does not change the way in which the United States exercises its military might; it changes the country in which the United States exercises its military might. Admittedly, Obama’s speech refrains from Bush’s utopian rhetoric about spreading democracy, and sets a tentative date for troop withdrawal. But change Washington, it does not.

Even where he is progressive, Obama cannot create change without the cooperation of Republicans and centrist Democrats – which is unlikely to happen any time in the near future, due to the unflagging commitment of the Right to free market individualism (and, of course, the ongoing support of lobbyists). There can be little disagreement that financial deregulation played an important role in causing the financial crisis of 2008. Nevertheless, last Friday Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted unanimously against what Paul Krugman describes as a “quite modest effort to rein in Wall Street.”

Similarly, despite the scientific consensus that 350 ppm is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Copenhagen agreement has, so far, done no better than 770 ppm, according to a recent blog post by Bill McKibben. Real change cannot be achieved through the efforts of one man alone – not even Barack Obama.

Liberals tend to be optimistic about government. The flipside of liberal optimism, however, is liberal disappointment – disappointment of the sort expressed by Bill McKibben in a blog post on sobbing at a Lutheran Cathedral over not having done more to influence the Copenhagen negotiations. And then there are Paul Krugman’s recurring complaints about the unresponsiveness of Washington. Krugman airs one such complaint in today’s column:

When I first began writing for The Times, I was naïve about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.

Krugman’s disappointment stops just short of despair, however. He concludes the column by urging centrist Democrats in the Senate to pass financial regulation:

So it’s up to the Democrats — and more specifically, since the House has passed its bill, it’s up to “centrist” Democrats in the Senate. Are they willing to learn something from the disaster that has overtaken the U.S. economy, and get behind financial reform?

Hadn’t we already established that the answer is “no”?

Liberals believe that government can be a force for good, and so do I. But, in order to survive, liberal optimism needs a healthy dose of populism. Krugman and McKibben may not influence policymakers to the extent that they would like, but they have certainly influenced countless readers – readers who are moved by evidence and who do change their views.

Washington isn’t going to change on its own. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.

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