Dare we still hope that Obama will yet deliver change we can believe in? The quiet desperation of millions of Americans is not being well articulated, much less remedied, by either party. But at the rate events are unfolding, the economic unease will increasingly be defined and articulated by the Republican right. The crucial question is whether Obama himself has been so totally captured by the financial elite that his path is now irreversible.
It has become a cliché among pundits that the Democratic Party is hamstrung by interest groups. Commentators usually have in mind groups that are actually fairly weak politically––blacks, Hispanics, gays, feminists, schoolteachers, trade unionists. Politicians who propitiate these groups are accused of pandering. The fact that the most powerful interest group of them all, the financial industry, seldom makes the list, is testament to its quiet power. Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels observes, “In the 1930s and 1940s, Democrats went as far as the South would let them go. Since the 1990s, they’ve gone as far as Wall Street will let them go.” That power structure needs to be dislodged before real reform can proceed.
In principle, Obama is free to toss out his top aides and bring in a new team. Bill Clinton repeatedly shuffled his advisors. So did Lincoln. But, as we shall see, the threads that link Obama’s political aides to his Wall Street–dominated group of top economic advisers will not be easily sundered. The addiction of this administration to flows of Wall Street’s political money reinforces the impulse to go easy on the financial industry. Obama’s style is to delegate and to proceed with extreme caution. To shift course and lead a different economic team with drastically different views and goals, Obama would have to grow immensely in office.
It is, of course, too early for a definitive judgment. History reminds us that Lincoln, in mid-1862, was facing a bleak military and political landscape. His peers considered him a failure. His greatness came later. John Kennedy, judged a year and a half into his term, looked like a pretty disappointing president, too. Often, wisdom ripens with experience––and Obama is nothing if not a learner.
Sometimes, however, leaders fail to seize moments pregnant with possibility. Sometimes, to invert a muchloved verse of the poet Seamus Heaney, hope and history don’t rhyme. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor, referring to the revolutionary year 1848, when nationalist revolutions in central Europe seeking self-determination and liberal democracy were all aborted, memorably characterized the events as a turning point of history on which history failed to turn. We will soon learn whether our own era is such a time.
In Obama’s fateful first year, there was a road not taken, a possible road to radical financial reform, broad prosperity, and the mobilization of an appreciative citizenry. This book explains how the key decisions unfolded, the stakes, and the alternatives, as we look forward to the second half of Obama’s term. There is still time for him to redeem his presidency. But that time is fast running out.