Barack Obama is one of three nominees I voted for with enthusiasm. The first, Lyndon Johnson (then in his 1964 civil-rights and anti-poverty phase), self-destructed over Vietnam. The second, George McGovern, lost 49 states. For the next three decades, Republican presidents pulled the country and the prevailing ideology far right, while Democratic interludes moved it only to the center.
But Obama portended something different altogether. Here was a rendezvous of a gifted, principled, and politically shrewd leader with a deep crisis caused by the failure of free-market ideology. It was -- and is -- the most stunning political opportunity for American progressives since Franklin Roosevelt. My reaction to Obama's election was joy, relief, gratitude.
So it is awkward to find myself in semi-opposition after barely 100 days. I'm not a chronic malcontent. I credit Obama with real leadership on multiple fronts, from redeeming the Constitution to reclaiming America's constructive role in the world. I think he is handling several tricky issues well -- accepting the need for large short-term deficits; disclosing details of Bush-era torture without personally sponsoring an inquisition; moving universal health coverage; devising a labor-law reform that can perhaps get 60 votes. All this is huge. But there still is a large risk that Obama will blow the opportunity that history has handed him, and that the political right, though currently in disarray, will pick up the pieces.
The reason, of course, is the economy. The past weeks have seen efforts to seize on every shred of good (or not as bad as expected) economic news. The commercial paper market is loosening up! Some new homeowners are getting bargains! The economy only lost 539,000 jobs in April instead of the predicted 620,000!
Even so, the most optimistic of economists predicts a long slog. We will likely avert a second Great Depression. But we still face a prolonged Great Stagnation, one that could be far worse than necessary because of the administration's circuitous, Wall Street–friendly approach to reviving the banks.
Instead of closing or breaking up failed banks, dividing the losses between taxpayers and bondholders, and getting the successor banks quickly back to health, the Treasury is propping up the incumbent zombies. Worse, it is doing so with convoluted schemes that rely on Wall Street's most speculative and unsavory players backed by loans from the Federal Reserve and guarantees against losses from the Treasury. The hope is that that the speculators will bid up the value of toxic securities on banks' books, now cheerfully rebranded as "legacy" securities. On that risky proposition, Obama is gambling his presidency.
This policy is likely to prolong the agony and leave a still-wounded banking system dragging down the real economy. As politics, it reflects an alliance with Wall Street that was bipartisan in the Clinton and Bush years and that has continued into the Obama presidency -- despite Wall Street's practical disgrace. When affronts such as the American International Group and Merrill Lynch bonuses presented opportunities to rally public opinion behind deep structural reforms, the administration's response was to damp down the popular indignation, not rev it up.
The contrast with Roosevelt's first year could not be more dramatic. FDR pledged in his Inaugural Address to "drive the moneychangers from the temple." He encouraged the populist investigations of the Senate Banking Committee under Ferdinand Pecora and used the backlash to build popular support for sweeping reform. Roosevelt engineered a deliberate political rupture with the old order, one that was politically necessary to counter the financial industry's enduring political power. FDR's key advisers did not have the Wall Street sensibilities of Messrs. Summers and Geithner.
It was, to be sure, a different era. The crisis was even more dire, and there were radical movements in the country to Roosevelt's left. Today, the people are anxious but quiescent, and Obama is, by nature, not confrontational. He hired the protégés of Robert Rubin during the campaign when he needed to demonstrate that he was reassuringly mainstream. They stuck around -- and their advice could sink the promise of his presidency.
As we were going to press, Congress, with broad bipartisan support, was on the verge of enacting a new Pecora Commission, with subpoena power and a mandate to investigate the roots of financial collapse and build the case for systemic reform. Done properly, this investigation will embarrass all three recent administrations, including Obama's. In a tacit rebuke, all 10 of the commissioners are to be appointed by Congress, none by the White House.
I still have faith that Obama may eventually get it right. But time is not on his side, and he needs some help from his friends.