Politics & Prejudices
What we should fear
It's easy to be scathingly critical of the president these days
Published: August 10, 2011
"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering ... they are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred."
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, running for re-election, 1936
Don't you wish that President Obama had said those words? Wouldn't it have been something to see him go on TV and tell the nation that during the recent raising-the-debt wars?
But he didn't, as we know. He made a deal instead to raise the debt ceiling slightly, and set up a bipartisan congressional committee to study the problem and come up with a proposal in the next three months to dial the deficit down further.
When that was done, he went forth from the glowing flat screens of America, and pronounced these anything-but-deathless words: "Now, is this the deal I would have preferred? No."
"But this compromise does make a serious down payment on the deficit reduction that we need," he said in words that could maybe flutter the heart of an ancient accounts payable clerk at J.C. Penney. That is, if they were true, which they aren't, really.
Frankly, it's easy to be scathingly critical of the president these days. He seems to be sleepwalking sometimes, or led around by the nose by a band of reactionary Republicans.
Yet in his defense, remember this. He knows the buck stops with him — and clearly felt that someone had to be the adult in the room. Obama has opponents who cheerfully would take the country down the default drain just to get some political traction.
This president bailed out the irresponsible financial institutions that did so much to create the mess because he felt the alternative might have been economic collapse. Bailed out the auto industry too, for the same reason.
He also wants to restore a sense of collegiality and sanity. That's why he didn't call the GOP out last week for their stalling and delaying tactics, and other lunacies.
There was a time, he knows, when Washington was a place where well-intended men played politics, yes, but in the end did the best they could for this country and its people.
Unfortunately, for too many today, the game is all about winning. Others are so stone ignorant, happily misinformed or ideologically blinded they are unable or unwilling to see the consequences of their actions.
Naturally, there have always been some like that. Joe McCarthy. Huey Long, etc. But they were exceptions. Reckless stupidity is now the norm.
What that means is that, terrifying as this is to say, our political system simply doesn't work anymore. Not only that, perhaps can't work. Three things have happened to destroy representative democracy in this country. Too few know about them.
Far fewer understand how important they are. But together, they have come close to destroying our nation's ability to respond to even the most severe economic crisis.
First, there has been a huge and ongoing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in America. Twenty-five years ago, when this process was already starting, the richest 1 percent of us took in one-eighth of the nation's total income.
Today, that figure has more than doubled. That golden 1 percent gets a quarter of the income, and own 40 percent of the nation's net worth. That's not surprising, given that virtually all of what income growth there's been in recent times has gone to them.
Second: Political campaigns at all levels are entirely controlled by money of a sort unimaginable only a few years ago. Vast sums are spent on even low-level races. Millions are routinely spent to win (or lose) a two-year seat in Congress; hundreds of thousands for state legislative posts that pay a tiny fraction of that in salary.
Worse, the U.S. Supreme Court has said any limit to corporate spending is unconstitutional.
Finally, these critical facts are little-known because of the decline of an independent, investigative, analytical news media. What we have instead is an endless profusion of "talk" channels that largely feature shills shrieking lies or dwelling on irrelevancies.
Taking back this country before it collapses is going to take something close to a revolution. It's going to take committed, radical action to wake up people before it is too late to do so.
Maybe our national debt is too high. But that's the least of our worries. A nation of ill-informed, increasingly desperate jobless is far worse.
Seventy-five years ago, when FDR spoke the words at the beginning of this column, the right denounced him as savagely as they do the more timid President Obama now. Less than a week later, Americans gave FDR the biggest landslide in history. Ironically, he got timid soon afterwards.
He did what the Republicans wanted: He cut spending, tried to balance the budget, and the Depression came roaring back.
FDR switched course, fast. He learned his lesson.
All of us need to learn ours too. Here's a place to start: Throughout the roaring, prosperous 1950s and 60s, the rich paid a far higher percentage of their income in taxes. They didn't flee the country. They didn't even stop building country clubs.
> Email Jack Lessenberry