As voters ponder the curious failure of the ruling Democratic Party even to pursue meaningful economic relief for millions of desperate and jobless Americans, it might be useful to recall certain passages from President Obama’s best-selling campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope. Of particular interest is a chapter titled “Opportunity,” wherein the ambitious senator discusses his thoughts about the challenges facing the American economy. The chapter is classic Obama and reveals a great deal about his transcendental mojo. It is still the most complete statement of our dear leader’s economic philosophy, such as it is.
The scene is early 2005. Shortly after an exciting visit to the headquarters of Google, where Mr. Obama benefited from the insights of Larry and Sergey, “two of the richest people on earth,” the freshman senator drove down to Galesburg, Illinois–as it happens the very same working-class town that he had featured in his celebrated 2004 convention speech–where a Maytag plant was due to be shut down, leaving 1,600 employees out of work, so that operations could be “shifted” to Mexico. The set piece thus introduced was a political cliché; the only question was what moral would be drawn from this parable of senatorial glad-handing.
“You’ll get little argument these days,” Mr. Obama writes, “from either the left or the right, with the notion that we’re going through a fundamental economic transformation.” Ah, yes, it’s true: Like pilgrims, we are passing through a dark valley, menaced by economic forces that we can only dimly comprehend. What are these forces? “Advances.” Advances, he tells us, are causing disruptions, “advances in digital technology, fiber optics, the Internet, satellites, and transportation.” These “advances” have “leveled the economic barriers between countries and continents.”
Notice how impersonal these advances are. Where did they come from? How did they get here? No one knows! And these advances are not alone; they are joined by “pools of capital.” Where did the pools come from? Did they cause the advances or did the advances cause the pools? These pools, he said, were scouring the earth, aided and abetted by “a few keystrokes,” searching for the best returns. How dreadful, how sad, that those Maytag workers down in Galesburg were suffering from the effects of those pools and advances. But take comfort, for these pools and advances, aided by keystrokes and a “flatter” world, scouring the planet for returns, are bringing “significant benefits to American consumers.” Ah, benefits. Everyone loves benefits. What kind of benefits have the pools and advances brought us?
“Peaches in winter,” Mr. Obama tells us, and big-screen televisions.
Yet Mr. Obama reminds us that all is not well. In addition to the tasteless winter peaches and those big flat-screen televisions, the advances and the pools have caused problems. Don’t forget those unhappy soon-to-be-downsized workers in Galesburg. They are proof that the advances and pools have “greatly increased economic instability for millions of ordinary Americans.” So, on the one hand, we have Larry and Sergey at Google, who know how to handle the advances and the pools, and on the other we have millions of ordinary Americans like those workers down in Galesburg, who face a “future of low-wage service work, with few benefits,” but lots of winter peaches, “and the risk of financial ruin in the event of an illness, and the inability to save for either retirement or a child’s college education.”
What is to be done? In what follows, Mr. Obama presents a dizzying series of hands–on the one and then the other, repeatedly, like some hyper-discursive, blue-skinned Hindu deity–and contrasts the dominant faction of the Democratic Party, which embraces the new economy of advancing pools, with “a sizable chunk” of the Democratic base that resists their agenda. So it’s the pools versus the chunk. The pools and their friends, the advances, point to “high-value, high-wage jobs.” Meanwhile, the sizable chunk (yes, she could afford to lose a few pounds) waits an hour for the bus after she clocks out of work at the big Wal-Mart superstore on the edge of town and finally gets home around 10 p.m. to find her son eating Doritos and watching porn videos on the bedroom computer–while her daughter in the living room taps out text messages on her cell phone as she watches American Idol on the flat-screen TV. Contemplating this scene, our sizable chunk of a low-wage worker just looks at the bowl of peaches on her kitchen table and wonders if maybe she’d rather have a better job.
Senator Obama did not consider this. Instead, after presenting a potted history of America’s rise as a great economic power, our fresh-faced political pilgrim ends up sitting at the feet of Robert Rubin, the sage of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, who tells his young grasshopper that if the American people will just continue to trust in the supreme wisdom of the advances and the pools, he was “cautiously optimistic” that all will be well. And so it came to pass that Mr. Obama shifted his own job to the White House and populated his administration with Mr. Rubin’s disciples, who ministered to the pools in their hour of need. As for the sizable chunk, she’ll just have to be patient. If all goes well, perhaps her children can look forward to a better life.
Mr. Hodge, the former editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, out next month, from which this essay is adapted.