Small Ball: Obama’s Paltry Second-Term Agenda [Opinion]

While GOP remains the party of big—often bad—ideas, Dems master the management of decline.

Photo illo: Ed Johnson.
Photo illo: Ed Johnson.

Having won a (temporary) victory in our now-endless budget battle, President Obama is now free to pursue the agenda that he’s laid out for his second term. As gleaned from various statements and media interviews, this includes: securing our withdrawal from Afghanistan, passing immigration reform, doing something about global climate change, doing something about gun control, “stabilizing” and “growing” the economy, fixing our infrastructure, making us energy independent and, of course, education.

Sorry, that sound you just heard was America’s head hitting the desk.

Mr. Obama could not possibly have put forward these proposals in any more obscure a manner, or with any less eloquence or passion. The president’s disdain for practical politics is already legend; his general disposition now seems to be devolving into somnambulism. Surely, no Democratic president since Grover Cleveland—and very few presidents, period—has staked out a less ambitious agenda for his second term. The stuff on the list that sounds good will never get done, and the rest doesn’t much matter.

Immigration reform is the one possible exception, as Republicans belatedly realize their party is demographically doomed if they don’t start catering to more than aged white American males.

Afghanistan is already history, an unpopular war in a dreadful place. Our exit will be messy no matter how it’s finessed, and the locals will immediately revert to their second-favorite occupation, killing each other.

Infrastructure repair is a fine idea, and a badly needed one. It’s dead-on-arrival with House Republicans, due to its “second stimulus” appearance. Don’t take the Tappan Zee.

Education reform is the mashed potatoes of politics, a meaningless mass that always looks good on the plate. “A better economy” is the big fat pat of butter you plop in the middle of the mashed potatoes. Gun control of any kind will be blocked by the right wing in Congress. President Obama was never able to summon much passion for the subject, and every day the horrors of Sandy Hook recede further into the blur of a dozen previous such atrocities.

Mr. Obama did some marginally good things about climate change in his first term—a high-speed rail line here, higher mileage standards for Detroit there—but overall, he’s never displayed much enthusiasm on this subject, either. For starters, doing anything about the climate will run smack into his stated desire for “energy independence,” which is now defined as a full-throttle, stunningly irresponsible orgy of deep-water oil drilling, fracking and—oh yeah, my favorite—“clean coal.” The president barely mentioned global warming during the campaign. He then set a speed record in cutting the throat of his own “priority” by citing the lack of any will to make the “tough political choices” necessary to save the world, claiming that “I’m pretty certain” no consensus exists in Washington on the subject, and adding—just in case we didn’t get the point—that “This one’s hard.”

Ah, so it is. Seems not so long ago that we had a president who told us, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

No more. Mr. Obama is not formally a part of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), but over the last four years, he has proven himself to be a de facto member of that runaway conservative caucus, filling his cabinet with veterans from the administration of the last DLC president, Bill Clinton, who’ve been filling his mind with their ideas. And like them, he has served mostly as a manager of decline, of America’s retreat from what it was and what it can be in the world.

Ever since the Civil War, the Republicans have been the truly radical party in America, the Democrats the conciliators. For better or worse, Republicans have embraced or fomented ideas—abolition, suffrage, Social Darwinism, laissez-faire economics, progressivism, prohibition, modern conservatism—that have challenged and divided the country, and pushed it into brave new worlds.

Democrats have generally tried to reconcile and explain Americans to each other. Sometimes this has been a really bad idea—such as trying to appease Southern slave owners, or later the Klan—while often it has meant accepting immigrants, or co-opting and bringing into the political mainstream ideas like populism, civil rights, the labor movement, feminism and gay rights.

The rise of the DLC—whose ideas now dominate the leadership of the Democratic party, if not its rank and file—represented something else altogether, a capitulation to the basic premises of Reaganism, the latest radical Republican idea.

As a result, both parties have now presided over a generation-long decline of the middle and working classes—something unprecedented in American history. Since the start of the 1980s, income and living standards for most Americans have declined, wages have lagged far behind rises in productivity, the public sector and workers’ rights have been steadily whittled away, and the disparity between the very wealthy and the rest of us has reverted to 1920s levels. The industrial base has been increasingly converted to a finance-based economy, which has led to a regular series of debilitating financial crashes—the savings and loan debacle, the tech boom bust, the market meltdown of 2008—that have further squandered our national wealth.

The Democrats have proven to be the most scrupulous stewards of this new shrinking America—shrinking not just in economic size but in vision and ambition—as Reaganism itself has proven to be a hollow gong and Republicans’ latest bold radical ideas have blasted off into the la-la lands of Ayn Rand, creationism and government by the gun, for the gun, of the gun. The traveling freak show the party trotted out for last year’s presidential primaries was probably enough right there to turn much of the country back to Obama, and understandably so.

Yet the Republican accusation hurled at the president throughout the campaign (inchoate and misdirected though it often was) that he was merely presiding over decline held some validity.

Mr. Obama and his DLC allies see no real role for either a working class or a public sector in the America of the future. It’s why their meat is financial crises and complex fiscal “bargains.” As President Obama has also repeatedly signaled, some of the things he’s willing to trim to achieve “economic stability” in these negotiations are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits—likely with the idea of, someday, privatizing them altogether.

Obama & Co. pride themselves on being “pragmatists” in making such deals, and have no patience for outsider movements of any kind, even those peopled mostly by their own constituents.

Stopping climate change is, for them, pie-in-the-sky stuff, because it doesn’t have the votes. But like many people who pride themselves on their practicality, Mr. Obama can’t see the forest for the toppled trees. The $60 billion or so our local representatives are now trying to squeeze out of Congress is intended to patch up exactly one storm. It’s also a year’s worth of the new tax revenues the administration just had such a struggle squeezing out of the rich. So much for climate change’s irrelevance to the future.

When it comes to America, you might as well try to do the hard thing. Small Ball: Obama’s Paltry Second-Term Agenda [Opinion]