Thursday, November 20, 2008

Obama & Domestic Policy

Domestic policy presents a myriad of options and policies for the incoming Obama presidency, most of which will likely come down to prioritization and Congress. If history is any indicator, Democratic Presidents, at least since Johnson, have tended to be cautious. The last time one actually tried to accomplish something as sweeping as Johnson’s Great Society programs was Bill Clinton’s universal healthcare proposal.

The problem with Barack Obama is that his economic agenda is as vague as his foreign policy. What constituted his healthcare plan was less-than-universal during the primaries (when candidates attempt to appeal to their base, which means typically in Democratic presidential primaries they are more liberal). There is the mention of some kind of “jobs program” that could accompany any future stimulus package, but again no details have been submitted (and what ones that exist is mostly the result of the proposals of Democratic members of Congress).

What principles that President-elect Obama has expressed does not leave much hope. He supported the Wall Street bailout several weeks ago. Indeed, then-candidate and Senator Obama personally lobbied the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats in Congress to switch their votes. He is also supportive of free trade agreements, which is unlikely to change, not the least since labor unions no longer have much influence in the Democratic Party (or as much as they once had). They certainly were not able to stop Bill Clinton from arm-twisting his own party’s Congressional members to support NAFTA and GATT. The chance that President Obama will act on any of this in the interest of people who actually work for a living seems highly unlikely.

The only other economic policy that is known will be the rescinding of President Bush’s tax cuts. Assuming Congress supports his view legislatively people who make more than $250,000 a year will pay an extra few percentage points on their income tax. This is certainly a laudable goal (indeed, it is a pity we have not returned to the days of the true progressive income tax, as we had back during the Second World War). Nevertheless, it means nothing if the revenue enhancement is not put to legitimate use. At this time, it seems the main utilization of this revenue will be to decreasing our annual deficit/national debt, which should be of no concern to us since we do not have a World Bank or IMF collecting on that debt. Certainly, international investors who continue to purchase or valuate their own portfolios or economies on American currency would prefer a return to monetarism, but it was monetarism which helped put us into the current mess (with its stress on deregulation, deflation, and tight money supplies). Those days are over because the debts accrued from those years make it impossible for the US government to operate differently, regardless of who is in power.

Another area of contention will be repeal of President Bush’s arcane executive orders, which rolled back civil liberties, environmental law enforcement, and concentrated power in the imperial presidency to a degree that is unprecedented in American history. Some are even wondering if Obama will go ahead and use the expanded executive order authority to begin ruling by decree on other economic issues (before the 1900s executive orders dealt mostly with regulating behavior of federal employees or members of certain federal agencies). Thanks to Franklin Roosevelt, the imperial presidency has more authority than ever to do this, but even by the standards of Lincoln and Roosevelt what has happened in the last eight years is unprecedented. Be it his faith-based initiative, union dues for government contracting companies, establishing an entire agency of the government (Office of Homeland Security), limiting public access to presidential records (in direct contravention of an act of Congress), designating airspace as combat zones, limiting use of eminent domain, to what even constitutes a terrorist, these rules by decree have become a convenient way for the President to avoid Congressional debates and public scrutiny. The problem is President-elect Obama has not declared, to date, which ones he will rescind.

Another issue of note will be who President Obama picks for his cabinet. Already, the lecherous Lawrence Summers is being floated as a potential Secretary of Treasury. You may remember Summers more for getting himself dethroned from the presidency of Harvard after wondering aloud whether anyone with birth canals could ever learn to count or test a hypothesis. What is not remembered is that this stooge for ‘80s and ‘90s neo-liberalism was one of the movers and shakers for trade liquidity in the Clinton Administration, as well as a leftover bureaucrat from the World Bank who once wrote of the joys of dumping pollution and toxins in Third World countries to relieve rich white people like himself of its presence. The man is an academic Jabba the Hut for starvation economics, and any thought of having a second New Deal will end with his ascension to the Treasury.

Eric Holder will likely be our next Attorney General. Of course, he will be an improvement over John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, which is not saying much. Amoeba would be an improvement over this.



Holder is most famous for giving the OK for Clinton’s eleventh hour pardon of Marc Rich (who bought his legal clearing after donating some money to the Clinton library). It was not the finest hour of the Clinton Administration, and I cannot help but think that some enterprising Republican will stop fulminating against the anti-American/Islamic-Bolshevik takeover long enough to make an issue of this.

What will be most entertaining is if Hillary Clinton accepts becoming our next Secretary of State. She is not a natural pick. She has no real diplomatic experience, spending most of her foreign travels apparently dodging assassin’s bullets in Bosnia airstrips back in the ‘90s, and running a losing campaign against her rival for the presidency. She could easily get reelected to the Senate. I am not sure what kind of Secretary of State she would make. It is difficult to trust anyone with this country’s foreign policy after voting for the greatest foreign policy disaster in this nation’s history (she supported the Iraq War resolution in 2002 and only “came out” against the war coincidentally right around the time she formed her presidential exploratory committee). And if the Vanity Fair article on Bill’s recent escapades with members of the opposite sex are to be believed, this would give Bill Clinton an opportunity to (from the vocabulary of the village idiot) “practice his love” with scores of foreign folk through his travels as the spouse of the Secretary of State. Who knows, with any luck, we could get a global pandemic started.

As for the courts, the possibilities are endless. As it stands, John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court’s most senior liberal-leaning justice, is 88 years old (he is old enough that he witnessed Babe Ruth's famous “called shot” home run against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series). After him, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 75, Breyer is 70, Souter is 69, and Anthony Kennedy (a moderate) is 72. The Court’s conservatives are somewhat younger (Roberts is 53, Alito is 58, Thomas is 60, and Scalia is the right-wing’s elder inquisitor at 72). It is almost certain in the next four years that Stevens will be retire or depart to the hereafter. After him, likely Ginsburg and maybe Kennedy (it is doubtful that Scalia would ever retire as long as a Democrat is President). This is not likely to shift the court too much ideologically, as the replacements are mostly liberals and moderates--that is, unless Obama were to replace them with more liberal justices. This is possible, but my guess is that the politicization of court appointments is such that he will seek safe candidates. Just look at his cautious approach to economic, trade, and foreign policy issues. I would be surprised and happily so if he were to pick a Thurgood Marshall-type justice (or two or three).

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