One Final Thought On The Bernanke Fiasco

In the previous post, I described the re-confirmation of Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve as “a disaster.” As I thought about it more last night, something about that disaster helped gel another couple of things that have been floating around both my own head and the larger blogosphere for a while now: namely, the Bernanke re-confirmation yesterday serves as the perfect example of what Matt Taibbi recently called ”Obamania,” and Glenn Greenwald has written about as well.

In his article, Taibbi talks about feeling “a little mystified by the letters I’m getting from people who suggest that being a supporter of a politician means that you should ‘give him a break’ on this or that shortcoming, and behave more like a fan than a citizen.”

It’s a problem he’s not alone in noticing. Many of us who interact in real time in the TwitScape or other social media have run up against it, as well: other liberals and progressives, many with extraordinarily long and admirable records, who nevertheless will call out – often angrily or defensively – any other progressive who they perceive as having “strayed from the ranch.” By “strayed from the ranch,” these progressives seem in practice to mean “pushed Barack Obama from the left,” either by publicly criticizing previous bad decisions of Obama’s or (especially) pledging to work against having future plans/decisions decided badly.

I am as mystified by this behavior as Matt and Glenn are – and in the comparison between what transpired in the health care fight versus how the re-confirmation of Ben Bernanke to head the federal reserve went down, we have perhaps the clearest example of both what tends to cause the schism between the “pro-Obama” faction and the rest of the progressives like Matt and Glenn and myself who don’t really understand – or agree with – that mindset, and also the best example of why the “pro-Obama” mindset is wrongheaded in its approach. Taibbi observes:

According to these [progressives], such demands (that Obama push hard for progressive values and policies) are unfair and journalists and politicians who are critical of Obama should recognize that a president sometimes has to make tough political decisions and is often forced to “work with” unsavory characters in order to “get things done.

While it’s obviously true that sometimes Presidents, in the course of pursuing an agenda or a piece of legislation among a very diverse, often disparate set of interest-groups, have to “work with” or even make compromises with “unsavory characters,” as Matt puts it, there’s still a tremendous amount of leeway available to any President when it comes to determining which things on the agenda to push for, what to give or compromise on, and what to abandon. So, how does a President decide which parts of his agenda to push forward on, and which to back away from, compromise on or abandon altogether? Part of it, obviously, has to do with what that President and his administration actually want themselves – what are their own priorities. But, especially for adept, facile politicians like Obama, who are more conciliators and negotiators than advocates, there’s always another part to the equation, namely: paying attention to other power blocs. Again, Matt Taibbi:

If a leader doesn’t have to earn the admiration you give him, then a) that admiration doesn’t mean anything, and b) he will surely spend all his political capital on the people who do make him earn it.

Exactly. We see this time and time and time again, and it has never been more apparent as it is when comparing White House actions on the re-confirmation of Ben Bernanke and on the health care bill. Taibbi’s option a) is the health care fight, option b) is the Bernanke nomination. When some of the progressive world was pushing so damn hard for a stronger health care bill – insisting that single-payer advocates be allowed a place at the table and used as a foil to force the opponents of reform to move closer to a good bill, fighting for the inclusion of a strong public option and a removal of the insurance industry’s antitrust exemption and against the watering-down attempts of the Olympia Snowes and Kent Conrads of the Senate, with their triggers and state-based (as opposed to national) insurance exchanges, where were President Obama and the White House bully pulpit? Where was Rahm Emanuel? Answer: nowhere to be found, in most cases – and in some, such as when Lieberman committed his snake-like (but utterly predictable) poisoning of the health care bill by insisting that his vote just on cloture depended upon a removal of both the public option and the medicare buy-in, Rahm Emanuel was actually dispatched to Harry Reid’s office to tell him, straight from the top: “drop whatever you’ve got to drop to get it done” (i.e. – to secure Lieberman’s vote for cloture).

Why? Why did the Obama White House remain nearly or completely absent from the fight during the long angry summer/fall of battles over progressive portions of the health care reform legislation? I suppose you could say that we’ll never know the full mix of reasons why Obama and his administration didn’t push harder from the top for genuinely progressive health care reform, leaving it instead to the insane kabuki spectacle of Max Baucus trying to “woo” Matt Enzi and Chuck “Pull The Plug On Grandma” Grassley over the summer, as the tea parties exploded with preplanned rage across the country. But it’s a decent bet that at least one major part of the reason was that for every progressive out there pushing as hard as they could, networking to utilize every lever of influence they could muster to put pressure on not just Congress, but also the White House, to not cave and instead pass meaningful, robust health care reform, it seemed like there was another progressive who’d perhaps been struggling just as hard to learn about and push for health care reform…but who felt that we shouldn’t “attack our own side.”

Any President who says they “don’t pay attention to polls,” or to public sentiment, is simply lying. They all do. So it will not have escaped the White House’s attention that, as the fight for health care heated up, the progressive caucus, not only in Congress but – perhaps even more importantly, in the country itself – began to fracture into these two groups: what Atrios refers to as the “Dirty F***ing Hippies,” and the “don’t rock the boat” or “don’t ‘attack’ your own side” progressives. The DFHs were – are – in favor of pushing hard for health care reform. They understand that power concedes nothing without pressure, which in turn means doing things like putting progressive legislators on a list of people who would oppose the house bill if it did not contain real reform, thus forcing the leadership to worry about not taking the left wing of the party for granted as “gimme” votes. The “don’t rock the boat”-ers, by contrast, while they may have wanted reform as badly as the DFHs, nonetheless draw the line at threatening “our own side,” which they feel would result in nothing but further disharmony in the ranks and a less-united front, which would ultimately weaken whatever might be possible for health care reform. But, as Matt Taibbi said, in the money quote from his “Obamania” piece:

”First of all, we should get one thing out of the way — it’s not any citizen’s job to give a politician credit for his political calculations. In fact, that should rightly be part of the calculus of any political calculation; a politician should have to weigh the benefits of making, say, an unsavory insider alliance against the negative of public criticism for that move.

The fatal flaw in the “don’t rock the boat” group’s thinking, though, is the notion that because Obama (nominally) is already on our side, it is not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive to pressure him “from the left.” When George Bush was in office, these progressives knew they had an adversary in the White House, someone who was opposed to most or all of their agenda and policy desires, so they felt no compunction about opposing him or putting whatever pressure they could on the Republican powers-that-be. But as soon as Obama took office, all that changed – for them. And that’s where the problem lies. Yes, Obama comes from a progressive, community-organizing background. But he’s already demonstrated time and again that, like most successful politicians, he’s open to not only other ideas but also outside pressure. Convince him that there are real-world negative consequences for him, his allies, or his agenda if he proceeds with a certain set of actions – or doesn’t take other actions – and you’ve got not only his attention, but also, likely, some action from him on whatever you’re pushing for or against. That’s how politics works.

So, keeping in mind how riven and disunited about pressuring Obama the progressives were during the health care debate, let’s contrast that with the White House reaction to some Senate opposition to the Bernanke nomination (from last Friday). The banksters, remember, were just fine with Ben Bernanke’s stewardship of the fiscal world prior to and even during the financial crisis. In fact, they loved Bernanke. So, when opposition started to crop up not just from teabaggers like DeMint and Inhofe, but from principled progressives like Boxer, Feingold and Franken, the banksters didn’t hesitate; they started utilizing their considerable lobbying muscle on the White House to keep Bernanke in the seat that George W. Bush appointed him to. And the result?

President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were on the phone throughout the day to key senators to shore up votes, said two senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss behind-the-scenes activity….

White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton, talking to reporters as Obama headed to Ohio Friday, said the president has “a great deal of confidence” in the actions Bernanke already has taken and believes he’s “the best person for the job.”

Exactly. When this White House – like all White Houses before it – decides that they truly, actively want something to happen, they deploy all the pressure they can bring to bear to make it happen. Not to say they don’t make mistakes, or sometimes regret certain decisions, but let’s be clear: if a thing is important to this White House, truly important, they don’t just include it in a couple of speeches, bookended by fiery rhetoric. Instead, they utilize the real and quite significant power of the bully pulpit to get it across the goal line. Even then, sometimes they lose. Sometimes the forces arrayed against them in the Senate or elsewhere are too much to overcome. But they fight. Hard. What convinces the White House to fight hard thusly – even for “their own side?” Power. Loud voices that demand the President listen, voices that back up their demand with evidence that they can and will make things difficult for the White House agenda if they don’t listen. Just like what happened with the Bernanke nomination. With the public option, the medicare buy-in, single-payer, the national exchanges – heck, virtually the entire health care bill itself? Not so much. Matt Taibbi states the obvious:

Anyone who wonders why the Obama administration seems to be bending over so far backwards to appease conservatives and industry leaders in the health care debate and Wall Street in the financial regulatory reform debate can find their answer there: those groups make Obama pay for their financial/political support with real actions and policy concessions, while Obama’s “base” will continue their feverish support in exchange for mere gestures and marketing hocus-pocus, for news about the new family puppy or an appearance on Jay Leno.

When Matt wrote this a couple of weeks ago, it rang true. Now, with the re-confirmation of George W. Bush’s former chief economic advisor to the Chair of the Federal Reserve, a man who is arguably more responsible for the near-total crash of the financial system in 2004-08 than any other single individual, we have the starkest evidence yet of the truth of Matt’s analysis.