Curbing Your Enthusiasm

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The New York Times

Curbing Your Enthusiasm

Why does the Obama administration keep looking for love in all the wrong places? Why does it go out of its way to alienate its friends, while wooing people who will never waver in their hatred?

These questions were inspired by the ongoing suspense over whether President Obama will do the obviously right thing and nominate Elizabeth Warren to lead the new consumer financial protection agency. But the Warren affair is only the latest chapter in an ongoing saga.

Mr. Obama rode into office on a vast wave of progressive enthusiasm. This enthusiasm was bound to be followed by disappointment, and not just because the president was always more centrist and conventional than his fervent supporters imagined. Given the facts of politics, and above all the difficulty of getting anything done in the face of lock step Republican opposition, he wasn't going to be the transformational figure some envisioned.

And Mr. Obama has delivered in important ways. Above all, he managed (with a lot of help from Nancy Pelosi) to enact a health reform that, imperfect as it is, will greatly improve Americans' lives - unless a Republican Congress manages to sabotage its implementation.

But progressive disillusionment isn't just a matter of sky-high expectations meeting prosaic reality. Threatened filibusters didn't force Mr. Obama to waffle on torture; to escalate in Afghanistan; to choose, with exquisitely bad timing, to loosen the rules on offshore drilling early this year.

Then there are the appointments. Yes, the administration needed experienced hands. But did all the senior members of the economics team have to be protégés of Robert Rubin, the apostle of financial deregulation? Was it necessary to install Ken Salazar at the Interior Department over the objections of environmentalists who feared, rightly, that his ties to extractive industries would make him slow to clean up a corrupt agency?

And where's this administration's Frances Perkins? As F.D.R.'s labor secretary, Perkins, a longtime crusader for workers' rights, served as a symbol of the New Deal's commitment to change. I have nothing against Hilda Solis, the current labor secretary - but neither she nor any other senior figure in the administration is a progressive with enough independent stature to play that kind of role.

What explains Mr. Obama's consistent snubbing of those who made him what he is? Does he fear that his enemies would use any support for progressive people or ideas as an excuse to denounce him as a left-wing extremist? Well, as you may have noticed, they don't need such excuses: He's been portrayed as a socialist because he enacted Mitt Romney's health-care plan, as a virulent foe of business because he's been known to mention that corporations sometimes behave badly.

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Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman is professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University and a regular columnist for The New York Times. Krugman was the 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. He is the author of numerous books, including The Conscience of A Liberal, The Return of Depression Economics, and his most recent, End This Depression Now!.

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