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The Progressive

Obama: Clinton or FDR?

After Obama's big speech to the joint session of Congress, David Gergen made the over-the-moon observation on CNN that the first half of the speech sounded like FDR, and the second half sounded like LBJ.

I didn't hear it that way.

In fact, in the second half of his speech, I noticed that Obama suddenly morphed into Bill Clinton. It was when he started talking about personal responsibility, waving his finger in the air, the way Clinton used to. I don't mind the occassional exhortation to be a good parent, or the argument that consumer debt is a widespread disease that helped contribute to the economic collapse. But it is ridiculous to make it sound like the working poor who signed up for balloon mortgages, or the high school dropouts Obama said are not only failing themselves but also failing their country (to a massive standing ovation from Congress) are just as responsible for our current fix as Wall Street bankers who exploited loose regulation and are now paying themselves bonuses and doling out divideds to shareholders with government bailout money.

The new Obama Administration slogan for the financial crisis: "It's not about helping banks. It's about helping people," is not particularly heartwarming, either. It sounds a little like the NRA slogan. Which people are we talking about, anyway?

Obama alluded to the disillusionment about the bailout. But the way he described it, it seemed that the bailout, while flawed, was necessary-not a boondoggle for Wall Street funded by the taxpayers. If Gergen heard FDR in Obama's references to the GI Bill and the public school system and other examples of things the government has done right, he forgot that FDR also stood firmly on the side of ordinary wage-earners, and attacked Wall Street's greed.

Just seeing the Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was enough to remind you that change only goes so far.

There were some bright spots, of course. The gee-whiz factor has not worn off the Obama Presidency yet. Just seeing him take the podium, flanked by Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, and seeing the sour Republicans reduced to a minority, was cheering. So was the showcasing of the brilliant and down-to-earth Michelle Obama, hugging the little girl who wrote about her flood-damaged school. The Obamas inspire just by standing there. We're a long, long way from the Bushes.

Most of all, the turning away from the war in Iraq, and Obama's promise to save money by getting out of that useless war, and by cutting Cold War relics like Star Wars out of the defense budget, was mighty encouraging. Obama's slaps at Bush for Guantanamo, his pledge that the United States can now pledge that we don't torture, his commitment to invest in education, health care, and alternative energy as the top priorities in his budget, were salutory.

But again, Bill Clinton hovers like an eminence grise over all these areas. While Obama projects an image of America that draws on the best parts of its history: especially the New Deal and Great Society, it's not clear that he is proposing anything remotely that ambitious. The TARP investments he touted are worthy. But 3.5 million new jobs doesn't sound like such a big number anymore, sadly. Nor does $2500 for college. "This is America. We don't do what's easy, but what's necessary," he said. Good turn of phrase. But it turns out to be a rather vague pitch for doing something about the health care crisis. "We can no longer afford to put health care reform on hold." Does that mean cutting Medicare and Medicaid, like the threatened "reform" of Social Security, or does it mean extending SCHIP, which Obama praises?

It's not clear where he is going with this. Clinton talked beautifully about the hard-heartedness of Republicans, but he also had his own plan to privatize Social Security. Obama also made reference to "modernizing" and using individual accounts.

Next week, Obama said, we will see a new task force that will address health care reform. We all remember how that went in the Clinton Administration. And while Obama alluded in his speech to Teddy Roosevelt calling for health care reform, it was universal health care Roosevelt called for-a phrase that, while it got a workout during the Democratic primary season, did not appear in this speech. No one will be shocked if what emerges from that task force is Clinton-style incrementalism.

Going into the speech tonight, according to The New York Times, Obama had the highest favorable ratings of any recent President, and a surprising amount of support from Republican voters. Republicans in Congress, on the other hand, are not faring well with their stonewalling posture. It was a good time for Obama to lean forward, defend government spending to stimulate the economy, outline an ambitious agenda.

The "Third Way" rhetoric in the speech left me wondering whether his agenda will turn out to be ambitious in its scope, or simply scattershot and small-bore.

Obama continued to talk about reaching across the aisle and making government work for people. That might be smart, insofar as it seems to make the Republicans look more and more stubborn and irrational. But Obama's gentleness to the deregulators and pillagers is not encouraging. Nor is his willingness to spread the blame around for everything from educational failure to the mortgage crisis to the banks' collapse.

Clinton was brilliant and sunny and good at making his adversaries look downright small minded and mean. But in the end he never delivered on the big promises to expand opportunity, access to good education, spread the wealth around society. And that was when the federal budget was in surplus.

We are living in different times now, as Obama himself pointed out at the end of his speech. We can't afford to be anything but bold.

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Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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