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

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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