Transitional, Not Transformative

Nov 13, 2012 | Updated Jan 13, 2013

Before a final vote had been tabulated, the Beltway punditry were already at work speculating on how the newly reelected president would cope politically with the reactionary intransigence of Republican opposition and the so-called "fiscal cliff" that he had allowed them to frame as the most consequential issue in the public debate over the nation's future. As is often the case in prognosis, finding a cure is hampered by mistaking a symptom for the disease.

Lost in this "debate" -- now as during much of recent years -- is recognition of the fact that by letting the interests of the financial sector override any sense of what the Preamble refers to as "the general welfare," the world's largest economy has morphed into a model that has little hope of equitably distributing wealth and may therefore be largely unsustainable politically.

Through various tax and trade policies, our political leaders have allowed the more productive, value-added sectors of our economy to atrophy while the primary sources of capital have been allowed, if not encouraged, to exploit the global workforce and, through deregulation of the banking system, to engage in reckless speculation. Not surprisingly, this has led to downward pressure on real wages for the majority of citizens -- this in an economy overwhelmingly dependent on consumption. As a result, a greater dependency on debt financing by the general population has obtained in a system in which the same banks that have speculated globally are allowed to lend to consumers at rates that are nothing short of usurious.

This atmosphere of minimally regulated private sector markets -- championed as much by Clinton as Reagan -- has led to growing income disparities that will continue to grow in the current atmosphere, an atmosphere, regrettably, that Obama through Geitner has done precious little to change and which Romney profited from wildly and clearly championed. (Not all private equity is bad, but some models are worse than others and there are numerous examples of Bain's more, rather than less, predatory forms of speculative investment.)

These continuing inequities in how the private economy distributes wealth are not likely to change significantly during President Obama's second term. The president's team has shown great skill in marketing his candidacy, but limited skill in politically marketing a policy agenda. Whatever one may think of Obamacare substantively, its marketing to the electorate was insufferably wonkish, not to mention the president's dealings with the drug and insurance industries, which seasoned labor negotiators might well characterize as "bargaining against your own interests." The result was a "reform" that, while it may have some value in serving certain elements of the public interest, is woefully short of cost controls.

There was also the decision, apparently urged by Christina Romer, not to "market" the stimulus as an identifiable body of job-creating projects, but rather to funnel the money into "shovel ready" projects that, though they existed, had no public identity and therefore effectively did not demonstrably "exist" in the public mind. This lent credence to the opposition's claims of wasted money, despite independent research that revealed significant contributions the stimulus made in arresting the plunging rate of joblessness through retention and new job creation.

While a majority of voters apparently found the status quo preferable to handing the nation's leadership over to a champion of a financial plutocracy that bore -- and continues to bear -- primary responsibility for the misguided direction our economy has taken over the past 30 or 40 years, the administration's political métier of nominally progressive pragmatism suggests that the nation's economic circumstances will change little -- short of unanticipated events.

Given Obama's caution in the face of any extant emergency more threatening than the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, his legacy is therefore likely to result like the auto industry itself from the impact that runaway health care costs have on the economy and the federal budget in the years to come. With the opportunities to provide transformational leadership on that issue behind him, the president's legacy will at best be as the source of our nation's historic transition from mono-racial to biracial leadership, fraught with the risk that his more significant legislative achievement may fall victim to the industries to which he surrendered without a fight.