’09 national news in review

by Jordan Green

The national discontent that unraveled the momentum behind the Bush administration helped sweep the first African-American president to power last year. What might have been a historic opportunity considering a once-in-a-century economic downturn and a solid Democratic majority has all but dissipated. Scarcely had Barack Obama been inaugurated than the discontent whiplashed and crystallized into implacable opposition.

Tea parties proliferated across the nation in April. Their participants were galvanized by opposition to deficit spending but also old bugaboos such as the Federal Reserve and the income tax. By July, the former Republican vice presidential candidate — then recently liberated from employment as Alaska’s governor — introduced the memorable and effectual phrase “death panels” into the national conversation. Over the next two months, angry opponents of healthcare reform clogged town-hall meetings and harangued elected representatives in an effort that came close to derailing Obama’s top priority. The deterioration of civility carried over from the town-hall meetings to a joint session of Congress in September when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina made his famous utterance, “You lie,” in the middle of Obama’s address.

Healthcare reform did eventually pass both houses of Congress along almost strictly partisan lines, although in the Senate version it was stripped of a public option to guarantee coverage every person in the United States. The Senate bill is said to offer coverage to about 94 percent of the nation.

Like healthcare reform, Obama’s commitment to action on climate change also instigated a ferocious backlash. Despite the pleas of representatives of tiny island nations such as Tuvalu that their countries are literally disappearing under rising sea levels, the climate change summit in Copenhagen stalemated along predictable lines between industrialized and developing nations about who would make the cuts to emissions and bear the costs.

While whipping up the righteous armies of the right, Obama also managed to severely disappoint his leftwing base. Contrary to the expectations of many progressives who imagined that Obama would seize the historic moment of widespread economic hardship and refashion the social contract to create a New Deal-style public works program and make it easier for workers to form unions, the new president clearly demonstrated a preference for the rich and entrenched corporate interests.

Continuing Bush’s federal bailout of the banks, Obama oversaw a massive infusion of public money to protect the banking and finance system from collapse, but took no action to extract regulatory concessions from the industry, limit executive pay or require that lending institutions start making loans to small businesses again. Similarly, Obama oversaw the bailout of the auto industry, but punted on the opportunity to require manufacturers to make more fuel efficient vehicles.

Murmurings of recovery have been heard by the punditry and some economic experts but the unemployment rate remains stubbornly stuck in the double digits. Since the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, unemployment has only risen, although to be fair much of the money has yet to be spent on local shovelready projects. The feigned outrage among the national political class at corporate abuses has almost completely subsided. The notion that the new majority in Washington would represent and advance the interests of people of ordinary means has been revealed to be an effective piece of myth and political theater.

If President Obama’s domestic agenda has reflected a mixture of caution, capitulation and preference for the privileged, his foreign policy has represented an even more bitter disappointment to the progressives who embraced the one-time candidate’s criticism of Bush’s Iraq misadventure. Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan with no reasonable plan for success, preceding a drawdown in 18 months. The president used his acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo to articulate a view of war as a legitimate tool for advancing national interests. The Nobel Committee’s curious choice to award the prize to Obama set back the cause of peace by clothing war in the garments of righteousness through the president’s eloquent rhetoric and repairing the public relations damage inflicted by George W. Bush on the American imperial project.

In another disappointment to the president’s progressive base, the detention camp in Guantánamo will likely not be shut down within a year, as promised in an executive order signed in January. Plans are afoot to transfer war detainees to Thompson Correctional Center in Illinois, but little attention has been given to changing institutional practices of torture and detention without evidence. The Obama administration has refrained from investigating and prosecuting officials with the former administration for policies enabling torture. Instead of holding officials accountable and deterring future abuses, the new president has favored high-flown rhetoric designed to improve the United States’ image abroad.

The year had its share of craziness.

One of the most bizarre manifestations of the outpouring of antipathy towards the president was the birther movement, with its irrational skepticism about the fact of Obama’s birth on the soil of the United States and his legitimacy as elected president of the nation. Equally kooky was a Dec. 22 pronouncement by author Bruce Feiler on “The Diane Rehm Show” comparing the birther phenomenon to the ingratitude and disgruntlement of the Israelites towards Moses as he led them out of Egypt.

There was the tragic craziness of a Muslim-Arab Army psychiatrist named Nidal Hassan who opened fire at Fort Hood and killed 13 people. There was the entertaining craziness of the governor of South Carolina disappearing with the explanation that he had gone for a walk on the Appalachian Trail, only for it to be later revealed that he had jetted to Argentina to meet with a secret mistress.

The partisan vote in the Senate to pass healthcare reform sets the stage for a no-man’s land of national politics in 2010, with mid-term elections looming and threatening to strip away the Democratic majority. The Senate vote demonstrates that Obama can only achieve the most modest agenda with only the narrowest margin of support. And any accomplishment by the president is certain to leave a sizeable segment of the nation bitterly aggrieved.

Caught flatfooted by the recession, President Obama has had to increase deficit spending in seeming contradiction to candidate Obama, who criticized the previous administration’s deficit spending. Obama campaigned on a pledge to cut taxes for the middle class, and his promise to eliminate wasteful spending has so far located few inefficiencies. His Republican opposition is likely to give him little, if any, latitude to spend additional public dollars on ambitious programs that address economic hardship and create new jobs.

In the absence of a consensus by the governing majority much less any kind of bipartisan coalition, 2010 looks to be a year of political paralysis. The new year will give us a clearer idea of whether the vast and sprawling movement of Tea Party fiscal conservatives, Sarah Palin family-values warriors, Lou Dobbs nativists and Fox News patriots will coalesce into a force able to reinvigorate the Republican Party, or whether those mobilizations merely signal the beginning of a long period in the wilderness for the GOP.

The experience of 2009 appears to tell us that the next several years will give us a mixture of empty rhetoric and policies divorced from reality from both major political parties.

The Republicans and Democrats will squabble over minutiae and emotional tripwires such as abortion and immigration, but party lines break down on many essential matters of economic significance.

A little-noted event in December was the Senate Banking Committee’s less than unanimous approval of Ben Bernanke for a new term as chairman of the Federal Reserve, with one Democrat joining several Republicans in a vote against reappointment. The Senate’s sole socialist, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has held up Bernanke’s nomination, according to several reports. Clearly, not everyone concurs with Time’s choice for “person of the year.”

The reasons for the bipartisan discontent are outlined by progressive economist Dean Baker in an essay that notes that Bernanke took no action to alert the public about the housing bubble, to crack down on fraudulent mortgages or raise interest rates to close off the supply of money sloshing into bad loans.

“Ben Bernanke did not pursue a responsible Fed policy,” Baker writes. “He insisted that everything was just fine until he had to run to Congress last September, saying that if it didn’t immediately give $700 billion to the banks through the TARP program then the economy would collapse.

“In Washington no one is ever held accountable for their performance,” Baker continues. “The economic collapse is treated like a fluke of nature — a hurricane or an earthquake — not the result of enormous policy failures.”