Even if I didn’t agree with him almost all the time, I would read Thomas Frank because he is a great writer. But the truth is that I very rarely disagree with him. We are both liberal populists who think that there is a very big problem with the Democratic Party: it has turned conservative on the issues that most matter to people — economic issues. And that means we both get attacks — from fellow Democrats — who think that we just don’t get it. They think that if the DLC hadn’t taken over the Democratic Party we wouldn’t have had a Democratic president since Carter. They are wrong, of course. Political science tells us they are wrong, but they are as resistant to evidence as conservatives are. That may be because they too are conservatives and want to hide under a cover of being slightly reasonable about abortion and same sex marriage.
But yesterday, Thomas Frank wrote an article that bothered me, Paul Krugman’s Sloppy, Wet Kiss. It is a response to Krugman’s Rolling Stone article, In Defense of Obama. I had read it when it first came out and my reaction to it was more or less the same as Frank’s: Krugman is putting the too positive a face the Obama presidency. And Frank did it using an important idea from economics: opportunity cost.
So the crisis went to waste and our smart young president let an era of possibility slip through his fingers. The cost of missing this opportunity is impossible to measure.
I am completely with Frank on this. And I’m with him when he criticizes the fecklessness of the Obama administration in believing that the Republicans would want to work with him. Where I disagree with Frank is in thinking that Obama “seemed like exactly the right man for the job.” No! He never seemed like the right man for the job. During the 2008 primary, I wondered if Clinton mightn’t be the better president. For one thing, she had something to prove: that she wasn’t her husband. And she might be strong in standing up to the Republicans. There was never any doubt that Obama was a milquetoast politician and that once in power, he was going to yield to the same old power elite as ever.
It seems kind of obvious now. Only Nixon could go to China because he was such a rabid anti-communist. Only Clinton could destroy welfare because he was labeled a liberal (and even a socialist). And only rich boy FDR could really take on the power elite. The last person for the job was a black man so nonthreatening that the Harvard Law Review allowed him to be president of it.
None of this is to say that Obama is bad. I admire him. I think he has been about as good a president as we are ever likely to have. I can say that because I am a pessimist. But no one who tells you he is going to bring “change” is actually going to bring change. People who bring change tell you what they are going to do. And that’s why any liberal bringing actual change would be cut to pieces. Our “liberal” media would never allow it. We’ve seen conservatives bringing change and they’ve delivered. Oh, how they’ve delivered! And we never learn. But all you have to do in this country is shout “Socialism!” and everyone cowers under our bridges that are falling down because of lack of infrastructure spending.
So I understand why Obama is the president he is. What I don’t understand is why someone as smart and insightful as Thomas Frank would ever have been fooled. Obama is an establishment man through and through. And he always was. He never meant “change” to be anything that would threaten (Even just a little!) the power elite.
See also: Obama’s Hope Is There’ll Be No Change