Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. ~Ryan Lizza
After reading his ridiculous Rolling Stone article on Obama’s “sell-out” to Wall Street, I am persuaded that Matt Taibbi should be forced to write these two Ryan Lizza sentences a few thousand times by hand until he has absorbed their message. The problem is not Taibbi’s reporting on the administration’s actions and personnel, but with the overall interpretation he gives to the facts. No one believed that Obama was “standing up to Wall Street” when Tim Geithner and Larry Summers were appointed to top economic Cabinet and advisory posts, and everything that has happened since then is consistent with the modern Democratic Party’s accommodation with Wall Street that has been steadily intensifying for the last fifteen years or so. Obama’s support for the financial bailout last fall was just one more instance of this.
As far as Washington pundits and most of the political class are concerned, Obama has taken the “responsible” positions in response to the financial crisis, because he has embraced the solutions offered by the very people from Wall Street, the central bank and the Treasury who contributed greatly to the causes of the crisis. It is very important to understand that Obama campaigned on these “responsible” positions, and he made no promises to challenge the government’s collusion with financial interests. His supporters have exactly what they voted for as far as these things are concerned. He had no mandate “to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy,” because he never really proposed to do either of these things. If he had, he probably would not have voted for the financial sector bailout. It is a bit rich for Taibbi to complain about the Citigroup deal as if it represented something different from the bailout passed earlier in the fall. None of this is to say that Taibbi is wrong in finding the deal outrageous, but it was hardly a sharp break with the things Obama had already supported.
Some progressives are just as invested in the idea that Obama has “sold out” to corporate and financial interests as neoconservatives are committed to the fantasy that Obama’s foreign policy has recently undergone dramatic change. The reality is that Obama never had to “sell out” to these interests, because he never challenged them in any serious way in his national political career before he became President. We are not witnessing “one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history.” We are seeing Obama do pretty much exactly what he did during the general election and the months before his Inauguration: he has been careful to position himself squarely as a conventional center-left politician, and he has done this most of all as far as it concerns the financial sector.
As for trade policy, he has not pushed for new trade agreements, but neither has he actively tried to change any existing agreements. The primary candidate who raised the possibility of re-negotiating NAFTA vanished even before the nomination was his. Even Austan Goolsbee, whom Taibbi makes out to be one of the good, banished economic advisors, effectively admitted in the spring of 2008 that, as Taibbi puts it, “Obama had only been posturing when he promised crowds of struggling Midwesterners during the campaign that he would renegotiate NAFTA.” Taibbi may not want to remember, but at one time it was Goolsbee’s presence on the Obama campaign that served as the kind of reassuring signal to corporate and financial interests that the Furman and Geithner appointments were later on. The idea of re-negotiating NAFTA had been dead for months by the time Furman came on board. Furman’s appointment confirmed a policy view that already existed. It did not represent a change or a departure on trade policy. Taibbi writes as if he didn’t know that Obama was a committed free-trade globalist. Nowhere can Taibbi provide any of Obama’s statements or legislation to support the idea that his embrace of the policies and personnel of Rubinism and globalization as President is any way different from the policies he favored before his election. Instead we are treated to a lot of hand-waving like this:
A president elected on a platform of change was announcing, in so many words, that he planned to change nothing fundamental when it came to the economy.
Obama didn’t run on a platform of “fundamental” change of the economy. He was very careful not to scare anyone with anything as dramatic or interesting as that. He didn’t run on a platform of “fundamental” change in foreign policy, either. The man isn’t interested in fundamental change. My guess is that this is not just because this kind of change is far more difficult and risky, but because he really thinks it is undesirable. This is how he has gone from political obscurity to the White House in a decade. That was Lizza’s point all along.