Article image
E.J. Dionne Jr.
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Wednesday 14 September 2011
Now we face a fundamental divide over the most basic questions: Is government good or bad?

How Much Has Obama Learned?

Article image

Our political system is not accustomed to the kind of battle going on now. President Obama has been slow to adjust to it. The voters are understandably mystified and frustrated by it. In the meantime, the economy sits on the edge of stagnation and something worse.

The president’s speech to Congress and the Republican presidential debate last week should have taught us that we are no longer in the world of civics textbooks in which our political parties split their differences and arrive at imperfect but reasonably satisfactory solutions.

Now we face a fundamental divide over the most basic questions: Is government good or bad? Can public action make the private economy work better, or are all efforts to alter the market’s course — by Congress, the president, the Federal Reserve — doomed to failure?

When politicians and their supporters believe the other side is pursuing policies that would destroy all they cherish, compromise becomes not a desirable expedient but “almost treasonous,” to use the phrase tossed about by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Under these circumstances, taking enormous risks with the country’s well-being, as House Republicans did in the debt-ceiling rumble, is no longer out of bounds. It’s a form of patriotism. When your adversaries’ ideas are so dastardly, it’s better to court chaos, win the fight and pick up the pieces later.

And to make matters worse — and more confusing — the two sides are not equally distant from the political center. We are in an age of asymmetric polarization.

Precisely because they believe in both government and the marketplace, Democrats are always more ready to compromise. Obama’s economic address last Thursday was seen as tough and firm because he finally called out Republicans in Congress. Progressives liked the new fortitude, and also the relatively large sums Obama would mobilize to jolt the economy back to vibrancy.

But there was nothing remotely radical (or even particularly liberal) about Obama’s ideas: tax cuts, many of them business-friendly, and new spending for such exotic projects as, well, schools and roads. As the president said, his proposals have all drawn Republican support in the past.

He was, however, talking about a Republican Party that existed before it was taken over by a new sensibility linking radical individualism with a loathing for government that would shock Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln and, for goodness’ sake, Robert Taft.

Thus the GOP sees the solution to the crisis in the measures its right wing has always favored: gutting regulation; keeping taxes on the affluent low; cutting government programs; and stopping Ben Bernanke and the Fed from doing anything to put the unemployed back to work that might risk the tiniest bit of inflation and thus dilute, even momentarily, the wealth of the already wealthy.

Last week’s Republican debate was instructive in showing how deeply this new orthodoxy has penetrated. Bashing Bernanke and the government was in. Perry joined in the doctrinaire foolishness his rivals displayed in an earlier debate. He echoed them in saying he would reject a budget deal based on $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. (A colleague of mine suggested the candidates should have been asked how they felt about ratios of 20-to-1 or 50-to-1.)

Up to this point, Obama has acted as if nothing much had happened in the Republican Party. He kept talking about bipartisanship and tried not once but twice to make a big deficit deal with John Boehner. Quite predictably, both efforts blew up in his face.

The president seems to have awoken to the danger he faces. In his speech to Congress, he pointedly addressed those who believe “that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own.” He added: “That’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America.”

But that is precisely who most of the Republican Party now thinks we are.

The president has offered eloquent defenses of the role of government in the past, only to revert to bipartisan fantasies that, in the end, always make him look weaker. The central question — for his jobs plan and his future — is whether this time he sticks with an analysis of the nature of our political fight that sees it as it is, not as he wishes it were.

© , Washington Post Writers Group


Get Email Alerts from NationofChange
Author pic
ABOUT E.J. Dionne Jr.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Before joining The Post in 1990 as a political reporter, Dionne spent 14 years at the New York Times, where he covered politics and reported from Albany, Washington, Paris, Rome and Beirut. He is the author of four books: “Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right” (2008), “Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge” (2004), “They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate The Next Political Era” (1996), and “Why Americans Hate Politics” (1991), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a National Book Award nominee. Dionne grew up in Fall River, Mass., attended Harvard College and was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. He lives in Bethesda, Md., with his wife and three children.

Top Stories

12 comments on "How Much Has Obama Learned?"

lubbad

September 15, 2011 10:12am

This decline started with NAFTA. Free trade my ass. Cheap labor for corporate profits is what happened. If you were a CEO and your job depended on pleasing Wall Street, you could easily increase profitability by moving production to non-union states, or to Mexico. Or better yet Canada where your workers already have health care provided. Jobs are gone. Just look in your neighbors driveway and see the Asian car. Or the American car which is put together and partially manufactured with foreign parts. Blame the lazy complacent Americans as well, for they have a sense of entitlement like no other people in the world.

Smallbear

September 18, 2011 11:54am

No. This decline started with Nixon giving unfair trade status to China, and accelerated with Reagan's union-busting and hyper inflated budget deficits.

Otherjerseyguy

September 14, 2011 10:12pm

Obama is bringing a knife to the Republican/Tea Party's gunfight.

j-lay

September 14, 2011 7:20pm

I just can't understand how so many people can blame Obama for this economy and joblessness. Maybe he hasn't done as much to help it as someone else could have, I don't know. Economists say that even if McCain would have been elected, things would be the same. Do they think Obama is responsible for the Global problem also? Don't they realize this all started when their hero Reagan deregulated the banks?
My Problem is "Why hasn't Obama made changes so this won't happen again?" And why appoint the same people who got us into this mess. He said they were the only ones who understood it all but I think our government and politicians are owned by Wall Street.

Smallbear

September 18, 2011 12:00pm

The corporate powers-that-be are spending billions of dollars to buy Congressmen/women, Senators, state governors and legislators, media outlets, and even paying bloggers to spread hate and misinformation because they are desperate to defeat the increase in hope around the world, and the expectation that things should be and can be better for everyone.

Stuart Mathieson

September 14, 2011 6:06pm

Here is my solution. Encourage domestic employment with tax incentives. It is strategically dangerous to be over dependant on foreign investment. Much better to have high employment at home (manufacturing), sufficient incomes for savings and domestic investement and a broad based taxation system to fund health, social security and retirement incomes. Guess what? Thats what you had before Reagan came along!

Stuart Mathieson

September 14, 2011 6:06pm

Here is my solution. Encourage domestic employment with tax incentives. It is strategically dangerous to be over dependant on foreign investment. Much better to have high employment at home (manufacturing), sufficient incomes for savings and domestic investement and a broad based taxation system to fund health, social security and retirement incomes. Guess what? Thats what you had before Reagan came along!

Garfield

September 14, 2011 6:05pm

The Republicans of today are the most unChristian political group I have ever seen. Their motto is "screw your neighbor -- especially if he has the misfortune to be poor."

Jerome Brown

September 14, 2011 4:57pm

wall street has destroyed main street and as much as obama wants to do the right thing those who want to destroy him mostly i fear for racial resonse will would destroy the country in the process hey they say it outright there number one goal is to make obama a one term president right from the start they wish he would fail it shows racism is true blue in america hey they want there country back

Angela Singleton

September 14, 2011 3:53pm

"Individual responsibility" encompasses education and job training, which equates to less government intervention. The Bush/Cheney administration is the reason we're facing jobs & other crises right now & the government is needed to some degree to help solve these crises that are detrimental to our country. Once the country is stable and operating like a true Democracy, the government can focus on decreasing its deficit... But right now, main street needs a bailout like Wall Street!!

Starz40

September 14, 2011 3:05pm

Perhaps Mr. Dionne misstates the problem. Many average people without Washington experience question the assumption that sitting on the federal perch gives politicians sufficient understanding of the local nuts and bolts to make assurances. Indeed, there are assumptions underlying the optimism of federal spending that deserve debate. Skepticism may look like loathing but it is healthy to question. And it is unhealthy to ignore how the economics of the world, our nation and our locales have changed. The lessons of the past may mislead us.

Diane Ribbentrop

September 14, 2011 1:22pm

GOP Baggers vowed to Break Obama make him fail Cause Waterloo That made me know the GOP Baggers care nothing for US economy / jobs / people .Just Power Corp tax cuts and more deregulating> Same old crap that led to Bush global meltdown / TARP 700 billion scam on taxpayers GOP made thei stand Huge Corps cuts - loopholes above ALL else