Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"The practical alternative on the table is ... what exactly?"

Andrew Sullivan, back from Vacation. And thank you Lord!

Yesterday's speech by the president, if you missed it, was a barn-stormer. Yes, it's the same old, same old pattern: he allows the opposition not just to vent and criticize (as they should) but to control the discourse for months, to drown out every other sound, to vent and crow and vilify and intimidate the cable news weenies into quivering puppies in need of crate-training. And then he comes back with a speech like that one.

I can't for the life of me see how the Democrats retain the House under these economic conditions, but that cannot and does not mean that what Obama has done in his first year and a half is a failure. On the contrary. On almost all the substantive stuff, he has in my view done the right and responsible and sane thing within the almost impossible constraints he was presented with. And given the legacy he inherited, what he has done is simply not enough to perform an economic or political or cultural miracle. That's the brutal truth and we have to face it. And if Americans thought they were voting for a savior, rather than a pragmatic president, they were deluding themselves.

When the economy imploded in the fall of 2008, there was simply precious little room for fiscal maneuver after the largely Republican-led spending and borrowing spree of the previous decade. The stimulus prevented the world falling into an economic abyss - just - but it was never going to get us out of the ditch we're in. Don Peck's brilliant cover-story is worth re-reading again on that score. And it was good to hear the president state this yesterday:

Eight million Americans lost their jobs in this recession. And even though we’ve had eight straight months of private sector job growth, the new jobs haven’t been coming fast enough. Now, here’s the honest truth, the plain truth. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no quick fix to these problems. I knew when I was running for office, and I certainly knew by the time I was sworn in, I knew it would take time to reverse the damage of a decade worth of policies that saw too few people being able to climb into the middle class, too many people falling behind. We all knew this. We all knew that it would take more time than any of us want to dig ourselves out of this hole created by this economic crisis.

The other brutal truth is that the opposition has nothing substantive to offer to remedy this. If all they've got is keeping the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 a year, they really have got nothing. What they do have is cultural symbolism and the exhausted right-left tropes that were trotted out at the mercifully vacuous parade of God and Country on the Mall with Beck and Palin. Maybe in power, by some miracle, the Tea Party Republicans will actually propose the long-term massive cuts in entitlements they claim to believe in. But I don't believe it for a second. I don't believe they are in any way serious about spending restraint and are only serious about their bewilderment at the real America where racial, religious and cultural diversity is a fact, where illegal immigration has been plummeting, where gay marriage is winning, where legal abortion will never go away, and where the new empire the last administration embarked upon has bankrupted us for a generation at least.

And this, in the end, must be what our politics is about: substantive policy responses to profound crises inherited from the past. Obama's call for transportation infrastructure investment is one tiny but real response and no panacea but it's paid for and it's something. His persistent attempt to get a real two-state solution in Israel-Palestine is unlikely to succeed given the forces arrayed against it in Washington and Tehran but it is necessary if we are to win this long war against Jihadism. His endurance in Afghanistan is, in my view, a tragic mistake, but anyone who claims that withdrawal would not have appalling moral consequences and great strategic risks is lying to you. His diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran's coup regime may also fail to prevent the Revolutionary Guards getting a nuclear capacity, but the alternative - a military strike - would initiate a new round of global religious warfare of terrifying gravity, where the Islamists would have the moral high-ground of being attacked first. His success in bringing a modicum of healthcare security to the working poor is also a work in progress but again, the practical alternative on the table is ... what exactly?

In the end, these difficult practical decisions will count because they have to count. And Obama's persistent refusal to take the red-blue bait still pushed by Fox News like a cheap bump of ideological meth is to his credit. It is emphatically not about his failure to "take them on". He is taking them on - but on his terms, not theirs'.