by John Cassidy
The reputations of our Presidents often turn on economic factors beyond their control. The Great Depression was a global event. The contractions in the early nineteen-eighties and in the early nineteen-nineties were driven by the Federal Reserve, as Paul Volcker sought to bring down inflation and Alan Greenspan sought to head it off before it got established. Sometimes changes in the financial markets—changes that aren’t under anybody’s direction—can prove decisive.
President Obama (in contrast to the Presidential candidate Obama) was a victim of unfortunate timing. When he entered the White House, in January, 2009, the gross domestic product and employment were both declining alarmingly, and his term in office has been largely defined by efforts to right the economy.
Setting aside a collapse in spending and an alarming rise in unemployment, the country faced at least five major economic problems when he took over: a bombed-out real-estate market; an oversized, risk-riddled financial sector; a voracious demand for fossil fuels that had to be met by imports; stagnant wages and rising inequality; and a looming entitlements crisis that threatened to swallow the budget and bankrupt the country. All these problems had been long in the making, and none of them offered up ready solutions.
As a Presidential candidate, though, Obama was not averse to raising great expectations. Talking to the Times in the summer of 2008, he noted that Ronald Reagan “ushered in an era that reasserted the marketplace and freedom.” The next President would need to bring about a similar shift, Obama said, one that reasserted the role of an activist government, “laying the groundwork, the framework, the foundation for the market to operate effectively.”
Inevitably, many progressives—including such critics as Robert Kuttner and Joseph Stiglitz—were bitterly disappointed when Obama, in his first two years in office, backed away from positions they favored in health care, financial regulation, climate change, energy policy, and taxation. But they missed the fact that Obama was never really one of them to begin with. Despite his references to establishing a new paradigm, he wasn’t intent on facing down the malefactors of wealth, creating a Canadian-style welfare state, or forging a German-style social compact between labor and capital. In truth, Obama was a moderate young technocrat, whose first instinct was to seek the middle ground. The moment power beckoned, he tilted instinctively toward the establishment, and, in the Democratic Party that Obama had grown up in, the establishment was pro-Wall Street.
The average American motorist is now paying $3.80 a gallon, a record for the time of year. As prices have risen, all the Republican candidates have been selling the idea that the blame for this rise belongs primarily with Mr Obama—not with the market’s fear of a war with Iran, climbing demand in China or any other more plausible explanation. Unhappily for the president, many voters appear to be buying this snake oil.
Measured in sheer legislative tonnage, what Obama got done in his first two years is stunning. Health care reform. The takeover and turnaround of the auto industry. The biggest economic stimulus in history. Sweeping new regulations of Wall Street. A tough new set of consumer protections on the credit card industry. A vast expansion of national service. Net neutrality. The greatest increase in wilderness protection in fifteen years. A revolutionary reform to student aid. Signing the New START treaty with Russia. The ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Even over the past year, when he was bogged down in budget fights with the Tea Party-controlled GOP House, Obama still managed to squeeze out a few domestic policy victories, including a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction deal and the most sweeping overhaul of food safety laws in more than seventy years. More impressively, on the foreign policy front he ended the war in Iraq, began the drawdown in Afghanistan, helped to oust Gaddafi in Libya and usher out Mubarak in Egypt, orchestrated new military and commercial alliances as a hedge against China, and tightened sanctions against Iran over its nukes.
Oh, and he shifted counterterrorism strategies to target Osama bin Laden and then ordered the risky raid that killed him.
That Obama has done all this while also steering the country out of what might have been a second Great Depression would seem to have made him already, just three years into his first term, a serious candidate for greatness.
Before the compromise, the spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went even further, arguing that entirely secular corporations, if owned or run by faithful Catholics, should be able to exclude contraception from their employees’ health-insurance coverage. “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell,” he declared, “I’d be covered by the mandate.” And even that would be unacceptable.
So Catholic doctrine should, according to the bishops’ spokesman, also apply to non-Catholics—even if they are merely selling burritos.
This kind of rhetoric is not about protecting religious freedom. It is about imposing a particular religious doctrine on those who don’t share it as a condition for general employment utterly unrelated to religion at all. And if that is the hill the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical right want to fight and die on, they will lose—and lose badly. Which may in part be why the American bishops, in responding to Obama’s compromise, suddenly took a much more restrained tone. Contraception is popular. Even in conservative Mississippi, a recent ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to ban the morning-after pill failed badly at the polls. If this issue won’t work for the GOP in Mississippi, they’ll have a hard time winning a general election over it. And if the bishops think opposing Obama’s compromise will rally Catholics to their cause, they are even more out of touch than they realize. This will indeed become a wedge issue—between the bishops and their flocks. Yes, finally a social wedge issue that helps Democrats, not Republicans.
There was a time not so long ago when Catholics and other Christians weighed various moral claims to find a balance. Sometimes, the lesser of two evils was preferable. For centuries, for example, Catholic theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas, argued that human life begins not at conception but at some point in the second trimester. For centuries the Catholic Church allowed married priests. For centuries Catholics believed that extending the end of life by extreme measures like feeding tubes was a violation of natural death, which Christians of all people should not be afraid of. But this ancient, moderate, pragmatic reasoning has been rejected by the last two popes, who have increasingly become rigid, fundamentalist, and hostile to prudential balancing acts in the real, modern world we live in. Their radical fundamentalism—so alien to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and to so many lay Catholics—has discredited the core priorities of Christianity, failed to persuade their own flock, and led to increasing politicization. And the obsession among Catholic and evangelical leaders with an issue like contraception stands in stark contrast to their indifference to, for example, the torture in which the last administration engaged, the growing social inequality fostered by unfettered capitalism, the Christian moral imperative of universal health care, and the unjust use of the death penalty. That’s why younger evangelicals are also alienated. They want to refocus on issues of the poor, prison rape, human trafficking, and the kind of injustices Jesus emphasized, rather than on these sexual sideshows the older generation seems so obsessed with
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