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David Brooks Grades His Favorite President: “C” is for Centrist

C for Centrist (photo: cobalt123 via Flickr)

David Brooks has been searching forever for a realistic, reasonable moderate Republican to keep the nation securely anchored in the comfortable middle of Brooks’ centrist cocoon, and in Barack Obama, he’s apparently found his man.

To be sure, Brooks reminds us, the President has his faults:

The fact is, Obama is as he always has been, a center-left pragmatic reformer. Every time he tries to articulate a grand philosophy — from his book “The Audacity of Hope” to his joint-session health care speech last September — he always describes a moderately activist government restrained by a sense of trade-offs. He always uses the same on-the-one-hand-on-the-other sentence structure. Government should address problems without interfering with the dynamism of the market.

[snip]

But he has done it with tremendous tenacity. Readers of this column know that I’ve been critical on health care and other matters. Obama is four clicks to my left on most issues. He is inadequate on the greatest moral challenge of our day: the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade. He has misread the country, imagining a hunger for federal activism that doesn’t exist. But he is still the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington.

I suppose one should stop reading any pundit whose moral compass leads him to proclaim the federal debt is “the greatest moral challenge of our day.” We’ve just gone [are still going] through the most lawless period in our history, and are still suffering from the worst economic crisis, reckless behavior, and massive looting in our lifetimes. Yet Brooks seems not to mind that no one has been held to account or brought to justice, or that hundreds of thousands died and millions more suffered as a result. All that is secondary to the fact we might one day have to raise taxes to pay for needless wars and needed health care.

But Brooks is not interested in that so much as getting us to think in the narrow, one-dimensional framework of left-center-right. We’re then conditioned to accept that Obama is only moderately to the left – a mere “four clicks” from the wonderful center in which Brooks imagines himself.

The left-center-right framework is only one dimension and not even the most interesting or relevant in defining this President or how his critics, rightly or wrongly, view him. Indeed, that ideological spectrum, often oversimplified as government control versus individual freedom, explains only a fraction of America’s predicament. (And to his credit, Brooks calls out Republicans for falsely claiming the health bills are about some massive government takeover.)

We could as easily posit another dimension measuring the degree of concern about corporate control over government and using that control to weaken regulatory oversight and extract wealth from the public and the public treasury. The looting of America’s middle class and the government’s coffers is a populist theme that transcends right versus left.

It’s far more relevant to measure where Obama fits on that “looting” spectrum.

It has been interesting to watch Obama vilify the health insurance industry, even as he and AHIP work together to bail out the private insurers with mandates to purchase their unreliable products, avoid any public competition to challenge their market share, and provide tens of billions in federal subsidies to pay their premiums. Right vs left? How about corporate interest vs public interest?

On financial reform, despite his earlier rhetoric about using government regulation to rein in the banks, Obama’s actual proposals seem unlikely either to dismantle too-big-to-fail institutions or seriously restrict their riskiest activities.

More than two years after revelations of massive looting, pervasive lending/investment fraud and risk practices that brought down the economy, there have almost no prosecutions. By design, the largest firms are larger than they were before, still using the same systemically risky methods they used then, while rewarding themselves even more egregiously than before. The prospects for real reform remain slim, and yet this President has not called out the corporate shills in Congress (or his own appointees) for facilitating and tolerating the continuing scandal.

Both genuine conservatives, if there are any, and genuine liberals should be horrified with that record. But of course, the only genuine conservatives left are folks like my Dad, about to celebrate his 91st birthday.

Brooks no doubt finds it comforting to call Obama a “center-left” moderate, but when government tolerates such egregious conduct against the public interest, the correct name is “corporatist,” “captured,” “accommodationist” or something worse.

Once you’ve plotted Obama correctly on that continuum, the best argument one can make is not that Obama is centrist but that he is an extreme incrementalist. He seems to believe that however necessary “change” or “reform” might seem intellectually, change is only acceptable in small bites that the public is ready for without too much further prodding.

I suspect that in Obama’s head, not pushing the public debate further, faster is a not a weakness, but a moral imperative. In that mindset, leadership truly is about refereeing the debate. It assumes the debate will eventually move in a useful direction, so it’s not the President’s job to prepare the public discourse to see outside the media’s narrow cocoon or to risk failing.

Inside Brooks’ comfortable cocoon, that’s all just fine. But if you see the country failing badly at multiple levels while it creates, exacerabates or tolerates vast human suffering, these intellectual excercises border on criminal neglect.

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David Brooks Grades His Favorite President: “C” is for Centrist

David Brooks has been searching forever for a realistic, reasonable moderate Republican to keep the nation securely anchored in the comfortable middle of Brooks’ centrist cocoon, and in Barack Obama, he’s apparently found his man.

To be sure, Brooks reminds us, the President has his faults:

The fact is, Obama is as he always has been, a center-left pragmatic reformer. Every time he tries to articulate a grand philosophy — from his book “The Audacity of Hope” to his joint-session health care speech last September — he always describes a moderately activist government restrained by a sense of trade-offs. He always uses the same on-the-one-hand-on-the-other sentence structure. Government should address problems without interfering with the dynamism of the market.

[snip]

But he has done it with tremendous tenacity. Readers of this column know that I’ve been critical on health care and other matters. Obama is four clicks to my left on most issues. He is inadequate on the greatest moral challenge of our day: the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade. He has misread the country, imagining a hunger for federal activism that doesn’t exist. But he is still the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington.

I suppose one should stop reading any pundit whose moral compass leads him to proclaim the federal debt is “the greatest moral challenge of our day.” We’ve just gone [are still going] through the most lawless period in our history, and are still suffering from the worst economic crisis, reckless behavior, and massive looting in our lifetimes. Yet Brooks seems not to mind that no one has been held to account or brought to justice, or that hundreds of thousands died and millions more suffered as a result. All that is secondary to the fact we might one day have to raise taxes to pay for needless wars and needed health care.

But Brooks is not interested in that so much as getting us to think in the narrow, one-dimensional framework of left-center-right. We’re then conditioned to accept that Obama is only moderately to the left – a mere “four clicks” from the wonderful center in which Brooks imagines himself.

The left-center-right framework is only one dimension and not even the most interesting or relevant in defining this President or how his critics, rightly or wrongly, view him. Indeed, that ideological spectrum, often oversimplified as government control versus individual freedom, explains only a fraction of America’s predicament. (And to his credit, Brooks calls out Republicans for falsely claiming the health bills are about some massive government takeover.)

We could as easily posit another dimension measuring the degree of concern about corporate control over government and using that control to weaken regulatory oversight and extract wealth from the public and the public treasury. The looting of America’s middle class and the government’s coffers is a populist theme that transcends right versus left.

It’s far more relevant to measure where Obama fits on that "looting" spectrum.

It has been interesting to watch Obama vilify the health insurance industry, even as he and AHIP work together to bail out the private insurers with mandates to purchase their unreliable products, avoid any public competition to challenge their market share, and provide tens of billions in federal subsidies to pay their premiums. Right vs left? How about corporate interest vs public interest?

On financial reform, despite his earlier rhetoric about using government regulation to rein in the banks, Obama’s actual proposals seem unlikely either to dismantle too-big-to-fail institutions or seriously restrict their riskiest activities.

More than two years after revelations of massive looting, pervasive lending/investment fraud and risk practices that brought down the economy, there have [been] almost no prosecutions. By design, the largest firms are larger than they were before, still using the same systemically risky methods they used then, while rewarding themselves even more egregiously than before. The prospects for real reform remain slim, and yet this President has not called out the corporate shills in Congress (or his own appointees) for facilitating and tolerating the continuing scandal.

Both genuine conservatives, if there are any, and genuine liberals should be horrified with that record. But of course, the only genuine conservatives left are folks like my Dad, about to celebrate his 91st birthday.

Brooks no doubt finds it comforting to call Obama a “center-left” moderate, but when government tolerates such egregious conduct against the public interest, the correct name is "corporatist," "captured," “accommodationist” or something worse.

Once you’ve plotted Obama correctly on that continuum, the best argument one can make is not that Obama is centrist but that he is an extreme incrementalist. He seems to believe that however necessary “change” or "reform" might seem intellectually, change is only acceptable in small bites that the public is ready for without too much further prodding.

I suspect that in Obama’s head, not pushing the public debate further, faster is a not a weakness, but a moral imperative. In that mindset, leadership truly is about refereeing the debate. It assumes the debate will eventually move in a useful direction, so it’s not the President’s job to prepare the public discourse to see outside the media’s narrow cocoon or to risk failing.

Inside Brooks’ comfortable cocoon, that’s all just fine. But if you see the country failing badly at multiple levels while it creates, exacerabates or tolerates vast human suffering, these intellectual excercises border on criminal neglect.

Related:
Naked Capitalism/FDL/Yves Smith, NYFed Implicated in Lehman collapse?
Matt Yglesias, The Fraud Factor

It’s more polite to talk about an impersonal crisis, but it’s clear that on both the micro scale (getting individuals to take out mortgages) and the macro scale (distorting the real quantities of leverage banks were carrying) that a lot of fraud and deception was in the room when this all went down.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley