Obama’s opening changes are modest

March 16, 2009


So you’re sitting around watching the stock market gyrations and the deteriorating economic picture and you can’t suppress the troubling notion that nothing’s happening and nothing’s changing, except of course your retirement prospects. Maybe, you say to yourself, you’re missing something.

Indeed, for all the talk about the running start Team Obama was going to make, there remains little comparison between the Hundred Days of Franklin Roosevelt, which produced 15 major pieces of legislation, and the Half-Hundred Days of Barack Obama, which produced a stimulus bill that not one Republican supported in the House.

But from the start that was an unfair comparison or, if you are one of the many readers who think the press is rooting too hard for President Obama, you may prefer calling it an inappropriate comparison. FDR faced the worst economic conditions in the history of the modern world. Obama faces the worst economic conditions in about three decades.

More than 4,000 banks had failed in the two months leading to the Roosevelt inauguration and a quarter of American workers had no job. Things are bad now — no, they are terrible — but they are not as bad as they were in Roosevelt’s first few months. Not even close.

So far we have nothing to compare with the creation of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., any one of which has a more solid claim to socialist roots than the Obama plans that have returned “socialist” to its position as one of the deadliest, and least-accurately applied, sobriquets in American politics.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed. Nor does it add fuel to the argument, made by real socialists in countries where there is a real socialist tradition, that there is substantially no difference between America’s Democrats and its Republicans — or that American politicians are so stuck in the center-right that their views run the gamut from A to B, which was Dorothy Parker’s description of Katharine Hepburn’s emotions.

It is true that the Obama administration largely has adopted, not adapted, the Bush administration’s approach to bailing out banks, big investment houses and other capitals of capitalism deemed too big to fail. (In that regard, ironically, the Bushkins were as socialist as the Obamatrons. But that is another column.)

Even so, it is possible to look across the American landscape and see substantial alterations in the terrain. From the biggest questions in jurisprudence to the biggest questions in science, there has been not a tremor but an earthquake. Here’s a tour d’horizon of the new world order:

• Taxes. The president may not get his way — it’s a good bet that the big-money interests, plus charitable institutions, will besiege the Ways and Means Committee and put a stop to the Obama plan — but for the first time in a decade there are serious conversations about changing some of the fundamentals of the tax code, at least at the higher-income levels. Past presidents have been chary of openly calling for tax increases. Obama apparently has no such reluctance.

• Constitutional questions. George W. Bush issued scores of signing statements, presidential remarks that sometimes adjusted the meaning of legislation and sometimes provided roadmaps for bureaucrats to blunt the intent of legislation. During the 2008 campaign, Obama criticized this practice, and though he has said he will not discontinue it completely, it already is apparent he will issue far fewer of these documents and do so with far more restraint.

• Military matters. Obama has trimmed back slightly his campaign proposals for a swift withdrawal from Iraq, but it is clear he views the conflict as a burden for the United States rather than as an opportunity for Iraq — a substantial change in Washington’s emphasis and approach. At the same time, he has ordered 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The net effect of both of these is to shift the equilibrium between the two wars away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan.

• Science. Obama last week overturned the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding for research involving embryonic stem cells, a move that cheered many researchers and angered leaders of the anti-abortion movement. This, too, represents a change in the political equilibrium, away from anti-abortion advocates and toward other interest groups, including supporters of legal abortion.

Another important scientific initiative from the Obama camp: a clear signal that the administration regards global climate change as a challenge to be confronted and not as a theory to be debunked. Taken together, these two changes have the potential to reshape the future in ways far more profound than anything Obama has proposed in more conventional political arenas, including the two wars in Asia.

• Education. Every president of the last two decades has pledged to be an “education president” — the phrase belongs to George H.W. Bush — and in truth the most recent Bush president did devote much attention to education, often to the distress of the teachers’ unions. For his part, Obama has spoken of cradle-to-career education, a symbol of a far more activist role for Washington in education at all levels. And in one speech last week the president did more to shift the debate in American education than any of his predecessors did in 20 years. Two flashpoints: He supported merit-based pay, which is anathema to the unions, and assailed practices that allow teachers to retain their jobs even if they are ineffective, also a union shibboleth.

Obama’s critics (and some of his supporters) are correct to say that the new president’s accomplishments thus far are modest, even meager. It’s not possible to know whether there will be sufficient support, or follow-through, to implement the changes Obama has set in motion. But there should be no question that while there are few changes in the books, there is much change in the air.

— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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