reading the new administration

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Kuttner, Robert. Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008)

I generally tend to like Kuttner's work both at American Prospect and in his books--Everything for Sale comes most quickly to mind--but Obama's Challenge strikes me as having been an election-year rush job. Kuttner deftly draws parallels between Obama and his liberal forebears FDR and JFK, but I was struck by several errors in the text:

After all, as the right keeps shouting from the housetops, Obama really does have the most liberal voting record in the Senate. (p. 13)

No, he doesn't.

It is said, based on laboratory experiments first performed in the 1870s, that if you put a frog in a pot of hot water, he will jump out; but if you turn up the heat very gradually, he will poach to death. (p. 20)

Snopes says bullshit.

If Roosevelt's credo was "The only thing we have to fear it fear itself," Bush's might have been, "The only thing we have to use is fear itself. The continually changing color-coded alerts that frightened Americans on the eve of the 2004 election faded to static orange when they were no longer politically useful. (p. 70)

Actually, the DHS color alert has been downgraded from red (severe) to orange (high) only once, in August 2006.

Some of Kuttner's guesses as to where the economy would be by the time his book reached store shelves did not quite pan out. His reference to "the current bout of stagflation" (p. 114) was the most obvious example. After being in the 4-5% range for the preceding year, the inflation rate dropped enough in 2008 Q4 to spark concerns of a deflationary economy (Kuttner didn't completely miss this possibility; he discusses deflation later, on pp. 185-7).

Later, Kuttner decries "the trillion dollars that we will spend this year on imported oil," (p. 117) but this number appears to be rather inflated. I haven't found any year-end data for 2008, but a widely publicized estimate from BusinessWire put our bill for imported oil at $440 billion.

Kuttner's "transformative" label applies clearly to FDR--particularly in the realm of economics--and the FDR : Hoover :: Obama : Bush parallel is a strong one:

Bush followed by Obama could be one of the greatest contrasts in presidential leadership of all time. (p. 199)

One hopes that we will be fortunate enough to have Obama live up to Kuttner's comparison to the twentieth century's greatest president. Taking the larger view, Kuttner sounds this genuinely optimistic note near the end of the book:

The dramatically increased political engagement in the 2008 campaign, especially among energized young voters who have never before seen this kind of practical idealism close up, will continue into the Obama presidency. If Obama doesn't let them down, they will become an engaged political generation of the sort that we haven't seen in many decades. (p. 197)

Talbott, John. Obamanomics: How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008)

Former Goldman Sachs investment banker John Talbott provides plenty of quotes from Obama's speeches and policy statements, causing this book to be a rather dry affair. There are so many "Obama will..." sentences that the reader may well be somewhat numbed by the repetition. There is useful information here, though, and the reader's persistence will be rewarded.

As thoroughly as Obama's economic agenda has been explained and accepted, much still depends on the Washington environment outside of his control--both in Congress and on K Street. Talbott mentions this point several times, noting the strength and tenacity of Washington's entrenched interests even in the face of a president with great popular support:

Of all the problems Obama will inherit on day one of his presidency, stopping the special interests will have to be his first priority. (p. 111)

The main problems we face in America today aren't economic or environmental, as great as those problems are. The biggest problem is our having to deal with the character of our politicians in Washington and, mirroring that, the character of Americans everywhere, who must be willing and able to make the hard choices to find the solutions that will overcome the massive challenges before us. (p. 173)

If Obama goes after the special interests, he will be taking on almost all of corporate America, including Wall Street, the healthcare industry, the real estate lobby, and so on, as well as the most powerful political organizations of citizens in the country including our largest labor unions, our teacher unions, the AARP, and the environmental lobby. (p. 200)

Obama's candidacy caused much alarm in certain plutocratic circles; his presidency will, one hopes, continue to do so. If the temple's money-changers are upset, I take that as a sign that Obama is moving in the right direction.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on January 22, 2009 11:15 PM.

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