The Clinton era, part two?

November 25, 2008

In the face of a severe economic crisis, the neoliberal nostrums of the Clinton era are no longer an option.

PRESIDENT-ELECT Barack Obama ran his campaign on the promise of bringing "change" to Washington. In dispatching Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, he often made the point that his judgment in opposing the invasion of Iraq trumped Clinton's "experience" as a Washington insider who supported the war.

Apparently, that was then.

This is now. As Obama prepares to nominate Clinton to be his secretary of state, it looks as if all of Obama's case against Clinton was a well-crafted campaign pitch, ultimately signifying nothing.

Beyond the appointment of Clinton, Obama appears to be setting about doing what Clinton herself had planned to do if she had won the presidency--bring a restoration of the Bill Clinton presidency to Washington.

Virtually every major position in the Obama administration is going to a figure associated with the Clinton White House of the 1990s. Rahm Emanuel, often called Clinton's consigliere, will be Obama's White House chief of staff. Bill Richardson, Clinton's UN ambassador and energy secretary, is expected to be appointed commerce secretary. Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers will head Obama's National Economic Council. Clinton lawyer and Justice Department official Eric Holder is reportedly Obama's choice for attorney general. And the list goes on.

Perhaps the biggest non-change will be in the foreign policy arena, where speculation continues that George W. Bush's Defense Secretary Robert Gates will retain his position for at least the early months and years of an Obama administration. Leading Obama's transition team on intelligence issues is John Brennan, a CIA official who worked under George Tenet, the former agency director under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who was fully implicated in all of the agency's horrors, from torture at Guantánamo Bay to "extraordinary rendition."

The list of Iraq war hawks who will circle the Iraq war opponent Obama certainly can't constitute change to anyone who voted for Obama thinking he would end the war. "It's astonishing that not one of the 23 senators or 133 House members who voted against the war is in the mix," Sam Husseini of the media watchdog Institute for Public Accuracy told the Los Angeles Times.

WHAT CAN we make of all of this? Was the Obama campaign simply a big bait-and-switch operation?

Barack Obama and likely administration appointees, clockwise from top left: Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Lawrence Summers and Eric Holder
Barack Obama and likely administration appointees, clockwise from top left: Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Lawrence Summers and Eric Holder

Despite his soaring rhetoric and often-sharp criticism of the Bush administration, Obama stuck to a fairly discrete and well-established list of policies he said he would implement if elected. While people are right to pressure him to act on their expectations for change, Obama always held to positions that are well short of those high expectations.

Thus, for example, in a debate with John McCain, Obama said he considered health care a right for all Americans. Nevertheless, the health care plan he is planning to offer falls short of that lofty goal.

Anyone who took Obama at his word is right to be concerned--if not outraged--at the number of Clinton era and Washington insider hacks who are turning up in his administration. Still, this doesn't mean that the Obama administration is simply going to be a rerun of the Clinton years.

Bill Clinton's political approach--call it "Clintonism"--was forged in the 1980s, a period of three straight landslide defeats for Democrats in presidential elections at the hands of the Reagan-Bush Sr. Republicans. For a section of conservative Democrats, the top strategic priority was "reorienting" the Democrats to make them competitive for big-business support.

In office, Clintonism became synonymous with free trade globalism, the lowest level of government spending since the Eisenhower administration, and what were known as micro-initiatives--from tuition tax credits to unpaid medical leave--to address social problems.

All of this seemed to work in an environment where conservatism looked to be the leading political force--to which liberalism would have to trim its sails.

Yet the Bush administration left such a disaster in its wake that even significant sectors of big business are promoting a Democratic resurgence. And on November 4, ordinary voters fed up with the war in Iraq and the economic crisis gave the Democrats a clear mandate to move in a new direction.

Clintonite "triangulation" and micro-initiatives are no longer an option, and not even big business wants them. "We are not living in a time that allows for incrementalism," Obama's chief adviser David Axelrod told the New York Times. "[Obama's] goal is to form a bipartisan consensus. I don't think that goal is more important than achieving a result."

Big business knows it faces a crisis of historic proportions, and the only chance of solving it requires concerted government action. That's why neoliberal nostrums of the 1990s--many of which became synonymous with the Clinton administration's approach--aren't even being considered as serious contenders today.

It's interesting to note that Obama's treasury secretary designee, Timothy Geithner, has been a competent public official who essentially carried out the policy that others set. Under the Obama administration, he looks set to carry out the policies of his boss, Obama, and Summers, acting as chief economic policy maker in the NEC.

Although Summers is a Clinton retread who is implicated in all of the neoliberal and deregulatory policies of those years, he has, for more than a year, been sounding the alarm on the extent of the economic crisis and calling for recapitalization of the banks, regulation of the financial sector and massive government stimulus to stave off a deeper slump.

As Robert Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America's Future put it:

"The era of big government is over" is over. In the crisis, we are, as Richard Nixon once said, "all Keynesians now." Former Clinton Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, until recently notable deficit hawks, now call for substantial fiscal stimulus--deficit-funded federal spending--to get the economy going.

Judged by the huge Wall Street rally that accompanied the November 21 leak of Obama's impending selection of Geithner, it appears that big business agrees with the present-day Summers.

One final difference marks the Obama years from the Clinton years--and this one takes us out of the realm of policy wonkery.

It is that for millions of Americans, the election of Obama reflected a political awakening. They voted for "change," and they have the sense that they are swimming with the tide of history.

In thousands of big and small ways over the next few years, ordinary people--like those mobilizing for marriage equality in the wake of the passage of California's Proposition 8--will pressure the administration for action. And even Clinton-era hacks will have to pay attention to that.

Thanks to Joel Geier for his insights on the emerging Obama economic team.

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