It's been less than three months since Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term, and yet it feels as if he's fading from the scene. About the best thing I can find in his proposed budget is $40 billion for passenger rail over the next five years. That would be about the same as the U.S. was, until recently, throwing away every four or five months in Afghanistan. And it's contingent on getting through a House of Representatives with the usual anti-rail Republican fetish. But it's something.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama wants to begin what will no doubt be a series of cutbacks to the social safety net. If Nixon can go to China, the Democratic heir to Franklin Delano Roosevelt can begin dismantling Social Security. As yet another attempt to prove reasonable and make the Republicans like him, this will fail, as Paul Krugman eloquently points out. Indeed, he is a Robert Rubin Democrat: He's been aiming at "entitlements" for a long time. Meanwhile, expenditures on the military are essentially unchanged.
I don't know if this is the power of the Military-Industrial Complex or a Democrat afraid of looking weak on "national security," but nobody seems willing to concede that a nation cannot be powerful without first and foremost a strong economy. The private sector is either poleaxed by the financialized economy and the powers of monopolies and cartels — or among the latter and sitting on record profits and cash but doing no hiring of Americans. So this would be the point where an energetic and sensible federal government would embark on a 21st century infrastructure project and "Project Apollo" to create the technologies to address climate change — but nothing from Mr. Obama. He seems content to see America becalmed for the next three years. The suffering unemployed and poor, after all, won't affect the chief executives he lunches with, or his fellow Ivy Leaguers, or the parents who send their children to Sidwell Friends.
Mr. Obama will never run for office again. What is stopping him from bringing the rule of law to Wall Street, drawing down the military to a sensible level, showing the Republican Congress to be the enemies of American opportunity and indeed national survival that they are, and using the vast powers of the executive to act on our pressing challenges and, yes, punish the Republicans? Has the coup of the oligarchs gone that far? If so, why not tell the people? Or is it that the presidency in recent decades is only weak when it is held by Democrats.
As things stand, Mr. Obama is a figurehead president, with John Boehner as prime minister over an Italian-style dysfunctional and paralyzed parliamentary system.
And what of the Affordable Care Act, supposedly the centerpiece of his legacy? I have always been suspicious of this overhaul, which seemed too complex, too much of a giveaway to the big insurance companies and even if all went well it still wouldn't cover all Americans. I fear all sorts of gremlins are hiding in this "compromise" with the private sector — and that was even before Republican governors started to refuse to participate. I predict disaster. And it will come precisely because Obamacare is not socialism. Excuse me, SOCIALISM! Can you imagine the real entrepreneurial energy that would be unleashed in this country is 1) we had single-payer health care for all, so people wouldn't feel chained to the shrinking number of companies that provide health insurance, and 2) banks were taxed heavily for gambling and given incentives to lend for job-creating enterprises?
We will never know under this president.
Socialism? If President Obama has brought socialism to these once-bright shores of liberty, as the crazies of the right would have it, where the hell is my universal health coverage, free college education, subsidized vacations, early retirement, child-care for working families and high-speed rail?
I suspect his legacy will be defined in ways this intelligent, well-meaning man would rue, and history's judgment will grow more harsh as the years pass. Mr. Obama will be the president who did nothing to address climate change, the real red ink we're leaving for future generations. Yes, he gave a good speech, but his words were mostly empty. His inspiring 2008 words about reaching a point where "the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal..." will be measured against his "hundred-year supply of natural gas" lines in 2012, along with promises to essentially let the fossil-fuel industry do anything it wants.
Early in his first term, Mr. Obama's policies did avert a full-blown second Great Depression and saved General Motors. But in the aftermath he helped perpetuate the lesser depression by embracing the austerity principles of so-called conservatives. He failed to reverse the disastrous trade policies of his predecessors, or their assault on our liberties, or their drone wars — indeed, he perpetuated them. Facing wealthy Republican Bishop Willard Milton "Mitt" Romney, he of the 47 percent and "takers," Mr. Obama won a second term on some basic values of decency, fair play and the common good — values that he is now betraying.