President Obama, Ronald Reagan and Our Fraying Social Contract

If Obama continues to defer excessively to pedigree, expertise and privilege, he will doom to failure his most forceful promise during the campaign: to "heal" the deepest "divisions" in society.
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In his brilliant book, Perfectly Legal, David Cay Johnston laid out in depressing detail the degree to which tax policy in the United States over the past generation has been re-jiggered to deepen and protect the mounting wealth of the super-wealthy. In myriad ways, tax laws (not to mention other regulatory reforms) have been re-written to ensure the prerogatives of a tiny sliver of American households. That same sliver, roughly one-tenth of one percent of all households in America, has seen their already considerable wealth increase to simply staggering sums.

Johnston also explained how, as wealth was flowing inexorably toward the top, the super-wealthy and their allies in Congress and the political establishment more broadly carried out a truly perverse transformation of tax-related law enforcement. As the mega-rich were finding ever more exotic ways to avoid paying taxes, various political pressures and incentives ensured that diminishing IRS resources would increasingly be directed toward prosecuting and persecuting the poor.

And Johnston made perfectly clear that these developments, objectionable in their own right, also came with an inescapable cost: that there is no free lunch, and the indulgences granted to the super-wealthy and the super-connected must be paid by somebody. And that somebody was everybody else.

Johnston's book came out before the financial crash of 2008 and, of course, the BP oil spill. And Johnston focused mainly on tax policy. But what Johnston wrote about was one element of what Chris Hayes recently described as "a deeper threat to the American moral fabric."

That threat, Hayes argued, stemmed from:

The increasingly punitive posture of the state toward its citizens over the past several decades, the arbitrary limits on punishment available to a party like Exxon make a mockery of equal justice under the law. Our criminal justice system is the most punitive of any industrialized democracy. We have 2.3 million people incarcerated, half of them for nonviolent property and drug offenses. At least two dozen states have three-strikes laws, and in some cases citizens can face life imprisonment for minor nonviolent offenses. In 2003 the Supreme Court upheld a fifty-year sentence for a California man caught stealing videotapes.

Though Hayes didn't mention Ronald Reagan in his column, he's describing what I would call the apotheosis of Reaganism. And the core of Reaganism is this - that the well-being of society as a whole is dependent on the degree to which, first and foremost, we accede to the prerogatives of the most well-off among us. In this regard, supply-side economics and "trickle down," aren't merely a set of economic policy prescriptions. Instead, they represent a comprehensive worldview for rationalizing and justifying the coddling of elites, for securing and deepening the wealth and security of the already wealthiest and most secure among us - in economy, in law, in health and in life. Under Reaganism, the corollary to the preservation of elite privilege is a more punitive society for everybody else, part of the payment to be made for ensuring that the best off among us live in the most secure comfort possible.

Of course, it's not only since 1980 that we've seen the sort of privileged excess coupled with immunity from accountability that mere mortals can only dream about (see, e.g. Chinatown).

But the ideology of Reaganism made the protection of privilege a battle cry, burying earlier and more overtly racist calls to defend privilege beneath a sunny optimism that insisted that unleashing the creative power of the accomplished and well-to-do was the sine qua non for the moral redemption of America.

And that ideology has become so deeply ingrained, so widely (if unconsciously) accepted across much of the political spectrum, that it's now in our very marrow as a nation.

In 2008, as an Obama supporter, I did not regard him as likely to effectuate, within eighteen months, a progressive revolution. His quite conventional and unfortunate views on war-fighting were already clear. HIs ties to Wall Street during the campaign were well-documented, for anyone who cared to look.

But I did hope that Obama would challenge, at least in some critical respects, the premises of Reaganism. In part, this was because Obama appeared to grasp, during the campaign, the need to present himself as not merely a competent manager (a limitation that hurt several Democratic nominees in recent presidential elections); instead, Obama made clear, a successful Democratic nominee would need to present a new ideological paradigm, just as Ronald Reagan had.

Such a victory - ideological on top of electoral - would mean that Obama could achieve more than tactical policy wins; instead, he could re-frame the terms of political debate and make his presidency, much like Reagan's was, a transformative one, but to very different ends. I did believe that Obama had the intelligence, political gifts and intent to make a serious run at this.

Instead, President Obama presidency appears to have conceded fundamental premises of Reaganism.

Let me be clear about what I mean here. It should go without saying that there are fundamental differences between Reagan and Obama, leaving aside their backgrounds and the very different political eras in which they emerged. Among other things, they differ in many of their policy preferences, in their taste in judicial nominees and in their relative positions in the culture wars.

(And yes, I am well aware that Presidents have constraints, etc.)

But if the core of Reaganism is that the greater good can only be served by acceding first and foremost to the prerogatives of the powerful and privileged and that the price for those concessions must be born by the ordinary and the powerless, the Obama presidency (however reluctantly) has represented the perpetuation of Reaganism in some critical areas:

1) President Obama has famously insisted that we look forward and not backward on Bush-era crimes concerning the war on terror, warrantless surveillance, detainee abuses, and so on. Looking forward and not backward ensures that those in high places would be exempt from punishment for the major crimes they've committed - that is, from accountability (and gives Obama license, of course, to commit many of the same crimes).

But this desire to look forward, not backward, does not represent some new era in tolerance and forgiveness when it comes to law-breaking in the realm of national security. On the contrary, Obama has launched an aggressive attack on whistle blowers (including those doing heroic work), has kept irrefutably innocent people locked up at Guantanamo, and has perpetuated and deepened precisely those Bush-era national security policies that most clearly prey on the vulnerable and the despised and coddle the powerful and connected.

2) Obama's indulgent attitude toward Big Finance, including but not limited to his backing of bailouts of massive proportions to the wealthiest banks. Needless to say, the series of measures that have ensured that the biggest, most reckless and irresponsible financial institutions could resume, in such short order making record-shattering profits, has to be paid by someone. And so it is - by distressed states, by the long-term unemployed, by school-children and laid-off teachers in increasingly under-funded districts and so on. Yes, we may be on the verge of financial reform with some meaningful consumer protections, but Simon Johnson, among others, says there is nothing in the bill that will change the fundamental privilege and lack of accountability of the institutions most directly responsible for the financial crack-up.

3) Obama's ongoing feeding of the military-industrial complex, including his sharp escalation of the evermore futile (and murderous) war in Afghanistan. Nothing makes more clear the disparity between winners and losers in America than modern war. The dead soldiers, the broken limbs and bodies and the demolished families come disproportionately from the least well-off among us, those who have been increasingly on the short end of our perverse social contract. But their loss is the gain of the large corporations who benefit so handsomely from war-fighting. Among these "winners" is the criminal enterprise formerly known as Blackwater, to whom the Obama administration is still granting lucrative work. Reaganism in its purest form - war-fighting for the benefit of the wealthy, at the expense of the least among us. And as with everything else on this list, ordinary Americans not wearing dog-tags will still pay the price tag for the military-industrial complex's expensive appetite for war.

Health insurance reform (HIR), in my judgment, represents a more ambiguous and complicated case. On the one hand, Obama cut behind-closed-doors deals with Big Pharma and the private insurance industry on health care reform, including a secret promise to the latter to withhold support for the "public option."

These deals will ensure enormous continuing profits for the already massively profitable and powerful (not to mention inefficient and wasteful) health-industrial complex - clearly what Obama considered the price of admission to sit with these major players. Those profits are costs to the average American, already straining under the weight of exploding health care expenditures.

At the same time, in the best case scenario, HIR will extend coverage to tens of millions of Americans, will cut profits to privately-run Medicare advantage plans and will pay for some of the reforms by raising taxes on those Americans who fall into the highest income tax brackets (this won't dent the wealth of the super-rich, but so be it).

Concerning the larger point, Obama's strongest supporters believe that he's doing this all as a necessary sacrifice in service of a greater and longer-term public good. But the very terms under which we define public goods have been transformed, handed down to us by the ideology of Reaganism. Sure, Obama will pursue a kinder, gentler version of Reaganism (at least in most respects). And yes, I can tell you right now I'll be voting for him in 2012, given the awful alternatives that represent the reality of our two-party system.

But the kind of bi-partisanship he has too often sought in the first sixteen months of his presidency is, contrary to his own assertions that he's bridging a bitter divide, a capitulation to an ideology premised on justifying and deepening unjust divisions between haves and have-nots. And that misplaced bi-partisanship is of a piece with a larger aversion to challenging the premises under-girding the pervasive imbalances of power between insiders and outsiders in so many areas of American life.

If Obama continues down that path, and continues, as Frank Rich recently argued, to defer excessively to pedigree and expertise and privilege, he will doom to failure his most forceful promise during the campaign - to "heal" the deepest "divisions" in American society.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at

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