On Friday, after President Obama issued a Rose Garden statement
on the economy and said that he'd be "discussing" new economic initiatives in "the weeks ahead," a liberal journalist tweeted, "nothing says 'fierce urgency of now' like the last three months."
It was a well-timed dig at the Obama (who has often quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s reference to "fierce urgency of now") for being less than exertive
concerning the economy in previous weeks. Though in the coming days, Obama would propose expanding certain business tax breaks
and establishing a $50 billion infrastructure improvement bank
, Democrats and progressives fearful of the upcoming election had already started complaining it was too late for Obama to reshape the political terrain; he had waited too long to do two crucial things: (1) propose bold actions that could help the economy (whether or not such measures could surpass GOP obstructionism on Capitol Hill) and (2) beat the you-know-what out of the Republicans for blocking recovery initiatives and for offering nothing but Bush-Cheney policy leftovers.
Into this burgeoning storm rides Arianna Huffington, and, in her usual fashion, she has upped the ante by essentially saying that if Obama doesn't rev up the recovery efforts, the United States will soon disintegrate into a Third World nation. Her assault comes in the form of a book called "Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream
," which is being released today. Obviously, Huffington, the blogger/author/activist who heads the Huffington Post
, finished writing her book months ago -- before progressive and Democratic impatience with Obama became as intense as it is these days. And though she doesn't slam Obama personally, he's certainly in the middle of her radar screen.
Huffington's provocative (and easy-to-promote) "Third World America" idea rests on one main pillar: the decline of the middle class. She writes,
I use it to sum up the ugly facts we'd rather not know. . . . It's a harbinger, a clanging alarm telling us that if we don't correct our course, contrary to our history and to what has always seemed to be our destiny, we could indeed become a Third World nation -- a place where there are only two classes: the rich . . . and everybody else. Think Mexico or Brazil.
She maintains that the middle class -- "the driver of so much of our creative and economic success" and "the foundation of our democracy" -- is "teetering on the brink of collapse." Just like AIG in 2009. Wall Street has been propped up, she argues, but the middle class is experiencing a "plummeting free fall." Her critique is not revolutionary. She lays out the stats: the Bush and Obama administrations devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to financial firms, while millions of Americans lost their jobs and hard-pressed states cut social services (precisely when they are needed the most):
The human consequences of the financial collapse are largely missing from our national debate. I'm referring especially to the people who had steady jobs; people with college degrees; people who were paying their bills, saving for retirement, doing the right thing -- and who have, in many instances lost everything. The daily miseries being visited upon them are unfolding across the country.
So why is there no sense of urgency coming out of Washington?
That's a direct poke at the guy in the White House. And Huffington goes on to suggest that he's not a super-agent of change. Noting that unemployment for people making over $150,000 annually was a mere 3 percent in 2009, she writes:
Does anyone believe that the sense of urgency coming out of Washington wouldn't be wildly different if the unemployment rate for the top 10 percent of income earners was 31 percent [as it was for the bottom 10 percent in 2009]? If one-third of television news producers, pundits, bankers, and lobbyists were unemployed, would the measures proposed by the White House and Congress still be as anemic? Of course not -- the sense of national emergency would be so great you'd hear air-raid sirens howling.
Instead, she observes, "we get policy Band-Aids -- timid moves that will do little to abate a crisis that threatens to change the very fabric of our society." Readers -- especially those facing hard times -- can decide for themselves if Huffington's populist, doomsdayish prognostication is on target. Ditto regarding her recipe for avoiding American Third Worldism (a mix of mostly progressive proposals, including public financing of elections, education reform that focuses on teacher performance, single-payer health care insurance, a modern-day Works Progress Administration, federal assistance to state and local governments, incentives for green jobs and manufacturing, mortgage reform that makes it easier for homeowners facing foreclosure to renegotiate, and tighter restrictions on Wall Street's wheelers and dealers.) But Huffington, an old friend, is quite acute at sniffing out trends (except when she mounted at not-very-successful bid to become California's governor in 2003).
Thus, it's probably more than a coincidence that this book hits at a moment when Obama is generating unease among progressives for having dropped the urgency ball. (Former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich presents a similar case in his new book, "After-Shock: The Next Economy and America's Future," due out later this month.) As probable disaster looms for Democrats, left-of-center pundits and strategists are devising explanations in preparation, and it seems a consensus is slowly forming among some: Obama has failed to describe fully the economic challenge the nation faces and, despite his success in passing a $787 billion stimulus (and health care reform and Wall Street reform), he has not adequately explained to the public what is truly needed to extricate the nation from the hole it is in. He has fallen short in diagnosis and prescription.
Toward the end of the book, Huffington quotes Obama reflecting that the country is at "a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise." She and other progressives expect Obama to act as if he believes and accepts that it's his job to lead such a remaking. But for many, Obama has not done so. And it's not a far distance from disappointment to dismay -- particularly when a political nightmare is on the horizon. As Huffington writes, "Inflection points in history don't come along very often."
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