This is not the last word and things are changing rapidly. But Obama's choices have begun to define him. His victory, it appears, was a triumph for the cautious center-right politics that has described the Democratic party for several decades. Those of us who expected more were duped, not so much by Obama but by our own wishful thinking.One of these two strategies is going to go by the wayside very quickly unless Obama can manage the impossible: radical, fundamental and complete transformation of our economic system while at the same time maintaining a broad enough coalition of GOP moderates and Blue Dog Democrats to ram through the changes.
Let us stipulate that these are all honorable people, smart and experienced veterans of Washington combat. But they represent the Democratic party that mainly sees itself as managerial--making government work better. The long era of conservative dominance has taught them to keep their distance from big reform ideas that promise fundamental change of the system. Their operating style is incremental and cautiously practical. They conscientiously avoid (or actively block) propositions that sound too liberal or radical. Alas, Obama is coming to power at a critical moment when incrementalism is irrelevant. The system is in collapse. Financial chaos won't wait for patient deliberations.
Events have confronted Obama with a fearful symmetry between past and present, illustrated by his choice of economic advisers. On Friday, we learned that Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve, would become his new treasury secretary and Larry Summers, who held the same position in the Clinton administration, would be the White House overseer of economic policy. On Monday, Geithner was busy executing the government's massive rescue of Citicorp--the very banking behemoth that Geithner and Summers helped to create back in the Clinton years, along with Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, Clinton's economics guru. Now Rubin is himself a Citicorp executive and his bank is now being saved by his old protégé (Geithner) with the taxpayers' money.
The connections go way beyond irony. They raise very serious questions about where the new president intends to lead and whether he has the nerve to break from the weak and haphazard strategy of the Bush administration. It has dumped piles of public money on the largest financial institutions and demanded little or nothing in return, hoping for the best. Geithner has been a central player in the deal-making, from Bear Stearns to AIG to Citi. The strategy has not only failed, it has arguably made things worse as savvy market players saw through the contradictions and rushed out to dump more bank stocks.
And yet the impossible is exactly what Obama will have to achieve, and quickly. Anything less than a total paradigm shift of America's economy will result in the current long-term global recession becoming a disastrous global depression.
It's a daunting prospect to say the least. I don't have the solution to the problem, either. I know where we should start, but it's where we end up that is the important part.
Still...Obama is all we have right now.