In 2000 and 2004, America voted for George Bush for president, a man clearly lacking in the intellectual fortitude necessary to lead the most powerful country in the world. This was a man, after all, whose rise was predicated almost exclusively on his family name, and who had failed at every business venture he had ever attempted. As president, he and the GOP managed to create a lost decade: America embarked on a disastrous war of choice, a federal surplus turned into a galloping deficit, a major American city was partially destroyed while the government watched, apparently helpless, and industry lobbyists essentially wrote any major legislation that managed to pass. It was a decade of crony capitalism, which, along with the horrifically managed Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, left America poorer and weaker in almost every way.
With the election of Barack Obama, I had high hopes that America had learned from its mistakes and would regain solid footing. Never again, I believed, would the country act so irrationally.
But I was wrong.
Less than three years after Obama was sworn in, along with a large Democratic majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the country has been taken hostage by rightwing extremists who make Bush and Cheney look like moderates. The Tea Party fringe of the Republican Party exhibits all of the traits of a cult that is impervious to reason, and willing to impose untold suffering on others in order to get its way.
Some in the traditional media are finally recognizing the lunacy of the modern GOP and calling the extremists what they are: economic terrorists. But tremendous damage has already been done. The debt-ceiling deal will likely make the economic situation worse. Even though the immediate budget cuts are small, the country in fact is in desperate need of additional fiscal stimulus. By emboldening the lunatic fringe of the GOP and showing them that hostage taking works, it’s next to certain that Tea Partiers will hold the economy hostage every chance they get.
They’ll get the chance very soon. Budget fights in the coming months will include the renewal of unemployment benefits at the end of 2011, which Obama was unable to get into the debt ceiling deal. And while Obama asserts that it’s now time to pivot to a jobs agenda, the chances of passing anything meaningful with the Tea Party controlling the GOP is close to zero. Even if he managed to get a few small programs passed, their impacts would be minimal and too late to have any appreciable impact on the economy (and the election) in 2012.
As expected, the rating agency S&P downgraded U.S. debt holdings for the first time in history because of Congress’s inability to pass meaningful fiscal reform. Why anyone cares what S&P or any of the ratings agencies say is beyond me; these are the same groups that rated subprime derivatives Triple A, not coincidentally because of the fees they received from the banks issuing the derivatives. The heads of these agencies should be in jail, not taken seriously in policy circles.
But we live in an age of insanity: up is down, and black is white.
We are definitely not in the world we hoped would follow Obama’s election—not in the post-racial or post-partisan world. In fact we’ve regressed: throughout the decades we’ve always had policy difference and chasms between the left and the right, but now we’ve entered an era where facts don’t seem to matter and discredited ideas take on lives of their own.
To my and many others’ disappointment, President Obama seems not to be the right person to help America out of the deep hole we’ve managed to dig for ourselves. What we need is a fighter, not a conciliator. We need someone who can forcefully stand up to the agents of intolerance and irrationality—not compromise with them, not embolden them.
America is a great country, but I wonder whether we can withstand another lost decade and still hold our place as the most powerful country in the world. Not only would America’s prolonged economic stagnation lead to diminished economic prospects and immense personal hardships; historically, long periods of economic decline have been accompanied by sharp rises in extremism and violence. We’re already seeing some of this as severe austerity programs go into effect in Great Britain, Greece, and other parts of Europe. They could well be the forerunners of similar tumult in America.
We are in dark times, times that are almost all of our own making.