I'm under no illusions: I knew that as inspirational as Obama was as a candidate, he'd likely disappoint as president. Dealing with reality and the politics of the possible does that. The struggle with the economy is one of those areas: he's having to embrace a deeply flawed system by asking us to boost things that have helped create our problems in the first place.
In his non-state-of-the-union speech last night, for example, he exhorted the nation that invented the car not to "walk away" from it. Poor word choice for those urbanites who tout walkability. Obama also repeatedly suggested that the end to our woes would come from people being able to take out loans to build and buy more houses, more cars, albeit slightly greener ones. Too much consumer restraint is a bad thing.
Some have suggested that Obama's tough-love on the economy is a teaching moment, but if so, the lesson he's teaching is how to maintain the status quo, though with more federal oversight and dollars. Instead of weaving a vision of moving us toward a less consumptive economy, Obama is definitively in the camp of those folks who believe in endless, corporate-driven growth, albeit where the spoils are shared a little more fairly.
Nothing reflects this better than his pick of former Washington governor Gary Locke as Commerce Secretary. Locke, who was known for his budget-cutting, his incrementalism, and his pandering to big business. It was Locke who negotiated a multi-billion dollar taxpayer giveaway to Boeing that set a new bar for extortionate demands as the price of doing business in Washington state.
As King County executive, Locke was known for streamlining the development process which helped to drive more growth and sprawl into the region. And it was Gov. Locke who declared a public "emergency" so that multi-billionaire Paul Allen could get a vote on building a new Seahawks stadium. Saving the Seahawks was deemed crucial to the "immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety." Too bad the Sonics didn't have Locke in office, he could have made their departure seem like the second-coming of Krakatoa.
Locke's view of government has been that of a wonkish efficiency expert who spent too much time fussing over paper-clip budgets and cutting FTEs in Olympia. He infuriated liberals who took to calling him "spineless." He may be qualified for Commerce secretary, he may even be qualified as head of the Chamber of Commerce, but he's not particularly imaginative.
No wonder Republican Dino Rossi has praised the pick as "positive" (does that give any Seattle liberals cause for pause?) The Washington congressional delegation is also excited. Rep. Norm Dicks enthuses: "In our state you've got Boeing, you've got Microsoft...you've got Starbucks. He's had a good working relationship with the business community, which I think should be a big consideration here." Locke, pal of corporate brand names; yes, we remember that Gary. Obama wants entrepreneurial innovation, but not in his own cabinet.
The president's promise to bring us "change you can believe in" cuts two ways. He's bringing change, all right, but he's still not willing to challenge some of our fundamental beliefs. He talks about the excess of the past (the perks of Wall Street fat cats, too-large mortgages), suggests we have to keep the kids focused on their school work (yes, it's always the other family's kids), but he still promotes a kind of consumerism that pushes us toward further excess: build more, buy more, and what about those shovel-ready road projects?
Talk about business as usual. If we continue to believe what we already believe, any recovery will be short-term, any change simply first-aid to fend off the truth that we live in a world, and have an economy, of limits.
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