In 1976 Alex Haley published Roots his landmark novel inspired by The Saga of [his] American Family. For sure Haley was not the first writer to explore his roots and other portraits had been written about the lives of African Americans. Haley admitted later to have incorporated some of that writing in his book, but he was making a statement. All of us come from somewhere; we have a deep history without which we would likely not have come to this place or to who we are. Focusing on his ancestry that way — giving a Black family the gravitas of a written biography — Haley was taking the civil rights struggle to a new and transcendent place. In a sense, Barack Obama’s 1995 Dreams of my Father built on that foundation. It said he too came from somewhere, a necessary grounding and a powerful credential for his political career to come.
The horrendous travail of the past weeks also has its roots and sometimes we forget what they are, how deep and how much past actions predestined this moment. Democrats like to say the current economic climate is rooted in the years of Reagan excess and deregulation culminating in the infamous Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars. I’ll stipulate to those roots. Republicans have to live with their lineage, but let’s not pretend Democrats come to this moment without their own history or, more importantly, with clean hands.
We Democrats pride ourselves on the fact that, when he turned in the White House keys, Bill Clinton left the country in surplus. So he did and so our self-congratulatory story line goes, almost with mythic proportions. We accuse the GOP with squandering Clinton’s prudence and do so with much justification. But we also suffer from selective memory. Sadly, much of what we’ve experienced in these dreadful years can be traced directly to the policies and crucial decisions of the Clinton Administration. Those good years led to a culture of excess in which the government may have experienced a fiscal surplus but many of its citizens were sinking deeper into debt, some on their way to inevitable insolvency.
Clinton was carried into office with the assertion that the economy under George Herbert Walker Bush was in deep trouble and with a promise to focus all his attention in righting the ship. It’s the economy stupid. Truth is the economy was already on its way toward recovery laying the foundation for the boom days from which Clinton (and we) happily benefited. Attributing its success to his economic term, albeit in hindsight with more credit than was due, we bestowed virtually walk-on-water status to Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. How could one argue with such success? We were happy and so too was the business community, most especially Wall Street. They had good reason.
Capping off what turned out to be Clinton’s too pro-business stance was the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the 1933 legislation that had successfully separated commercial banking from other financial businesses, particularly stock brokerages. The purpose of Glass-Steagall was to once and for all break the back of speculation and inevitable conflicts of interest. Without its 1999 repeal those mortgage-backed securities would probably never have been possible. Let’s not even consider that Rubin, under whose stewardship it took place, went directly from government service into the employ of Citigroup whose very existence (a combination of Citibank and Travelers/Smith Barney) had been enabled by the legislation. They had lobbied hardest and had gained most from the repeal. Clinton himself would be profoundly rewarded. A man who didn’t even own his own home until months before leaving public office, emerged wealthy a year later thanks to out-sized lecture fees paid mostly by banks and other business heavyweights. So, too, has the Clinton Foundation been bankrolled by many of those who benefited from his policies. It may do some excellent and commendable work, but that doesn’t change its roots.
The consequences of gutting Glass-Steagall were entirely predictable. Just as President Obama has been saying in the last weeks about a crisis manufactured by Washington, the great recession, fueled by the house of cards collapse of the real estate market, was bestowed upon us by reckless policies, private and public. Many of the critical missteps were bi-partisan in nature. Hurray for that! It isn’t only that Reagan or the Bushes failed us, it’s that our leaders including Bill Clinton failed us, and did so in a monstrously big way. Where we are now reflects from where we came — from our sadly misbegotten roots.
The votes just taken in the House and Senate along with the President’s signature have left a bitter taste in our mouths. Yes Democrats and Republicans signed on, but it would be better to describe their action as a survival Hail Mary (for themselves) rather than anything we can call bi-partisan. Our house is deeply divided and we have no one to blame but ourselves. This is not to give those who claim to lead a pass — none of them, repeat none of them, deserves it. But let’s be honest with ourselves. To one degree or another the vast majority of us play along to get along.
We game the system and in the end are gaming the country. All of those predatory come-ons from banks and the like were (and still are) despicable, but we signed on. Sure predators’ prey most and do best with the untutored, but many of those now in default should have known better. And I don’t only mean in default on a mortgage, but default on our common responsibilities. No demonstrations were held against our financial institutions, no sense of urgency about the kind of people we elected to office or whom many of them really represented. We deplore how money buys our elections, but too many of us fail to use our no-cost right to vote. In the end votes — the number of them cast — do count. Deficits aren’t always enumerated in hard currency.
I’ve suggested several times here that what’s happened to us was determined by our roots, that consequences have been predictable. But I’m no determinist, not by a long shot. I do think that somehow we will get out of our current mess; at least I hope that to be the case. But to do so will require that we stop pointing fingers and begin to take some responsibility. Did Obama give away the store? Should he have invoked the 14th? Should he have been more vocal and assertive? Should he be the man we had in our dreams rather than the person he probably always has been?
Perhaps all those things, but then again should we have done things differently ourselves. Did we in fact inflict upon ourselves that costly 2010 enthusiasm gap, premised to some large degree on disappointments in our own dreams, misconceptions and unrealistic hopes? Is 2011 the result of a self-inflicted wound? Say what you will, but it is we who rendered our President weaker than he could have been, made it harder for him to deliver. Some good friends think I am not hard enough on Obama and that probably is true. Like many others I had incredible hopes for him thinking that he was the solution to all our problems. He would instantly get us out of Iraq, refuse to escalate in Afghanistan and perhaps most of all wave his wand and make our economy better. Has he done less in these areas that he might? Probably, but only probably. Was a less than perfect, some say imperfect, healthcare bill worth doing or was it a fools errand, an unnecessary distraction from the economy stupid? Wish I could say for certain. The point is that all these things are more complicated than we’d hope, and that talking, including blogging and campaigning, is far easier than executing and governing. That is hardly news.
When talking of roots, it’s probably fair to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. as much as Barack Obama, Sr. was integral to what took Barack, Jr. to the White House. These were both men of great ideals, especially Martin. I am among the privileged to have crossed his path and shared his fight. The thing about King was that he was free to speak his mind, to strive for the ideal. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a practical side and be assured he made some compromises to accomplish his goals. But ultimately, Martin King in the White House or even the State House would have been someone totally different, and we would have been sorely disappointed. Governance in a democracy just isn’t ideal and it certainly isn’t pure or pretty. The streets have to be paved and the sewers cleaned of our waste.
Our power as citizens is sorely limited, but we are not impotent. If we want Obama to do better, the country to do better, he will need a lot of help. We’ll also have to think seriously about from where we came. That’s not from where we wish we had come or from some fairy tale. Let’s be honest about our own resumes, our own roots, and perhaps we’ll better understand the work that has yet to be done. We’ll soon have a chance to do our part and hopefully to make a difference. Yes we should hold his feet to the fire, but only if we hold our own to it as well.