“The Mugging of the Common Good”
September 15, 2009, 3:00am

By Robert Borosage

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
….The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand

— William Butler YeatsPresident Obama traveled to Wall Street on the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers that triggered the worst financial debacle since the Great Depression. His purpose was to challenge Wall Street’s barons, telling them:

“We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess..where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses”
Those days are over, the president said. It’s time for comprehensive legislation. Taxpayers won’t cover your bets or your bonuses. And we know once more the threat that financial holdings can pose to the nation.

The president invoked country and the common good. “Instead of learning the lessons…of the crisis, [some in the financial industry] are choosing to ignore them. They do so not just at their own peril, but our nation’s.” Obama called on Wall Street to act on its own, to overhaul pay systems, to level with consumers, to join with him in defining reform, but his tone was almost wistful. As he knows all too well, for much of Wall Street, patriotism is for suckers. And in Washington, private interests are rolling over the common good.

In the wake of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, the president has called for fundamental reforms vital to the country’s future. Put aside whether he’s been too bold or too timid, whether he has pushed hard enough or too hard; there isn’t any question he is calling the nation to its senses.

Our health care system is broken and unsustainable. Comprehensive reform is unavoidable. We can’t continue to rely on fossil fuels; sustainable energy is a security imperative, not a choice. We need to shackle Wall Street, to shrink the size and excess profits of finance, and force it away from its addiction to gambling and back to the essential business of investing in the real economy. We have to reduce the crony capitalist subsidies that get squandered on agribusiness and Cold War weapons systems and top-end tax cuts, and use that money to invest in education, in a modern infrastructure, in research and development vital to a vibrant, high-road economy.

This really shouldn’t be controversial. Yes, disagreements about how to get this done are to be expected, but the status quo is simply indefensible. Despite all the fantasies of the rabid right, Obama is moderate by temperament, creative at compromise. He is, as one of his White House staff members described him, a “raging minimalist.” He really does believe you put everyone around a table, have a “civil conversation,” find areas of agreement and move forward. He does believe that everyone—from billionaire hedge-fund operators to insurance company CEOS to conservative legislators—will in a crisis put the country first.

But he and his reform program are getting mugged. He’s taken on the most powerful private interests in America—Big Oil, Wall Street, the insurance and drug lobbies—and they are winning. Republicans, despite the shattering of their conservative shibboleths, have chosen, with lockstep unity, obstruction over compromise. And too many Democrats have shown themselves more beholden to the private interests that pay for their campaigns than the public interest the president of their own party invokes.

We are witnessing a harrowing test of our democracy. America is a big, bustling and entrepreneurial country. We pursue our own passions and pursuits, are jealous of our freedoms, and begrudge governmental intrusions. But in a crisis—faced with depression or war, our history tells us many become one. We join together for the common good.

Well, it is hard to imagine a greater crisis than the one this country has faced over the last years. A middle class that has suffered a lost decade. Two wars. The Great Recession. Gilded Age inequality. Catastrophic climate change accelerating faster than most predictions.

Yet, we haven’t come together. Wall Street lobbies against reform. Derivative traders will ante up hundreds of millions to block regulation of credit default swaps. Goldman Sachs is back to computerized gambling and billions in bonuses. The insurance companies are spending over a million-and-a-half dollars a day against comprehensive health-care reform.

The president’s preemptive compromises only feed their appetites. He offers polluters a good portion of the revenue generated by “cap and trade.” They lobby to weaken the cap.

He bails out banks rather than taking them over and reorganizing them. They lobby against his financial reforms. He doesn’t try to push for Medicare for All, accepting the role of employment-based private insurance, and he’s accused of a government takeover of health care.

The teabaggers were in Washington this past weekend. Despite their racial furies and right-wing fantasies, they shouldn’t be dismissed. Many are working people, losing ground in an economy that isn’t working for them. They are angry at a government that seems to take their taxes to bail out billionaire bankers, while they are left to swim or sink. They have every good reason to believe Washington caters to the wealthy and the connected, and not to them. And it is all too easy to deflect that anger to “them” —illegal immigrants, poor minorities, foreign aid recipients.

This is the test for Democrats. With the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats have to produce. If they are too cautious or too compromised, they will feed what could be an ugly populist backlash.

Take health care reform. Sen. Max Baucus has produced a draft for the Finance Committee, making concessions as far anyone can see not for Republican votes, but for insurance lobby approval. He’s produced that lobby’s dream bill, mandating coverage for everyone without subsidies to make it affordable. His bill would drive people to take the high-deductible, low-coverage plans that are the industry’s cash cows. It is hard to imagine a greater disservice to the country or to the party. Take young Americans who vote Democratic in large numbers, force them to buy health insurance that they don’t want and can’t afford, make them pay for policies that don’t cover their health-care costs—and reap the whirlwind that you deserve.

These next months are the reckoning. The president and the Congress will step up to the reforms the country needs—or they will fail the nation in a time of peril. For citizens, now is the time to get engaged. The only way legislators in both parties will rise above partisan politics and private interests is if their constituents allow them no choice.

Middle-income Americans lost income over the last decade, for the first time since we began keeping records. Financial speculation drove the economy off the cliff. Catastrophic climate change is already melting the ice caps. We cannot afford another lost decade. If reason cannot prevail, angry people will increasingly look for a strong man to get something done. And that could make the teabaggers look like a tea party.