Thursday, December 11, 2008


Those of you who haven’t read The Creed Room might not know how this blog got its name. It came from a statement of a philosophy – or a “creed” – enunciated in that book. One of the key principles of this philosophy is that Empathic Rationalists must seek out the truth wherever they can find it, and never shy away or deceive themselves about uncomfortable facts. It’s time for me to practice a little bit of what I’ve preached.

In many ways, I remained thrilled by what our President-Elect is showing us. The other day he announced clear support for a group of terminated workers, and wouldn’t you know, their employer caved in to their demands. As they left the building, the workers chanted “Yes we can, yes we can,” and all over the country, the faces of labor smiled at the thought of our next President. What’s more, Barack’s choices for cabinet members continue to reflect a respect for intelligence, experience, and diversity (ideological, as well as ethnic). Even Republicans, if they’re not too hateful, seem to be warming up to him. He exudes competence and thoughtfulness, while also coming across as warm and human. Given all that, not to mention his pioneering status as the first African-American chief of state in the western world, Barack has a legitimate chance to become the most inspiring – and inspired -- statesmen in generations.

Nevertheless, something about the Era of Barack is beginning to worry me. It has to do with all the promises about ushering in an era of change. In the past few months, perhaps his most fateful acts have been to support a bailout of the financial industry worth the better part of a trillion dollars and another bailout of the auto industry worth tens of billions more. But I don’t have much of a sense that he would attach many more strings to these handouts than we’ve been attaching when we’ve subsidized multi-millionaire farmers or Bridges to Nowhere. So … I have to ask … where exactly is the change?

The financial bailout in particular strikes me like the product of Chicken Little. We were told “the sky is falling” unless we pay hundreds of billions of dollars to the very clowns who screwed up our economy in the first place and trust the sleep-at-the-switch Secretary of Treasury to pay it in just the right way. Oh yeah: we were also told that we have to authorize this bailout tout de suite! Or else! Barack supported that measure, as did most of the “moderate” Democrats in Washington.

Maybe it’s just me, but that bailout reminds me a lot of the Chicken Little crying that preceded the vote authorizing the Iraq War. Back then, we were told that George W. Bush’s needs us to authorize military action or else the nation would be in danger of Saddam’s weapons and we all know what that means (another 9/11). It turns out, however, that the weapons didn’t exist, and by rights we should be outraged at the false panic. Still, here we are, more than $1 trillion and an ungodly number of corpses later, and we apparently haven’t even learned any lessons from our misery.

Before the election, some of my Republican friends questioned whether Barack, if he were a U.S. Senator in 2002, would have supported the Iraq War. I’d like to think the answer is no, but I can’t exactly prove it, now can I? Clearly, Barack’s willingness to join in the Wall Street bailout package in its current form and at warp speed would suggest that had he been in Washington and inhaled its sheepish aroma, maybe he too would have supported W’s overseas folly just like his Vice President-elect and future Secretary of State.

The automobile bailout proposal is obviously not nearly as noxious as the Wall Street Welfare Package. But I still think we’re seeing déjà vu all over again. For years, I purchased nothing but American cars. Need I remind everyone that the Big Three make crap. Nobody in their right mind buys American any more if they can possibly afford the alternative. So why bail them out without attaching some pretty serious strings? Does GM want to make hybrids and electric cars? And do they want to make them under new leadership? Fine. I just might free up some money to encourage those purchases. But do they want to make more gas guzzlers that break down quicker than the Japanese cars? Sorry. I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but sometimes that happens when you work for a company that has made lousy products for decades. That, my friends, is capitalism. If you don’t like it, then tax the rich more and use the taxes to help displaced workers get new jobs. Just don’t subsidize companies to make junk. That’s not mere socialism; it’s socialism at its worst.

OK, so that’s my take on the bailouts – naïve or not, I’m not a huge fan. But my concerns with the new Administration don’t end there. I’ve previously praised Barack for some of his appointments, but doesn’t he have to come clean on his campaign promise not to hire lobbyists? The sense I get from talking to Washingtonians is that he’s got his ears wide open to lobbyists – at least in the Transition. Is that going to stop once he’s in power? I wonder.

Finally, no blog this week would be complete without mentioning the mess in Illinois. This was yet another chance for Barack to show that he’s a change agent: by reacting with transparency. After all, it truly doesn’t appear that our next President has done anything wrong. He’s much too honorable to pay money to hire his replacement, and Lord knows that he and Governor Whack Job weren’t personal friends. Why, then, is his high advisor, Mr. Alexrod, retracting his earlier statement that Barack spoke to the Governor? It would stand to reason that Barack, through one of his lieutenants, would have made a suggestion or two about the kind of person Illinois needs in the Senate. There’s nothing wrong with that. So why not admit it? Clear the air. Send a message – the age of Presidential secrecy is a thing of the past.

In short, “change” has to mean more than a slogan. It has to mean more than “we’ll be different than George W. Bush.” George H.W. Bush was different than his son, too. Way better, if you ask me. But if Barack merely brings back the era of George H.W. Bush – or, for that matter, William Jefferson Clinton -- would he truly be a change agent? That’s taking the concept a bit too far.

When I think about all that has transpired during the past few weeks, and particularly about all the nominations by a non-corrupt Chicagoan and near-nomination by a corrupt Chicagoan, I keep reflecting on one particular face. Call this face a symbol. A symbol of liberalism – which I like – but also of the ol’ boy network, which I don’t. In this case, the ol’ boy happens to be a young-looking woman, but one incredibly connected one. Her name is Caroline Kennedy. And she is the FOB (Friend of Barack) whose name keeps getting mentioned as the replacement for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.

I’m not suggesting the Governor of New York was auctioning Hillary’s seat, and nobody could pay as much as a Kennedy. What I am suggesting is that part of this “change” deal was that we would be ushering in a meritocracy, and Caroline Kennedy’s selection would hardly seem meritocratic. What has she done to merit such an appointment? I’ve looked for the answer and can’t find it. Quite the contrary – what I can see is that she and her uncle threw their support behind Barack at a critical time in the campaign, and that now appears to be payback time. Is that not what’s going on?

As far as I can tell, Ms. Kennedy is a kind, intelligent woman. I don’t know her, but I instinctively like her a lot. Still, in a state as populous as New York, you can’t tell me that she’s paid her dues enough to attain the rank of Senator without having to win an election. That isn’t “change.” It smacks of the same old nepotistic ways of Washington. Her father was supposed to promote “the best and the brightest.” I hope that the Governor of New York and his future President remembers that Caroline Kennedy may indeed be the best and the brightest, but she should be forced to prove it first. If she’s so darned smart, let her figure out how to put the bankers’ and the auto makers’ feet to the fire before we give them our children’s money. Now that would impress me.

It’s easy to go to Washington and dole out hard-earned taxpayer dollars on subsidies and bailouts. Show me a politician with the courage to say “no more panicking,” the insight to say “no more trickle down,” and the compassion to say “no more ignoring future generations and the needs of the environment.

Change is a great word; it’s just not very popular in Washington, except as an empty slogan. Barack will soon enough come to a fork in a road. Either he’ll treat “change” as a slogan, or he’ll have the guts to embrace it as a true mantra. Reagan did it, and not that long ago. I’ve been waiting ever since for a progressive to take up the mantle.

How about it, Barack? Your true fans, and I’m one, will be patient. But we will hold you to your promises just the same.

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