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How, Not If

The Promise: President Obama, Year One

Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, 2010

Like all populist movements, the Tea Party, barely a year old, has its folk heroes, its pioneers. Its inception has been attributed to some half-dozen people, but that hardly matters. The timing is what’s important.

Tea Party Patriots, a web-based umbrella organization for thousands of local groups across the country, makes a simple case for its existence:

The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation. Our mission is to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.

But why now? There’s always been conservative (in the American sense) opposition to government spending, and since Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, big government has been the central rallying cry of the Republican Party. George H.W. Bush probably lost the 1992 elections because he reneged on his promise never to raise taxes. Newt Gingrich forced President Clinton to make budget and entitlement cuts, and they were both happy to continue the deregulation that Reagan began. But the tenure of George W. Bush wasn’t a thrifty one – it took him more than six years to veto a spending bill – and the budget surpluses of Clinton’s final years turned quickly to huge deficits. Most of the opposition to Bush’s spending came from Democrats, who cared not so much about the deficit as about the man and the party they could blame for it.

George Bush entered his last year in office a deeply unpopular man; the 2008 election was a repudiation of him as much as an affirmation of anyone else. And yet through it all, as the deficits grew every year and the nation sunk deeper into debt, there was hardly a whisper of complaint from conservatives and the voters who support them. Many would say that the Tea Party was born of the economic collapse of 2008, but it and the subsequent bailout had little immediate impact in that regard. A few conservative groups, like FedUpUSA, were formed to oppose bailouts for Wall Street and homeowners facing foreclosure. But there was no groundswell. The quirky libertarian candidacy of Ron Paul, with his neo-isolationist foreign policy and free-market absolutism, energized millions of voters (as Ralph Nader had in 2000), but he lost by wide margins.

These are feeble antecedents for a conservative resurgence and a movement as large as the Tea Party. What’s more, Republicans were trounced in the 2008 elections, and commentators spoke of a new progressive era and a Republican party – defeated in former strongholds like Illinois, Virginia, and North Carolina – reduced to an extreme core of far-right die-hards. The Republicans seemed chastened and disorganized as America entered 2009. Their forecast included years in the political wilderness, serious soul-searching, gut-check time, and other tired metaphors. On what basis could they give opposition? As things turned out, they needn’t have worried: they simply had to oppose.

Remember what I said about timing. Barack Obama took office on January 20, 2009. The history is convoluted, but near as anyone can tell, the first stirrings of the Tea Party movement date to the previous day, when a part-time stock trader named Graham Makohoniuk, riffing on the proposed stimulus bill, invited fellow members of the Market Ticker Forum to “MAIL A TEA BAG TO CONGRESS & TO SENATE!” The first protest of the Obama Administration, organized by a woman named Mary Rakovich, took place on February 3 in Fort Meyers, Florida outside a town hall meeting featuring Obama and Florida Governor Charlie Crist (who recently left the Republican Party after a primary loss to a Tea Party-backed candidate). Rakovich, in what has become a familiar trope for Tea Partiers and the Republicans who court them, claimed that “Obama promotes socialism, although he doesn’t call it that.” Seattle blogger Keri Calender organized a “Porkulus Protest” (a term coined by Rush Limbaugh) on February 16. Three days later, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and excoriated President Obama for planning to assist banks and homeowners facing foreclosure. He proposed a national referendum on the issue and invited “all you capitalists” to join him in dumping derivatives securities into Lake Michigan. “President Obama, are you listening?” he cried. Someone certainly was: OfficialChicagoTeaParty.com was online in a matter of hours. Keri Calender held another protest on February 27, and this time it was a “Tea Party.”

It went on from there. Dozens and soon thousands of groups popped up across the country. Umbrella organizations appeared, money started flowing in (much of it from Republican political action committees), nationwide protests were organized, and Tea Party activists and their sympathizers began appearing regularly on television, especially Fox News. Republicans had noticed and tailored their political speech accordingly. Well-connected ex-congressmen became Tea Party spokesmen. The GOP and the Partiers became increasingly entangled. In February of this year, the Tea Party held its first convention, where Sarah Palin spoke for a fee in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars. Today three in ten Americans consider themselves Tea Party supporters.

How is this possible? Many Partiers will tell you that it’s about policy – big government, taxes, freedom, etc. Let’s assume, for the moment, that this is sincere. It took only a year for the Tea Party to mushroom into a movement that could count on tens of millions of members and supporters. If the grassroots opposition to Obama is because of his policies, then it’s based upon a profound misunderstanding of what they are, and of his first twelve months in office.

Jonathan Alter has written a book, The Promise, about that year. Such a book is by definition ephemeral, as Alter acknowledges: “Writing contemporary history is tricky, like pulling pottery out of the kiln before the glaze has hardened.” But if “journalism is the first rough draft of history…then this book might be considered a second draft, with dozens more to come.” The Promise exhibits some of the problems of early drafts and contemporary history. The writing is occasionally clichéd – “ship of state” makes its inevitable appearance, we learn about “what voters want” – and the author’s own unexamined biases often intrude upon the page, a weakness compounded by the fact that contemporary history relies heavily on sources. Alter’s sources generally don’t like Clintonites and favor heavy financial regulation, and he seems to agree; sections on Obama’s staffing choices and the financial crisis are bitter with the mood of betrayal. They should be read skeptically.

But where The Promise succeeds is in showing that Obama isn’t the sort of politician his opponents, or even his admirers, think he is.

Take education. For years Republicans have been pushing for more charter schools and merit pay for teachers. In 2001, George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, an expensive and ineffective bureaucratic nightmare relying on a Byzantine regime of endless testing. Obama’s approach, made law with considerable opposition from liberal interest groups, uses the Federal government as a catalyst but relies on the states for action. He was, as Alter explains, in a strong position to make it happen:

Like Nixon going to China, Obama felt he had enough credibility with the “adult interest groups” to transform American education policy. (It helped the reformers’ cause that the teachers unions had unanimously supported Hillary Clinton…which meant he owed them little.) Though Obama was sometimes annoyed by the pressure he felt from reformers, it turned out that he and [Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee] George Miller were in exactly the same place, a place where Democrats, long in the pocket of teachers unions, had never been before. They both wanted to use the stimulus to drive better performance in schools, even if it offended one of their party’s most loyal interest groups. The idea was to offer states what Miller called “applesauce,” more money, to force them to resist entrenched interest and swallow some reform.

The result was “Race to the Top,” $5 billion (reduced from $15 billion by Democratic opposition) in Federal money to the states most willing to “reform,” and reform meant merit pay for teachers and more charter schools – in other words, more “choice,” the word Republicans have used to encapsulate their education policy for decades.

In energy policy, while Obama has put billions into renewable sources, he balanced that expenditure by proposing $54 billion in federal loans to the nuclear power industry, clearing the way for nuclear power plant construction, something that the last three Republican presidents wanted but weren’t able to achieve, though they spent a combined twenty years in office. All of the opposition is from liberals and environmentalists, who have pledged to halt proceedings with a flurry of lawsuits. Obama also signed an executive order allowing expansion of offshore drilling, a shift mooted not by the members of his own party – though, again, all the opposition was from that quarter – but by the explosion of an oil rig.

But the biggest sources of contention are health care and the economics. After the subprime market tanked and the effects knocked about through the rest of the economy, George Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act into law in October 2008. The bill contained the infamous TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), intended to bail out large Wall Street institutions which the government considered ‘too big to fail.’ But most economists believed that a widespread injection of money was necessary, and after he was elected, Obama, as the leader of his party, took the lead in negotiating the bill. “The outlines,” Alter writes,

of where the money would go were simple enough: one third for middle-class tax cuts, mostly in the form of tax credits and rebates; one third for “state stabilization” (to make sure states didn’t have to lay off teachers, firefighters, and bureaucrats or interrupt unemployment insurance, food stamps…and parts of the safety net); and one third for infrastructure, most of which wouldn’t flow into bridges, tunnels, and the rest for a year or so because of the slowness of American contracting.

The bill certainly had problems. It was, in Alter’s words,

a trade-off of speed over impact, speed over creativity, and, no doubt speed over competence. Obama believed there was a steep cost to delay; if talks on the stimulus dragged into the spring or summer [of 2009] the recession would get much worse. But had the Democrats taken a bit more time they might have been able to think harder about job growth, which eventually became the big economic challenge of 2009.

What focused opposition to the bill was its size: $787 billion dollars. But many economists thought the bill was too small, and even some in the Milton Friedman wing thought the tax cuts, a carrot to win Republican votes, were a bad idea, since the people tend to use savings to pay down debt, not to purchase things and grow the economy. Despite the tax cuts and other measures, House Republicans voted unanimously against the bill. Obama told Alter that the vote, taken on January 28, “set the tenor for the whole year…That helped to create the tea-baggers and empowered that whole wing of the Republican Party to where it now controls the agenda for Republicans.” Alter writes that Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who switched parties shortly thereafter, claimed that “Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, had made it clear that any cooperation with Obama was prohibited.” And House minority leader John Boehner “counseled obstruction from the start.” As a political gambit, it was wildly successful. The Republicans were positioned to harness the populist energy of the Tea Party, then in its infancy.

The debate on health care was even more disfigured, and it best exemplifies how both detractors and supporters get Obama wrong. In marked contrast to Hillary Clinton’s efforts in 1994, Obama took a back seat on the details. “The plan,” Alter writes,

called for laying out broad principles shortly after the Inauguration, winning support – or at least neutrality – from the insurance and drug industries (compensated by the arrival of 30 million new customers), and letting the congressional sausage makers do their thing. Then he’d step in later in the process.

The initial Congressional plan was far-reaching and included an option for a public plan that many conservatives argued, plausibly, would signal the ultimate end of widespread private health care. There was certainly room for a principled libertarian or states-rights advocate to complain about government expansion. But Obama is wary of introducing more change than the country will accept (see his hesitance to end the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy), and this is the ideological heart of the difference mentioned above: there is a strong vein of conservatism in this liberal president, the conservatism of process and temperament which informed Edmund Burke’s fusillade against the French Revolution. Obama desired the public option, but in the end it was an opening gambit, one he was willing to abandon to achieve universal coverage.

The debate was rancorous. Obama committed himself to a health plan that was at least revenue neutral, and since raising taxes wasn’t an option, he had to look for cuts elsewhere. One of them was Medicare Advantage, which allowed Medicare receivers to enroll in private plans offering coverage similar to Medicare. The benefits of this are dubious (studies go one way or the other), and its administrative costs are far higher than traditional Medicare plans. But the proposed cuts were politically difficult. Alter thinks that they

reflected a blithe assumption that Obama was so popular with younger voters that he could take for granted the party’s longtime base among the elderly…. Democrats didn’t bargain for the speed with which Republicans could execute a persuasive flip-flop. As recently as 2008 the GOP had supported Medicare cuts. Now Republicans began pandering to seniors with all the fiscally irresponsible enthusiasm once employed by the Democrats.

This Republican caricature isn’t entirely accurate – Alter overplays the Republican call for cuts in Medicare – but it illustrates a greater hypocrisy afflicting the right in general, and the Tea Party in particular. Republicans draw their strongest support from the elderly, and the Tea Party (as we’ll see below) skews demographically toward middle age. Neither group – insofar as they’re separate – is willing to endorse cuts in health entitlements, though entitlements and military spending (another area in which neither wants budgets cut) are by far the biggest contributors to the deficit. But politically, attacking cuts in Medicare is pure gold, and so, as Alter writes “millions…were misled into thinking that their essential Medicare benefits were at risk”

The “death panel” scare was the biggest scandal to come out of the health care debate. It had no basis in reality, but it ricocheted through the right-wing echo chamber (a process some in the blogosphere have aptly called “epistemic closure”), demonstrating the extent to which the Tea Party, Republican politicians, and the right-wing press are unified. The House version of the health care bill (ultimately dropped in favor of the Senate’s) allowed Medicare beneficiaries to consult with medical professionals about “end-of-life” services, like whether to try expensive and risky treatments. These consultations were entirely voluntary, and elderly patients receive these consultations today. The bill simply provided money to pay for them. But the Tea Party’s most popular figureheads, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, along with scores of Republicans and commentators, claimed that this amounted to government-sanctioned euthanasia. This argument, if you can call it that, predictably emerged before Obama took office, even before a bill had been proposed. A late-2008 Washington Times editorial helped set the tone for the health care debate. It begins with this paragraph:

Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s started the T4 Aktion (Action) program, named after the main office’s address at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, to exterminate “useless eaters,” babies born with disabilities. When any baby was born in Germany, the attending nurse had to note any indication of disability and immediately notify T4 officials – a team of physicians, politicians and military leaders. In October 1939 Hitler issued a directive allowing physicians to grant a “mercy death” to “patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health.”

It goes on to say that

America’s T4 program – trivialization of abortion, acceptance of euthanasia, and the normalization of physician assisted suicide – is highly unlikely to be stopped at the judicial, administrative or legislative levels anytime soon, given the Supreme Court’s current and probable future makeup during the Obama administration, the administrative predilections that are likely from that incoming administration, and the makeup of the new Congress.

This apocalyptic rhetoric didn’t abate when a bill actually appeared. George Neumayr of The American Spectator wrote that “Reducing health care costs under Obama’s [sic] plan, after all, counts as economic stimulus, too — controlling life, controlling death, controlling costs.” Glenn Beck, speaking in caricature, said “Sometimes for the common good, you just have to say, ‘Hey, Grandpa, you’ve had a good life,’” while Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh popularized the phrase “death panels” by simply repeating it endlessly. As Jim Rutenberg and Jacki Calmes of The New York Times noted, these claims are “reminiscent of the modern-day viral Internet campaigns that dogged Mr. Obama last year, falsely calling him a Muslim and questioning his nationality.” Recall that in 2008 1 in 10 Americans believed that Obama was a Muslim, and even more believe, still, that he isn’t American. The claims about “death panels” and the claims of “birthers” are also reminiscent of the 9/11 “truthers,” who believed that George Bush allowed or planned the attacks on the World Trade Center. All of these claims have something in common: their extremity indicates something even deeper than ideology, something felt.

But what, exactly? Some of it is certainly racism. It’s useless to claim that race has no part in it; that the frothing chauvinists at the edge of the crowd are outliers and nothing more. The fringe is often an indicator of what many in the majority judge it better not to say, or what they feel but haven’t thought. And racial demagoguery still reaches wide audiences if it’s couched carefully enough. Fox star Glenn Beck claimed that Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” but the worst and most popular offender is Rush Limbaugh, who played a ditty called “Barack the Magic Negro” to guffaws from his audience. Limbaugh’s is by far the most popular radio program in the country: low estimates place his listeners at 14 million every day, and his current syndication contract netted him $400 million. His is the program of choice for Tea Partiers. What marks Limbaugh’s words is the corollary of race hatred: fear. Here’s a tirade from his radio show:

Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering…Obama’s entire economic program is reparations…They want to use their power as a means of retribution…That’s what Obama’s about, gang.

If you’ve known any racists in your life, you recognize the mindset. People like this see gangster rap videos and think: this is what black people are. Along with disdain for difference it’s fear of change, of national change, which scares people like Limbaugh. And for people like him, Obama is an avatar.

The “Tea Party” itself has no leader, but it gravitates toward figures like the paranoid-schizoid Glenn Beck, the racist, vituperative Rush Limbaugh, and the vapid, callow Sarah Palin. They’re personalities, not thinkers, and discomfited political movements tend to be drawn to the type (it’s no surprise that many Tea Partiers are also Ayn Rand fans). They deal in feeling at the expense of thought, and the Tea Party feels that something is wrong with their country.

Who are these people? The answer to that question also helps to explain why conservatives bounced back so quickly after 2008, why self-stylized opponents of government largesse only raised their voices once Barack Obama won the presidency, and why a right-wing populist movement grew from a nothing to tens of millions in the space of a year.

A few months ago, Ben McGrath of the New Yorker attended some gatherings:

About a thousand people had turned up at the rally, most of them old enough to remember a time when the threats to the nation’s long-term security, at home and abroad, were more easily defined and acknowledged. Suspicious of decadent élites and concerned about a central government whose ambitions had grown unmanageably large, they sounded, at least in broad strokes, a little like the left-wing secessionists I’d met at a rally in Vermont in the waning days of the Bush Administration. Large assemblies of like-minded people, even profoundly anxious people anticipating the imminent death of empire, have an unmistakable allure: festive despair.

…One historical comparison that some Tea Party champions have made is to the civil-rights movement, and, to the extent that the analogy holds, it may reflect the fact that the Tea Party seems to derive much of its energy from the members of that generation who did not participate in the cultural revolution of the sixties, and are only belatedly coming to terms with social and demographic trends set in motion fifty years ago.

Most of the activists who went to Washington more than four decades ago were baby boomers. They won great legislative and legal battles but the focused and dominating coalition many dreamed of never came together; instead their transformative ethos diffused more subtly as they grew older and became professionals, professors, and politicians.

Probably the turning point was 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and Richard Nixon rode into the oval office. Nixon ran a reactionary campaign against the fragmented Democratic Party and its nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Aside from Vietnam – he slickly pledged to end the draft as a way to blunt opposition to the war – Nixon campaigned in opposition to the Warren Supreme Court and pledged to restore “law and order,” each talking point a sop to the racist white vote. As David Remnick notes in The Bridge, his biography of Obama, Nixon “was completely aware of the signals that he was sending…. After filming a commercial about law and order in the schools during the campaign, Nixon said, ‘Yep, that hits it right on the nose….It’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.’”

Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew did this to win the white vote in the South, which they acquired and bequeathed to the Republican Party. Nixon’s election was proof of Lyndon Johnson’s prediction that civil rights would cost the Democrats the South “for a generation” (though he underestimated), and a harbinger of the political Balkanization which reached its zenith during the presidency of George W. Bush. But this is changing too.

The issues that divided the boomer generation are still with us, but if we can’t yet say that the left-leaning boomers ultimately won, it’s probably right to say that they’re winning. That we now debate the best means to achieve economic, gender and racial equality – that is, how, not if – is a testament to that truth. And the boomers’ children are even more liberal, especially on social issues: they are less religious, more tolerant, and more cosmopolitan. “Diversity” is a value to them, and religion and family are losing ground to personal fulfillment. Pundits and conservatives often call this a “center-right country,” but even if this cavalier assumption is true, it becomes less so every year. Demographics are shifting too. The country is becoming less white, more educated and (still) more urbanized. For example, the professionals working around Washington, D.C., have increasingly made northern Virginia their home, and they probably won the state for Obama in 2008.

The United States is undergoing drastic political and demographic change, and the world outside this decreasingly insular country is changing too. The world is shifting away from the outright dominance of the West and towards multi-polarity. America is, relatively speaking, falling behind. And in the last few years the United States has become stuck in two wars, aching to exit quickly but with no victory to allow it. Its economy nearly imploded, and recovery has been slow. You would have to look back to Vietnam and Nixon for a time when looking forward was bleaker.

America seeks renewal in times of difficulty, and in 2008, Obama was perfect for the age: a young, brilliant black man in a declining, nervous country with unhealed racial wounds. What could be a better symbol for the change, the feeling of change, that Americans wanted? The irony is that Obama was elected in part because America is changing. And as McGrath noted, some are only beginning to come to terms with it. It’s easy to see the Tea Party as the distilled version of that uncertainty.

Data bears this out. About three quarters of Tea Party members are college-educated and two thirds earn more than $50,000 a year. Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white and mostly middle-aged. These are the people who stayed home while the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights groups and the Vietnam War protesters marched on Washington. They are Nixon’s silent majority.

Barack Obama is a liberal, but he’s politically pragmatic, and often temperamentally conservative. The economic crisis was not his fault, though he’s responsible for it now. His stimulus program was expensive and clumsy but hardly revolutionary; almost every economist on the planet believed the government had to inject capitol into the market. The health care plan is revolutionary, but it retains the system of private insurance, and it may even end up saving the country billions in the long term. It also doesn’t mandate euthanasia. Obama bears no responsibility for the long term forces that have been working on the country for decades: the relative decline of US power, the social liberalization and shifting demographics. If the economic collapse was anything for the Tea Party, it was an excuse to let rip a lifetime of fear and muted anger. Barack Obama was the catalyst.

What galvanizes those who despise Obama is what inspires those who idolize him: he embodies what they hate or love about they way America is evolving. He is, in ways he probably never bargained for, a symbol of change.

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Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.