I have my qualms now and then about our new administration, more often on civil rights grounds that economic ones, but I still have a sense, call it faith, that Obama knows what he’s doing and what he’s doing is going to work out.

I just send off the long excerpt below, which comes for a story bearing the same title as this post, which was written by George Packer in last week’s New Yorker, to a friend of mine who shares with me many of a series of exchanges among a bunch of movers ‘n’ shakers in the legal world, big name guys who, from where I stand, are often way off base in their understand of the world around them.

In any case, it’s an encouraging perspective on what’s actually happening the White House and it seemed worthwhile share it here as well (the link above will get you the entire piece):

Well short of Obama’s first hundred days, the dominant characteristic of his Presidency is clear: activist government, on every front. It’s harder to make out the contours of the philosophy at the core of this dazzling blur of action. Given the early and ample track record, there’s surprisingly little agreement over the nature of Obamaism. Obama’s signature projects defy grouping under a single heading, and, as a result, he has been criticized for inconsistency. To take one example, he forced the chief executive of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, into early retirement, and yet he has not called for the removal of any of the failed leaders of America’s financial institutions, like Bank of America’s Kenneth Lewis. He promised a federal guarantee of warranties for owners of G.M. and Chrysler cars, but he won’t put the government in temporary control of the banks, which are at the heart of the economic crisis. He is willing to spend $275 billion for homeowners’ relief, but he won’t let the government enter into the business of making direct loans. He has made health-care reform the ultimate test of his first year, but seems prepared to compromise on significant aspects of the legislation.To liberals such as Robert Kuttner, of the American Prospect, and Paul Krugman, of the Times, these self-imposed limitations are unnecessary concessions to a free-market ideology that has been thoroughly discredited. In this reading, Obama lacks the courage of his activist impulses, and his hesitations will play right into the hands of his enemies. The usual reply to such criticism is that Obama is basically a pragmatist, who will do what he thinks can work. But pragmatism is a description of a temperament, not an explanation of a world view.

What underlies so many of Obama’s decisions is an attachment to the institutions that hold up American society, a desire to make them function better rather than remake them altogether. Allowing the auto industry to die would create social havoc in communities around the country, and anything less than de-facto government control seems inadequate. So the President has risked a good deal of his political capital on the largest federal intervention in a sector of the economy since at least 1952, when President Truman seized the steel industry to avert a strike during wartime. Obama, announcing his plan last week, said, “We cannot, and we must not, and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish. This industry is like no other—it’s an emblem of the American spirit. . . . It’s what helped build the middle class and sustained it throughout the twentieth century.” Obama may not see a similar need to put the government in charge of the big banks, but he has also shown that he has no taste for such a disruption of the system—even if it were politically possible, and perhaps even if it were the most direct route back to financial health.

In his budget message to Congress, Obama invoked the value of fairness, but his budget proposals don’t create government programs—such as guaranteed-income measures or large numbers of relief jobs—that would establish equality from the top down. Instead, Obama seems to recognize that nothing has shredded the civic fabric in recent years more than the harsh inequalities of finance capitalism and the market ideology of a generation of American politics. This is not the rigid mentality of an engineer of human souls; it’s the attitude of a community organizer.

It’s also a pretty good description of what used to pass for conservatism—a sense that social relations and institutions are fragile things, and that, while government can’t create wealth or impose equality, at moments like this it has to establish a new equilibrium between individuals and huge economic forces, so that society doesn’t crumble. But modern conservatism has grown into exactly the opposite of its origins, in Burke’s respect for tradition and Madison’s promotion of countervailing checks on concentrations of power. Instead, like any revolutionary creed, it is abstract, hard-edged, and indifferent to experience and existing conditions.


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