By any standard, Barack Obama has had a very rough road a year and a half into his presidency. Inheriting the grim Bush legacy of unwinnable foreign wars, a mountain of ever-growing national debt, a thoroughly disgusted populace and a trashed economy, would be more than enough of a challenge for any president. In recent speeches, Obama has taken the tone of "it could be worse" except for his efforts. Unfortunately for the embattled president, it does get worse. Not only were 91,000 pages of Afghanistan war documents released this week, but House Democrats decided to go after their Senate counterparts hammer and tong.
For Democrats, or even progressive independents, Obama's term has been grueling. After being swept into the presidency on a national tidal wave of voters who were sick of George W. Bush, tens of millions of Americans watched and hoped for Obama's promised change. Slowly but inexorably, the excitement, the hope, the massive support for bringing a better future to the nation simply faded away in bout after bout of watered down efforts and outright reversals on major goals.
It's not hard to remember the stream of events, however painful the recollection. First came the Wall Street bailout, pouring hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of the very banks, insurance companies and investment houses that had, through their unbridled greed and total lack of ethical behavior, caused the economic crash. "Too big to fail" was the antithetical explanation we were given to explain why these capitalist institutions had to be saved because they were, in fact, failing. When it came time to do so, however, they were saved not by their much-lauded "free market," but by taxes squeezed from the pockets of the middle class. Americans moaned while the interest rates for their savings plummeted, and while the credit card interest rates imposed by the same unregulated, publicly bailed-out banks skyrocketed.
Then came the mortgage crisis with thousands of Americans losing their homes to foreclosure on a weekly basis. And once again, it wasn't the banks that originally made the out-sized loans coming to the rescue, it was the federal government with public funds, trying desperately and with minimal success to keep citizens in their homes. It would be wonderful to say it worked, but that would be disingenuous in the extreme. Millions continue to lose their homes, with many millions more "underwater" as the value of their house is now less than what they owe on it. Just this week it was reported that one in four mortgage holders in Miami are more than three months behind on their payments or already in foreclosure.
Thinking we could work our way out of it, the president and Congress spent hundreds of billions in stimulus funds throughout the nation for so-called "shovel-ready" projects. Looking back on it, much of what was sold as vital infrastructure improvements were nothing more than make-work projects. And as predicted by many, the federal government simply could not maintain the nation's economy without significant private-sector activity, which still remains in a state of near stasis.
Believing that the fire hose of federal funds would temporarily staunch the fires of economic collapse, Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress launched into a series of policy initiatives, hoping to regain some momentum on change and hope. But alas, therein lay the seeds of discontent that have now blossomed into serious division within the Democratic ranks.
The House, under the historic direction of its first woman speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was considering bills that would have given Americans a single-payer or public option on health care, address climate change and demand some quid pro quo for the homeland in return for more futile war funding. But Senate Democrats turned their collective back on their base. Instead, the Senate traded "change" for minor tinkering with the status quo in an inexplicable effort to obtain "bipartisan support" for their policies. The result was, in a word, disastrous.
Health care reform left the insurance companies in charge, financial reform left the "too big to fail" institutions in charge and climate change simply disappeared last week from the Senate's agenda...gone in a whiff of CO2 with nary a cap, trade or dividend in sight.
In the final straw to break the donkey's back, this week the Senate stripped provisions from a supplemental war-funding bill that would have, among other things, finally paid American Indians in their long-fought battle to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from tribal resources by corrupt and inept federal agencies. "Sorry," said the suddenly fiscally contrite senators, "we have to keep an eye on the national debt because the Republicans are making political hay from the trillion-dollar deficit."
The move left House Democrats furious as Republicans run full tilt against Speaker Pelosi, painting her as a free-spending liberal with a socialist agenda. And unlike senators, who have six-year terms, House members are elected every two years. That means virtually every House Democrat will face the electorate this November. Had they truly initiated the change on which they last campaigned, perhaps things would be different. But thanks to the Senate's penchant for lameness, they have mostly empty vessels to show the voters. Empty, at least, except for the mounting IOUs of the Treasury Department.
This week, the mounting frustration broke into the open with several House Dems voicing harsh condemnation of the Senate. "The inertia created in the Senate is what is jeopardizing Democrats and progressives' opportunities in the midterms. It is not our lack of action. It has been their lack of action," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus. "It sucks—and I mean it literally," added fellow Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va. "The lack of urgency from the Senate on these jobs bill is soul-crushing."
It's a safe bet these will not be the last words on the issue. As Democrats struggle, add one more "d" to their list of disappointed, dispirited and de-energized—divided.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.