Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

What was that about a Good Crisis? The politics of immigration and hydrocarbons

In Domestic Politics on May 27, 2010 at 9:40 am

Do you remember that line of Rahm Emanuel’s that those among us who are Republicans love to repeat: you never want a serious crisis to go to waste? It is a great line because it reflects a hard-bitten political instinct that is really quite savvy, although it may not have been politic to say it in public. Opponents of the President have been quite wrong in attributing this machine politics sensibility of his Chief of Staff to him, for in Obama’s radical moderation he is going to let two serious crises pass him by in the same season. The trick in making sense of these crises is that each points in a different direction.

Just Tuesday, we learned that Obama is going to move to secure the border with 1200 troops, a decision he seems to have reached after meeting with Republican Senate leaders. One might imagine that he is speaking about the border with North Korea, but no, this is our ally Mexico. In a move that apparently splits the middle of concerns on this issue, he balances the fear driven concerns of those who live in Western States with the fear driven concerns of Latinos and civil rights groups who see the Arizona law as a way to introduce a kind of ethnic Apartheid.  Obama here is probably making a mistake by avoiding the chance to signal to all Latinos everywhere that the Democratic Party is their natural home as the Civil Rights act did for African Americans.

This week as the BP disaster has washed thick oil into the marshes of Louisiana, the public furor about the lack of safety precautions taken by the company is only now washing ashore here on the banks of the Potomac. We have endured this creeping catastrophe for over a month, but now it is ripe for political mobilization. Obama has been moderate in his response, and opinion is turning against him. Not only did he take steps to increase offshore drilling just weeks before the accident, but he has also decided to stand by BP by not siding with the independent scientists who seem to have demonstrated that the scale of the disaster is roughly ten times what the company would have us believe. he is splitting the middle on this issues as well, and by doing so he is almost surely losing a remarkably rare chance to bring white southerners (among many other groups) to his side in a populist stand against a failure of a system that was partly designed and put in place by Halliburton. The “it wasn’t me” defense won’t work on that one, and the white working class is quite suspicious of corporate abuse. This is why they hated the TARP.

What is wrong with the president?

Part of the answer is that the Republicans are just really adept with the Shaggy defense, but what is wrong with President Obama is exactly what is right about him. Both of these crises are useful for long-term political gain in different ways, but the reason he did not capitalize on them is because it would be cheap and populist to do so. That is just not him. Unfortunately it is us.

The first crisis could have been used to cement a Latino base while offending only conservative groups who will most likely not vote for Obama in any case. As exciting as the immigration issue is, in my own research on salient issue concerns, immigration is always, and I mean always, way down the list. This could be changing, but immigration is not a big cleavage point in practical politics. When it comes to election time, immigration is a very rare reason that people volunteer for why they like or dislike the parties and candidates. It may feel right to appeal the so-called center by splitting the middle on this issue, but all it does is send a message to Latinos that no one is with them. What Obama could do instead is roughly nothing, while continuing to oppose the Arizona law. See, it is populist and cheap and he will not do it.  There is a problem with immigration law that doing nothing will do nothing to fix and he wants to be part of the solution.

The second crisis is the oil spill. On this one you have to scratch your head and say how could he mess this one up?  The Republican Party he won against had two economic agendas, tax cuts and “drill baby drill.” I once joked that this struck me as a cross between the Boston Tea Party and the Beverly Hill Billies. With Rand Paul you see where the Tea Party gets you and now we see where drilling will lead. This is something of the Nigeria-fication of the United States, in which ecological disaster is factored in as a cost of business.  Just look at those Louisiana marshes to get a sense of why Nigeria is the most conflict ridden part of the planet you never hear about. Why doesn’t Obama pull an FDR here and score some cheap political points? How else will you ever win over working class whites? Again, it is not his style. We are seeing coal and oil disasters around the world because the nearly seven billion people of the world all need more energy to improve their lives. He recognizes that under current conditions off-shore drilling is part of the mix and he wants to be part of the solution.

If you ever wondered, now you know; the President is no radical. If the President’s first half term were a Spike Lee movie it would be “Do the Right Thing” and not “He Got Game.” These are radical times, but we have a steady hand at the tiller. Progressives and Populists have an opportunity to do things you think they could not do before, but only a small few of them will be done.  This President is no radical and unlike his predecessor he attempts to represent all of the people and not just a few bracing factions; at least two crises are going to waste on his watch right now. We will see if this is one of those rare times when to be part of the solution is to be part of the problem.


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