President Obama, Plug the Hole

Is President Obama the only man who can plug the hole in American governance?

June 15, 2010

Is President Obama the only man who can plug the hole in American governance?

The BP fiasco should serve as a clarion call for all Americans, most of all President Obama, to stand up for radical reform of America’s policies and institutions. This is because the Gulf tragedy has exposed the U.S. government as toothless and impotent in serving the interests of the people it purports to represent.

BP has destroyed the Gulf of Mexico. But however horrific this episode may be, it is merely symptomatic of a trend.
The spill is merely a crude exclamation mark at the end of a decade during which the private sector has run amok.

Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Lehman Brothers, AIG and Toyota were just a few of BP’s disgraceful forebears. Routine episodes of contaminated food, toxic toys and poisonous pharmaceuticals have become so commonplace that they produce no more than a complacent shrug among their victims.

The health insurance industry is a scam. So is the privacy-invading tech sector, with its devil-may-care attitude toward the safety and stability of the systems upon which America has become entirely dependent. And then there is the utter disregard for the environment and worker safety that has become standard operating procedure for most of American business.

This sad state of affairs did not just happen because "stuff" happens. It is the result of a steady and sustained process of deregulation and relaxation of regulatory enforcement that began just over 30 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan exclaimed in his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem!”

The corollary to Reagan's formidable words was that the private sector does no wrong. But after a decade of scandal, we should know better. If the private sector were the government, there would be rioting in the streets.

Combating Reagan's pernicious sentiment should be President Obama’s singular domestic mission. It is up to him to begin reshaping the thinking of the vast majority of Americans who respond to anti-government rhetoric as they would to a tap on the knee with a rubber hammer.

The forces of diminished government are already lining up to place the blame for the BP disaster squarely on the shoulders of government. And they would be right, because government failed to enforce adequate safety regulations and to insure that contingency plans for disaster control were in place.

But those casting blame on the government are the same folks who have worked tirelessly over the past 30 years to transform government into a paper tiger rife with corruption. The blame rests with them.

Conservatives, including Tea Party activists, crave a form of freedom well-suited to a bygone era, a time when agrarian America prospered from endless land and abundant resources — the time of the "founding fathers.”

But today’s America is a multi-colored, multi-dimensional landscape of dazzling complexity. The individualistic freedoms wisely espoused 250 years ago need to be adapted to a modern, post-industrial society characterized by myriad interdependencies, a system in which no individual can exist, let alone prosper, without relying upon a robust and responsible regulatory infrastructure.

President Obama needs to draw a line in the sand on this. Obviously, he cannot change America's regulatory structure overnight — that will take decades. But he can use the relentless breakdown of that structure over the past decade to reshape the national debate, just as Ronald Reagan did in January 1981.

So far, the signal failure of the Obama Administration has been its reluctance to provide its supporters with an ideological framework, a compelling narrative, with which to refute and confound its opponents.

He allows his adversaries to mount one meritless attack after another on him and his purported ideals. And time and again he fails to respond. As a result, his Administration, and the hopes of the American people along with it, have been undermined and weakened.

With the BP disaster, the Obama Administration now stands on the brink of "Carterization." This would be a tragedy for all Americans.

President Obama can seize the initiative on governmental reform, but only if he acts now. Indeed, if he waits any longer, it may well be too late.

Ample regulation exists to police the private sector effectively. It is up to Obama to make sure that regulatory enforcement is strengthened, that it begins to represent, without compromise, the common interests of the American people. This can be done through executive order and requires no congressional mandate.

And once we start to enforce rigorously the regulations that are already on the books, we can gradually reregulate where ineffective regulation is in place. This requires a popular mandate, a national will to make government more responsive and more effective.

President Obama can use his "bully pulpit" to rally the American people around a new recognition that government can be a force of good. "Government is not the problem — it is the solution to our problems."

It took conservatives 30 years to eviscerate the American government. It may take 30 years to restore it. But restore it we must — and right now President Obama is the only man who can plug the hole in American governance.

Takeaways

Those casting blame on the government are the same folks who have worked tirelessly over the past 30 years to transform government into a paper tiger rife with corruption.

With the BP disaster, the Obama Administration now stands on the brink of "Carterization." This would be a tragedy for all Americans.

President Obama can seize the initiative on governmental reform, but only if he acts now. Indeed, if he waits any longer, it may well be too late.

Combating Reagan's pernicious sentiment should be President Obama's singular domestic mission.

If the private sector were the government, there would be rioting in the streets.