Political columnist and blogger David Sirota and WALL STREET JOURNAL columnist Thomas Frank share their predictions and hopes for Barack Obama’s presidency. Also in this JOURNAL, THE NATION columnist Patricia Williams and Princeton politics and African-American studies professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell size up the significance of this historic milestone.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. The mantra echoing from the capitol is “A New Era of Responsibility.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: …a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.
BILL MOYERS: Well we’ll find out what this means as President Obama confronts one of his first big challenges — the bankers and the bailout.
Usually it’s the bandits robbing the banks. But now it’s getting hard to tell the bankers from the bandits. Where have they stashed the loot — that 350 billion dollars of our money that the Bush Administration lavished on them to jump-start our failing economy?
For a story in last Sunday’s THE NEW YORK TIMES, largely overlooked in all the pre-inaugural hoopla, reporter Mike McIntire reviewed investor presentations and conference calls to see how bankers talk when they think the rest of us aren’t listening.
This from Boston Private Wealth Management, a healthy bank that was handed $154 million:
“With that capital in hand […] we’ll be in a position to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves once this recession is sorted out.”
Once this recession is sorted out? Those funds are supposed to generate loans for people and small businesses in trouble — not to help banks ride out the recession on a cushion of cash.
Then there’s this bit of Simon Legree mustache-twirling from the chairman of Whitney National Bank in New Orleans. They’ve received 300 million dollars in bailout boodle:
“Make more loans?” he asked. “We’re not going to change our business model or our credit policies to accommodate the needs of the public sector as they see it to have us make more loans.”
I’m not making this up — Flushing Financial crowed that it was newly flush enough to use the bailout bucks to raise the ante and buy new companies:
“We can get $70 million in capital,” their CEO said. “So, I would say the price of poker, so to speak, has gone up.” And, so to speak, he’s playing with our chips!
REP. JESSE JACKSON, JR.: The joint resolution is passed.
BILL MOYERS: Twice this week, the House cast symbolic votes urging the new administration to clamp down on how financial institutions spend their bailout money. And on the morning after Obama’s inauguration, his choice for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, faced some tough questioning on Capitol Hill.
SEN. RON WYDEN: […] it seems to me the Fed had significant supervisory authority there. The alarm bells were going off. And I want to know what you, looking back, would have done differently.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER: […] our system created a very complicated set of accountability and responsibility among the myriad of supervisors and regulators responsible for overseeing bank holding companies. And part of the failure in the checks and balances was-
SEN. RON WYDEN: Should your supervision have been more effective?
TIMOTHY GEITHNER: Absolutely.
SEN. RON WYDEN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: So as our new president faces off against the Wall Street mindset, we may soon find out if his velvet gloves cover hands of steel, or not. We’ll talk about Obama’s agenda and the strength of his resolve with my next two guests.
Historian Thomas Frank wrote the best-seller WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS and more recently, THE WRECKING CREW. He is THE WALL STREET JOURNAL’S newest weekly columnist.
David Sirota spent years in electoral politics before turning to political journalism. His weekly syndicated column appears in newspapers across the country and he’s written two best-selling books, HOSTILE TAKEOVER, and THE UPRISING.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to both of you.
DAVID SIROTA: Thanks.
BILL MOYERS: What’s at stake for the president in this bailout and banks issue?
THOMAS FRANK: Well, this is the biggest issue of them all. I mean, you’ve got to do this right, this is the heart of the recession. This is what’s caused it all. It’s also a huge opportunity if Obama chooses to essentially remake the economy or to adjust the economy and make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again and to make sure that, in fact, the entire sort of way that wealth has been distributed, prosperity has been experienced in this country for the last 20 years, is done differently, done right next time.
Second of all, look, and this is the sort of broad, grand historical view of things. For the last — since the 1980s, the financial sector calls the shots. It not only is larger than manufacturing, it tells manufacturing what to do and every other sector of the economy.
Well, now look what’s happened. Wall Street has driven us off a cliff, okay? It’s time — I mean, it is their day of reckoning. And to think that they’re just going to get bailed out with no strings attached, they don’t have to change the way they behave after doing this to us as a country, that’s inconceivable to me. We’re now probably close to being the majority shareholders — you and me, the public-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
THOMAS FRANK: -majority shareholders. We’re like the public is going to be — either is or will be soon the majority shareholder of a lot of banks in this country. And yet we will not have the power to vote, right? We can’t vote the shares. We can’t appoint directors. These are the conditions of the TARP, of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, right? That’s a terrible blunder.
If we’re going to throw all that money to these people, we need to be able to tell them, look, you have to do — you know, you have to let us have directives. We have to be able to have a voice in the operation of this business.
BILL MOYERS: As you speak, the Irish government is nationalizing the third largest bank in that country. And governments all over the world, including Britain have nationalization on the table. Are you wishing that Obama would at least put nationalization on the table?
DAVID SIROTA: The question is, are you going to do nationalization or are you going to simply throw money at the current banks, the banks the way they exist. In other words, if you’re going to do nationalization, do nationalization.
BILL MOYERS: We’ve partly done it, with taxpayer money. Partly. I mean, it’s partly nationalized.
DAVID SIROTA: We’ve gotten all of the bad stuff and none of the good stuff of nationalization. Nationalization in other countries means that the government has control over the banks with that money that they put into the bank.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what Thomas said — nominates directors, has oversight-
DAVID SIROTA: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: -regulates it, right?
DAVID SIROTA: Exactly. What we have done is simply handed the money over with no mandate to actually change the behavior, change the structure of the banks, change the management of the banks. So my take is pretty simple.
If we’re going to throw this much money — remember, $350 billion is half the bailout. That’s $1,100 for every man, woman, and child in the country. If we’re going to put that kind of money into the banking system, we should get much more leverage. And I think the one other thing I think is really important, you’ll notice that in the entire debate over the bailout, nobody has really tried to make the point or ask the question: Is spending $700 billion, a trillion dollars, giving to the banks, is that the best way to improve our economy?
No one has said that this is a better way to lift the economy than, say, passing a universal healthcare program, doing a jobs program, a New Deal-style jobs program. That part of the debate is simply off the table. We’re expected to simply assume that the ways to lift the economy is to give this money to the banks.
BILL MOYERS: Some people are talking about treating the banks — not nationalizing them but treating them as utilities, you know? Like we do the electric company-
THOMAS FRANK: In a lot of ways we think about banks mentally in that way, right? That’s certainly how we thought about, you know, the savings and loans. It’s how we think about a lot of these enterprises. And yet, of course, that’s not what they are at all. And that’s not what their function has actually been in reality. Their function is — they’re driving the economy, you know, they’re calling the shots, you know, all across the whole system.
To think of them that way, I mean, you’re talking about the segment of the economy that’s been so fantastically prosperous. You know, when I went to college I remember all the kids going off to become investment bankers-
BILL MOYERS: Investment bankers, right.
THOMAS FRANK: -and stuff like that. And they were doing very well until a couple of months ago. And you know, that was — it was drawing all the best and the brightest into that field. I mean, to go off and to become a historian was a, you know, really deluded idea that I had. But to change banks into that, you know, into a sort of a utility, oh, man, I mean, you’re talking about — that’s an earthquake.
BILL MOYERS: Do either of you see any toughness in Obama as he approaches this issue?
DAVID SIROTA: Unfortunately, I think the actions that he has taken have been ones that are much more towards the status quo. I mean, he was the guy whose first exercise of presidential power was, right before he came into office, he threatened to veto any bill that Congress passed rejecting or limiting more bailout funds from going to Wall Street.
He has put in place into his administration people who have been either involved in the current bailout — Tim Geithner — or people who have really advocated for lots of the same free market fundamentalism that this bailout really epitomizes. So, you know, I’d like to hope. That’s Obama’s big word, “hope.” The question is: Are we going to get change? We don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: Tom, you even wrote a column the other day with the headline that said, in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, “Obama should act like he won.” Is he doing that?
THOMAS FRANK: You know, it’s a funny thing because he — I love Obama. I voted for him many times. He was my state senator back in Chicago. I’ve, you know, followed this guy’s career for ages. I think he’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t understand why a man that just won a sweeping victory over the other party — you know, won a landslide in the electoral college and the other party, you know, is crawling off with its tail between its legs, you know, horribly discredited, everything they believe in ruins.
And he goes to that party and says, you know — he wanted a majority of the Republican votes in the Senate for his stimulus package as well as, of course, the Democrats. And I read that, I was, like, well, why? You just gave them a whooping that they’re not going to forget in a long time, you know? You are in charge.
Let them, you know, why go to them? Let them come to you. And I think — you know what I think is going to happen is that he’s going to discover very quickly what Bill Clinton discovered but then Bill Clinton never — you know, that these guys are implacable, you know? That they are not going to come around, that they don’t have his best interests at heart. And they don’t even have the nation’s best interests at heart. I’m sorry. I’m very partisan.
DAVID SIROTA: I mean, I disagree with you a little bit. I disagree in that I think Barack Obama can pull five or ten Republicans with — and by pushing a very progressive agenda. The issue is how much is he willing to sacrifice for political aesthetics? How much is he willing to water down an economic stimulus package with discredited tax cuts in order to get 30 or 40 Republican votes?
I’m very convinced, if you look at polls on issues like healthcare, on issues like, should the government spend to create jobs? I’m very convinced that if he pushes a robust, progressive, Democratic package, he, with his bully pulpit, would be able to peel off the necessary five, six, seven Republican votes in the Senate. But, again, the question is how much is he willing to water that down to get 20 or 30?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, he seems to want an 80-vote margin, including majority Republican support, rather than to go for a 60-vote victory with only a few Republicans. Do you think that’s part of a long-term strategy? Or does it reflect a man who really is geared to the consensus?
THOMAS FRANK: I think it’s also he’s coming into office at a moment of crisis. What presidents traditionally do — and I’m not a presidential historian. But this is what presidents traditionally do at moments like this is they reach for the bipartisanship. We’re all in this together, government of national unity.
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson. You know, I served Lyndon Johnson in the White House. And his mantra was right out of the Book of Isaiah, “Come now and let us reason together.” I mean, every time I hear Obama call McCain or go to see the Republicans or meet with them, I think of Lyndon Johnson reaching across the aisle trying to create this consensus.
DAVID SIROTA: But I think that’s okay. The question is, what is the policy sacrifice? That — the rhetoric is great.
BILL MOYERS: So what do you think he’s giving up at this moment? It’s too early to really know. This is what? Three days into the administration. But what do you-
DAVID SIROTA: Well, we know what he’s tried to give up. For instance, his first draft of the economic stimulus package included $400 billion or 40 percent worth of tax cuts, including a couple of corporate tax cuts that would have rewarded the banks — retroactively allowing them to write down some of their losses. That was rejected. He brought it up to Capitol Hill and the Democrats in the Senate said, no, this is not acceptable.
But the point is, is that he brought that up in order to try to get that 80 votes. And so I’m all for reaching out to the other side. The question though, is do we have to water down the policy? That’s what we don’t know about Obama yet.
BILL MOYERS: You also wrote, “Democrats have massive majorities these days not because they waffle hither and yon but because their historic principles have been vindicated by events. This is their moment.” What do they have to do, the Democratic Party, to seize the moment as you would have them do?
THOMAS FRANK: Or has the moment seized them? I mean, in some ways, events are in the saddle right now. And everything that — you know, everything that we’ve seen, we’ve seen a whole way of looking at economics, a whole way of looking at society crumble before our eyes just in the last few months. And I suspect it will continue to crumble.
One thing that might be done — you know, look, I think what’s going to happen with Obama is that events are going to continue to push him. I think he’s going to continue to go in my direction because I think, you know, I’m optimistic. And it’s all about hope and change.
One of the things that Congress could do to sort of help this process along — and this would be — I think this would be good across the board. It would be good for our politics it would be good for the way we understand society. It’d be good for historians like me who want to, you know, be able to talk about the past, you know, the last 20 or 30 years — is have — remember in the campaign, McCain said we need to have hearings on what’s gone wrong on Wall Street.
And it was obviously an effort to say, “Oh, let’s not talk about this now.” Well, you know what’s funny? We do need hearings to find out what went wrong on Wall Street, just like in the 1930s where they had hearings that went on for years.
BILL MOYERS: Ferdinand Pecora. Right?
THOMAS FRANK: That’s right. Yeah, he was not exactly the prosecutor. But he was the attorney that they brought in the Senate to conduct the hearings. And it was — they were very high profile — and they brought in all the sort of great captains of Wall Street, put them on the stand, and revealed to the world the sort of incredible and really evil things that these people had been up to.
BILL MOYERS: It was the first time, if I remember, that the public at large learned what the CEOs and the tycoons on Wall Street had been doing. And it actually led to significant reform, SEC and other things like that, because this fella was a determined. Roosevelt wasn’t sure he wanted the Pecora Commission.
THOMAS FRANK: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: The president didn’t want to cause trouble, you know? But Pecora and the Senate persisted. And they came up with this extraordinary revelation about what had happened on Wall Street. And you’re saying we should have a criminal investigation.
THOMAS FRANK: Not criminal. No, another high profile Senate investigation of these guys. I would — hell, I’d go down there and help them do it. I mean, I’d volunteer right now.
DAVID SIROTA: And that’s the value of having a vibrant legislative branch. We have now gone through I think eight years of a legislative branch that has been a rubber stamp to the president. And I was particularly, you know, as a progressive, I was particularly disturbed by that when, in the two years, the Democrats controlled the Congress.
But just because we have a Democratic progressive president doesn’t mean that we don’t need a legislative branch. You brought up a great example of why a vibrant legislative branch is important. It can hold the kinds of hearings that need to be held. It can push Obama into a more robust agenda that perhaps as president, as a new president, he may not yet want to go.
BILL MOYERS: Now, politically, you’ve been, and journalistically, you’ve been at the heart of the progressive movement, and the progressive base turned out hugely for Obama. What does that base demand of him now on the issues, say, of Iraq?
DAVID SIROTA: Well, I think, first and foremost, he’s got to stick to his campaign promise, which he seems to be doing on the issue of Iraq. THE NEW YORK TIMES reported that in day one he convened a meeting of military leaders saying that he wants them to start planning for a drawdown of troops.
I think that is a baseline issue, considering he campaigned on that not only in the general election but in the primary. I think in a more broad kind of way, people want him to be more embracing, which he is, of the role of government in addressing issues like economic inequality, in addressing issues like income stagnation.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think he’s a fighter? Both of you. You saw him in Illinois. You actually, in ’06, you challenged Obama’s progressive credentials and what happened?
DAVID SIROTA: Well, he called me up on the phone and he said, “You know, I want you to know I am a real progressive. And I think if you look at my record I’m a real progressive.” And I went and I spent a day with him. And what I found is that this guy — this is a guy who’s obviously very intelligent but is a guy who very much understands the rules of the establishment, the rules of the status quo and is always looking to maximize, to make change within those rules.
What I worry about with Obama is that here is a guy that has the power, really, to change those rules not just because he’s president but because he’s an inspiring figure. And we need a president to change those rules, to change those paradigms.
THOMAS FRANK: I agree with what David was just saying. I mean look, I went to the University of Chicago. But when a guy is, you know, Harvard University to Chicago, you kind of-
BILL MOYERS: You stopped too soon.
THOMAS FRANK: And but exactly what David said. He doesn’t — maybe he does understand that he has the power, I mean, this is where they teach you the orthodoxy, you know? Harvard, Chicago Law School. I mean, these are the upholders of the orthodoxy, the idea that, no, we can’t have an industrial policy in America. The market has to decide. We can’t pick winners. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
He now has the power to throw all that overboard. History is demanding that he throw it overboard. The — you know, the orthodoxy is discredited like at no time since, you know, the 1930s. It is, you know, it is in his power to do that. I think he’ll rise to the challenge.
BILL MOYERS: But by nature, isn’t he a centrist?
DAVID SIROTA: The issue is, what is a centrist? The definition of a centrist in D.C. is different than the definition of a centrist in the country. Centrism in D.C. means anything that passes the Senate by 99 to nothing, right? And as we know, usually things that pass the Senate 99 to nothing are to rename a post office or pass a corporate tax cut.
Out in the country, the center, the polls will show the center is get out of Iraq, pass a universal healthcare system, have the government invest a lot more in job creation and infrastructure rebuilding. The — what we don’t know yet is whether Obama is going to represent that center, outside the Beltway, or if he is insistent on playing by the rules of Washington, the Washington center that says what we should do with the economy is simply give money to the banks.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s the first thing you’d like to see him do that would convince you your heart’s in the right place?
DAVID SIROTA: I’d like to see him pass a much bigger, much more robust economic stimulus package that was focused almost exclusively on spending, on the kinds of public spending, expanding healthcare, infrastructure spending, and back off the idea of corporate tax cuts.
THOMAS FRANK: I would add to that — it’s judgment day for Wall Street. We need really strong oversight. Regulation is back. And we don’t — you know, forget bringing in, you know, these people that have been part of the problem. Bring in tough regulators. And they’re out there. We have lots of them. You know, they know what they’re doing. Bring them in. Turn them loose on Wall Street.
BILL MOYERS: THE ECONOMIST has said that this, quote, “economic crisis” may increase the appeal of the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism — right here — no, this is THE ECONOMIST, which is no socialist rag, right? You would agree to that. I mean, is that a real threat? You wrote recently a column called “The Rise of American Czarism.”
THOMAS FRANK: Oh my God.
DAVID SIROTA: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Is this what you’re talking about?
DAVID SIROTA: It is. It’s the rise of our desire to have dictators with extralegal power that the Congress or the president appoints to force things through. It really — it’s a way to subvert democracy in the name of progress.
BILL MOYERS: Isn’t it the way to get the trains working on time? Isn’t that what people mean by it?
DAVID SIROTA: That is what they mean. But what it does is it puts democracy in competition with progress, right? You’re basically saying we don’t think the regular democratic process of hearings and oversight is enough to make progress, to pass legislation. So we’re going to empower essentially a dictator.
BILL MOYERS: Give us an example. And you provide one from history, if you can, of how this plays out.
THOMAS FRANK: Hank Paulson.
DAVID SIROTA: Exactly.
THOMAS FRANK: He’s a disaster.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
THOMAS FRANK: He was making the policy just as he saw fit, you know?
BILL MOYERS: But he was secretary of the treasury. He was invested with that authority, right?
THOMAS FRANK: Ordinarily he-
DAVID SIROTA: Not ordinarily. He was appointed as the czar. Congress delegated its power of the purse to Paulson. And now what do we have? We have a bailout that we know hasn’t lifted the economy. We’ve got an oversight panel, an independent oversight panel saying we don’t even know where the money is going. And that’s because there has been no public input. The democracy, the oversight, the input was completely offloaded for the czar.
THOMAS FRANK: And not only that but he seemed to make policy just by whim. Like, one day it’s, you know, we’re going to go and buy the troubled assets. The next day, no, no, no, we’re going to bail out the auto companies, you know? We’re going to have a stimulus package. We’re not going to have a stimulus package, you know? And it was all up to him.
DAVID SIROTA: And by the way, you know — in empowering Paulson, let’s not forget Paulson, before becoming treasury secretary, was a top executive at Goldman Sachs, which has received or is part of the industry that has received so much money. So we’ve not only empowered a czar and subverted democracy, we’ve given that power to somebody who has direct connections to the very industry he’s supposed to be regulating.
THOMAS FRANK: And do you remember the bill that he — the original demand to Congress for the TARP funding? It was what? Three pages?
DAVID SIROTA: Yes.
THOMAS FRANK: And one of the things was, like, there’ll be no accountability, no oversight, no hearings, no looking into this ever? Unbelievable.
BILL MOYERS: And Congress did rebel.
THOMAS FRANK: That’s right, they threw that out.
DAVID SIROTA: Exactly. Congress said, no, we want more oversight. The problem was, of course, is that the oversight measures that were written into the bill included all sorts of loopholes to the point where, I kid you not, the Treasury Department was caught on tape in a conference call with Wall Street analysts saying that the executive compensation limits that Congress was bragging about were written to be essentially unenforceable.
THOMAS FRANK: So the czar gets his way but, Congress, ha-ha, no nothing, you know? Blow that off. It’s amazing.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s what the czars are for, to make it work better, right?
THOMAS FRANK: Yeah.
DAVID SIROTA: I don’t buy into that. I don’t buy into the idea that in order to make government work you’ve got to essentially create a dictator or a czar or an authoritarian. I think THE ECONOMIST is right. The impetus at this moment is to move towards authoritarian capitalism. But I think in order for us to be a strong country, we have resist that. I mean, we are a strong country because we’re a democracy.
BILL MOYERS: So what do you see in Obama that you think will justify your voting for him over and over again? No, that’s a serious-
THOMAS FRANK: Now you’re putting me on the spot here, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: No, no. You’re a historian. You can’t see right quite yet.
THOMAS FRANK: Yes. That’s true. That’s true. And I will admit that one of the reasons that I was so pleased to vote for Obama in the primaries was that I thought that it would bring a new crowd to Washington, that it would be the end of this sort of centrist nonsense. Okay, call me gullible. But-
BILL MOYERS: All right, gullible.
THOMAS FRANK: -it would be, you know, but it would-
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Gullible Frank.
THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. You know, that you would not have a return — just a return of the Clinton Administration. That’s what I was looking for. And he seemed to be offering that. You know, new people, new blood. Unfortunately, you know, he gets in there and he’s brought in a lot of the Clinton — I’m not happy about this.
At the same time, I still have — I have a great deal of faith in the man. He — look, I’ve met him in person. I have never met a politician as intelligent, as rhetorically gifted. He’s brilliant.
DAVID SIROTA: I think the other positive about Obama has not much to do with Obama. The upsurge in people’s engagement in politics, the hope that he’s given people, the desire for change that he has harnessed I think offers a potential to actually make change, whether he wants it or not. In other words, he may have created something that he, in many ways, wasn’t prepared for.
I think Obama has unleashed, through his oratory, through his candidacy, this force that could be used for very good and could push him in a more bold direction than even he may want to go. It’s like in the Roosevelt Administration. Roosevelt didn’t come out for Social Security and, you know, give us all the great things that he did out of the goodness of his heart.
He did it because there was a movement behind him that was constantly pushing him for these things. And that’s what has to go on with Obama. The movement has to continue. It can’t just be one guy. The movement didn’t just exist to elevate this one man to the Oval Office. It has to keep pushing him.
I would use the term “tough love” to describe it, that’s the stance that we have to take. But we have to keep pushing. And I think that’s — look, like I said before, events are in the saddle. It’s going to have to happen. It has to happen. If it doesn’t, we are, you know, if we’re going to just go back and repeat the mistakes of the last 20 years all over again, oh my god, that’s you know, catastrophic. Can’t happen that way.
BILL MOYERS: Tom Frank and David Sirota, thank you for being with me on the JOURNAL.
DAVID SIROTA: Thanks for having us.
BILL MOYERS: A year and a half ago Melissa Harris-Lacewell sat right here and told me she thought Barack Obama could not be elected president in 2008. This week she attended his inauguration. I’m eager to hear her reaction.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She’s the author of BARBERSHOPS, BIBLES AND BET: EVERYDAY TALK AND BLACK POLITICAL THOUGHT.
Patricia Williams is back, too. She teaches law at Columbia University, writes “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” column in THE NATION magazine, and is the author of THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS. It’s good to see you both back.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Thanks.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks, great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: You did say, sitting right there — Obama can’t win.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I did. And probably the worst part was I suggested I thought he’d be a great vice president. And in my mind I was thinking John Edwards would be at the top of the ticket. So this is maybe more than anything why political scientists don’t run actual political campaigns. I mean, it has been quite an electoral season.
BILL MOYERS: So what were you thinking on Tuesday?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I suppose the greatest thought I was having as I was watching the inauguration of Barack Obama was my sense that I didn’t even know I wanted a black president. I wasn’t particularly attached to the idea of an African American in the White House. It seemed just sort of symbolic. And yet I was moved at a very profound level about how this made me feel connected to my country in a way that I’d never fully felt connected before. It was an astonishing feeling.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: But I think this was a very particular, remarkable moment because it came on the tail end of a very freighted, complicated, and I think unhappy eight years. And so I think a lot of people who did not necessarily even support the Democratic Party voted for Obama or celebrated his inauguration because the joy in it was infectious. And the sense of improvement, the sense of an opportunity for global recognition, not just domestic recognition, was something that, just spread like wildfire.
BILL MOYERS: And for all that, he comes to office at perhaps the most difficult time since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Jon Stewart on Tuesday night after the inaugural that day had a marvelous moment in which he revealed the realities that we and Obama face. Take a look at this excerpt.
JON STEWART: No minor controversy is going to quell the enthusiasm of this crowd. For this, the most highly anticipated inaugural address of our lifetimes.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened. […] Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many. […] The ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
BILL MOYERS: That nailed it right?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yeah.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Did you see the headline in THE ONION a few weeks ago? “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Are we being unrealistic with all this euphoria?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: No. I think, in fact, the fact that we have euphoria is a very good thing in the context of coming up against something so difficult. This challenge that we face now is going to require us to rethink what we mean by the social contract. What exactly are the promises and the price of citizenship, which is what, you know, Barack suggested to us on Tuesday.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I do think that we need to quell some of the expectations that, now that he is president, you know, bluebirds have suddenly come into, you know, that butterflies are hatching all over the country. It is, we still have difficulty with, for example, the vocabulary of race that I think is still very much confining how we see Barack Obama. Now, again, that may change.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, I think that he is, on the one hand, our first African American president. And some people call him our first bi-racial president.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Some people say that he is, or really consider him still much more acceptable because he has a white parent. I think that part of that internecine warfare within the black community based on skin color.
I think one of the freighted problems within the black community with hearing words like “bi-racial” is that, you know, African Americans have always been multi-racial. We are, I mean, you know, since slavery, at least bi-racial. And so that some of that vocabulary within the black community, I think evokes images of half-breed, quadroon, mulatto, the kind of color coded, tragic mulatto conversation that induces a kind of hierarchy. And I think that that’s going to be part of a new American vocabulary in dealing with that unconscious level of distinction.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think about that?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, so for me I suppose the notion of Barack Obama as our first bi-racial president is troubling. And it’s troubling in part because, as you point out, African Americans have always been a multi-racial people, or at least for all of contemporary American history they have been a multi-racial people. But the other thing is that race is not simply about biology.
Race is, of course, socially and legally constructed. And at every point in American history Barack Obama would have been in the category of black. He would have been enslaveable under the slave codes. He would have been Jim Crowed in the context of the Jim Crow South.
Homer Plessy, who is the litigate in the Plessy v. Ferguson, which establishes separate but equal, the legal code that we think of the civil rights movement as finally breaking open, was so visibly or physiologically white that he had to go to the conductor on the train and tell him, “I’m passing the color line here. I’m breaking the color line. You need to arrest me.”
So all of the moments of American racial political history hinge right around a space where multi-racial, sometimes much more sort of in appearance white-black people, have been a part of the story. So it’s very hard for me to imagine that now, at the culmination of one part of the black political story, we would start to break that off and assign it to a group that simply does not exist as a matter of law, the bi-racial group.
I suppose what I find exciting about the upfrontness about Barack Obama’s patchwork, racial identity is that it allows him to be empowering to many different kinds of people. But at the same time, to take away that this is a particular moment of ordinary black folks on the ground who came to D.C. in numbers like nothing I’ve ever seen, who stood there in the cold.
That is the accomplishment and the achievement of ordinary black folks on the ground as voters, as those who survived the Jim Crow South. So I just can’t take Barack away from us. We need him.
BILL MOYERS: Does this change life for those ordinary black Americans, this election?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I think it changes the self-perception of African Americans. Obviously nothing is going to change life overnight. But I think that it is too easy to dismiss the symbolism of this particular election. It’s too easy to dismiss the sense of investment of identity. I hear over and over again people, not just African Americans but particularly African Americans, who felt so disenfranchised for so long, feeling so deeply, deeply American.
People saying that they picked up a flag and waved it for the first time in their lives and waved it with such enthusiasm. And not in a sense that this is just an African American administration but that they feel united to all Americans, that he represents all Americans. And in that, the constituency of African Americans feel connected to other constituencies from whom they felt quite segregated and dispossessed.
BILL MOYERS: Obama himself once said he was trying to raise himself as a black man in America and, quote, “Beyond the given of my appearance, no one around seemed to know exactly what that meant.” Have you given any thought as to why he chose to be African American instead than bi-racial?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: The word “choice” is probably a little bit overstated because I don’t think that anyone really chooses when you are apparently—
BILL MOYERS: Right.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: -dark skinned. And at the same time, I do think that the question of African American manhood is a very freighted cultural identity. And I don’t think it’s just somebody with his background that struggles with that. I have a 16-year-old son who was struggling to understand what growing up as an African American man means. I wouldn’t separate it from the general struggle of what it means to be, to appear to the world, in a particular way that, to which people assign, you know, extra cool or a particular way of dressing or a particular way of speaking. And I think it’s quite complicated for anybody.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, there seems to be some evidence in the first autobiography, DREAMS FROM MY FATHER, where he suggests that part of that choice has to do with angling towards being his dad, that that absent parent gave him something to which he was trying to aspire, that he’d heard lots of stories about what an enormous personality and an important man his father was. So I think part of the choice of blackness had to do with him trying to come into being like Barack, Sr.
But the real symbol that we see every moment is his choice of Michelle Obama. And in many ways, Michelle Robinson, who becomes Michelle Obama, is representative of a very particular choice on the part of Barack, that as a multi-racial, Harvard Law educated, African American man, those of us in the black community get what the choices for dating and marriage were for Barack.
And he chose a woman as tall as him, as smart as him, and black from a distance. She’s a woman who is not someone who could have ever opted out of blackness. And here he is rearing two African American daughters, on the South Side of Chicago, with a smart, tall, fabulous black wife. And it, you know, it helps me forgive a lot of policy ills for Barack when I see Michelle, only in the sense that there is for me a sense, at a core level —that he sees me, that he sees my daughter, who’s seven years old, that whatever our disagreements are, there is a fundamental goodwill around his sense of the humanity of African American women. And that is, I think, a very empowering connection back with African American voters.
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned policy ills. And this gets me to the question of governance. So what do you, as progressives, as liberals, what do you expect of him that will fulfill your hopes for him, beyond the symbolism into the actual world of policy and decision making?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: One of the images I’ve been using as we’ve been going around the country trying to place the King holiday in the context of a new Obama era is I’ve been using the image, iconic image of Barack Obama excuse me. Ah! Of Martin Luther King—
BILL MOYERS: There you go.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right. Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson together in the White House. And I say to people, okay, where’s — if you can superimpose Barack Obama’s face onto one of these two characters, onto whose face would you project it? And most people say, “Oh, well, King.” And I say, “No, no, no, no. Barack Obama’s LBJ in this picture.”
We’ve elected him to the U.S. presidency. So the missing image is who will play the role of King? Because, in fact, the president needs Kings. I actually think it’s plural. It’s not a single King. But the myth-
BILL MOYERS: You mean that they need agitators out there-
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s-
BILL MOYERS: -who are pressing them to do the right thing-
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s exactly right.
BILL MOYERS: -as Lyndon Johnson said to Martin Luther King — go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: So what should you all be doing the next four years?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s right. That’s right. So Barack Obama needs to be our friend in the White House. He was a community organizer. Now he’s the president. So the job now, I mean, I have a couple things I think are the most important. I think the recovery of New Orleans continues to be the central democratic litmus test of our time, that what does and does not happen in the context of recovery for the Gulf Coast tells us whether or not we value community, what we’re going to do about environmental injustice, whether or not we’re going to provide affordable, quality housing, and whether or not we truly believe that we are a racial democracy, one in which people of all races get to contribute.
So for me the recovery of New Orleans is central. The question of American racial health disparities and of poverty and income disparities in American health, it should not be in a country where we say life is a self-evident, inalienable right, that we, in fact, allow children to die from dental, lack of dental insurance because they have abscesses.
And the final is we’ve still got very serious basic civil rights issues. And among them is the question of marriage equality for gay men and lesbians. But for me those are some of the top three immediate issues that people should be organizing around.
BILL MOYERS: What about you?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And I think that a lot of civil rights issues are coming up to the courts. The courts are largely appointed by Republicans over the last several years, many years, decades. I think that we are going to see somewhat of a rollback of civil rights enforcement through the courts, the conservative courts.
BILL MOYERS: The Supreme Court remains conservative, right? The majority remains conservative, Reagan and Bush appointees. So you think there will be an effort at the Court to sort of stifle some of this—
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I think cases are already coming up. And I think that, you know, this is unaffected at least until we have an appointment, a new appointment, on the Court that’s basically insulated from the political progress made in Congress and the executive.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: What Barack Obama is going to, in these early years, do is hopefully build goodwill through what we would think of as consensus political issues. Rebuilding both sort of the infrastructure on which we drive and where we live but also the infrastructure of technology by laying out both new green technologies as well as the very thing that allowed him to get elected, right? These sort of internet technologies.
The question is whether or not in building these sorts of things that could potentially lift boats financially, put people back to work, provide housing for folks, that he can create a kind of consensus that will leave him some room to do the very basic civil rights work that we care about. My bet is that we’re looking at really is the 2010 election. The issue is whether or not he’s going to hold this Congress.
So this Democratic majority in the Congress, if he loses it in the way that Bill Clinton did in his first term, then he is in a situation of consistently fighting. If, however, he’s able to build enough goodwill, keep his coattails long enough to keep Democrats in office into the 2010, redraw the districts after the 2010 census, then we have a president who can become the voting rights president. But my bet is it does not happen in ’09. It happens late 2010.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the significance of the executive order Obama signed this week suspending detentions and trials at Guantanamo for 120 days?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: The significance is that he wants to review the process. I think it is you know, it is for me a pending victory, shall I say? I think his review of the deprivation of adequate lawyering, the suppression of evidence that would be useful to defense in those cases, certainly the resignation of several of the prosecutors, I think that his ability to take that into account is, it’s sort of a tip of the hat to what the attorney general will increasingly have to take over, possibly bringing those cases into the federal courts.
BILL MOYERS: What’s at stake with this whole issue of the rule of law?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, if we are a country constituted, then the Constitution is the most important part of what binds us. And constitution of laws. And each one of those protections allow us to be legal subjects, allow us to be full human beings. If you know, the Fifth Amendment, for example, is the right against self-incrimination, really is related to the protection against torture because if you can be forced to incriminate yourself, it is literally, the torture comes from the word “to twist.” You’re literally twisting words out of the body.
And that was a very fundamental protection. Habeas corpus means the government is accountable for what is done with the body. If the government can come in and simply spirit you and disappear you, then what differentiates us as Americans from, you know, tin-pot dictators anytime in history from Nero? It’s, it is the essence of who we are as a people. We view ourselves as a, you know, the land of the free, the home of the brave.
BILL MOYERS: But it is your contention that the rule of law has been significantly, radically transformed in the last eight years?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yes. Absolutely significantly, yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: So what can Obama do about it?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, again, I think that, the first step he’s taking is to close down Guantanamo Bay, is to review the secret CIA spiriting away of people, the disappearing of people, the detention or extraordinary rendition of sending people to other countries to do what is blatantly illegal, to recapture our vocabulary so that it makes sense. In other words, so that there’s not something called “soft torture.” To reconnect us with the Geneva Conventions.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that important, the Geneva Conventions?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Because it does have, I mean, there, it does have some of the basic rules of the law of war, about how we treat captives, about the process due even then, about the process due to non-citizens. And also it joins us to the international prohibition against torture, most importantly.
BILL MOYERS: This could explain, in part, why his first press dinner was with a group of conservative pundits, and he’s reached out to John McCain and others consistently since his election, that if wants to go in the direction you’ve just said would please a liberal, he also finds himself meeting conservatives who’ve been concerned like Bruce Fein and Mickey Edwards and others
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: -who are concerned about the rule of law, right?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Absolutely.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I don’t think this is a liberal issue. I think-
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, I agree. I don’t think it’s a liberal issue at all. And in fact, the very people, I mean, McCain is such a good ally on this question, particularly an awful lot of what you’ve been talking about is sort of our relationship vis-à-vis international law. And obviously, I mean, McCain, for whatever failings he had as a candidate in 2008, I do think of him at core as a citizen of honor and that part of what we think of in our military tradition that is valuable is the notion that our military continues to subject itself to civilian leadership.
As soon as that doesn’t happen, as soon as we behave in a way as civilian leaders that would allow our military to believe that perhaps they could make better choices or better decisions, as you point out, then we become a different country altogether. So part of what Barack Obama has to do as commander-in-chief is to renew again a certain faith among military leadership that civilian leadership is appropriate, is doing the right thing, is sending them into harm’s way only under the right circumstances, and is behaving relative to our, to the people we’re engaging internationally in a way that protects our soldiers when they are captured. So I actually believe that McCain makes a, not just a sort of ally in terms of the press, but a very important political ally on this question.
BILL MOYERS: Last subject, everywhere we turn this week somebody was praying. I mean, I’m serious about this. What did you make of all the God talk all week?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, I think that the, you know, appeal to greater power is perhaps a necessary deflection to the fact that we are a very religious country. I would hope, however, because, again, I speak as a lawyer. I am a deep believer in a separation of church and state.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve written a lot about it-
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And I’ve been very distressed by the degree to which faith-based analyses of late have permitted the allocation of funds even to organizations that discriminate on any variety of bases. And I hope that this deflection that he has made is not something that carries over into actual policy if it’s, you know, at you know, we can pray to the God of our choice. But, again, when he is actually governing, I hope that this takes very much a back seat.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: At the inauguration it was clear that the first prayer by Warren, Rick Warren was such an ideologically related prayer in the sense of a particular theology. This God who has created these things, who has made these things, and then ending with the Lord’s Prayer. And the final prayer, Lowery’s prayer, begins with James Weldon Johnson’s poem, which is, yes, religious but is also a kind of civic religious prayer. And it ends with sort of, you know, a ditty from the 1960s about race.
And that, it was actually that more civically religious prayer that went over I think kind of more fully. And it was even the kind of artistic cultural prayers of that classical music, of that poem by Elizabeth Alexander. So I actually felt like there was sort of a balance between a particular claim towards a particular notion of the Supreme versus an idea of all of us as the magnificent thing that is creating this new America.
BILL MOYERS: Pat Williams, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, thank you for being with me again on the Journal.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Thank you.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Say amen.
BILL MOYERS: A headline in Europe proclaimed “the United States of Obama.” And all over the planet, newspapers focused on the symbolism and unifying power of President Obama’s arrival on the world stage. THE SUN, in London, showed seven-year-old Sasha giving her father the thumbs-up, with the caption, “You’re the Daddy.”
INAUGURATION ANNOUNCER: The President-elect of the United States, Barack H. Obama.
BILL MOYERS: Sure enough, this greatest of all our civic rituals creates the sense of a family reunion, America, as extended family and those of us fortunate to be around this week will remember the sight until we’re gone. For a moment, history becomes poetry, and poetry democracy, and…
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
BILL MOYERS: We are empowered to think beyond ourselves, to imagine the more perfect union for which this compact was forged.
But as Obama himself reminded us Tuesday, stubborn facts crouch just offstage, waiting to pounce. We return to a minefield of tripwires ready to ensnare our hopes and dreams.
By chance, Tuesday evening I came upon some of those stubborn facts, in this issue of SOJOURNERS magazine.
For the first time in history, more than one in every 100 adults in America is in jail or prison that’s 2.3 million people. One reason? The leader of one organization working with prisoners’ families told “Sojourners” that “The education system, particularly for inner-city youth where the bulk of our prisoners come from, is abysmal.”
That statement sent me looking for a copy of Barack Obama’s memoir, DREAMS FROM MY FAHTER. I had met Obama just once, many years ago, when he was a community organizer in Chicago. Later, when I first read his book, I had been impressed that he was writing about what we had talked about the day of our visit. Here’s the passage that stood out, describing his experience coming back to Chicago after his graduation from Harvard Law School:
“Upon my return to Chicago, I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the south side, the neighborhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects. All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass, what values we must live by. Instead, I see us doing what we’ve always done, pretending that these children are somehow not our own.”
That’s the reality, crouched at Obama’s door. Our door. Far too many members of this extended family, locked away, poor and in prison. So think of Chicago’s South Side as a metaphor for our country today, a post-inaugural reminder, one of those stubborn facts of millions abandoned by the very democracy we celebrated on Tuesday.
All those years ago, I thought, this young man Obama had seen the world as it is. If he is not swallowed into the belly of the beltway beast, devoured by the conceits of power, the temptations of empire, and the courtiers, climbers, and predators who feed on it and if he can make this a family affair, he just might begin to change what he saw.
That’s it for this week. Next week, Vartan Gregorian, a leader in the fight to save public education. And on our website at pbs.org, find out more about President Obama’s first days in office and tell us what you’d like to see on the new White House agenda. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on June 8, 2015.