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Obama can't change Washington alone

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: So the elections are officially over. Even the shouting from last night has died down. Which means, really, that things are just getting started. We've got a pair of commentaries today on the Obama transition. First, Robert Reich.


Robert Reich: Obama's stunning victory, combined with larger Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress and the deepening economic crisis, should provide him a strong mandate for change. America and the world have signaled they're ready for it.

But as we roll up our shirtsleeves, it's important to be aware of the challenges ahead.

First is the ever more powerful army of Washington lobbyists. Pharmaceutical companies, insurers and giant hospital chains will seek to control any health-care initiative. Producers of coal, ethanol and nuclear power will try to dominate the energy and environmental agenda. Military contractors will want to maintain defense spending. And Wall Street will want even more control over its massive bailout.

Then there's the ballooning budget deficit brought on by slower growth and the Wall Street bailout. As a result, fiscal conservatives -- including a newly-enlarged group of "blue-dog" Democrats -- will be reluctant to support any new spending.

And don't forget all the business groups, Republicans, libertarians, talk-radio hosts and yell-television personalities will fulminate over anything resembling a tax hike on the rich or big corporations.

Obama's agenda can survive all this, but only if he continues to mobilize and energize the public behind it. That means creating a new politics, utilizing his vast campaign network of volunteers, grassroots activists and Internet participants and turning it into a movement to take back our democracy from the lobbyists, naysayers, pork peddlers and moneyed interests that normally run things in Washington.

In other words, the real contest is just beginning. Can Obama succeed? As we heard last night, yes WE can.

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Robert Reich will never be accused of being a conservative, but I remind the writers that a six point popular vote win, coupled with a 100+ electoral vote win, couple with impressive gains in the senate house and gov races, must equal more than just a simple win. You can argue about the terminology, but I would call it mandate, especially after GW Bush declared after his squeeker: I have political capital, and I'm gonna spend it"

I am actually much more "liberal" in the traditional sense than conservative; I believe that government should be limited in what it does largely because it's simply *bad* at nearly everything.

There is absolutely no doubt that Obama won a clear victory, but he did only win with 52% of the popular vote, and it's hardly as if no one saw it coming. McCain had a defensible lead at one point, but when the issues shifted from foreign policy to economics, he (and especially Palin) dropped the serious political discussion he'd been having and started mudslinging. From that point on, Obama was virtually guaranteed to win.

I'm not saying that Obama is going to rule as a tyrant; in fact, I expect that on the whole he will probably do much good for the country. However, the term "tyranny of the majority" refers to the fact that once 51% of a democracy's people (or 51% of a republic's elected officials) decide to take some action (such as, say, drastically increase taxes on a few people and take the money themselves--or ban same-sex couples from marrying), there's very little to stop them. Obama's 52% of the popular vote means that only a tad over half of the people supported him--yet everyone has to live with his policies.

As the issue of plutocracy goes, I am actually in favor of more fundamental reform of how corporations are structured; it's the limited liability of the corporation that has led directly to so much of the turmoil we've been seeing, and it's simply wrong to hand out protection from lawsuits as a freebie. I also uneasily support estate taxes as a means of minimizing an inherited wealth-based aristocracy.

However, the clamor for "windfall profits" taxes is one of the strawmen that I'm talking about when I ask for intellectual honesty. The companies that are making "record" profits are making *average* profit margins on record *volume*, not by jacking up prices sky-high and pocketing obscene margins. There would be no political football if these companies split into smaller companies and continued operations just like they are. Furthermore, these companies are also paying "windfall taxes" on those profits; ExxonMobil just paid the largest corporate income tax ever, but that certainly isn't making headlines. Finally, while it's true that there are some fat cats out there, more than half of XOM (as an example) is owned by endowments, retirement funds, and other institutions. Targeting "big corporations" is great to get people up in arms--but it's usually conveniently omitted that they don't exist in some nebulous otherworld but are owned by (and benefit) everyday working people.

I thought Robert Reich's comments on what Obama can do with the mandate he won was refreshing and a true call to arms for the public. I am surprised at the evidently conservative minded Mr. Christopher Smith's comments. He calls for intellectual honesty. How then can he call Obama's victory as anything less than "stunning"? McCain threw away the election? Really? Perhaps Mr. Smith has missed the last 24 months of wrangling and indecision that the nation went threw trying to choose the next president. Given the barrage of negativity, the weight of racism and indecisiveness of a sizable minority of the population, it was indeed a stunning victory to have won so convincingly and in places that have not voted for a liberal politician in decades. And what exactly is wrong with Mr. Reich's call for Obama to use the voice of the people in his support? "Tyranny of the majority"? Hmmm..maybe the fundamentals of democracy are not that clear to me but, just because someone has the majority does not automatically earn them the title of tyrant. Would Mr. Smith rather have the minority of unbelievably wealthy people (who are beneficiaries of the windfall profits of big corporations) set the agenda for the rest of us? Maybe Mr. Smith would be happier in a plutocracy like the Russia of the time between Yeltsin and the fully blossomed Putin.

Once again, Reich shows his undying support for the tyranny of the majority. Obama's victory was hardly "stunning" (McCain threw away the election when he went negative), but Reich seems to think that his win justifies absolutely any policy Obama wants to implement.

As a particular example, see the obsession with raising taxes on "big corporations". The corporate income tax is flat precisely so that if two companies (say, Exxon and Mobil) decide to merge, the taxes on their profits will be no higher or lower simply because of the size of their operation. In the zeal for money-grabbing, however, supporters of the so-called "windfall profits" tax conveniently ignore that those same "big corporations" already pay the highest tax bills in history.

I understand that there are legitimate differences in opinion on what direction government can take, but a little intellectual honesty shouldn't be too much to ask.

Robert Reich, don't forget to tell Obama that he needs to stop accepting donation from Fannie Mae. It seems that no one in Congress is willing to open the can of worm of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac political donations.

Thank you for your incisive commentary. I coach mid-market CEOs and non-profit executives. Your explanations of economic dynamics cut to the essential dynamics that both need to understand to reach across traditional boundaries and integrate their efforts. THANK YOU!

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