What Can Obama Really Do?

A zombie argument is going around about why Obama hasn't accomplished liberal and progressive ends to the extent many would have liked him to: Obama can't do anything because he needs 60 votes in Congress and he doesn't have them because

A zombie argument is going around about why Obama hasn't accomplished liberal and progressive ends to the extent many would have liked him to:

Obama can't do anything because he needs 60 votes in Congress and he doesn't have them because Republicans and Dems like Lieberman and Nelson won't vote for his programs.

This argument is misleading in one sense and incorrect in another. It is misleading in that it misrepresents how things get done in Congress. It is incorrect in that many liberal policies do not require the consent of Congress.

Let's examine the misconceptions this zombie argument is built on.

Negotiation 101

Let's look at how things get done in Congress. Obama apologists make the excuse that Obama couldn't have passed a larger stimulus because he was forced to reduce the stimulus by $100 billion as it was. This line of reasoning demonstrates a misunderstanding of how negotiation (or Congress) works.

If Obama had wanted a $1.2 trillion stimulus, say, he should have asked for a $1.6 trillion stimulus. Then "moderate" Republicans and Dems could have negotiated him down $400K. This is basic negotiation, which anyone who has ever negotiated in a third world bazaar knows—you start off with an offer far higher (or lower) than what you're willing to accept, and leave room for the inevitable haggling.

The same is true of health care reform. If you're negotiating for a public option—if you actually want one, then you don't throw single payer advocates out. You act as if that's something you're seriously considering, you talk about polls showing it has majority support, and you then "compromise" to a public option.

This sort of self-defeating, pre-negotation concession has been a repeated pattern for the Obama administration (assuming that Obama does seek Liberal ends).

Force It Through

Many liberal policies do not require the consent of congress.

The Bush tax cuts were pushed through under reconciliation. Most of health care reform, including a public option could have been accomplished the same way. The tactical choice was entirely at the discretion of the Democratic leadership.

If Obama and Reid can't hold 50 votes, then the problem is them, not the policies themselves, or "how congress works".

Congress: Who Cares about Congress?

Now, let's talk about other issues. There are many areas where Obama does not need Congress's approval.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Obama can issue a stop loss for any soldiers any time he wants. Bang, that's it, at least for as long as he's President.

HAMP (the program supposedly intended to help homeowners, which hasn't): This program is totally under administrative control. If Obama wanted it to work, there's nothing to stop him.

Habeas Corpus: Obama can give everyone in Gitmo their day in court. Restoring habeas corpus is totally at his discretion, and he has chosen not to.

Social Security: After Congress voted down a debt and deficit commission, Obama went ahead and created one anyway--and stacked it with people with track records of wanting to slash Social Security.

In short, Obama has managed to side-step Congress in order to work against Democratic policy positions (e.g., Social Security), but otherwise has ignored executive privilege when he wanted to continue Bush-era policies (e.g., detention without trial at Gitmo) or to ignore the rights and needs of everyday Americans (e.g., HAMP and DADT). To the Obama administration, Congress is a very selective obstacle..

Going Forward: What Obama Can Still Do

Not only could Obama rectify DADT, HAMP, Habeus Corpus, and his Social Security commission with a stroke of his pen, he can still do a great deal to help the economy. If he wants to.

TARP: Obama has complete control of the TARP funds, the majority of which have not been spent. (We're talking over $500 billion in slush funds.) $ 500 billion is a lot of stimulus, if it's done right. Cash for Clunkers, representing a tiny fraction of the total stimulus funds, massively goosed GDP while it was in effect.

Leaving aside direct stimulus, there are plenty of other helpful things Obama could do. For example, as a friend of mine noted, most distressed debt today is selling to collection agencies for less than 10 cents on the dollar (often under 5 cents). The Treasury could buy up $100 billion of that distressed debt at 10 cents on the dollar. Reclaim the money at 15 cents on the dollar through the IRS, and otherwise just write it off. You won't make 50% profit, because some people can't pay even 10%, but you'll almost certainly make some profit. Roll the money over and buy up more debt. Keep doing it. (N.B. In the past such debt didn't sell so cheap, mainly because in the past, pre-Bankruptcy "reform", people who really couldn't pay would declare bankruptcy, but now they can't. Obama never made fixing that horrible bankruptcy bill a priority at all.) Folks would be absolutely thrilled by a way to deal with distressed debt. With the debt off their backs, they could spend again, so it would also be stimulative. There are plenty of other things that could be done with over 500 billion dollars to help ordinary people and goose the economy.

Breaking the Banks (and getting lending going again): The banks have been pretty ungrateful for the massive bailout they received. They have unilaterally increased credit card rates to gouge customers, have been gaming the market (so much so that one quarter many banks didn't lose money on their trading operations even one day of the quarter), have fought against financial reform, and have generally acted against the interests of the majority of Americans. One might say "well, now that they're bailed out, there is nothing we can do about it."

Wrong.

The Fed still holds over $2 trillion in toxic waste from the banks. The banks still hold trillions of dollars of toxic waste. If sold on the open market this stuff would sell for, oh, about 5 cents on the dollar. If forced to mark the assets they are keeping on their books at inflated prices to their actual market value, I doubt there is a single major bank in the country which wouldn't go bankrupt. Including Goldman Sachs.

So here's what you do. As the Federal Reserve you sell $100 billion of the toxic waste on the open market. Set an actual price for it. Then you make the banks mark their assets to market value. They go bankrupt. You nationalize them. (Why no?--They are actually bankrupt after all, and they haven't increased lending like they were supposed to; in fact, they have decreased it.) You make the stockholders take their losses and the bondholders too, then you reinflate the banks. (If the Fed can print trillions to keep zombie banks "alive" it can print money to reinflate nationalized banks.) The banks lend under FDIC and Fed direction, at the interest rates the Fed directs. The FDIC and Fed eventually break the banks up into a reasonable size. And while they're at it, they get rid of the entire executive class which caused the financial crisis, and have the DOJ go over all the internal memos and start charging everyone who committed fraud. (Hint: that's virtually every executive at a major bank.) Again, this is completely up to Obama--the DOJ answers to him.

Think Obama can't do this without Bernanke? Wrong. Obama can fire any Fed Governor for cause and replace them during a Congressional recess with no oversight.* ("Cause" is never defined, but Obama can note that the Fed's mandate includes maximum employment and not stopping the financial crisis in the first place is certainly plausible as cause as well.)

Obama had the power. Obama had the money. Obama has the power--and the money.

The idea that Obama, or any President, is a powerless shrinking violet, helpless in the face of Congress is just an excuse. Presidents have immense amounts of power: the question is whether or not they use that power, and if they do, what they use it for.

Obama has a huge slush fund with hundreds of billions of dollars and all the executive authority he needs to turn things around.

If Obama is not using that money and authority, the bottom line is it's because he doesn't want to.

Putting aside the question of what Obama could have accomplished already, if he wants to help everyday Americans, turn around Democratic approval ratings in time for the midterm elections, and leave behind him a legacy of achievemant, he can still do it. If he wants to.

Endnote:

*"2. Members Ineligible to Serve Member Banks; Term of Office; Chairman and Vice Chairman
The members of the Board shall be ineligible during the time they are in office and for two years thereafter to hold any office, position, or employment in any member bank, except that this restriction shall not apply to a member who has served the full term for which he was appointed. Upon the expiration of the term of any appointive member of the Federal Reserve Board in office on the date of enactment of the Banking Act of 1935, the President shall fix the term of the successor to such member at not to exceed fourteen years, as designated by the President at the time of nomination, but in such manner as to provide for the expiration of the term of not more than one member in any two-year period, and thereafter each member shall hold office for a term of fourteen years from the expiration of the term of his predecessor, unless sooner removed for cause by the President. "

12 USC 242

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