An Open Letter to the President
Dear Mr. President,
Since 2007, I have been among your strongest and most loyal supporters.
Believing (as I still do) that Hillary Clinton is unprepared and unqualified for the presidency, I began looking for better candidates early. I had heard and reread your rousing 2004 keynote speech. I read both of your books. And I became your avid supporter early in that year.
Except for some last-minute work in 2004, in desperate support of John Kerry, I had never personally gotten involved in politics. Our nation’s critical need—and my admiration of your record and promise—transformed me. I turned this blog to your support, publishing dozens of posts praising your personal qualities: your intelligence, your character, your sense of perspective, your judgment, and your potential for leadership.
I maxed out my personal contributions to your campaign and convinced my wife to so do, too. I canvassed for you and volunteered for your campaign. My wife and I housed another campaign worker for the last three weeks. When you won the presidency on November 2, 2008, I cried like a baby with relief, triumph and joy. My wife and I traveled to your Inauguration and watched you sworn in on a frigid day, although we both hate cold and crowds. We wanted to feel the power of national renewal—your renewal—in the flesh.
As my blog posts attest, I have never been a lukewarm or fair-weather supporter. I understand the forces of history and the forces of evil arrayed against you. I knew change would not come quickly or easily, the more so when your opponents declared as their chief desire that you fail, but days after your inauguration. I think I have the imagination to sense how wearing must be the constant abuse that you and our First Lady take from political opponents, let alone racists, extremists and their TV and radio enablers.
I’m an academic as you once were, and I understand your preference for cool reason, expertise and compromise. They’re part of why I so enthusiastically endorsed your candidacy. I am not one of those many pundits and supporters who insist that you fight for the sake of fighting or that you bang on the table.
More important, I’m acutely aware of all the good things that you have done in office. I appreciate the big things like health-insurance reform, financial reform, the initial stimulus, your saving General Motors and maybe Chrysler, your recouping most of the TARP money, your efforts to advance nuclear power, your superb “race to the top” in school reform, the restoration of some funding for stem-cell research, and your keeping the pressure on climate change, despite an utterly recalcitrant Congress, through every possible measure that the Executive Branch can take alone. I also appreciate the little things, like the agreement with auto makers to improve efficiency, the money for energy conservation, the small subsidies for electric cars, windmills and solar power, your attempt to draw a deadline in Afghanistan, and your efforts to preserve NASA for the future despite a long-neglected budget crisis.
But I must confess I am beginning to lose faith. I once thought that your compromising and conciliation, in the face of the meanest possible intransigence and obstruction, would attract voters. I was wrong. Supporters deserted you. Many doubted your sincerity and commitment. Some doubted your courage. A few even doubted your intelligence. The result was what you yourself described as a “shellacking” of your party at the polls.
As I thought about that shellacking, I recalled a few things that had troubled me before. I thought about the ease with which you surrendered the “public option” for health insurance, although polls said 60% to 70% of Americans supported it. I thought about your approving a minor “surge” in Afghanistan, in support of a self-evidently corrupt and weak government. And recently I thought about the cap-and-trade bill and your giving away (no doubt on poor advice) the chief bargaining points prematurely, causing a delicate bipartisan effort to collapse. (I would have much preferred a gas tax to cap and trade, but cap and trade would be better than nothing.)
So I began to wonder whether you could be a fighter and a hard bargainer. Now I read that you already have signaled a willingness to extend all the Bush tax cuts, including those for the rich, before any real bargaining even begins. Worse yet, you have sent Tim Geithner, Wall Street’s eager errand boy, to “negotiate” future tax rates.
I cannot tell you how much that news has led me to despair. Like many Americans, I don’t trust Geithner’s understanding of the big picture (or of economic cause and effect), his commitment to transparency or accountability, his knowledge of America’s current historic crisis, or his basic sense of right and wrong. I regard him as the fox sent to guard the hens, and one much too young, selfsure and inexperienced even to know their worth.
Far more than most voters, I understand how the numbers work. Allowing even the middle-class tax cuts to expire will not ruin a single middle-class person who has a job. And their extension will save no one who does not. The “stimulus” from continuing them would be far too small, and far too much “discounted” in current business planning, to have any measurable effect in a $14 trillion economy, at least for several years. I think your advisors know this but fear demagoguery from the right.
As for the tax cuts for the rich, we need to let them expire not just to cut the deficit in some way, but to make a point. We must show our trading partners, rivals and enemies—as well as ourselves—that we, the people, are in control of our financial destiny.
That principle is vitally important. Since Ronald Reagan cut the top tax rates nearly in half, the share of income of our top 1% of earners has risen from 9% to nearly 25% of all income. The top marginal rate has fallen from 94% when I was born in 1945 to 35% from 2003 to today.
In my view, that boring accounting “detail” is the root of all our national evils. Far from promoting sound investment as the GOP claims, it has produced idle and surplus wealth that has inflated several bubbles, encouraged gambling and financial excess (which led to the collapse of our economy in 2008), and fostered an epidemic of greed and self-righteous entitlement among the privileged. It has also pumped billions into political campaigns and propaganda, turning our policy-making and electoral processes into a perverted form of entertainment and threatening democracy itself.
Worse yet is the effect this inequality has had on public morale. You have only to read the hundreds of cynical and despairing comments in national on-line media, including both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, to feel the palpable distrust and despair of both government and corporations that now grip the nation. With zero confidence in church, state and their places of work, Americans no longer have any institutions they feel they can trust.
I have seen nothing like this in my 65 years of life. The civil rights movement and Vietnam-war protests, which I lived through and which you so eloquently portrayed in your second book, pale in comparison. They had lots of anger, but they also had lots of hope.
No one begrudges rewards to rich people who produce. But when incompetent and self-seeking rich and powerful people cause debacle after debacle, catastrophe after catastrophe, and yet continue to receive outsized and undeserved rewards while ordinary people suffer, the only rational response is despair or rebellion.
Right now, we are in the despair phase. Even from reading, the only comparable eras I know are the Great Depression here and the Weimar Republic in Germany, just before the Nazi putsch began. We find ourselves on a precipice of doubt in ourselves and our system of government.
Our Republic can’t take much more of this. No enemy or economic rival can defeat us—not China, not Russia, not Al Qaeda, and certainly not the Taliban. But our own internal decay can, and it is well under way.
For me and many Americans, the drastic changes in tax burdens wrought by Reagan, and continued by his successors to the present day, are the single most important determinants of our decline. They have spawned such inequality of income and opportunity, not to mention waste, excess and unfairness, as to undermine our collective confidence in our own future.
Someone has to call a halt. Someone has to reverse a trend that is rending our social fabric and tearing the guts out of the most successful and brilliantly cohesive society ever. History seems to have appointed you.
Having read your autobiographical book carefully, I may be one of the few voters who knows that you got good genes from both sides of your family. I recall the stories of your paternal grandfather, a strict leader who held an entire village in respect approaching awe, if not fear. I recall the story of your father, who stood up to a racist in a bar in Hawaii so forcefully and cleverly that the racist eventually bought drinks for your father and everyone else in the bar.
Those stories were among the many reasons I worked so hard for you. I believed (and I continue to believe) that, despite all her self promotion, your rival Hillary Clinton has nothing like such steel. I was appalled at her repeated triangulation and pandering to obvious demagoguery, beginning with her voting to go to war in Iraq without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate. I thought you were made of sterner stuff.
I’m still waiting for you to channel your strong African ancestors. You have the unquestioned power. You have the veto pen. I and millions of Americans are waiting for you to say simply and clearly, “No extension of tax cuts for the rich. If that means no extension for anyone, so be it. We’ll work on the deficit.” Of course, if that happens, you can ask your Democratic colleagues in Congress to re-introduce the middle-class tax cuts as a separate bill and dare the Republicans to vote against it.
I know you have a good political “ear” and are a superb political strategist. Please don’t say that the propagandists and apologists for the plutocracy already have won, that if you don’t extend the tax cuts for the rich, they will shut government down, and their demagoguery will cost you the White House in 2012.
If that’s true, then we have already lost our Republic. But no such result is foreordained. Leadership means taking appropriate risks, and refusing to extend tax cuts for the rich is a risk well worth taking. There are always options.
You have accomplished many good things in less than two years in office. But some of them, such as health-insurance reform, are exceedingly complex. Their benefits will take years to become evident to ordinary people.
Ending tax cuts for the rich is not like that. It is the rare issue in which simplicity, symbolism and substance combine. For three decades the rich have increasingly shirked paying their fair share of the cost of maintaining the society that has given them so much. The result has been to make them not more, but far less, responsible as a class. Our shining city on a hill is morphing into a corrupt, rotten plutocracy far faster than anyone could have believed, faster even than ancient Rome did.
The American people want to believe that you have the skill and moxie to arrest that decline. Many are beginning to doubt, and sadly I am one.
Please don’t disappoint us on this crucial issue. Please begin the process of restoring the system of progressive taxation that once made our nation the most prosperous and cohesive society in human history. You can do that, simply and surely, by exercising your veto power. Even a credible threat of a veto might do.
With best regards and continuing support,