Obama’s Promised Land: Come for the Droning, Stay for the Erasures

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“These facts had been there for all to read in the Acknowledgments, but Dixon, whose policy it was to read as little as possible of any given book, never bothered with these.” Kinglsey Amis, Lucky Jim

It wouldn’t be fair to call Obama’s prose leaden, exactly; Promised Land does, however, have a certain flatness of tone (let’s just, following Obama, throw in a parenthetical, and go ahead and call it droning) that, bearable in a soundbyte, a press conference, or even through the courses of a White House Correspondent’s Dinner, becomes unbearable over the 706 + xvi = 722 pages (front and back matter excluded) of Volume One (!). I can imagine no worse torture than being strapped into a chair and forced to listen to Promised Land read in Obama’s voice.

So I have read as little as possible of Obama’s book. Unlike Dixon, I flipped to the Acknowledgements (page 704) and saw this:

One is, therefore, not merely reading one man’s view of the Obama administration, but the collective view of the West Wing Obama Alumni Association. What a glittering roster! Although it’s not always clear to me in what their “expert feedback” might consist; Brennan on torture, sure, but Geithner and Holder on the Crash and the foreclosure crisis? Really?

Still seeking to read as little as possible, I thought to check the index. Under “S,” for example:

Now, it might be objected that Obama would only have a reason to mention Bernie Sanders (as opposed to “Bo (Obama family dog), 373-74, 375, 426)) in Volume 2, assuming that Obama there expounds on Campaign 2016. That is not the case. Sanders improved the Affordable Care Act significantly. The Intercept:

[T]he Democratic presidential candidate from Vermont has won legislative victory after victory on an issue that has been dear to him since his days as Burlington’s mayor.

That issue is the simultaneously benign and revolutionary expansion of federally qualified community health clinics.

Over the years, Sanders has tucked away funding for health centers in appropriation bills signed by George W. Bush, into Barack Obama’s stimulus program, and through the earmarking process. But his biggest achievement came in 2010 through the Affordable Care Act. In a series of high-stakes legislative maneuvers, Sanders struck a deal to include $11 billion for health clinics in the law.

The result has made an indelible mark on American health care, extending the number of people served by clinics from 18 million before the ACA to an expected 28 million next year.

As one would expect, the program was largely met with plaudits from patients and public health experts, but it has also won praise from even the biggest Obamacare critics on Capitol Hill. In letters I obtained through multiple record requests, dozens of Republican lawmakers, including members of the House and Senate leadership, have privately praised the ACA clinic funding, calling health centers a vital provider in both rural and urban communities.

To Sanders, the clinics have served as an alternative to his preferred single-payer system. Community health centers accept anyone regardless of health, insurance status or ability to pay. They are founded and managed by a board composed of patients and local residents, so each center is customized to fit the needs of a community. No two health centers are alike…..

Sanders’s place in health clinic history will be remembered for his forceful role in the winter of the health reform debate. In December 2009, tensions ran high as Congress inched closer to a final health reform deal. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., tapped Sanders to help win support from liberals who thought the bill was too weak as well as from Democrats from rural states who were facing mounting pressure. More funding for community health centers, Sanders argued, was a win-win solution for both camps, since the program would ensure access to health care for even the most remote areas of the country while also helping those without insurance. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., among others, held out to the very last moment.

Two days before the Senate voted to break a Republican filibuster of the bill, Reid called on Sanders to make his case on the Senate floor. Sanders, in typical fashion, said the legislation was far from perfect, but thundered about the common-sense need for health centers, citing the acute demand for more primary care doctors, the cost-savings from patients who would otherwise use the emergency room for the common cold, the patient-centered model of clinics, and so on. Senate Democrats rallied and overcame the Republican filibuster.

And the thanks Sanders gets from Obama? Erasure (in contrast to, say, “Obama’s smoking habit and, 539-40”).

Leafing through the Index, I came upon the entries for HAMP (“Home Affordable Modification Program”, 271, 302). Here is what Obama has to say about HAMP, a housing program implemented during the Crash. Here is page 271:

(There follows another page or so of musing about moral hazard.) And page 302:

And that’s all Obama has to say about HAMP. And no wonder! Long-time NC readers know that Yves had a lot more to say. From 2018, “Pigs Want To Feed at the Trough Again: Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson Use Crisis Anniversary to Ask for More Bailout Powers”:

Geithner instituted supposed mortgage assistance programs like HAMP whose purpose, as Geithner put it to SIGTARP head Neil Barofsky, was to “foam the runway” for banks by spreading out when foreclosures would happen rather than preventing them. Recall that 9 million homes were foreclosed upon. Many had missed only a payment or two due to job loss or hours cutbacks; some were victims of bad servicing. Giving borrowers with viable levels of income mortgage modifications would have been a win for investors too. But the Treasury never cared about borrowers and convinced itself that taking care of banks would help the real economy, in a Wall Street variant of trickle-down theory.

And from 2018, ““Fatally Flawed” Paper on HAMP Mortgage Program Gets Program Design Backwards, Botches Regression Analysis, Yielding Propagandistic Findings“:

As many parties, including your humble blogger, argued at the time, even when borrowers did get modifications, they were typically only payment reductions and not even forgiveness of some of the interest. The term of the mortgage and the principal were often both increased, meaning the borrower was merely allowed to defer some of his outlay. By contrast, we argued that meaningful reductions in principal were economically sound, particularly since, due to the high level of foreclosures, losses were much higher than historical norms. Lenders used to recover ~70% in a foreclosure. In the post crisis era, 30% to 40% was more common, giving vastly more room for principal writedowns that would help investors, borrowers, and communities.

And from 2012, “Barofsky v. Geithner and Administration Mouthpieces (Yglesias Edition)“:

I’m left with the image of a bank as an overloaded B52 with smoke coming out of one engine and its landing gear refusing to lower landing belly flat on a runway “foamed” with homeowners lying down, side by side, and crushed into bloody pulp as the aircraft hits the ground. That is, after all, pretty much what happened.

Indeed. Another erasure, since Obama doesn’t say anything about how HAMP worked out. (I checked the entries under Geithner in the Index to see if Obama included his “foam the runway” remark, but no joy. Perhaps in Volume Two?)

* * *

I shouldn’t wish to give the impression that Obama’s tendency to erase failures that would otherwise be associated with him is a dominant aspect of his character, or that he’s thin-skinned and given to petty slights. He is said to be, after all, a family man. He is said to no longer smoke. He owns a dog. Perhaps when we look more deeply into how Promised Land treats the financial crisis we’ll have a more complete picture of the man.

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This entry was posted in Guest Post, Politics on November 29, 2020 by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered.
To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

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