In his just-published memoir, A Promised Land, Barack Obama asks “Whether [he] was too tempered in speaking the truth, too cautious in word or deed.” Fielding a question about the passage from 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley during a recent interview, Obama’s response was emblematic to a tee:
I understand why there were times where my supporters wanted me to be more pugilistic, to, you know, pop folks in the head and duke it out a little bit more. Every president brings a certain temperament to office. I think part of the reason I got elected was because I sent a message that fundamentally I believe the American people are good and decent, and that politics doesn’t have to be some cage match in which everybody is going at each other’s throats and that we can agree without being disagreeable.
Needless to say, the former president’s personal style — conflict-averse, wary of naming enemies or appearing even faintly radical, often determined to appear above politics entirely — came to define much about his two terms in office and his overall approach to governing. This naturally applied during his administration’s handling of the 2009 economic crisis, which would become one of the Obama presidency’s formative moments and arguably set the stage for the electoral drubbing Democrats faced in the 2010 midterms.
Convinced that the best course was to shore up the financial sector and take a light touch with Wall Street, Obama’s decidedly non-pugilistic approach ultimately ensured a conservative response to a situation crying out for an activist one.
The result was a stimulus that was too small (Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner warning that a larger one “could spook markets or the public”) and a plan for economic relief that was more about restoring the pre-crisis status quo than shoring up the finances of individual Americans facing unemployment or foreclosures. Even as 6 million people lost their homes, 70 percent of those who applied were turned down by the administration’s flagship homeowner assistance program — itself designed to preclude direct transfers to indebted homeowners in favor of government payments to mortgage servicing companies. In a metaphor for the administration’s handling of the crisis that is almost too perfect, even an initiative ostensibly concerned with limiting foreclosures was actually about helping large banks.
Suffice it to say, adopting a similarly top-down approach to the current crisis could prove equally, if not more, disastrous. Amid speculation about a possible COVID-19 vaccine, the economic situation for millions of Americans in the months ahead will remain bleak irrespective of falling infection rates and lockdown phaseouts. Barring the unlikely passage of new legislation during Congress’s current lame-duck session, the situation is set to radically worsen before the new administration takes office early next year.
According to a report published by the Century Foundation this week, some 12 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits by the end of December. This, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the economic calamity awaiting at year’s end. Measures to assist homeowners, freeze student loan payments, and put a stop on evictions are also set to expire. In September, a study by the Urban Institute estimated that more than a third of landlords hadn’t received full rent for the month — just one ominous sign of what’s to come when the current moratorium expires. As the report’s authors quite starkly put it: “With no end to the pandemic in sight, and a cutoff of nearly all federal unemployment benefits by year’s end looming on the horizon, inaction by Congress could mean that millions of American families will enter the New Year with little or no means of support.” In all likelihood, the new Democratic administration will be sworn in as untold numbers of ordinary Americans struggle to afford basic necessities like food and rent.
Nothing short of an ambitious and activist approach will be sufficient to ameliorate this state of affairs. Though nowhere near adequate, a number of measures adopted both by states and the federal government since the onset of the pandemic make this all too clear. Loan repayment freezes have helped those suffering with student debt. Eviction and utility shutoff moratoriums have, as intended, kept renters in their homes and allowed them to keep the lights on.
Perhaps most important of all, direct cash transfers have been shown to help people in need. Last spring, for example, Congress approved a payment of up to $1,200 for individuals ($2,400 for married couples). A one-off measure, the transfer was also much smaller than it needed to be and not without unnecessary delays and exclusions. Nevertheless, research has shown that the checks averted a catastrophic spike in poverty — little wonder, given the directness and bottom-up nature of the aid. Much the same can be said about the expanded unemployment benefits briefly offered by the federal government, which even gave some laid-off workers more money than they earned while still at work.
Renewing and expanding measures like these would be the first step in an approach to recovery that centers the needs of ordinary people, though it would undoubtedly require a massive new wave of federal spending. As the new administration takes over in January, there may well be a push for austerity and fiscal restraint — not only from Senate Republicans but also from some Democrats themselves. If a vaccine is indeed released to the public, this could be coupled with a sense that the crisis is effectively over.
Regardless, the crisis will not, in fact, be over — and 2009 put the perils of shunning activist government during an economic meltdown on full display. Whatever the balance of forces in Congress turns out to be after the Senate runoffs slated for early January, millions of suffering Americans quite literally cannot afford for history to repeat itself.