Obama’s bold but dangerous 2nd term philosophy: YOLO!

There's only one way to square his strange policy and personnel decisions this year: "You only live once!"

Topics: Barack Obama, Social Security, Chained CPI, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, Jack Lew, Denis McDonough, yolo, Larry Summers, Editor's Picks,

Obama's bold but dangerous 2nd term philosophy: YOLO! (Credit: Photograph: Mandel Ngan/afp/gett)

When White House officials first began whispering to reporters about the possibility that President Obama would nominate Larry Summers to chair the Federal Reserve, the backlash was instantaneous and predictable.

Liberals, including some former colleagues, detest Summers’ patronizing attitude, and find it puzzling that his professional reputation in some Democratic circles remains in tact, despite mixed-at-best records in policymaking and academic administration. His supporters, dazzled by his intellect, look past the managerial errors he’s made outside of his academic economic work, and even forgive him for validating pseudo-scientific claims about women’s mathematical capabilities.

The fact that the current number two at the Federal Reserve is Janet Yellen, a highly qualified candidate who’d also be the bank’s first female chair made the Summers buzz harder to hear. A growing Summers opposition, including several Senate Democrats, battered the White House’s trial balloon.

Except it turns out the Summers leaks weren’t really trial balloons in the traditional sense. He was Obama’s man. But late Sunday afternoon, Summers withdrew his name from consideration not because the introduction of his name created a stir, but because he didn’t have the votes. Four Democrats on the Banking Committee were likely to oppose Summers, which means he would have needed several Republican votes just to be reported on to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote. Democratic leaders practically begged Obama to pick someone else.

Let’s hope the rebellion against Summers serves as a blunt reminder to Obama to be mindful of the risks of going with gut instinct.

It’s common for presidents to get cockier and more brazen in their second terms. The term-limited nature of the presidency creates an incentive for presidents to take controversial or self-serving stands after the threat of electoral defeat is behind them. Obama is turning it into a philosophy. With re-election behind him, Obama’s gone YOLO  (“You Only Live Once,” an Internet term used to describe acts of whimsy or joie de vivre).

The Summers buzz was just one example of the YOLO-fication of the Obama presidency. In the past nine months, Obama has bypassed opportunities to nominate qualified, uncontroversial female Secretaries of the Treasury and Defense, and appoint the first female White House chief of staff in history.

His most pronounced miss came at the Pentagon, where Obama nominated the ill-prepared former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb, over Michèle Flournoy, who served as under secretary for policy. Hagel’s heterodox foreign policy positions, and willingness to buck hawks in the establishment made him an interesting pick, and the GOP’s decision to (unsuccessfully) filibuster him helped expose the depths of the party’s commitment to obstruction in the Obama era. But in terms of continuity and bureaucratic skill, it was an odd choice.

The Jack Lew nomination at Treasury made much more sense from those standpoints — Lew is a bureaucratic standout, and Treasury Secretary is in many ways an easier job than White House Chief of Staff, where Lew had a successful tenure until early this year. But picking him entailed skipping over qualified female, and less political candidates like Lael Brainard, who’s Under Secretary for International Affairs.

One of Obama’s first decisions in 2013 — in many ways a harbinger of the many YOLOs to come — was to promote Denis McDonough, then his Deputy National Security Adviser, to Chief of Staff to replace Lew. McDonough has thrived in the role, but it was an unusual promotion, and once again required stepping over a better-qualified female candidate — Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco.

After Republicans torpedoed Susan Rice’s reported candidacy, Obama put John Kerry, a famously unscripted senator of nearly 30 years at the helm of the State Department, then didn’t bother tell him (or Hagel or Vice President Joe Biden) that he’d decided in an unconventional act of YOLO to seek Congressional authorization to attack Syria. All of that somehow paid off — Kerry managed to stumble his way into a negotiated, peaceful resolution to the Syria standoff, which allowed Obama to pull the classic political YOLO, and claim credit for the disclosure and eventual destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. But an instance of serendipity should not create an argument for general practice.

Unlike many Summers critics, my hunch is that he’d actually have been a pretty good Fed chair. It’s impolitic to say so, because the Fed’s independence, or putative independence, is so highly valued, but given the country’s unusual and unenviable economic circumstances, there’s a strong logical case for having an Obama loyalist at the helm of the central bank right now. It really should be using its powers to juice the economy in the short term, and nobody who’s looking for a job right now thinks their continued unemployment is an acceptable situation so long as it’s because the Fed chair isn’t invested in Obama’s legacy.

But absent that argument — and it’s not one the White House ever made, or could make, even quietly — the only airtight case for Summers over Yellen was YOLO. The question now is whether Obama will do the sensible thing and promote her, or whether he’ll return to his stable of familiars, most of whom are more monetarily hawkish than a healthy economy requires right now.

Earlier this year, Obama decided to include a Social Security benefit cut in his budget. The so-called Chained CPI would reduce spending (and increase tax revenues) by changing the way the government calculates inflation. It was a controversial move at the time, and widely characterized as a concession to Republicans intended to either secure their support for a big budget deal, or to expose their hypocrisy and unwillingness to compromise.

It served the latter function exquisitely, but in a way that largely distracted reporters from the fact that key policymakers in the Obama administration think reducing Social Security cost of living adjustment is good policy. For years now, Obama has held that these types of entitlement cuts must be paired with higher taxes on rich people if he and Democrats in Congress are to get behind them. But we’re in the YOLO era now. And as time passes and sequestration further hobbles the government it becomes easier and easier to imagine Obama dropping his tax demand and cutting a deal with Republicans to rescind it in exchange for a Social Security cut his top advisers support on the merits anyhow.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...