Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency

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Robert Cuttner’s Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency argues that Obama has the power to be a “transformative president,” who:

“…profoundly alters American politics and the role of the government in American life–one who uses his office to appeal to our best selves to change our economy, society, and democracy for the better.”

For Kuttner, Obama qualifies because of his unique leadership abilities and because of the historical moment–severe economic crisis–that offer him the opportunity to make dramatic changes in the direction of the country.

Obama as a Transformative Leader

Kuttner sees Obama in the vein of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. He argues that those men were progressive presidents who faced great challenges and used those challenges to advance progressive policy positions. The early chapters of the book contain explorations of these presidents and their policies to help Kuttner prove his case.

Kuttner argues all of this with only a limited examination of Obama’s policies, instead focusing on rhetoric and potential rather than Obama’s voting record or his policy statements while on the campaign trail. He praises Obama’s “unusual gifts of character and leadership” and uses examples from Obama’s writings and speeches to highlight Obama’s willingness to move in a progressive direction.

A Step above Obamamania

Unfortunately, the 2008 election was characterized largely by uncritical fawning over Barack Obama by much of the progressive left in the United States. While Obama offered policies that were considerably better than those of the Bush administration, he fell short in several areas–for example offering rather uninspired policies for stimulating the United States economy, for “reforming” the healthcare system, and for making changes to Social Security.

Unlike many, Kuttner is willing to illustrate these failings, which makes for some interesting discussion. Kuttner declares, “Obama will need to be a more radical president than he was a presidential candidate.” When he discusses the economic crisis, Kuttner says that it offers a unique opportunity to address specific policy failings as well as the underlying ideological failings. In this vein, Kuttner calls for radical change on a number of fronts–market regulation, housing, taxes, labor, and healthcare. He argues that Obama should embrace multi-faceted and long-term efforts to not only bring about an economic recovery but also to renew the social compact between government and its citizens.

Kuttner ultimately argues that Obama’s potential exists only if he is willing to challenge the conventional policies of the past. To that end, Kuttner offers an intriguing $600 billion policy proposal that offers a number of ideas–from labor policies to infrastructure development–that would implement a progressive policy shift.

Shifting Frames: Potentials for Obama

To make this progressive shift, Kuttner says that Obama needs to undertake bold efforts aimed at inspiring the country towards improving the common good.

He says that currently, citizens view government through a lens assuming that:

  • The fiscal cupboard is bare
  • Government is generally perverse or incompetent
  • Tax cuts are one of the few benefits that governments can reliably deliver
  • Private markets invariably work better than government

Kuttner outlines the problems with these views and gives examples of their failings, before arguing that Obama can advance an alternative lens that shows:

  • There is in fact a crisis facing both the economic system and working Americans
  • The private sector is a source of great dynamism, but it can sure make a mess if left to its own devices
  • People’s needs and economic recovery are more important right now than penny pinching
  • Tax cuts have gone mostly to the top, and haven’t done a thing for most Americans
  • Government can do great things, and it particularly needs to do great things in an economic crisis.

Kuttner argues–by compiling a speech made up of selective choices of statements by Obama–that Obama has the capacity to convincingly make such a case to the American people. That fictional speech is followed by an extensive exploration of Kuttner’s policy prescriptions.


Overall, the book was better than I would have expected. Kuttner makes nominal–and accurate–criticisms of many of Obama’s economic policies, which is more than many progressives do these days. However, Kuttner ultimately falls into the same trap as most Obama supporters in that he focuses more on Obama himself–how he talks, his flair for rhetoric, the excitement behind him, and his potential–than his actual policies. This results in a book, that while successfully outlining the economic challenges faced by this country, never really makes the case that Obama is the kind of leader that will be able to make a significant change.

Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, (Chelsea Green, 2008).

Author: mediamouse

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