Before work each morning President Barack Obama prayerfully reads a passage of Scripture sent him by the Rev. Joshua DuBois, the young Pentecostal preacher who is his director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I wonder whether on one of those mornings the president has pondered Lk 11:24-26, the parable of the evil spirit who after being expelled wanders the barren land and returns in the company of “seven spirits even worse than itself. So when it is over, that person is in worse shape than he was at the beginning.”
In Luke, the passage is paired with the parable of the strong man (11:21-22), about a homeowner whose home is safe because he guards it with all his weapons. The house is plundered, however, when a stronger, better armed housebreaker defeats him. The tag line Luke uses to tie the two parables together, “Whoever is not with me is against me,” may be seen by many Democratic stalwarts as needed warning for President Obama to stiffen his backbone in his current predicaments.
I appreciate, as the president does, that the American people prefer to be governed from the middle. But muddling through is unsuited to the crises the nation now faces. In a time like ours, such a management style surrenders sound policy to the forces of the status quo in a string of unreasoned compromises. It leaves the tough decisions until later and worsens the problems to be resolved in the future.
Lack of vigilance and active control results in irrational disorder. Without an assertive agenda of one’s own, the political field grows chaotic; and irrational discontent, like the seven devils, comes rushing in. August’s hellishly heated town hall shout-fests ought to have made clear that after the housecleaning of the 2008 elections, nihilistic forces were waiting to come back to haunt our body politic. The president has failed to exercise the leadership necessary to control the shape of policy debate on health care. His adversaries, not the president, are setting the agenda, even after his speech to Congress on Sept. 9.
To take another example, a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, greed has recaptured Wall Street. The 30,000 employees of Goldman Sachs are set to earn an average of $700,000 this year. The president’s economic team of Wall Street insiders succeeded in stemming the decline of the economy, but they have done nothing until now to remedy the systemic problems underlying the collapse, beginning with the outsized compensation at Goldman: regulating nonbank financial institutions, restricting bank size, requiring transparency for financial instruments and raising lending standards.
In a third case, the national security apparatus holds tight to the practices of the last eight years. The closing of the detention camps at Guantánamo Bay has been stymied by Congressional action; and the parallel institution at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan has not even come under scrutiny.
The administration, moreover, has given no clear signal as to how it hopes to strike a balance between human and civil rights and protecting the nation from terrorism. One of the simplest practices to eliminate would have been the rendition of suspects to other countries for interrogation. But there are no plans to end it, despite court actions and public acts of repentance by other countries like Italy and Canada for past cooperation in U.S. abuses.
There are balances to be struck, and compromises will have to be made. But without some genuine reforms, the challenges confronting our nation, beginning with the financial crisis, will soon threaten to be worse than those we have recently faced.