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Robert Kuttner: Time for Team B — And a Movement

By Huffington Post
November 7, 2010

In the 1970s, the CIA appointed a “Team B” to challenge prevailing assumptions about national security. Since then, there have been other Team B exercises to question prevailing views.

This is a smart move. An in-group of experts often becomes an echo-chamber, reinforcing their own prejudices and excluding people with different views. If you are inside, you demonstrate your own loyalty by not frontally challenging the top people, no matter how disastrous. This, of course, is the road to foreign policy debacles like Iraq and Vietnam.

But the same thing happens in politics and domestic policy. As we’ve just seen, Obama’s A-Team of political advisers did not exactly shine.

It’s not that others failed to warn of the disaster in the making. Countless posts and articles in the past year have pointed out that Obama had no coherent narrative. That he failed to squarely place the economic blame on the Republicans. His own signature initiatives did not do enough to restore jobs and prosperity for him to credibly campaign on them. His health bill may have represented incremental progress on insurance reform, but it was a political albatross. And he got much too cozy with Wall Street at the expense of his credibility with Main Street.

Columnists like Frank Rich and Bob Herbert, public opinion experts like Drew Westen and Stan Greenberg, scores of bloggers, as well as labor leaders like Rich Trumka, have been flagging these problems since mid-2009. I’ve been known to argue something of the same. And you heard this complaint privately from many Democrats in Congress.

This failure spans policy, politics, and messaging. So here is an idea: Obama should do a Team B exercise. He should invite in about six or eight smart people who have a very different view of how he should be leading.

He should give them an extended opportunity to make their case, without his usual advisers in the room. Then David Axelrod, Pete Rouse, Jim Messina, Valerie Jarrett et al. should be given a chance to rebut.

But Obama needs to hear the B-Team views, directly, uncensored, without the team that failed him undermining the critique. Then we’d have a real Team of Rivals, and maybe save his presidency.

And that’s not all. If any team was a bigger disaster than the political team, it was the economic one.

Larry Summers, now back at Harvard, and Tim Geithner have been fond of arguing that their strategy in early 2009 of propping up insolvent banks (and bankers) rather than cleaning them out was vindicated by events. It wasn’t. The policy kept Wall Street rolling in profits, but bequeathed a Japan Scenario of prolonged stagnation to the rest of the economy — and of course gave a huge political windfall to the faux-populist Tea Party.

So let’s bring in an economic B-Team to do the same exercise: Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman; Rob Johnson of the Institute for New Economic Thinking; Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO; Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute; Jamie Galbraith of U Texas; Bob Reich of Berkeley; Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute; and Jane D’Arista or Robert Pollin of the Political Economy Research Institute, to name a few.

Even Paul Volcker, to whom the President turns only as a last resort, is an honorary B Team member. Several of these would make a better treasury secretary than Geithner, and Obama needs to hear their views unfiltered through appointees who have every reason to be defensive.

A final thought: I am weary of writing pieces whose theme is “Here’s what Obama needs to do.” Just between us, I’m not sure the man is paying attention.

So my next posts will be about what we need to do. And here is the general point: We need to build a movement–a movement that politicians and the media can’t ignore.

If you are like me, you have been in dozens of conversations lately in which smart people ask each other, “How come there is no real grass-roots progressive movement?”

Among plausible answers I’ve heard are these:

Ordinary people are beaten down and fearful. Remember the expression, “a revolution of rising expectations”? This is a counter-revolution of depressed expectations.

Young people got their hopes sky high during the 2008 campaign. They built a movement. But then the Obama presidency extinguished O for A as an independent movement by bringing it under the Democratic National Committee, while Obama himself was far less inspiring as president than as a candidate. You think that’s inevitable? Think Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan.

Young adults are so economically stressed that they don’t have time for a movement. If you want to find a place where economically pummeled people logically should be organizing, look at community colleges. But there people are juggling work, family, and classes, and have no spare time go to meetings.

Young people who do have spare time think that volunteering for charitable causes is the same as movement building. It isn’t.

Movements are passé. It takes an unpopular war plus a draft; or a once in a century cause like civil rights. Folks today are too busy being entertained with social networking.

And speaking of social networking, the internet, absent strong political leadership, is not the medium of a real movement though it can be tactically useful. MoveOn, in its prime, was the germ of something real. But progressives have too many parts, and no coherent whole. The Colbert-Stewart sanity rally was a hoot, but no movement.

The one enduring mass movement on the progressive side, the labor movement, is still feisty but because of corporate union-bashing it is a shadow of its former self.

There is a formidable immigrant rights movement, a model of progressive movement-building, but it speaks for only one segment of the economically vulnerable.

Okay, fine. But somehow, none of this stopped the Tea Party from working with Fox and Limbaugh on one side, and the billionaire Koch Brothers on the other, to organize a mass movement.

Sure, the Tea Party phenomenon is partly a fake but it’s also partly real. There is a lot of anger out there, and the right is capturing it. The right is more demagogic, more disciplined, more in synch with its media messaging, more relentless.

So all of the alibis on the progressive side are only partial truths. In circumstances like these, it is possible to build a movement. The Tea Party proves it, and what’s doubly galling is that most of these people are voting against their own economic self-interest.

Given that reality is on our side, where’s our movement?

More on all this next week. Comments welcome.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of
The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book, “A Presidency in Peril,” published in May, warned that Obama was setting himself up for failure. He wishes he had been proven wrong.

From The Huffington Post