It is no exaggeration to say that if there was a single event at which Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for President, it was his speech to the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in November 2007. It is not unfair, therefore, to judge him by it. Here is a selection from it:
I will lead the world to combat the common threats of the 21st century ... and I will send once more a message to those yearning faces beyond our shores that says you matter to us, your future is our future, and our moment is now. America, our moment is now.
Our moment is now!
I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don’t want to pit red America against blue America. I want to be the President of the United States of America.
And if those Republicans come at me with the same fear-mongering and swift-boating that they usually do, then I will take them head-on. Because I believe the American people are tired of fear, and tired of distractions.
Andrew Sullivan titled his column on that event, from which I take the above quote: "The Fierce Urgency of Now." I don't know whether Obama used that phrase in his speeches (or in either of his books) before then, but I know that he used it often in 2008. The phrase is derived from a book by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Beyond Vietnam, from which I will excerpt far less than I hope you will go and read on your own:
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on.
What strikes me as I read these passages is that President Obama has, in essence, adapted the notion of "the fierce urgency of now" in an unexpected (and, for many of us, unwelcome) way: as an argument for the need to deal quickly, decisively, and grandly with the nation's national "debt crisis" -- such as it suddenly deserves that name.
"We do big things," Obama told us -- or perhaps warned us -- in his second State of the Union Address last January, and this Grand Bargain that he may or may not be arranging would be among them. We are told that it is urgent and we suspect that it will be fierce.
"The Fierce Urgency of Now" would also be a fitting term for another idea that was presented in what I and many others consider possibly the best political book of the past decade: The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein. Many of you are already familiar with it; for those who are not, here is a video primer. It's actually a 78-minute documentary taken from the book -- but the first six minutes or so would be enough for you to get the basic idea:
The Shock Doctrine is also known as "Disaster Capitalism" -- economic engineers and/or military forces swooping in at the moment of a nation's greatest vulnerability to impose change upon it. Time limits and imminent deadlines -- the need to make decisions and concessions now, now, now!, are a critical part of its effectiveness.
It makes me queasy to describe such tactics as inducing, through panic and terror, a "fierce urgency of now" of the sort that Dr. King tried to elicit by moral suasion and exhortation -- but there you have it. Both approaches seek to create "fierce urgencies" and move people towards concessions they would not usually make -- but King did so non-violently in the name of justice and disaster capitalists do so by wreaking havoc, in the pursuit of economic injustice. Injustice, after all, is a more sure bet and it pays better.
Barack Obama campaigned on a fierce urgency of now, evoking King rather than Milton Friedman -- but here we are, with the loaded gun of national default cocked and pointed at our head, being told that a quick resolution of complex problems is critical to our national welfare. Fierce. Urgent. Now.
I have to call it as it is: this is "The Shock Doctrine" applied to Congress. It has happened before -- many of us remember the FISAAA bill of 2007, for example -- and it will happen again; it is just that this time both the weapon and the goal don't involve matters of national security, but of economics. Whether Obama sought this situation, fell into it, or was pushed into it is a matter to debate another time. We are being stampeded into precipitous action; the question of the day is "how do we keep from becoming its victims?"
We avoid becoming the victim of "disaster capitalism" by recognizing that this is not like the urgency in 1967 of ending the war in Vietnam; it is not even like the apparent urgency of saving the banking system in 2007. It is a made-up deadline that we have no real reason to treat as real other than the ministerial task of raising the debt limit, period. It is not a "fierce urgency of now"; it is a "false urgency of now."
And that is now what we must say, to President Obama, to Republicans, to Democrats:
We will NOT be rushed into a bad decision!
We should thank the President for two things:
(1) opening up debate on this issue
(although it would have been nicer if the debate had included some discussion of counter-cyclical Keynesian economics and whether it makes sense to cut the deficit deeply during a time or raging unemployment and underemployment, but we'll have time for that), and
(2) exposing the true priorities of the Republican Party
(because even many of us Democrats have been shocked by the completely irresponsible and unpopular Republican responses elicited by the President's gambits -- if they have been gambits.)
If we stop right there, then the President truly deserves our thanks. If he imposes a shock doctrine solution when the "urgency of now" is false, he deserves our opposition -- and I rule out a priori no legal means of asserting it. He must understand -- our representatives must understand, that we will NOT be stampeded.
We will NOT be shocked into compliance!
The answer is simple, and whether the Republicans want to follow it or not is up to them: we demand a simple vote, of a kind that we had 18 times under Reagan and many more times since, to raise the debt ceiling to cover our already existing obligations. Period. These matters of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are extremely important and we will NOT let out Congress hammer out some slapdash solution to them within a few days -- or even a few weeks.
Our "fierce urgency" must not come from a deadline that we can meet with a routine ministerial bill. If we are to have "fierce urgency," it will come from serious consideration of the situation on its merits -- and approaches that refuse to consider reversion of taxes to previous higher rates are Not Serious. They demonstrate a lack of fierceness, a lack of urgency. If the Republicans truly won't pass a clean bill, then let the default be on their head -- they have the ability to end it at any time Congress can convene.
So that is now my position, and I hope it will be your position, and I hope it will be all Democratic legislators' position (except for the obvious lost causes like Sen. Conrad) -- and I hope that, before too long, it will be President Obama's position as well.
The actual "fierce urgency of now" right now is to prevent the President from imposing a bad and half-baked solution upon us out of panic. The actual "fierce urgency of now" is to honor our commitments to our seniors, to our poor, to our sick, and to the cherished history of the post-Depression Democratic Party. The actual "fierce urgency of now" is to prevent our government from shutting down and giving windfall profits to vulture investors by needlessly spiking interest rates. We need this settled, and settled until, let's say, May of 2013. And meanwhile, we promise that we will continue talking about the national debt, the economy, unemployment, and Keynesian economics.
We will continue talking because the "crisis" demanding urgency is one that our leaders in Congress can, and should, and must address without shocking the system to gain compliance.
We will honor the true "fierce urgency of now."
We will not be cowed by the "false urgency of now."
President Obama is welcome to stand with us. We hope that he will not stand against us, but that is his choice -- to make urgent, to make now.
(202) 456-1111 Comment line for the White House
(202) 224-3121 Contact the U.S. Senate and U.S. House
3:52 PM PT: I'm sorry that I had to write this diary, though I don't regret it, and I'm very happy that Barack Obama's gambit was rejected and that he's coming out swinging at the Republicans and is in the Democratic fold. But this diary won't be complete, so far as I'm concerned, until and unless I get a recommendation from user 66948. (For now, he can just accept a tip of my hat.) Now -- fiercely and urgently -- we get to work.