The Progressive Case against Barack Obama
Halfway through Barack Obama’s first (shall I say “first?”) presidential term, we have a reasonably good set of data upon which to formulate our opinions of the man and the job he’s doing. Never reluctant to grandstand, I take to the Twitter-waves with some frequency to bitch about one thing or another, and my esteemed colleague at The Busy Signal, Akie Bermiss, is often there to pontificate just as ferociously right back at me. Enough of these epic 140-characters-at-a-time battles have gone by to motivate us to publish long-form defenses of our positions. I oppose the Obama presidency; Akie supports it. This is where you find out why.
First off, you should know that Akie objects to the whole exercise, cautioning me that these two years have provided insufficient grounds for assessment. A full four year term, Akie proposes, is the bare minimum required for drawing conclusions about the character of a president. Surely, we ought to hold all elected officials to the same standards; we are therefore at liberty to wonder whether Akie extended this same courtesy to President Bush—that is, if one was supposed to wait until eight whole months after Seymour Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib torture story before feeling adequately provided with context and perspective on W. I suggest that this is asinine. We are the President’s boss and, as such, entitled to conduct reviews of his performance with whatever regularity we wish.
Unlike Akie, I did not vote for Obama in the primaries and indeed championed him only very tepidly in the general election, because I objected to his policy proposals and took exception to his campaign style, successful though it was. Such support as I did offer was grounded in my personal admiration for the man (an intellectual of no small literary talent, a constitutional scholar, an organizer who had worked tirelessly to improve a community direly in need of his efforts, a picture of multicultural pride and success, an obviously loving and devoted father…) and my conviction that we who work to reverse America’s legacy of racism ought to support qualified black people at all levels of public office. This support, I’m ashamed to say, duped me for the first while into thinking that Obama was an agent for justice and equality who merely lacked the spine or skill to defy a system dead-set against those movements—“He was a student leader against apartheid,” I’d tell myself, “and that surely counts for something.” I have come to see that, in reality, Obama has no interest in defying that system, but works actively to reify and bolster it, which reveals his “Change We Can Believe In” campaign basis to have been all hogwash, twaddle and claptrap. Even worse than a capitalist, Obama is a corporatist: he does not advocate for a free market, but a wealthy class actively supported, underwritten and protected by the functions of government.
Before getting to the meat of my thesis, I’d like quickly to dispense with one other argument of Akie’s. Challenging me to name anything Obama has done to indicate corporatism, Akie made to disqualify congressional action on the grounds that a president is an executive and can therefore not be faulted for legislative deficiencies. This is a deeply silly argument. Firstly, President Obama has served as lead negotiator on legislative matters more than once. Secondly, he himself regularly attempts to take credit for congressional accomplishments, which knife cuts both ways—he cannot demand credit for a bill’s achievements without tolerating blame for its shortfalls.
The perfect example of this phenomenon weighed down our national headlines last week, in the figure of the extension of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. I wrote last month that “ If the Democrats cave in this trench, take it as a signal that they have accepted defeat and want nothing more than to negotiate the terms of their surrender to the Republican agenda.” A quick lo and a brief behold later, President Obama, unsurprisingly, added yet another tick mark to the tally of smudged-out lines in the Democrats’ sand.
Less than a week before this, the Democratic House of Representatives voted to extend the tax cuts for Americans of every level of income, but to drop the extra cut for the wealthiest. The President, though, took it upon himself to trample all over that legislation, instead working out an agreement with Republican leadership: the Democrats would cave on the tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, implement an estate tax even more generous to rich people and extend still other tax cuts that Obama put into the stimulus package to placate Republicans in the first place—all this for two years—in exchange for which, some unemployment benefits (though not those for the people who most direly need them) would get a thirteen month extension. With compromise like this, who needs capitulation? (Wrote Andy Borowitz: “When asked about criticism that he compromises too much, Obama said, ‘I agree with about half of that.’”).
Naturally, liberals, who had taken a relatively conciliatory position in the first place, were upset, prompting the President to assume once more the mantle of scolder-in-chief. How dare we be so “sanctimonious” as to expect that he would refuse to pay for what he had previously described as “tax cuts we cannot afford?” Who are we to accuse him of harboring what, in his own former words, constitutes “a philosophy that gives tax breaks to wealthy CEOs and to corporations that ship jobs overseas while hundreds of thousands of jobs are disappearing here at home”?
This whole affair puts one in mind of another instance in which Obama made overtures toward standing up for the little guy in the face of wealthy interests, only to wind up endorsing a massive give-away that those selfsame corporate lobbyists had fought for. Strangely, no one was more eager to draw the comparison than the President himself.
“So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow was a sign of weakness and compromise.”
So fervent was President Obama that the wildly unpopular health care plan, created with the support and collaboration of industry lobbyists, was just what he was after all along, no one thought to ask him to square this sentiment with his earlier promise that, should he be elected, “any American will have the opportunity to enroll in [a] new public plan.” He had once proclaimed that “any plan,” in order to merit his signature “must include a public option.” Indeed, he had told thousands of doctors that one of the components of the health care bill “needs to be a public option that will give people a broader range of choices and inject competition into the health care market.” Need, must, will? Obviously, needn’t, mustn’t and won’t would have hit nearer the mark. Just words.
Downplay its importance though he now may, the measure of any health care reform worth feeling pride over is the extent to which it liberates the ailing from the clutches of a private health care industry that values the wealth in its coffers over the health of its customers. Even without a low-overhead, indiscriminate, not-for-profit public alternative, Obama still saw fit to mandate that citizens purchase health insurance (breaking another campaign promise), consigning Americans to a private insurance industry hell-bent on exploiting us. That would be bad enough, but the consequences additionally include an insurance industry greatly strengthened by a vastly expanded market share for the next fight over the type of public health care that every other industrialized country enjoys. And if you want to see windfall corporate profits, just you wait for the HMOs under Obamacare. Who will have the gall to tell tea partiers not to feel put upon by that government measure?
It’s perfectly clear that, for all his bluster, the public option was never very important to Obama. The White House discouraged the Senate from passing a public option through reconciliation, which was well within its means. Obama kowtowed to his old mentor Joe Lieberman’s frenzied self-promotion, corporate shilling and shifting goal-posts, and wound up with a corporatist plan that, for whatever good it does, bolsters the system of private insurance (fat with government subsidy) and discredits Democrats, belying the authenticity of their sincerity on the matter.
Starting the negotiations with single payer health care off the table, then giving up a full public option, then giving up a Medicare expansion, then giving up a resistance to an individual mandate—if a negotiator is prepared to give up and give up and give up, he’d better start by asking for something extreme, in order to wind up in the middle. Starting in the middle lands you deep in enemy territory. As Bonz Malone put it, “If you want five cents, don’t ask for three; ask for ten.” Democrats were fond of pointing out the Obama proposal’s likeness to Bob Dole’s plan from 1996, by way of criticizing Republican recalcitrance: “Doesn’t it give away their whole game that they’d even vote against Dole’s 1996 plan?” But really, this buries the obvious and more revelatory question: “Doesn’t it give away Obama’s whole game that he’d propose Dole’s 1996 plan?” Dole, it should be noted, is “a lobbyist at the downtown firm Alston & Bird, where his clients include the National Association for Home Care and Hospice. The Association pays Alston & Bird $30,000 per month to lobby Congress and the administration on ‘issues in health reform relating to home health & hospice,’ according to Alston Bird’s second-quarter 2009 lobbying report.” And this is Obama’s great claim to liberalism.
The other major “accomplishment” the President is partial to advertising is financial regulation reform. This was meant to protect America from a repeat of the havoc wrought on it by its nefarious and unscrupulous financial class. Central to this idea would be including a provision prohibiting banks and investment firms from becoming “too big to fail” (i.e. reversing Graham-Leach-Bliley). This would substantially have curbed banks’ ability to exploit Americans. But the fact of the matter is that the big banks liked the types of regulations the bill imposed, because, as one Goldman-Sachs lobbyist said, “We partner with regulators.” The reporting of Tim Carney shows that the bill provided “stricter federal liquidity and capital requirements” which, in effect, “[reduces] the risk that Goldman’s debtors or insurers will run into trouble.” As blogger Ira Stoll wrote at the time, “It’s one thing for some elderly retail depositor to ask the FDIC to protect her from risk by guaranteeing bank deposits. But the idea that the government needs to run around setting capital requirements to protect Blankfein and Cohn from the risk that their counterparties might go under or get in a liquidity crunch seems a bit odd. Let them protect themselves.”
Akie attributes the president’s calculations on matters like these to his conviction “that a nation in crisis is not one to be fooled with.” This is precisely wrong, and akin to saying of a patient, “Her body is weakened by the obstruction to her airway, so we’d better not attempt to remove it by implementing any treatment as harsh as chest compressions.” No: this nation didn’t merely happen upon a crisis by chance, like perhaps an earthquake. Rather, America was thrust into this crisis by a banking sector intent on the endless accumulation of wealth regardless of national economic well-being. That sector had been deregulated by the efforts of Reagan and especially Clinton. It was unafraid to take daredevil risks with staggering sums of money because its collapse would be so devastating to the national economy that it could extort the government for a bail-out, in the event of a burst bubble. Arguing that an affirmation of this lunatic system is the most “reasonable” or “adult” or “pragmatic” response to that kind of abuse is not only wrong; it invites further abuse. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how, two years after exploiting its too-big-to-fail status for breathtaking sums of public largess, Citigroup has grown even larger and hired President Obama’s erstwhile budget director, Peter Orszag. How many garish bonuses and obstinate refusals to lend later will Citigroup demand another ransom of the people who can afford it least?
Orszag’s departure for greener pastures, so to speak, is symptomatic of the greatest violation of a campaign commitment peddled by the Obama administration. Candidate Obama promised that the White House would “close the revolving door between K Street and the executive branch” and “[exclude] lobbyists from policy making jobs.” Just the opposite has happened, from handing over the writing of the health care bill to the right-wing PhRMA lobbyist Billy Tauzin to creating so comfortable a relationship with Goldman-Sachs (which Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi memorably likened to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”) that Obama’s chief council Greg Craig stepped right through the revolving door into a cushy gig there. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that Goldman contributed a full seven times as much to Obama as Enron did to Bush, which may shock Akie, who is scandalized by the thought that Obama is at all in the pockets of the rich, much less bought and paid for. The Obama enterprise relies on Goldman for sustenance and knows what a good puppy does to the hand that feeds it. The whole thing makes a mockery of the accusations of ties to wealth that Obama has hurled at the right.
All told, the Obama Administration employs 50-odd former lobbyists, not all from nice places like SEIU and the NAACP; energy corporations, weapons and chemical manufacturers, communications conglomerates, investment firms and health insurance companies are all handily represented in the White House and cabinet.
Nor are the “mitigations” of the “victories” the only things attributable to the alliance Obama has strengthened between corporate wealth and state power. The invasions of privacy instituted by the TSA, in the form of nude-imaging scanners and sexually inappropriate pat-downs, are greatly benefiting industries with strong ties to the White House and Democratic leadership. Under President Bush, these civil liberties abuses would have drawn fingers-out-and-wagging outrage from progressives; under Obama, liberal senators proclaimed them Not So Bad and The Nation published a hit piece on libertarian grassroots activists so outlandish that its editor had to issue a broad mea culpa. So, Akie need no longer feel like the only person defending Obama, especially since the Democrats in congress have dutifully lined up behind the President and voted for everything, no matter how egregiously his “compromises” violate their “principles.”
If anything, the greatest problem here isn’t the reticence of liberals to line up behind the Obama agenda, but the reticence of liberals to oppose the very same sorts of things in Obama for which they spent eight years railing against Bush. Do they care about these things or don’t they? If so, it shouldn’t be an enormous logical leap.
Progressive commentators were big fans of calling the Bush Administration out for its attempts to violate press freedom, but Glenn Greenwald has been a voice in the wilderness on Obama’s record in that area. “If this story about the Obama DOJ is true, it’ll constitute a far greater threat to press freedom than anything Bush did,” Greenwald wrote of this story about a secret grand jury meeting in Virginia to consider criminal charges in the WikiLeaks case.
Candidate Obama also professed a staunch defense of civil liberties on the campaign trail, vowing to dismantle the Bush-era antagonism between government and law, domestic and international, starting by shutting down the ungovernable haven for rendition and torture at Guantanamo Bay. Can it be pointed out with overmuch emphasis that, in this division, the President has acquitted himself less than admirably? The base is still open, and its closure requires no consent from GOP lawmakers. Is Obama the Commander in Chief of the United States military or isn’t he? On that note, a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has, I am joyful to report, very recently passed in the Senate, but only by the good graces of a few Republican turncoats and the afterthought the Administration devoted to the issue by bringing it up in the lame duck session (“fierce advocacy,” this). Either the military can obey orders from its Commander in Chief not to discriminate or the troops are not worth supporting.
Just about the only campaign promise the President has really lived up to was his stated intention to ramp up the occupation of Afghanistan and extend that war beyond its border with Pakistan. This position was the best reason to oppose candidate Obama, is the one that the neoconservatives can really get behind, and is the one he has pursued most vigorously. And so the candidate whose fame and support was born largely of his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq became the president whose drone attacks on Pakistani villagers are the new norm. Even Iraq, the “dumb war” that he did not support, has morphed under his command from an incompetent imperialist occupation into a competent imperialist occupation. Call that “smart power” or what you will; it should really be known as Change We Can Barely Distinguish.
Transgressions against civil liberties, close ties with lobbyists, an agenda that merges the state and corporate interests, violations of international law and human rights and seldom a yelp from liberals, who take every opportunity to reveal themselves uncommitted to the “principles” they flaunted so breathlessly against the Bush Administration. They should all be asked: what made Bush bad for the country and the world? Whatever the answer, the follow-up question should be: what makes Obama so much better?
Not that he hasn’t done good things. There are some accomplishments worth getting behind: The Ledbetter Act, SCHIP, the Shepard Act and others create the impression of a caring authority, but none is foundational, and they ultimately constitute lovely window dressings to conceal a dank interior of corporate greed, bubbling in a stew of state protection. Even the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, unquestionably the greatest single idea this Administration has had or pursued was weakened by Obama’s phumphering around before appointing Elizabeth Warren to set the thing up. Now, a Republican Congress looks set to make life hell for the establishment of the bureau, and it hasn’t yet drawn breath. These types of bones must be thrown to the people, in order to keep up the tenuous liberal balance. That is, true motions toward peace and justice (what liberals profess to want) are disabled by a commitment to upholding corporate supremacy and the imperium. The challenge for the liberal is to reinforce a horrendous system while tricking everyone into thinking that what really matter are the hats they tip toward the people that system exploits. Obama, as the polls will clearly show, does not, for all his alleged political skill, do this very well.
I don’t feel entitled to expect the President to pursue the radical leftist agenda that I seek. I do, however, feel entitled to expect him (and any elected official) to pursue vigorously the things he promised to pursue in his campaign and since. It is understood that a strong opposition will disable a president from achieving all his goals, but that should not prompt him to relent in his pursuit of them. And let’s be clear about the character of the opposition, however stubborn and unreasonable. When Obama took his oath of office (having already hired Rahm Emmanuel, Larry Summers and other harbingers of things to come), the country was at his back. The Democrats commanded an imposing majority in the House and, for a time, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Public opinion held Obama on a pedestal few presidents, however early in their terms, enjoy. The direction those winds were blowing in was fundamental change, the platitude around which Obama based his campaign. Two years in, no one can point to a single change that can meaningfully be described as fundamental, the public support has eroded, and many of us have come to understand that the President is not just an incompetent proponent of change; he’s an outright fraud who peddled a line he never intended to practice.
Obama’s apologists will often resort to the argument that his agenda is hamstrung by the maintenance of an undemocratic and easily exploited 60-vote procedural requirement in the Senate. And while that is unquestionably true, implicit in the complaint is the admission that the only bills that pass are the ones Republicans allow to pass (after all, if they can block anything, why haven’t they blocked everything?) Taking the logic one step further, if Republicans are vessels of big business, and their permission is required for any legislative accomplishment, what can possibly pass but corporatism?
But let’s not let Obama off the hook that quickly on the filibuster question. Not only did we have 60 Democrats in the Senate for a considerable portion of these last two years—a mark we were promised would yield card-check recognition for labor, sweeping carbon emission checks and sensible immigration reform (two out of three ain’t bad; zero out of three is)—but the filibuster rule is well within the Democrats’ power to reform (read: abolish), as The Nation’s Chris Hayes is fond of and good at explaining. What reason could there conceivably be to allow the perpetuation of an insurmountable obstacle to your agenda, unless there is an ulterior agenda whose exposure would embarrass you? In that view, the filibuster gives Obama a handy cover; he can enact corporatist measures and claim that he wanted better, but the filibuster wouldn’t let him. All of the subsidies of wealth with plausible deniability of fault: it’s an attractive offer, because he’ll still have folks like Akie making excuses for him.
Akie has repeatedly castigated me for my impatience and for my stubbornness, and mostly for my “impracticality.” Whom would I rather support, this criticism seems to ask, the Republicans? Well, I have to say, after bank bailouts and PATRIOT Acts, I have had more than enough of this type of blackmail. “You’ve got to support this or risk disaster” is a type of bullying I will not abide.
It’s a perfectly fine argument to say that we make unrealistic demands on the President, who is only one person, if we are not going to organize a movement to shore up his position against a recalcitrant and ideological GOP. But the record bears out quite a different narrative: whenever the left organizes around core principles, the Obama administration hurls epithets at us: “unreasonable,” “irresponsible,” “sanctimonious.” Where Roosevelt said, “Make me do it,” Obama says, “Ease off, guys.”
Well, I will not ease off; it is the President who is indebted to me for my vote, not I who am indebted to him for his victory.