Saturday, November 6, 2010

How Obama got from hope to hopeless


The Democrats were handed a golden opportunity to transform U.S. politics for years to come--and they blew it. Alan Maass looks at how it happened--and why.

BARACK OBAMA thinks you really ought to be more patient.

"It took time to free the slaves," he said in a speech at the end of September. "It took time for women to get the vote. It took time for workers to get the right to organize."

Well...he's certainly right about that. The struggles of the past that changed the world didn't happen overnight.

But Obama wasn't just making an observation about history. This was his excuse for how little the Democrats have done to meet the expectations of their supporters--they need more time.

The real question is: More time for what? The Democrats haven't moved at even a snail's pace on so many of the issues that motivated millions of people to support them in 2008--keeping people under threat of foreclosure in their homes, creating good-paying jobs, reducing the staggering inequality between rich and poor, reversing the shrill intolerance of the Christian Right, ending America's wars and occupations around the globe.

On the other hand, Obama and his administration acted plenty fast when they wanted to.

It took almost no time at all for the Obama White House to embrace the bailout of Wall Street engineered by the Bush administration and put U.S. taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars--and only slightly longer to make it clear the Democrats wouldn't require the least concessions from the banksters in return.

It took barely a month or two before the administration was defending the worst outrages of Bush's shredding of civil liberties in the name of the "war on terror." About four months, and Obama's Justice Department was in federal court to defend the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military. On health care reform, it took a full year, but Obama and the Democrats abandoned almost every proposal that might have threatened the profits of the insurance industry.

Barack Obama wants you to believe that the "change we need" takes time. But when it comes to the "change they need"--the policies that America's economic and political elite want, from rescuing Wall Street, to expanding the U.S. war in Afghanistan, to privatizing public education--Obama delivers like clockwork.

That's why the Democrats lost ground in the November 2 election--not because a majority of the population suddenly embraced the Republicans and their pro-corporate, bigoted, anti-worker policies, but because Obama and the Democrats disappointed millions of people who believed them when they talked about hope and change.

And it isn't stopping, either. The day after the election, Obama devoted an interminable news conference to promising he would compromise with the Republicans on any issue they wanted. As if he hadn't spent the last two years doing exactly that.

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THIS IS a far cry from how Obama looked two years ago. He won the 2008 election by a solid margin and started his term in office with sky-high popularity. A Time magazine cover morphed together pictures of Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to capture the expectation that the incoming president would preside over another New Deal. Newsweek countered a few weeks later with a cover headline that read "We're all socialists now."

Newsweek's claim was based on a distorted definition of socialism as nothing more than government intervention in the economy. But it turned out that Obama and the Democrats were so wedded to the conservative economic dogmas of the past era that they wouldn't follow even this limited program, much less fulfill the Republicans' frantic nightmare of Bolshevism in power.

Within a month of taking office, the new administration won passage of a $787 billion economic stimulus law--roughly the same size as FDR's New Deal programs in inflation-adjusted dollars, though more weighted toward corporate tax breaks and too small by the estimates of even moderate administration officials. But that was the last of economic stimulus.

Meanwhile, Obama had put together an economics team that would set the agenda for the rest of the next two years--and it was filled with people who were part of the Wall Street mania that set off the 2008 financial crisis. Documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson ran down the list in a Salon.com article:

Larry Summers, the man behind nearly every disastrous policy that created the crisis, fresh from making $20 million from hedge funds and investment banks while at Harvard, to become the director of the National Economic Council; Tim Geithner, plucked from the New York Federal Reserve Bank and put in charge at Treasury; as Geithner's chief of staff, Mark Patterson, a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist; to succeed Geithner at the New York Fed, William C. Dudley, who was chief economist of Goldman Sachs during the housing bubble years; Michael Froman, straight from Citigroup Alternative Investments, which lost billions while its executives became rich, to coordinate economic policy for the National Security Council; Jacob Lew, who was the CFO of Citigroup Alternative Investments, as deputy secretary of state (and now, Obama's nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget); Gary Gensler, a former Goldman executive who helped ban the regulation of over-the-counter derivatives, to lead the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates derivatives; Mary Shapiro, former head of the Financial Industry Regulatory Agency, the investment banking industry's self-policing body, to run the Securities and Exchange Commission; reappointing Ben Bernanke. And on and on.

Not a single socialist among them.

There shouldn't be any surprise about the policies that would come from such people. The administration adopted nearly wholesale the Wall Street bailout scheme cooked up in the final months of the Bush presidency--and why not, since Tim Geithner had been one of its main authors. On the other hand, programs to help homeowners at risk of foreclosure, funded at a fraction of the level of the bailout for the banks, proved to be completely ineffective, helping only a fraction of those in need.

Obama and his advisers opposed any real effort to control pay and bonuses for executives at Wall Street banks, even the ones that were still in business only because of handouts from the government--the president limited himself to occasional complaints about "fat cat bankers" that were quickly withdrawn. Legislative proposals to impose regulations on Wall Street languished in Congress--long enough for the banksters to organize a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to gut them.

"It is, in short, overwhelmingly clear that President Obama and his administration decided to side with the oligarchs--or at least not to challenge them," Ferguson concluded.

With the Democrats committed to the policies Wall Street needed to survive, the Republicans--reduced in both houses of Congress to the smallest numbers for either party in a generation--took advantage of the opportunity to pose as anti-bailout crusaders.

Of course, the Republicans' real agenda is to make the rich and powerful even richer and more powerful still--as they showed with their nearly unanimous opposition to any re-regulation of the financial system or repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-wealthy. But the Democrats opened the way for the GOP to cloak its pro-corporate program with complaints about theDemocrats' giveaway to the bankers.

The Republicans' semi-populist rhetoric is one important factor behind the success of their campaigns in the congressional elections this month. Thus, according to the New York Times, the GOP was able to overcome the Democrats' traditional advantage in polls when people are asked which party is better able to create jobs. Incredibly, the edge went to the anti-worker Republicans.

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THIS HAS been the political dynamic of the past year at least: By serving the interests of the elite and abandoning any commitment to even meager reforms, the Democrats disappoint and demoralize their core supporters, and they give the Republicans the opportunity to energize theirs.

And it has played out on every single issue--there are no exceptions. To name just a few:

-- Labor's top priority for the new Obama administration was the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposal for labor law reform that, among other things, would make it easier for workers to join unions. Obama spoke out in favor of EFCA during the campaign, but after Corporate America launched a furious lobbying offensive against the legislation, he and the Democrats caved--EFCA was gutted of its most important provisions, and even what was left died before coming to a vote in Congress.

-- Obama made health care reform the centerpiece of his first years in office. But he began the "debate" by excluding proposals for a single-payer system that would cut out the parasitic private insurance industry, while lobbyists for the health care industry were welcomed to participate in drafting the legislation. The result was a law that further entrenches the power of the health care industry.

The outcome was so disorienting for even supporters of reform that Republicans--whose uncompromising opposition to all reform measures seemed wildly out of touch at the beginning of 2009--touted their position during the 2010 campaign, while Democrats tried to run away from the issue.

-- Supporters of LGBT equality turned out in large numbers for Obama--even though he said during the campaign that he opposed same-sex marriage--because he promised to work for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell."

But there was no action from the Obama White House, even as opinion polls showed majorities opposed to discriminatory policies growing to overwhelming levels. Instead, the Obama Justice Department went to court to defend DOMA and "don't ask, don't tell," even after they were declared unconstitutional.

-- Obama promised to enact immigration reform and fix a broken system that victimized the most vulnerable. As president, however, his administration has escalated the federal government's enforcement measures, leading to a record number of deportations under his watch.

When Democrats in Congress allowed one piece of pro-immigrant legislation to come to a vote--the DREAM Act to give a minority of undocumented youth a restricted path to citizenship--they attached it to a Pentagon appropriations bill in a cynical maneuver against Republicans.

-- With only a few weeks to go before the election, it seemed that the Democrats would at least fulfill their promise to repeal the tax cuts passed under George Bush that funneled hundreds of billions of dollars into the pockets of the richest few over a period of 10 years. But once again, Corporate America pitched a fit, the Republicans portrayed the proposal to not renew the tax cuts as a tax increase--and the gutless Democrats backed down without even forcing a Senate vote on the question.

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THAT LIST could go on and on, and no one reading SocialistWorker.org is likely to be anything but pissed off about it--not only about Obama's broken promises and pandering to the U.S. ruling class on every issue, but the very real impact all this has had in making the lives of working-class people more difficult, more stressful, more prone to poverty and violence.

But even from the narrow perspective of mainstream politics and this month's elections, Obama and the Democrats have been their own worst enemies.

Their victories in 2006 and 2008 depended on millions of people feeling greater confidence that there could be an alternative to the dark years of Bush, Cheney and the Republicans. Now, huge numbers of people feel the opposite--so instead of turning out on Election Day in unprecedented numbers, they stayed home. ABC News' polling expert calculated that 29 million Obama voters from 2008 didn't cast a ballot in 2010.

As Patricia Elizondo, president of a Milwaukee International Association of Machinists local, told the New York Times before the election, "People have been unemployed for two years, and they're unhappy that the health care bill was not as good as they expected. Two years ago, I had many members going door-to-door to campaign. Now they're saying, 'Why should I? We supported that candidate, but he didn't follow through.'"

And the response of Obama and the Democrats? Blame their own supporters.

Yukking it up at a $30,000-a-plate fundraiser in Connecticut in September, Obama laughed at supporters who "just congenitally, tend to...see the glass as half empty. If we get an historic health care bill passed--oh, well, the public option wasn't there. If you get the financial reform bill passed--then, well, I don't know about this particular derivatives rule, I'm not sure that I'm satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven't yet brought about world peace."

In the wake of the Republican victory, there'll be even more abuse heaped on anyone who dares to remember Obama's promises as a presidential candidate--and nothing but offers to "reach across the aisle" toward the bigots and reactionaries who run the Republican Party today.

Obama's day-after-the-election press conference--where he ditched the Democrats' already-compromised energy legislation, signaled his willingness to accept an extension of the Bush-era tax cut giveaway to the rich, and generally offered to negotiate on every issue--made it clear what direction the White House is headed.

But Obama and his top advisers have had the right-turn signal on for weeks. In a long New York Times Magazine article on "The education of President Obama," an unnamed "senior White House official" declared, "You'll hear more about exports and less about public spending. You'll hear more about initiative and private sector and less about the Department of Energy. You'll hear more about government as a financier and less about government as a hirer."

My question is this: When does Barack Obama ever talk about "government as a hirer"?

The Democrats started 2009 with the White House in their possession, control of both houses of Congress by the biggest majorities in decades, and widespread public sentiment in favor of transforming Washington politics.

And they blew it.

Obama has no one to blame but himself, but this should be a lesson for those who care about justice and equality: Don't expect political leaders to bring the "change we need" without being pressured to do so.

As Obama helpfully pointed out, it did take time to free the slaves and win the vote for women and gain the right to organize unions. It took time because the ruling elite of this country, including its mainstream political parties, was dead set against allowing those things to happen. It took time for slaves and abolitionists, for women and men, for millions of working people to organize a struggle that could win those profound changes.

That's where we have to turn today to build a movement of real hope and real change.