Is this the change we can believe in?

Obama in office

EVERY PRESIDENTIAL election in which the “out” party knocks out the incumbent party brings promises of “change” from the incoming administration. This was never more evident than last November, when Barack Obama, running as the candidate of change against a widely unpopular Republican-led administration, scored a sound and groundbreaking win.

The victory wasn’t Obama’s alone. For the first time in fifteen years—and for only the second time since the 1970s—the majority of the electorate gave the Democrats full control over Washington from the White House to the Congress.

Fewer then six months into Obama’s administration, we are finding out just what kind of change Obama and the Democrats have in store. And, as usually happens in the corporate-controlled political system of the U.S., the atmospherics of change belie a reality in which there is a lot more continuity between administrations than the election rhetoric—and what people thought they were voting for—predicted.

The millions of people who voted for change in November ratified what the ruling establishment had already decided. Obama and the Democrats would be given a chance to “reboot” an American system saddled with a deep economic crisis, two failed wars, and a presidential administration that had lost all credibility in the U.S. and abroad. Obama’s charge wasn’t to overturn American capitalism, but to make it better able to function in the twenty-first century.

Obama’s first few months in office should remind anyone who harbored illusions otherwise that, as the president of the United States, Obama—by definition—is there to preserve the status quo, even at the price of a few reforms on the side.

The Obama administration has taken some steps to renovate U.S. policy, from ordering the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp to scrapping the global “gag-rule” on abortion counseling. In contrast to the Bush administration’s denial of global climate change, the Obama administration is acknowledging that it is an issue that the U.S. government should tackle.

But when you peel away the salesmanship of these policies for their actual content, you find a lot less than advertised. Take the related issues of closing Guantánamo and repudiating Bush-era policies of torture, both of which became engulfed in a media frenzy in May, when Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney staged dueling speeches intended to justify their respective views on these issues.

One could ask why someone as thoroughly discredited and unpopular as Cheney receives a hearing at all. Yet, after all the hot air dissipated, we were left with a result in which Obama has accepted many of the Bush policies—military tribunals to try detainees and indefinite detention on presidential fiat among them—as his own. Coupled with his double-speak on torture—that he repudiated the Bush policies as illegal, but would not actually prosecute anyone who executed them—and you have the makings of a presidential betrayal.

Thus, it’s not out of the question to ask if a more full-fledged capitulation to Bush-Cheney is in the offing—as in deciding to keep Guantánamo open. The Democrats in both houses of Congress have already made that possibility more likely, by voting in overwhelming numbers to deny funding for closing the camp.

Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), attended a meeting with Obama and major human rights groups held prior to Obama’s Guantánamo speech. He wasn’t satisfied, telling reporters: “The president was very open to hearing CCR’s concerns on a range of Guantánamo policy issues, but I came out of the meeting deeply disappointed in the direction the administration is taking and I don’t see meaningful differences between these detention policies and those erected by President Bush.”

On the issue of climate change, the congressional Democrats are in the initial stages of passing a “cap and trade” bill that would cap carbon-based emissions and allow corporate polluters who exceed caps to buy government-backed credits to compensate. In theory, this free-market solution—forcing businesses to buy credits to pollute—would give businesses the incentive to lower their emissions. As Budget Director Peter Orszag told Congress in March: “If you didn’t auction the permit, it would represent the largest corporate welfare program that has ever been enacted in the history of the United States.”

Yet, as Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel pointed out in an analysis of the bills passing through liberal House Rep. Henry Waxman’s committee, 85 percent of the energy credits would be given away to business through 2026. The remaining 15 percent subject to auction are those that are meant to fund programs to help low-income people pay their energy bills. Nevertheless, even though the cap and trade legislation is shaping up to be a massive corporate welfare program, Obama hailed the bill as a “historic leap.”

The administration’s pro-business slant doesn’t stop there. The array of programs that his chief economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have hatched to rescue the banking system are extensions of the pro-Wall Street bailout policies of their predecessors under former Goldman Sachs executive, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. These plans amount to a huge transfer of wealth from working people to the banking establishment that is largely responsible for the economic crisis.

But this pattern is becoming a bit of a modus operandi. The administration’s policies to address the financial crisis—from the bank bailouts to the rigged “stress tests”—appear to have been designed to disrupt Wall Street’s business as usual as little as possible. Its plans to reform health care appear likewise tailored to antagonize the health insurance industry as little as possible. Obama made much of an announcement, with lots of fanfare and press hoopla on May 10, of a pledge from ten major health industry groups to cut the growth of health- care spending over the course of the next decade. The $2 trillion in health spending saved could help the administration enact a comprehensive health-care reform bill, administration officials noted.

This sort of pledge rings hollow to those, like public television journalist Bill Moyers, with memories of previous health industry promises. On his Bill Moyers’ Journal program, Moyers pointed out that the health industry made the same pledges under the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. After the health insurance industry’s “expensive and deceitful” campaign that defeated health-care reform in the 1990s, Moyers noted:

As the drug and insurance companies, hospitals and doctors dumped the mangled carcass of reform into the Potomac, securely encased in concrete, once again they said don’t worry; they would cut costs voluntarily.

If you believed that, we’ve got a toll-free bridge to the Mayo Clinic we’d like to sell you.

Advocates of genuine health-care reform had hoped that even if the Democrats didn’t produce a bill that removed the health insurers entirely, they would produce a bill including a strong “public option” that would compete with private insurance to make care more affordable and accessible. But even here, it appears that the fix is in. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of Wall Street’s gofers in Congress, is crafting a public option plan that would force any government-run program to operate on the same principles as a private insurance plan—and with higher costs, according to a recent New York Times report.

Although Obama made a pitch for a genuine public option a main point of his health reform plan during the campaign, even he speaks less and less about it today. As a candidate in the Democratic primaries last year, Obama assailed Hillary Clinton for advocating a health plan that forced individuals to buy insurance. As president, Obama recently signaled his willingness to support just such a scheme, long desired by the health insurance industry.

When we turn to foreign policy, we find perhaps an even bigger shift is taking place. Here, Obama made no secret of his desire to break with the Bush administration’s obsession with the war in Iraq and its “neglect” of Afghanistan. And the administration appears largely to be following through on its plans. The problem is that the promises embody a policy of rebooting an imperial project that, if it has any chance of succeeding, will plunge the U.S. and Southwest Asia into a multiyear commitment that may end up being an even bigger disaster than the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Obama has approved sending 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and signed off on the promotion of General Stanley McChrystal, a favorite of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and leader of a Pentagon-organized squad of assassins, to head the Afghan effort. So “Af-Pak,” the U.S. establishment’s shorthand for Obama’s strategy of extending the U.S. war into Pakistan, is already “Obama’s war.” As the astute analyst Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch put it, these actions show that “the Obama administration is going for broke. It’s heading straight into what, in the Vietnam era, was known as ‘the big muddy.’”

Engelhardt’s analogy to Vietnam is no accident. Obama’s actions are eerily reminiscent of those of the “best and the brightest” foreign policy figures in the 1960s Democratic Kennedy and Johnson administrations. And the logic of escalation is the same, as Engelhardt pointed out in a May 21 TomDispatch entry:

Soon enough, if the fighting in the Afghan south and along the Pakistani border doesn’t go as planned, pressure for the president to send in those other 10,000 troops General McKiernan asked for may rise as well, as could pressure to apply more air power, more drone power, more of almost anything. And yet, as former CIA station chief in Kabul, Graham Fuller, wrote recently, in the region “crises have only grown worse under the U.S. military footprint.”

And what if, as the war continues its slow arc of expansion, the “Washington coalition” is the one that cracks first? What then?

How can we explain these moves on Obama’s and the Democrats’ part? Before we accept truisms about power corrupting or differences between winning elections and governing, let’s remember a few things that this magazine has argued consistently about Obama and the Democratic Party. First, Obama has always been a much more cagey and centrist politician than his most high-flown rhetoric suggested. In the Democratic primary contest, Obama often took positions that placed him to the right of his primary opponents. Moreover, the Democratic Party itself has come a long way from the days in which it proudly sought to expand the New Deal provisions of a social safety net. As Obama’s two-step of bailing out insolvent banks while forcing insolvent, unionized auto companies into bankruptcy has shown, the Democrats are much more a party of Wall Street than of “Big Labor.”

Second, big business did not fork over millions in campaign funds to Obama and the Democrats to underwrite a program that would hurt its bottom line. As ISR editor Lance Selfa put it in an analysis of the 2008 election published here last fall:

The challenge for the elites that have benefited so much from the neoliberal era is to support a change in U.S. politics that will address the parts of these crises that impinge on their ability to reap profit and power, while containing popular demands for reforms to health care, workplace rights, or military spending that would challenge them. That is where the Democratic Party proves its usefulness to the people who run U.S. society. All things being equal, big business prefers Republicans, whose generally open pro-business stances aren’t usually balanced against appeals to labor or the poor. But the current Republican Party—saddled with responsibility for unpopular policies, mired in corruption, and having demonstrated its incompetence in managing the affairs of state—has run its course as a vehicle for carrying out, and winning support for, big business’s agenda. In the language of Madison Avenue that every pundit seems to have adopted these days, the Republican “brand” is damaged. And business knows when it’s time to pull a bad brand from the shelf.

All of this dismays liberals who believe that they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact overdue reforms that will help ordinary people. Instead, they see the administration compromising with big business that has interests in making whatever reforms are passed as toothless as possible. For example, if the administration was truly interested in a health-care system that would contain costs and cover every American, the simplest and most cost-effective solution would be to do what virtually every other industrialized country does: cover the population through a government-run, single-payer system. Instead, the health-care reform that is likely to emerge from this Congress will be a jerry-built compromise designed to provide enough incentives for health industry “stakeholders” (to use the parlance in vogue in Washington today) not to sabotage the plan. But this deal with the devil will make whatever reform is passed weaker and more inefficient as a result.

So when we see Democrats today cloaking giveaways to Wall Street, energy corporations, and the health insurance industry as aid to Main Street, tackling global climate change, or assuring universal heath coverage, we are seeing this process in action. Democrats are so willing to play this role because they hope to position the party as big business’s preferred party for the foreseeable future.

The American establishment invested in Obama because it also believed that the U.S. needed a makeover on the international stage as well. A pre-election ISR interview with the socialist and Middle East studies expert Gilbert Achcar, remains relevant today. Achcar explained:

The interests of American imperialism obviously find their ultimate guarantee in military supremacy, but a politico-ideological facelift is a necessary and useful complement. Under Bush, the arrogance and right-wing shift went so far that it seems imperative for the “enlightened” fraction of the American establishment to steer “to the left,” at least in words. This is where someone like Barack Obama can be useful.

It was largely predictable that Obama would reaffirm a number of the most heinous Bush policies from the “war on terror.” Presidential power is cumulative. Once one president seizes it, his successors don’t give it up willingly. From refusing to prosecute authors of the torture memos to intervening on behalf of secrecy and against civil liberties in a number of “war on terror” court cases left over from the Bush administration—as well as refusing to release new torture photos on the grounds that doing so would endanger U.S. troops—the administration is signaling to the U.S. national security establishment that it has no intention of rolling back policy to a pre–September 11, 2001 state. The question now is whether Obama’s real actions—from expanding the war in Afghanistan to accepting many of Bush’s “war on terror” policies—will actually undercut the strategic aim for the U.S. Empire that Achcar identified.

Given the analysis above, can we say that nothing really changed last November? Of course not. The Obama administration has implemented some small but significant changes, such as lifting the anti-abortion global gag rule, and Obama signed into law the fair pay Lilly Ledbetter Act. There is little doubt that we are living through a different political era than what we have known for much of the last thirty years. Most opinion polls place support for the Republican Party—still identified as the main representative of American conservatism—as somewhere near Watergate-era levels. A Pew Center for People and the Press comparison of political attitudes in 1987 and today shows that Americans are much less conservative on social issues, and far less religious than they were two decades ago.

The economic crisis has shaken millions of Americans’ lives and assumptions about society. A widely reported April poll by the respected, but right-leaning, pollster Rasmussen Reports found that only a bare majority of Americans said they supported “capitalism” over “socialism.” One out of three Americans under age thirty said they preferred a socialist system, according to Rasmussen.

This sea change at the level of ideas indicates that most Americans are interested in a break from the past. If the U.S. government enacted a bold new health-care reform or a commitment to help homeowners or job seekers, it is likely to find much more public support than conservative, moderate, or even many liberal politicians are willing to grant. Yet those politicians will not grant reforms on their own. Only a powerful movement from below can pressure them to do it.

The 1930s and 1960s, when sustained popular movements pressured liberal administrations to grant reforms, provide a positive example of what’s needed. The 1990s provide a negative example. Then, the absence of pressure from below allowed Bill Clinton—also elected on promises of “change” and “putting people first”—to end up, as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan wryly put it, as “the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.”

Today, the kind of movement we need has not yet developed. And until it does, popular aspirations will continue to be frustrated by backroom deals between corporate lobbyists, the Obama administration, and members of Congress. Moreover, if our side allows its “friends” in the administration and Congress to define the limits of what’s possible, we will always come up short.

The likely defeat of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a measure that would make it easier to organize unions if a majority of workers in a workplace sign cards supporting a union, is a testament to this. Not only is it another illustration of just how weak the labor movement is, but it also illustrates the narrowness of its strategy. Despite the key role labor union mobilization for Obama played in his election, wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Tom Hamburger May 19,

Once [Obama] was elected, labor leaders made a fateful decision. Originally, they had planned to keep in place their extensive network of field organizers, who had just worked to elect Democratic candidates, and ask them to build pressure on lawmakers to vote for card check [i.e. the Employee Free Choice Act].

Instead, they changed course. The labor groups scaled back, partly to give Obama time to get his bearings amid the deepening economic crisis.

Business groups, meanwhile, had started work well before the election and did not stop.

The result of this decision is the likely defeat of EFCA without its even coming to a vote in Congress.

The vicious corporate assault on EFCA—and Democrats’ fleeing from support for it—should give us a taste of the type of opposition that we’re up against. And it should tell us that for whatever reform we want—from health care for all to equal marriage rights—a different approach is essential. What’s needed isn’t a better lobbying strategy or flashier media, but a broad, independent, and militant movement that won’t be placated with empty rhetoric or allow its demands to be ignored. The thousands who are becoming politically aware, engaged, and radicalized in this new political era are the future activists in that movement. The task for the left today is to organize and politicize these thousands, and to prepare for the struggles to come.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

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