Tag Archives: Barack Obama

The Obama Question

The postmortem on Obama’s first term has already started. He is, at turns, a radical socialist, a corporatist or the greatest president the 21st century has seen.

This is the mark of a great politician. Ever since his 2008 presidential bid, people have read into Obama’s words and actions wildly different things. Noam Chomsky called Obama a “blank slate” on which people can project their greatest hopes or fears.

Obama doubtless fancies himself as another Lincoln. Like the Great Emancipator, he is an Illinois-based politician who faced stiff competition in his own party from a successful Senator from New York. After fending off that challenge, he appointed Hillary as Secretary of State much like Lincoln did with William Seward.

Unfortunately, being a great politician does not necessarily make him a good leader. Through the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was able to move the country towards a new consensus. Obama, on the other hand, goes where the consensus already is: the mainstream center.

We see this clearly in the analysis of Andrew Sullivan, one of Obama’s staunchest supporters in the media. Sullivan is a self-described conservative and regular contributor to The Daily Beast:

“But Obama did several things at once: he continued the bank bailout begun by George W. Bush, he initiated a bailout of the auto industry, and he worked to pass a huge stimulus package of $787 billion.

All these decisions deserve scrutiny. And in retrospect, they were far more successful than anyone has yet fully given Obama the credit for. The job collapse bottomed out at the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect. Since then, the U.S. has added 2.4 million jobs. That’s not enough, but it’s far better than what Romney would have you believe, and more than the net jobs created under the entire Bush administration. In 2011 alone, 1.9 million private-sector jobs were created, while a net 280,000 government jobs were lost. Overall government employment has declined 2.6 percent over the past 3 years. (That compares with a drop of 2.2 percent during the early years of the Reagan administration.) To listen to current Republican rhetoric about Obama’s big-government socialist ways, you would imagine that the reverse was true. It isn’t….

You’d think, listening to the Republican debates, that Obama has raised taxes. Again, this is not true. Not only did he agree not to sunset the Bush tax cuts for his entire first term, he has aggressively lowered taxes on most Americans. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts, affecting 95 percent of taxpayers; he has cut the payroll tax, and recently had to fight to keep it cut against Republican opposition. His spending record is also far better than his predecessor’s. Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms. Under Bush and the GOP, nondefense discretionary spending grew by twice as much as under Obama. Again: imagine Bush had been a Democrat and Obama a Republican. You could easily make the case that Obama has been far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor—except, of course, that Obama has had to govern under the worst recession since the 1930s, and Bush, after the 2001 downturn, governed in a period of moderate growth. It takes work to increase the debt in times of growth, as Bush did. It takes much more work to constrain the debt in the deep recession Bush bequeathed Obama.”

If Obama was the radical socialist that Republicans paint him as, at least it would be a show of bold leadership. What is telling throughout Sullivan’s analysis is how he is celebrated for how temperate and moderate he is. His stimulus prevented a further spiral of unemployment, but did not necessarily spark a recovery. Given the way we count unemployment today, where people who have given up looking for work are simply no longer counted, the luster of these statistics takes a hit. It does not even touch on the issue of underemployment. Merely citing that private sector jobs were created, without analyzing what types of jobs these are, does not paint a full picture of the impacts of Obama’s stimulus.

About one-third of the Obama stimulus was in the form of tax cuts. Is there a direct correlation between these tax cuts and the bottoming out of the unemployment rate? Maybe, but Sullivan never draws the connection. Sullivan also celebrates Obama’s ability to keep the deficit in check. Throughout the 20th century, the instances of keeping the deficit in check while digging the country out of an economic hole are rare. Hoover tried to balance the budget while providing stimulus during the Great Depression, with little benefit. Why is keeping the budget in check such a victory for Obama?

It is because Sullivan’s analysis works from a pragmatic framework of what he believes are political realities. His overall thesis, which is the main thesis of Obama supporters across the country, is that Obama has been wildly successful given what he inherited and the toxic political culture in Washington. Obamacare is the greatest symbol of this thesis:

“The great conservative bugaboo, Obamacare, is also far more moderate than its critics have claimed. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will reduce the deficit, not increase it dramatically, as Bush’s unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug benefit did. It is based on the individual mandate, an idea pioneered by the archconservative Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and, of course, Mitt Romney, in the past. It does not have a public option; it gives a huge new client base to the drug and insurance companies; its health-insurance exchanges were also pioneered by the right. It’s to the right of the Clintons’ monstrosity in 1993, and remarkably similar to Nixon’s 1974 proposal. Its passage did not preempt recovery efforts; it followed them. It needs improvement in many ways, but the administration is open to further reform and has agreed to allow states to experiment in different ways to achieve the same result. It is not, as Romney insists, a one-model, top-down prescription. Like Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, it sets standards, grants incentives, and then allows individual states to experiment. Embedded in it are also a slew of cost-reduction pilot schemes to slow health-care spending. Yes, it crosses the Rubicon of universal access to private health care. But since federal law mandates that hospitals accept all emergency-room cases requiring treatment anyway, we already obey that socialist principle—but in the most inefficient way possible. Making 44 million current free-riders pay into the system is not fiscally reckless; it is fiscally prudent. It is, dare I say it, conservative.”

Obamacare was the best possible outcome given the political realities of the time. The last sentence is very telling, where Sullivan refers to Obamacare as “conservative”.

No word better describes Obama’s presidency. A president who has volunteered to slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would normally be labeled as politically conservative. But Obama has been conservative in the sense that he does not make political gambles. Defending a public option would have been such a gamble, probably a successful one if Obama were to get behind it. Obama’s style, in both the domestic and foreign policy fields, is one where he leads from behind. He allows the political circumstances to dictate his major policies. This might be good politics, but it is poor leadership.

Many progressives have turned against Obama because of this style. The sense is that he has sold out the most cherished progressive values of the Democratic Party. Sullivan makes the point for the progressives against which he rails when he celebrates all of the great conservative things Obama has accomplished. This is exactly the point. The progressives who voted for him did so to break out of the conservative trap in which the nation has been caught over the past 35 years. Dare I say, this is what progressives heard when Obama recited the word “change” over and over again. Where is the change if we are stuck with the same conservatism that has defined the post-Reagan era?

Again, this speaks to Obama’s brilliance as a politician. Those that knew of his days at Harvard and his brief stint in the Senate realized that Obama was no progressive. He never promised to be one. Yet, they saw a candidate who was challenging the Clinton machine, a name associated with the sellout of progressive values. They heard the words “hope” and “change” and took it to mean a promise to dismantle the Reagan Revolution. They cited his opposition to the Iraq War and used it as a sign of his bona fides as a true Ted Kennedy Democrat. Essentially, they saw what they wanted to see in Obama. Meanwhile, Obama did nothing to disabuse them of their delusion.

A president who wins in a thorough landslide, whose party takes overwhelming control of Congress and who mobilizes people to turn out who would not normally do so usually has an enormous mandate for leadership. While fighting for a public option or a bigger stimulus or to defend programs for the poor would not have been easy, it still would have been possible. He would have held the cards. Just like Lincoln nudged the country, as well as himself, to accept the idea of emancipation, Obama could have nudged the country ever further to the left. Lord knows he has the rhetorical gifts to do it.

And this is where Sullivan misses the point of the progressive criticism of Obama. He had the opportunity to fight for real change, to lead the country wherever he wanted it to go, and he brought it to a place little different from where John McCain might have brought it. He used his enormous political capital to solidify the Democratic Party’s role as another “conservative” party. This damage is worse than anything any Republican could have done. It has been the type of change that has extinguished all hope for a progressive renaissance of the Democratic Party.

Obama supporters like Sullivan will never understand this. Progressives across the country are fed up with political “centrists”, the people who look at the political landscape the way it is now and believe in a middle course. That middle is far to the right of where it used to be. Obama’s policies have seen to it that the center will drift to the right further still. Sullivan calls Obama’s progressive supporters “purists”, as if having deeply held beliefs about social justice and helping the poor is a filthy thing. I suppose none of us should have any real values at all and allow the middle of whatever the political spectrum happens to be act as our guide.

Ironically, Sullivan, who is gay, does not believe Obama has done enough for gay rights in the United States. Whether he has or has not is still up for debate. However, the ending of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the wave of gay marriage reforms across the country are signs of progress in the area of gay rights, progress that we have not seen in other areas of concern to progressive voters. While gay rights still has a long way to go, it is ridiculous to decry Obama for not providing enough leadership on the issue while accepting his conservative stance on unemployment and poverty. It is tough to see the consistency in Sullivan’s celebration of Obama’s lead from behind approach while criticizing him for not being enough of a front line fighter for gay rights.

A recent article expresses the frustration with the Obama presidency:

“Obama’s willingness to bargain away core progressive values of the Democratic Party in a deficit-reduction deal comes after his meltdown on a large range of issues dear to progressives: His unconditional support for Bush’s Wall Street bailout; his escalation of the Afghanistan War; his acceptance of Bush-era limits on civil liberties; his shift from supporting the healthcare public option and opposing individual mandates during the 2008 campaign to subverting the public option and backing individual mandates in 2009; his extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich (in exchange for Republicans allowing an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states); his withdrawal of strong EPA rules on clean air; his gratuitous attacks on “the professional Left.”

At times it has seemed that Obama went out of his way to attack progressives and undermine progressive programs in order to prove he was truly the post-partisan president he claimed to be. Indeed, as I and Andrew Sullivan have previously argued, the evidence is pretty conclusive that Obama has governed as a conservative.”

This is probably why the Republican Party has seemingly gone out of its way to self-destruct during its long primary season. No matter who gets nominated, they will not be able to institute conservative policies any better than Obama.

Bill Clinton’s Legacy?

He feels your pain.

PBS recently showed a 3 ½ documentary on Bill Clinton, which you can see in full here. Afterwards they asked what the legacy of Bill Clinton was. I do not know the answer to the question. Evaluating someone’s legacy takes a little more distance than 11 years (Clinton left office in 2001). Mao Tse-Tung summarized this sentiment nicely when someone asked him what the impacts of the French Revolution were and he replied:  “it’s too early to tell.”

My biggest issue with this documentary was the ridiculous amount of time they spent on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which echoed the obsession the mainstream media had with the scandal back when it was breaking. I know it resulted in the impeachment of a president, only the second time in U.S. history that has happened. Despite that, most Americans saw it for the witch hunt it was. For God’s sake, he left office with sky-high approval ratings. The other impeached president, Andrew Johnson, slinked out of office in disgrace without even getting his party’s nomination.

What they did a half-assed job on, and what really should have been the focus of the documentary, was the whole idea of the New Democrat that Clinton crafted. For his first two years in office, Clinton overplayed his “liberal” (try not to laugh) hand, culminating in the healthcare reform disaster spearheaded by Hillary. He paid the price in the 1994 midterm elections when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, not to mention losing 8 seats in the Senate. This caused Clinton to focus on what was “possible”. With a Republican-controlled Congress, the only things that were possible were very Republican things like the 1996 welfare reform law.

Shades of Barack Obama?

Bill Clinton’s New Democrat looked much like an Old Republican. Even before 1994 he had signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, a treaty that had begun under George H.W. Bush. This allowed companies to easily move jobs into Mexico. Then there was “ending welfare as we know it.” There is a lot of revisionism about how welfare reform was a great success for the millions of people, mostly women, who were thrown off the welfare rolls. Here is a hint: the percentage of children living in poverty increased since that law and has seen no signs of slowing down. It turns out that forcing single mothers into minimum wage Wal-Mart jobs was not their path to financial freedom.

In his second term, Clinton did things like repeal the Glass-Stegall Act, tearing down the firewalls between savings and investment banks. This turned the entire banking industry into a giant casino and was a major cause of the current Great Recession in which we are still mired. How about privatization? Under Clinton, the idea that “markets work best” led to a tremendous outsourcing of public functions to private companies. Even parts of the CIA were privatized. All this did was accelerate the development of the “shadow government” that began under Reagan, wherein private companies do things like disburse welfare and public sector checks and mop the hallways of federal buildings.

Yet, for most of us who lived through the Clinton years, they provide a bright contrast to the dark 2000s marked by the Bush/Obama era. It was a decade of technological innovation. The internet breathed new life into the economy, sparking an entire information revolution that changed the face of the planet. Materially speaking, most Americans were better off in 2001, after Clinton left office, than in 1993 when he had assumed it. This, along with leaving behind a budget surplus, is what will probably mark Clinton as one of the best presidents of the 20th century.

And that is just a shame.

First, it is not clear at all that the booming economy had anything to do with Clinton. The internet that was the hub of the entire boom came out of heavy military spending during the Reagan years. In fact, most of the nifty technologies of the 1990s, like cell phones and ever-larger, gas-guzzling jeeps, were the fruits of government investment well before Clinton was anywhere near Washington. Much like Calvin Coolidge, he was the right president at the right time.

Second, and most importantly, the fruits of this economic boom were maldistributed. Maybe everyone’s standard of living went up, but the standard of living for the wealthiest Americans went up much more. Again, just like Coolidge, he presided over one of the most uneven economic growths in American history. This was not the recipe for sustained economic prosperity. (A very underrated book on this issue is Joe Stiglitz’s The Roaring Nineties). The documentary makes the false claim that Clinton oversaw the longest boom of the 20th century. In fact, the longest boom lasted from 1941 until 1973 and it lasted so long because the New Deal ensured that the fruits of that boom were more evenly distributed than at any point, ever.

In reality, what Clinton oversaw was a bubble, one with dire consequences. Much like the 1920s, the uneven distribution of wealth would doom the country down the line. When the economy tanked in 2008, it started with people who could not repay their mortgages. We can replay all of the reasons why they could not repay, like predatory lending in the shady subprime market, that were results of Bush’s policies. However, at the very core, people could not repay because they were broke and they were broke because they represented a class of Americans who were receiving less and less of a piece of that great big American economic pie.

This is really Clinton’s legacy. The horrid gap between rich and poor began in earnest during the Reagan era, of which President Bush 41 was a part. Clinton came into office and merely held the line on that gap. It did not increase as fast as it did under Reagan, but it increased nonetheless. Then Bush 43 came to Washington and picked up from where Reagan left off, furiously transferring the nation’s wealth upwards. This is what the New Democrats represent. They are a more subtle, more cushioned continuation of what the Republican Party has always aimed to do throughout the 20th century.

Clinton was the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term. (Truman and LBJ do not count because their first terms were not their own.) He was Nixon in reverse. Nixon won a second term largely because he presided over a liberal era and gave himself over to liberal policies in order to gain support. He expanded the welfare state, made peace with communist nations and helped pass meaningful environmental legislation. Clinton won a second term in a conservative era by giving himself over to conservative policies. This was cold political calculation on Clinton’s part and Clinton was not anything if not a masterful politician.

This is what the New Democrats represent. In order to maintain power for themselves, they will agree to policies that end up screwing the weakest people in society. Obama is a New Democrat on steroids. The fact that Obama is willing to bargain on Social Security, accelerate the privatization of education and keep taxes low on the wealthy (which Clinton did not do, I might mention), is a sign of how far we have fallen as a nation. Since the 1994 midterm elections, if not since Ted Kennedy’s defeat in the 1980 Democratic primaries, real progressives have been relegated to the political wilderness.

Nobody has done more to relegate progressives, not to mention the poorest among us,  to oblivion than the New Democrats. Will this end up being Bill Clinton’s legacy when all is said and done?