One year ago, President Obama took office. His assumption of the highest executive office was met with relief by most (nearly 80% of citizens polled in October 2008 thought the country was heading in the wrong direction) and high expectations by many.
Quite naturally, those who opine on the big national media stage used the occasion of the anniversary to record an assessment of the first year. Judgment was heightened by the result of the special election for the Senate seat in Massachusetts of the deceased incumbent, Edward Kennedy, a result that, by all accounts, was an ominous and severe setback for the Democratic Party.
With equal vigor, the Democratic Party mainstream, uncomfortable with anything even vaguely threatening to corporate interests, points to a non-existent leftish tilt as responsible for their failings. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, ever anxious to speak for Party moderates, decried the Democrats “overreach” and failure to find consensus “with independents and moderates”. With all the seriousness that a scolding Democratic Leadership Council icon can muster, he warns of a “catastrophe of biblical proportions” unless Democrats mend their ways. Like so many of his Party colleagues, Bayh is more comfortable with sermons than realistic or effective policy proposals. He advocates a “positive populism” that will miraculously create jobs and prosperity while reducing government spending, a prescription akin to advocating diets for the starving. In his world this makes sense, only emphasizing the irony of his remark that “Washington is out of touch with mainstream America” as expressed to The Wall Street Journal (1-26-10)
But this seems to be the message that Obama and his team are hearing, given his emphasis on reducing the deficit. Not only will he freeze non-defense related federal spending, already eviscerated during the Bush years, but he will enact a stealth budget slashing strategy recently rejected by the Congress. A commission – to be established beyond the bounds of democratic engagement or transparency - would make wholesale recommendations for spending cuts and present them as a package to Congress to be voted up or down. With little debate and no possibility of amendment the package-strategy would provide cover for those politicians
facing potential outrage in their home states or districts. They will argue that they had no choice but to accept or reject the whole policy even with some unpopular aspects. There is no question that the ultimate target of this devious strategy is Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We find here an example of the Obama pattern – now a finely honed tactic – of “faking left and going right”.
Despite Obama’s best rhetorical flourishes, there is absolutely to connection between deficit austerity and job creation. Every economist concedes this point. In fact, most would recognize an inverse relationship between reduced government spending and improved employment. Indeed, the great lesson of the last profound and persistent struggle against unemployment – The Great Depression – demonstrates the utter folly of a policy of deficit reduction in the face of mass job loss. Roosevelt’s drive for a balanced budget in 1937 sent the economy into a sharp descent while sharply reducing employment. It took a return to massive public employment to stabilize the US economy. That lesson is lost on an Administration dogmatically committed to private, market-based solutions.
Rather than listening to Evan Bayh, his corporate cronies, and the baying hounds of the know-nothing media, Obama and his team might consult with the people. He might begin with the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (1-20-10).
Around 57% of US citizens think the economy will stay the same or decline over the next 12 months. This is hardly an endorsement of the policies crafted by Bernanke, Geithner, Summers, and the rest of the Obama economics team. If Obama were listening to the people, they would be gone. Nonetheless, the DC political cabal is hanging tough with Bernanke and Geithner. Since June, 2009, the percentage of people confident in Administration economic goals and policies has steadily declined, settling at about 35% in January. This should come as no surprise given policy makers’ near total neglect of the 16 million under or unemployed in the US while urgently rendering life support to the unappreciative financial sector.
In October of 2008, before Obama’s inauguration, only a bit more than one in ten US citizens felt the country was going in the right direction, a reflection of the overwhelming disgust with the Bush era. Immediately after the inauguration, that number rose to over 40%, bolstered by the great hope and faith that so many had placed in Obama and the Democrats. In January, 2010, the number had dropped to the mid-thirties, reflecting growing disappointment with the Administration.
Contrary to the wide spread, media induced belief that the country is being overrun by wild-eyed, Obama haters, 72% of the poll respondents found Obama to be “likeable and easygoing”, 59% “inspirational and exciting”. This result demonstrates the vast exaggeration of the tea-bagger movement as representative of the attitude of most US citizens. It further suggests to what extent the corporate media was complicit in pumping up the phenomena. On the other hand, the poll does show a decided unhappiness with the direction Obama has taken: only 38% agree with position on issues and 40% believe he will achieve his goals. Less than a third believe he is “changing business as usual in Washington”.
Despite the symbolic impact of the election of the first African-American President, 78% of those polls believe that race relations in the US have stayed the same or gotten worse.
Lest it appear that disappointment with Obama translates into support for Republicans, one need only turn to US attitudes towards health care reform: 55% of respondents disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue, while 64% disapprove of the Republican approach! Clearly neither party offers the answers to health care that the people want. Of the options available – including the popular single-payer solution- both parties chose a course out-of-step with the people’s desires and, I might add, the people’s needs.
It should be even more obvious that both parties are trapped in a box dictated by corporate interests, a box that allows only limited policy options, failing both the test of popular desires and needs. Obama’s recent, extraordinary meeting with Republican bigwigs seems a calculated attempt to rally the other party to defend that box. When he stated: “I know many of you individually. And the irony, I think, of our political climate right now is that, compared to other countries, the differences between the two major parties on most issues is not as big as it's represented”, he spoke a truth that defined his own approach as well as the basis for the crisis in the two-party system. It is precisely this identity of outlook and interest that Obama persistently and enthusiastically pursues with his tiresome, ineffective, but dogged call for “bi-partisanship”.
It fails, and it will fail, because the Republican Party is under constant and unrelenting pressure from its right. The evangelicals, the anti-immigrant cabal, the anti-abortion crowd, the anti-gay fanatics, the racists, the war-mongering nationalists, and, yes, the tea-baggers are organized, vocal and independent of the Party leadership. They make nearly non-negotiable demands on the Republican Party. And the party complies.
This lesson has escaped liberals, progressives, and many on the left who consistently work and support Democratic candidates who neither share nor swear to a progressive agenda. Moreover, they refuse to call out politicians in the Democratic Party who stray from a progressive course out of some perverse sense of loyalty or twisted appeal to unity. In my view, this is unprincipled and opportunistic. But even if some see this as too harsh of a judgment, surely this past year demonstrates that complacent trust is ineffective. The dynamic of Obama’s first year shows that one cannot simply work for the election of a “better” candidate and put aside the critical activism that can shape that candidates political course. We would do well to study the strategic approach of the demonic right. We’d do even better putting our energies into building a left-of-center third party.