Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Obama administration and the question of power

The invaluable Digby calls attention to the following quote from President Obama in her post Base Politics Hullabaloo 09/18/2010. The quote comes from Glenn Greenwald in Obama's view of liberal criticisms Salon 08/17/2010; Christopher Keating of the Hartford Courant's Capitol Watch provides the full speech transcript in President Obama's Remarks At Greenwich Fundraiser At Conyers Farm ... 09/17/2010. At a $30,000 per plate fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in Connecticut, the President said:

Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get -- to see the glass as half empty. (Laughter.) 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 and -- (laughter.) I thought that was going to happen quicker. (Laughter.) You know who you are. (Laughter.) We have had the most productive, progressive legislative session in at least a generation.
As I understand it based on their record in office to date, the Obama administration saw that they faced a question of power during the first two years. But the power question on which they focused was fighting against "the left", aka, the Democratic base voters. The power question which took second place, to the extent that they saw it as a real question of power at all, was the fight against the increasingly radicalized Republican Party.


It's not that Obama did nothing for Democratic voters. For instance, facing a possible electoral disaster for the Congressional Democrats this November, he acceded to pressure from the base, after a long delay, and appointed Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). (Jim Puzzanghera, Obama puts Elizabeth Warren in charge of consumer bureau launch Los Angeles Times 09/18/2010)

The signing of a nuclear arms control agreement with Russia, a so-far restrained policy on war with Iran, the continuation of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the stimulus bill of 2009, health care reform, financial reform, the creation of the CFPB itself, the start of Israel-Palestine talks, are all significant accomplishments. It's hard to imagine that things would not have been considerably worse under a McCain-Palin administration.

As Stephen Walt puts it in Trapped Foreign Policy 09/13/2010, with particular reference to the Obama foreign policies, "But don't lose hope entirely. As I often remind myself, it could have been a lot worse."

But it could have been a lot better, too. And so far, the Obama approach is setting up the Democratic Party and the country for what could be major Republican gains in 2010-12. "It could have been worse" is a long way from "good enough."

Walt's general description of the disappointing aspects of Obama's foreign policy is a good one:

Over the past twenty months, progressives, realists, and even some sensible conservatives have been disappointed by various aspects of the Obama administration's foreign and defense policy. Convinced that his election would mark a dramatic departure from the Bush administration's many missteps, they have been surprised and dismayed by Obama's increased reliance on drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, his decisions to escalate the war in Afghanistan (not just once but twice), the retreat on Guantanamo, the Justice Department's use of dubious secrecy laws to shield torturers and deny victims the ability to sue them, the slow-motion reassessment of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the timid retreat from the lofty principles enunciated in his 2009 Cairo speech, and the unwillingness to consider anything more than trivial redutions [sic] in the bloated national security apparatus.
Besides these disappointing aspects of Obama's foreign policy, it seems to me that the following events present a picture of the basic character of Obama's term to date.

  • The failure to prosecute serious felonies on the part of the previous administration, especially the senior torture perpetrators in the Cheney-Bush government and the Pentagon, could be taken as the Original Sin of the Obama administration: morally, legally and politically. Taken on this task, which is a serious legal obligation they are failing to meet, would have sent the Republicans into a frenzy, which of course happened anyway. But it would have forced the Obama administration to see the Republicans as the Party which presented them with the most serious competition for power, rather than seeing a phantom group of Republican "moderates" as partners in implementing the Washington Consensus/neoliberal program of deregulation of business, freeing the wealthy from taxes and the progressive reduction of public services that benefit the majority (especially Social Security).
  • Obama's economic program focused on stabilizing the financial system with minimal disruptions. So the banks were "bailed out" but given a break on accounting rules that let giants like Citibank and Bank of America avoid being put into government receivership and reorganized. The "bailout" was unpopular but necessary. Unfortunately for the majority, policies of job creation that were necessary and would have been popular were a strictly secondary priority, if even that. One exception was the reorganizing and "bailout" of General Motors, which saved many jobs and was strictly opposed by John McCain and the Republicans because they preferred to see GM go completely out of business so that the United Auto Workers would be badly weakened. If voters now have the perception that the economic recovery program has primarily bailed out the wealthy and neglected the awful unemployment situation, that perception is based in reality.
  • The financial reform put important new consumer protections in place. But it omitted the kind of regulation that would have adequately restrained the kind of wild speculation by our geniuses of finance that crashed the world economy in 2008. For Obama and the $30,000-per-plate guests at his fundraising appearance in Connecticut, that may be an omission to chuckle over. For most people, not. The Obama administration is even pressuring the European Union not to adopt stronger regulations.
  • The health care reform that passed includes some real expansions of health care but was essentially an industry-friendly bill that imposes the "individual mandate" the insurance lobbyists wanted but excluded the critical public option. The result is a seriously flawed plan that can all-too-easily be sabotaged by the Republicans in the coming years. Jane Hamsher discusses some of the reasons why Obama supporters might be seriously disappointed over Obama's deal with the insurance companies to make sure the public option was excluded from his health care reform bill in Obama Mocks Public Option Supporters Firedoglake 09/17/2010.
  • In the BP Gulf Oil disaster, the administration deferred to BP to a remarkable extent and pointedly declined to use the disaster as a classic example of the need for government regulations with integrity and the need for the elected government to protect the interest of the public against irresponsible actions like those of BP.
  • Perhaps most telling of all, after Congress rejected setting up the Catfood Commission to abolish Social Security, Obama set it up by executive order and designed it to be stacked with people who are committed to the phase-out of Social Security. The Catfood Commission's report is due in December, safely after the elections.
  • Also telling by their neglect, the administration has essentially dropped their promise for Employee Free Choice Act, which would provide a major long-term benefit to prosperity and progressive politics by increasing the number of unionized workers, and has hid behind the artificial 60-vote requirement in the Senate to not enact comprehensive immigration reform. On the latter, he has instead embraced the Republican demand for further militarizing our border with Mexico and sent additional forces there, with no corresponding concessions by the Republicans.
The Obama administration has acted as though they really believed the Polyannish daydream that Obama could create a post-partisan era of cooperation with Republicans that would, to put it bluntly, come at the expensive of the large majority of working families.

So far, the latter part is working. The first part, that happy Utopia of bipartisanship, isn't.

The Democratic Party isn't functioning as some set of puppets for a unified business establishment. However much or little they believe in their own Party's program, they want to stay in power. The problem is that the Republicans have gotten very good at playing both the short game (focusing on upcoming elections) and the long game (changing the political narrative to shape the debate over years and decades). The Democrats played the short game successfully in 2006 and 2008. Despite the ominous polls, they may well do better than our Pod Pundits expect in 2010.

But they're scarcely playing the long game at all. And, much to the discomfort of the Party elite, playing the long game means now and in the foreseeable future working with their Party base, not against it. But right now, as conservative columnist and former G.W. Bush speechwriter David Frum puts it, Republicans politicians are afraid of their base but Democratic politicians hate theirs. There are exceptions, of course. But that's a good description of the Parties' respective attitudes during this first part of the Obama administration.

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