Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Obama's bring-us-together style and the politics of neoliberalism in the US

Sasah Abramsky is right in being concerned about the following possible development in US politics in the coming months and years (Obama's toughest task: Make us believe again Salon 11/14/2010):

... a vicious downward spiral, not just economically -- in terms of the incomes and long-term prospects of the poor and lower middle class -- but also politically. If tens of millions of Americans remain mired in devastating poverty, they will get angrier and angrier at government, and its inability to grapple with the towering challenges of the age; and they will take out their frustration on every governing institution with which they interact. The conditions are being created for a perfect storm of kooky extremism -- on both the left and the right [of course!!]-- in which rationality comes off as vacillation, nuance as elitism.
If the economic depression goes on long enough, we will eventually get some of that much-disussed extremism "on the left". But when we've got rightwing militia types assassinating people, planning ambushes on cops and judges and elected officials, and gunning for immigrants on the border, it really would be better for writers who actually care about accurately describing things to stop spinning up these false equivalencies out of thin air.

Abramsky has done a book, Inside Obama's Brain (2009), on the President's thiking about politics. So his comment on Obama's perspective carries more weight than that of the average DFH blogger:

Implicit in that promise was the assumption that through rational, consensus-building rhetoric and pragmatic policy solutions to America's serious, and growing, social and economic problems he could reforge broken bonds of trust between the citizenry and its governing institutions. When I set out to write my book, "Inside Obama's Brain," shortly after the last presidential election, the many interviews I conducted about how Obama thinks, how he approaches problems, how he views the political process, led me to conclude that this was the single most important part of Obama's agenda and his credo.

In office, Obama's failure to reestablish those bonds of trust, without which no major social policy reforms can command long-term, stable majority support, is the greatest calamity of his presidency. Legislatively, in his first two years, he actually has accomplished a tremendous amount -- far more than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. Yet, having failed to change the public's deep distaste for government, and, increasingly, for the very idea of federal governance, he risks seeing his achievements undone over the next two years.
While I believe that Obama really hoped to achieve some let's-all-be-nice-technocrats-together accommodation, it's a mistake to treat it in isolation from the political perspective/ideology of which it is a part. The role of the left parties in the neoliberal script of globalism to be good, non-ideological technocrats. Thus, in Germany we have the one-time "workers party", the Social Democrats, who supported pushing the retirement age up from 65 to 67. (American Republicans were ahead of them; the Reagan Administration did that on Social Security decades ago.) And we have a Democratic President creating the Catfood Commission and stacking it with supporters of Social Security Phaseout, which the chairs of the commission have just proposed (technically informally).

For a Democratic President to strive to be a "let's all come together and agree to let Wall Street plunder Social Security" leader is not just a matter of style or temperament. There's also a programmatic and ideological direction behind it: the neoliberal concept that a "left" party's purpose is to sell their constituencies on policies that will damage most of them while increasing the inequality of income and are especially designed to comfort the already very comfortable. (See my posts Neoliberalism and the left (2) 05/10/2010 and The democratic deficit in neoliberal economics 05/26/2010; and, Digby's Shop Teacher In Chief Hullabaloo 05/10/10.)

With the current postelection chatter still in full bloom, I suppose I should add here that, yes, there are significant, meaningful differences between the Democratic and Republican Party. (For just one set of examples, see Harold Meyerson, Holding Wal-Mart Accountable American Prospect Oct 2010) But Obama's Catfood Commission is a textbook example of the "left" version of the neoliberal ideology in action.

It's also important to be clear on what we are saying in a statement like "has accomplished a tremendous amount -- far more than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson." In terms of legislative accomplishment - passing highly controversial bills over major and bitter opposition, yes, that's true. But the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed the worst democratic deficits in the American democratic system - de jure segregation in the South. Those laws, like the Medicare Act he also got passed, were structured in such a way that they would like endure - and they did. Lydon Johnson had huge faults as President, not least of them giving Richard Nixon a pass on what Johnson himself called "treason" for his campaign's conspiring with the South Vietnamese government to stall peace talks to help Nixon get elected in 1968. But he also knew the difference between solid achievement and ephemeral ones.

The same cannot be said without major qualification of Obama's signature achievements, significant though they are in historical and "neutral" political science terms. The lack of a public option in the health care reform is a deadly policy and political weakness that the Republicans and the insurance profiteers will try to exploit to the maximum extent. The decision to postpone the effective dates of some of the most potentially popular aspects of the reform until 2014 also gives the Republicans a major political opening to gut the reform.

As economists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stigletz and Jamie Galbraith warned in early 2009, the stimulus package wasn't large enough to jolt the economy's job-creation to a level that most people could recognize it as making a visible difference in job prospects. Obama agreed to take out the single most stimulate element of the stimulus, the aid to state and local governments that would have reduced the massive layoffs that in fact occurred over the last two years. According to Krugman, the drop-off in state and local spending actually offset the job-stimulation effects of the federal stimulus. There's no doubt it was better than the Republican option of letting the economy tank. There's no doubt that saving GM and Chrysler was better than the Republican option of letting them go under and further damage the US' manufacturing base in order to damage the labor movement. But recognizing that it could have been worse doesn't mean it was good enough for what the economy needed and for what the Democratic Party needed politically.

Financial reform presents a similar picture. The creation of the federal consumer-protection agency is a positive and constructive thing that John McCain and Sarah Palin would not have done. The financial-reform legislation did include important new protections for consumers. But not only did the reform allow the banksters to continue with the kind of gambling that collapsed the world economy in 2008. But the Obama Administration's policy on the scariest immediate abuse of the banksters, the foreclosure crisis, has been little more than a shrug of the shoulders. Most of the governmental acts to protect homeowners from unjust foreclosures have come from state attorneys general, not from the Obama Administration.

The Obama Administration has a style problem, no doubt. But it also has real policy problems. And as long as Obama sees his mission as destroying Social Security on behalf of the neoliberal faith, the style problems that are part of that mission will continue.

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