Sunday, November 14, 2010

William Greider to Democrats and progressives: make Obama fight the Republicans

William Greider has written a post-election diagnostic piece on Barack Obama and his Administration called Obama Without Tears The Nation 11/29/2010 issue; accessed 11/12/2010.

Greider assumes that Obama's lack of inclination to fight the Republicans on essential Democratic programs like the public option for health insurance, regulation of banksters' gambling on exotic financial schemes, comprehensive immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act - the list goes on - is due to weakness on his part. "Congress and the surrounding power centers, swiftly reading weakness in this president, decided they would fill the vacuum Obama left for them," he writes. And:

There is a cloying Boy Scout quality in his style of leadership - the troop leader urging boys to work together on their merit badges - and none of the pigheaded stubbornness of his "I am the decider" predecessor, nor the hard steel of Lyndon Johnson or the guile of Richard Nixon.
I'm reluctant to try to pick apart a piece like this whose basic thrust I agree with, as noted below.

But Greider's diagnosis doesn't quite scan for me. From the point of view of the Democratic base and the public, among whom there was and is strong support for the public option in health insurance, Obama's willingness to take it out of the health care reform even when it had solid majorities in both Houses of Congress is a weakness.

But it's not exactly a weakness in terms of Obama's wielding the power of his office.

The White House made a deal with health insurers and other health-care industry groups that they would arrange to have the public option removed from the health care bill. See Miles Mogulescu, NY Times Reporter Confirms Obama Made Deal to Kill Public Option Huffington Post 03/16/2010 for an account of that deal and additional links reporting and commenting on it.

Having followed that fight closely, it seems to me that the White House showed quite a bit of guile and toughness in achieving that goal, pretending to support the public option after they had dealt it away with the lobbyists, and hiding behind Joe Lieberman and the self-imposed 60-vote requirement in the Senate to take it out. And the White House fought House progressives to get the public option out of the final deal, fought them far more aggressively than they ever fought the smaller caucus of Blue Dogs over anything. And let's not forget that they they signed off on including a Blue Dog to further limit women's access to abortion services as part of the package.

And though I'm frustrated over the loss of the public option, because it's a severe weakness of the reform in both policy and political terms, it's worth remembering that even with the public option excised, the Republican Party and their media network fought tooth and nail against the health care reform.

Part of the problem is that Obama has committed himself to a neoliberal approach to economics, which puts a low priority on job creation, leans toward deregulation even on something as critical as speculations on financial derivatives like those that crashed the financial system in 2008, and ambivalent at best about Labor. Part of the reason he doesn't fight for some important Democratic goals is that he doesn't fully share them.

Having said that, I agree with Greider's formulation here:

Bluntly put, Obama needs to learn hardball. People saw this in him when he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and many of us yearn to see more. If he absorbs the lesson of power, he will accept that sometimes in politics you can't split the difference or round off sharp edges. He has to push back aggressively and stand his ground, more like those ruthless opponents trying to bury him. If Congress won't act, the president will. But first he has to switch from cheerleading to honest talk. Tell people what the nation really needs, what Republicans intend to sabotage. In a political street fight, you've got to hit back. [my emphasis]
What is a weakness on Obama's part, a weakness he shares with far too much of the Democratic leadership, is that he continues to act as if he can achieve some new era of bipartisan harmony with a Republican Party whose main goal is to wreck his Presidency and is pursuing it in often fanatical ways. As Joe Conason pointed out in a column last week, Bill Clinton made compromises with the Republican Congress after the 1994 election. But to get to that point (apart from whether individual compromises he made were desirable or not!), Clinton had to first fight the Republicans in the new Congress and make them believe they had something to lose in terms of political support if they didn't make some deals with him.

Only Obama can decide this about himself, but others can influence the outcome by surrounding him with tough love and new circumstances created by their own direct actions. It does not help Obama to keep telling him he did great but the people misunderstood him. He did lousy, not great, and in many governing dimensions people understood his failures clearly enough. They knew he gave tons of money to bankers and demanded nothing in return. They knew he thought the economy was in recovery. They couldn't believe this intelligent man was that clueless.
In more concrete terms, part of what progressives pushing Obama would mean is that the Progressive Caucus in the House and their allies in the Senate will have to be willing to do what Blue Dogs do: kill a bill the White House wants if they don't get their essential minimum. As much as I sympathize with the House Progressive Caucus, they also wound up being rolled by the White House on the public option. They set there as their "red line", and dozens of House members pledged to not vote for any reform bill not including a public option.

But when the White House pushed for them to do just that, they caved. Not only did that doom the public option. It let everyone know that in the Congressional session now coming to an end, the Progressive Caucus didn't have to be taken nearly as seriously as the smaller Blue Dog Caucus. Only when the Obama White House knows they have to be more afraid of the Progressive Caucus than of the Blue Dogs will the progressives be able to turn the tables on an issue like the public option. And that means the progressive in Congress will have to be willing to vote down a bill the White House really wants if they don't get the necessary minimum in it. That's how the process works.

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