Posted by rflacks on:
It's getting fashionable to express disappointment, disillusionment, maybe even disgust with Obama. It's a year since the election, so this provides a hook for all kinds of venting. For example, I got several emails posting a piece by someone called David Michael Green that starts with:
"Now, today, the Big Hope president has virtually nothing of import to show for nearly a year in office." It proceeds from there with a stream of vituperation about Obama's failure to lead, his lack of political sense, lack of vision, caving in to the right, etc. Professor Green makes no analysis of these alleged failures apart from a savaging of the president's personal qualities.
It was ironic that the piece got circulated on the very day that the House made history by passing the national health insurance reform-an act we have been waiting 70 years to witness. But of course the House bill itself is pretty disappointing, given what the president has promised, and what we know to be the necessary ingredients of a real reform. What will happen to the reform as the process continues is not likely to move us closer to what we've been hoping for.
Many, correctly, question Obama's reliance on Wall Street enablers for key economic advice. Many, correctly, wonder whether the Obama team can deal with the rising tide of unemployment and underemployment. And there is deep anxiety about the growing evidence that Obama is committed to further escalation of US involvement in Afghanistan, despite the growing evidence that this war is as foolish, futile and feckless as any military adventure the US has previously undertaken. All these troubles-and I haven't even mentioned climate control, worker rights, gay rights and civil liberties.
Blaming Obama is, however, exactly the wrong diagnosis. Indeed, the promises he has articulated, and the hope he has inspired, provide the grounds for the rising criticism. The first question to ask is why the hopes and promises are so elusive. Is it really because Obama and company have betrayed us, or demonstrated their weakness or cowardice, or were tricksters from the start?
To me the fundamental reality is this: all the changes Obama advocates are fiercely resisted by the main centers of power in society. There is a corporate power elite. There is a military industrial complex. Wall Street is a real address.
People on the left typically use a power structure analysis to understand the limits of democracy in the US. Yet, for some reason, most of the folks I talk with seem to have hoped that Obama would over-ride all that, and do it in 9 months. I assume, however, that the White House, from the start, has known that everything they wanted most to do would be very powerfully resisted, and accordingly, have tried to figure out strategies that might overcome some of that 4resistance so that some degree of reform might be possible.
The means of power available to corporate and bureaucratic power centers need to be spelled out more than they usually are:
- Everyone knows about lobbying and campaign contributions; media reporting about corporate influence is almost entirely restricted to this level of conflict. It's important to know and remember the degree to which key members of the congress are financed by the very corporate interests that need most to be reformed. Add to that, the fact that congress is structured to enable minority control, procedural blockage and all manner of subterfuge. Essentially, congress is constituted such that corporate lobbyists have become direct authors of the laws that are supposed to regulate their clients.
- The second well known source of the power of corporate and military interests is their ability to access and manipulate mass media. Any progressive change promoted by a president that threatens such interests is likely to be a trigger for all manner of media messages aimed at undermining the president and his legitimacy. The Democrats have been worried for decades about their ability to withstand charges that they are weak and soft on military and national security matters. When JFK contemplated aborting the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 he was warned that former Pres. Eisenhower would publicly campaign against him. We are told that if Obama fails to follow the demands of General McChrystal re Afghanistan, General Petraeus will resign and run for president against him.
- Underlying these manifest means of influence is a still more powerful lever of power. That lever is the capacity of the investor class-the corporate and financial decision makers-to withhold investment and thereby affect the markets and the economy as a whole. It's generally conceded that the best health reform would be based on a ‘Medicare for all' scenario. The trouble with that scenario is that it would wipe out the giant health insurance corporations, and shift power in the health industry to government and away from the pharmaceutical corporations. Such an outcome may be devoutly to be desired, but it would be most abnormal, to say the least, for the president to seek the elimination and weakening of entire sectors of the private economy. The likely economic consequences of such a presidential stance could be quite dire-because of the reactions of the investor class.
President Obama has had to formulate a strategy that might bring some needed reform in the face of these sources of resistance. That strategy has included such measures as: reassuring Wall Street by appointing Geithner and Summers to run economic policy and financial reform; forcing key congresspersons to ‘own' health-care reform by giving them responsibility for shaping the legislation, making deals with drug and hospital lobbies to trade some kinds of regulation for their acceptance of other rules they had opposed, going slow with reforms affecting CIA and Pentagon practices, backing a ‘cap and trade' approach to carbon emission control (thereby preferencing the ‘market' as the arena for dealing with global warming), etc.
Some folks seem to think that reforming presidents like FDR, JFK and LBJ, were somehow more courageous or bold than Obama has been. This is not the case. FDR made major and harmful compromises with respect to social security, the Wagner Act and civil rights. JFK tried mightily to contain the civil rights movement and ordered the FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King. Kennedy launched a huge arms race with the USSR, was afraid to recognize communist
China, invaded Cuba. LBJ could figure out no way to end the Vietnam War, even though he believed it would destroy his legacy. And his great health-care reform-Medicare-was itself a compromise (since it covered only those over 65).
The entire history of successful reform emanating from the White House is replete with compromise with corporate and political interests. Deeply ingrained in the thought process of successful politicians is the mantra we now hear from Rahm Emanuel: ‘We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need to pass something even if it is quite flawed. We can work to improve it down the line."
The trouble is that the people and our future need more than what the present alignments and strategies can deliver. I ask you to consider the following: Obama is doing about the best he can do given current power relations. He could of course take the advice of some: fight for the real reform even if you lose. But he's right to reject that course of action, given that he is now the president of the US and not a community organizer.
People on the left make a bad mistake by focusing blame on the president. It's a mistake because disillusionment leads to demoralization, not action. On the other hand, the leaders of progressive reform on the national level are making an even bigger mistake: they are spending their resources on mobilizing support for the white house agenda. What needs to emerge I think is a national coalition aimed at ‘keeping the promises'-a coalition that aims beyond what is immediately possible, and makes strategic demands that challenge the agenda of the president and his party:
- Demand a real jobs program that builds in the green economy but seeks more rapid expansion of employment opportunity than now seems on the agenda.
- Demand more far reaching carbon control targets than current legislation contemplates.
- Demand a timetable for ending US troop involvement in Afghanistan as well as Iraq
These goals are interrelated. Jobs will come from massive investment in renewable energy, conservation, alternative transportation; investment funding can come from reducing the war budgets; energy alternatives will reduce the obsession with Middle East oil that drives our international policy. A revitalized progressive coalition at the national level, independent of the Obama administration while embracing its stated goals, can be a power counterweight to the corporate/financial/ military pressures. Indeed, it has the potential of splitting current power relations, because a vibrant, green economy would be quite beneficial to many businesses, and relief from the wars would be welcomed by many in the military at all levels. Barack Obama said a thousand times during the campaign that the change was up to us. He will be a great president when we make him one.