The election of John McCain or Mitt Romney would have been a disaster. The election of Barack Obama, for whom I voted in both the primary and two general elections, has been a disaster of lesser order. A valid criterion for evaluating Obama is not “Things could have been worse,” or Republicans would have been worse. That is always true. It is too low a bar from any progressive standpoint. The right counter-factual is what he could have done, not some utterly miserable alternative. Nor would I give credit for what should have been minimally expected of him, such as supporting an increase in the minimum wage, extension of unemployment benefits, defending voting rights, or appointing moderate liberals to the Supreme Court. He deserves points for doing things that are difficult, that force him to stretch, not things that are politically obligatory.
Before I launch into my screed, I should acknowledge the main things Obama can take credit for. I’m using the Washington Monthly’s list as a reminder/cheat sheet, though some of what they classify as achievements I would describe as blunders or atrocities. Even comical, in a macabre way.
1. The original stimulus. It was too small, but it was probably the most he could have gotten. It was too heavy on tax cuts, which have less juice.
2. ObamaCare. This is a flawed program, but it is still better than nothing. It’s helping millions of people.
3. Wall Street reform, in the Dodd-Frank legislation. This was also flawed, but my go-to guy on this issue thinks it’s a net positive. This is too complicated to elaborate on in this post.
4. Saved the auto industry.
5. Advanced gay rights, directly in the military and indirectly in the states.
Rather than go negative laundry list, I’d come back to what I see as the main issue. What is the purpose of the Democratic Party? Has the president articulated it? Has he organized on its behalf? I understand he can’t just enact whatever he likes by force of will or oratory.
The purpose of the Democratic Party is to provide for an ample welfare state; to domesticate the lawless, out of control wealthy; to clear a path towards environmentally sustainable economic development; to defend civil liberties; and to judiciously restrict American meddling in the affairs of other nations.
The weapon of first resort for these projects is the president’s own rhetoric, which is obviously under his complete control. If nobody even breathes the reforms we need into words, there is no hope for any adoption by Congress.
You cannot prepare the public for an ample welfare state by upholding the false god of deficit reduction, by alluding to non-existent problems in Social Security, by floating bogus pro-manufacturing tax cuts, by upholding bankrupt nostrums about using “the market” to fix health care and public education, by glossing over the failure of welfare reform, by promoting the Horatio Alger myth, and by pretending that $787 billion was an adequate stimulus package.
You cannot curtail the depredations of great wealth by allowing the miscreants of Wall Street to roam free, immune from accountability, in the wake of their orgy of corrupt practices. You cannot fail to use the crisis as an opportunity to educate the public and ram through legislation, rather than tell bankers “I’m standing between you and the pitchforks.”
You cannot move us towards a sustainable economy and avert catastrophic climate change while boasting of record extraction of fossil fuels, the expansion of off-shore drilling, and bogus ethanol or ‘clean coal’ subsidies.
You cannot defend civil liberties by allowing the burgeoning national security state free reign to ignore the privacy rights of individuals, to concoct fake terrorist plots, to deport record numbers of undocumented immigrants, and to execute American citizens without benefit of due process.
You cannot advance a vision of restraint in foreign policy by prolonging what will prove to be the fruitless occupation of Afghanistan; by deploying the indiscriminate use of lethal force that victimizes innocent people; by grossly exaggerating threats of Iranian nuclear power; by fomenting destabilization in the formerly socialist countries bordering Russia; and by giving the state of Israel a blank check for abuse of the Palestinians.
I’d like to note that in matters of civil liberties and national security, the president’s malfeasance in terms of actual policy, or lack of policy, is entirely of his own making. He can’t blame the Republican Congress for matters over which he has legal authority and actual control.
Now you could say none of this should have been expected of Obama. I might have expected too much myself. I thought he might have a liberal heart. He doesn’t. If somebody becomes head of Exxon, dude is gonna drill for oil, not plant flowers. That’s irrelevant. This is what we need a Democrat to articulate and to organize for. Presently the Democratic Party organization is nothing more than a fund-raising/vote mobilizing machine. It wants electoral power, but it is not interested in advancing democratic political participation. It sends you junk mail asking your opinion so it can use your answers to send you more junk mail later that has been tailored to your answers, to ask for money. They’ve got this down to a science.
A truly democratic organization would be a place where people could go any time to socialize and chew the fat about issues, in conversations as equals. Instead we have election campaigns where all the positions are pre-ordained and supporters are driven like draft horses. We have ludicrous “town halls” that are mere platforms for politicians to pontificate, to always control the microphone, and to reserve for themselves the last word. We have elaborately scripted conventions while protesters outside are penned at a remove into “free speech zones,” if they are not just beaten by police acting on orders from liberal mayors. This is your Democratic Party!
Obama might have initiated a change in course. After the 2008 election he owned the base. He could have mobilized it. But that’s not who he is. His chief operatives, the windows to his soul, are openly contemptuous of progressives. They have gone on to work for an assortment of scumbags, for retrograde causes. There is nothing new here. Could it have been different?
Here is Tom Frank’s take. I’ll let that stand on its own but respond to my friend Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones. Kevin defends the president by noting, accurately, the sadly passive state of public opinion. We all failed. Obama could not have sold out an upsurge that never occurred. This is perfectly consistent with my argument: Obama abdicated a leadership responsibility. As for how great the economic policy was, such that no upsurge was needed, there are actually good arguments that bailing out the ‘too big to fail’ bankers was neither optimal nor necessary. Moreover, the weak recovery implies enormous, possibly persistent economic costs. Kevin seems to think that you can’t accept compromises if you uphold ambitious goals. But of course you can. Republicans in the Senate do it all the time. In fact, sometimes they get just what they want.
Kevin suggests we have a collective failure and it’s unfair or inaccurate to pin the blame on the president. This is actually what an Obama organizer said to me years ago. You want more, go organize for it. Well fuck you, Obama organizer. To whom much is given, much is expected. We gave you the goddamn White House. We had a right to expect more.