Guess I’ll have to dream the rest

ObamaRally_012814-thumb-640xauto-10055The 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.




Guess I’ll have to dream the rest — 14 Comments

  1. Nominated Janet Yellen. Konczal says Dodd-Frank is better than understood. We’ll find out as the proof is in the pudding. Same with Yellen.

    I’m hoping she’ll allow wage inflation as the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and CNBC go bonkers as rates remain low longer than expected. But I’ve become accustomed to being disappointed when it comes to the economy and Democrats.

    Also, Obama didn’t bomb Iran. And he didn’t bomb Syria over gassing people.

    There’s a new, raunchy show on the FX channel tonight called “You’re the Worst.” The main character Jimmy’s best friend/roommate Edgar is a vet with PTSD. They had this exchange in the pilot last week:

    Edgar: “I was defending our country.”

    “Oh, please. You weren’t defending anything except for the business interests of evil men.”

    “Jimmy, our country *is* the business interests of evil men!”

    “That’s the most intelligent thing you’ve ever said.”

  2. I also think Obama and company flaked out when Scott Brown won in Massachusetts and then when Republicans took the House.

    They should have added the public option to the PPACA. The ARRA stimulus should have had an automatic provision where if the economy still wasn’t recovered by a certain date, the government would add more stimulus. Instead Summers was confident they could go back if more was needed (or that the Fed could pick up the slack). Instead the history books will reflect poorly on Obama as he turned to deficit reduction.

  3. The Dems sold their soul back in the 90s in order to have access to all that sweet sweet corporate cash. It gave rise to the 2 best Republican Presidents since Teddy Roosevelt, Clinton and Obama. The downsides are that there are no Dems in position to be President in ’16 and that the populists who would have found a home in the anti-1% Democrat Party see them as just more of the same corporate whores. It may take years to overcome that, if ever.

  4. It’s the worst kind of special pleading, this “argument” that Americans are too passive, that they’re not in the streets hectoring with one voice, therefore Obama can’t do anything. Yeah, sure, Americans are uninvolved and disorganized and cynical. But EVERY politician styles himself a “leader”, claims that his election campaign is about “leadership”. It’s an odd sort of “leader” who’s inert and feckless until 80% of his “followers” tell him what to do.

    But of course, as you point out, professional Dems are interested in nothing beyond fundraising and advancing their own prospects. So “leadership” is really nothing more than a marketing slogan.

    More and more I think the only (possible) solution to the broken political system is state-level initiatives to adopt instant-runoff/ranked-preference voting. It’s the only mechanism I can think of that might actually break up the lousy party structure we’re afflicted with.

  5. Great post and welcome back. Excellent way to start by reminding everyone that just being better than W, McCain or Romney isn’t much.

    Still remember early on that it was clear to the whole world that this guy was a mark for 3 reasons:
    1) He let Karzai steal the election in Afganistan and ramped up anyway.
    2) He let the GOP refuse to seat Franken for months, a vote he supposedly desperately needed, and didn’t push back.
    3) Left Lieberman as chair after he publicly campaigned against him.

    Then you add the many not-so-progressive
    Pick Rahm, Geithner, Summers
    Let GOP use 60 votes filibuster with no public reaction.
    Don’t use appropriations you already have to help homeowners.
    Continue to increase military spending.
    Don’t push for infrastructure spending,
    Start talking deficits in 2009 – and appoint 2 conservatives (Simpson – Bowles) to develop public proposals.


  6. True, true. This is the Democratic Party today. And yet . . . the answer is not to say a pox on both your houses and refuse to vote or vote for a third party. Both of those actions are half-votes for Republicans.

    Republicans win when turnout is low. At this time the single most important thing is to increase turnout — not just in the traditional get-out-the-vote sense, but in massive recognition that tuning out with disgust only makes things worse. Many Democratic candidates do not deserve your vote, except for the fact that whenever a Democrat is elected it denies office to a Republican. Right now, the priority must be to get Republicans out of office because with Tea Party, Norquist and Hastert Rule discipline, there simply is no such thing as a good Republican, no matter how decent personally, moderate and willing to compromise he or she might otherwise be.

    The objective should be to get every single Republican out of office. That’s not a partisan objective, it’s the only hope for the country. The fact is, too, that most Democrats will vote for some good things — like a higher minimum wage and a right (and tax assistance for many) to get health insurance — that no Republican will vote for.

    It’s a long slow grind. First, with a quantum increase in turnout, we get the Democrats in control. Then, with votes competing with money for the attention of the politician, we start making Democrats be Democrats, or else. As one of the talk radio hosts said, you didn’t see the right curl up in a corner and woefully accept Roe v Wade. Forty-one years later, they are still fighting as hard as ever. Why would we think we don’t need to be at least as strong as they are?

  7. We knew Obama was a ringer well before the election. Remember this: “I can’t support any FISA bill that includes telecom immunity.”

    Let’s face it. Liberals haven’t had a presidential candidate to vote for since FDR. And unfortunately, Drum took the apocryphal FDR story literally: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

    Sorry, Kevin. No pass for Obama. People vote for a leader, and a leader works to rally people to his vision and goals. This was certainly within Obama’s skillset as a master orator and presidential victor. Sadly, Obama’s real (and unspoken) goals have been far from those of a liberal Democrat.

    But I haven’t spent the time since the 2008 and 2012 elections merely bemoaning the insults and betrayals our president has delivered to his liberal supporters. I have written letters to the White House on real paper with actual stamps. I have written emails. I have signed petitions. I have donated money to genuine liberal politicians. I have written to Schumer and Gillibrand, my senators, with the same objections and promises to withhold my vote and my support if they don’t start thinking of their constituents over their corporate donors. If I were still spry enough, I’d be out marching.

    I’ve tried to “make them do it.” Frankly, so have millions of other Democrats. It’s easy to dismiss the online petitions and emails as meaningless. But they aren’t. These are legitimate expressions of real people’s pain and displeasure. Ignore them long enough and there will be a tipping point that can’t be ignored.

    Frankly, nothing makes these mofos “do” anything if they don’t want to do it. And increasingly what they want to do is rake in more campaign money from Wall St., the extractive industries, and the all the corporate forces destroying democracy. They get the cash for ignoring the people’s wishes and showering the 1% with every item on the Plutocrat Wish List. Then if they get shitcanned by the voters, they get a cushy job on K St.

    The Constitution held up a good long time but at this point it’s been gamed by ideological extremists and corrupted by cash. Calls for constitutional amendments may be salvation but they may also open the door for worse. Meanwhile, the planet burns while Washington goes on vacation and plans an impeachment.

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