Rahmifications of Obama’s Presidency

Peter Baker’s profile of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the New York Times Magazine raises some interesting questions about President Barack Obama’s top aide. For Emanuel, it seems that all politics are electoral politics. He wouldn’t know a social movement if he saw one. Widely considered a wizard inside the Beltway, Emanuel doesn’t understand how “politics” works, broadly defined. For him it’s all about hedging and triangulating and maintaining power while taking for granted the grassroots energy that elected his boss in the first place. Given his false set of assumptions it’s not surprising that he sees any attempt from the Democratic base to unseat conserva-Dems in the 2010 primaries as “f#@king retarded.”

What did Rahm Emanuel’s Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) ever accomplish for Democratic constituencies? NAFTA? Deregulating the banking industry? Gutting social programs? The fact is that the election of Barack Obama has done little so far to stem the tide of the right-wing assault on the public institutions of American society.

Rahm Emanuel and his DLC minions are constrained by moneyed interests and so blind to the needs of people who have little money. They’re the ones who are advising Obama to pull his punches and in the process giving political openings to a discredited Republican Party big enough to drive Scott Brown’s truck through. That “strategy” sounds pretty dumb to me. I’d like to ask Rahm what bedrock Democratic constituencies did the passage of NAFTA serve? What Democratic constituencies did letting Wall Street rip off investors and carpet bomb the economy serve?

Emanuel is an “incrementalist” we’re told. But incrementalism failed in the 1990s, unless you believe that Bill Clinton passed on to his successors a stronger Democratic Party than the one he inherited. Incrementalism doesn’t serve the base. That’s why George W. Bush didn’t practice it. Rahm’s incrementalism has demoralized the Democratic base. And we don’t hear enough from the Obama Administration about the obstructionism of the GOP either.

Incrementalism on the part of Democrats, coupled with obstructionism on the part of Republicans, means elections don’t really matter in this country anymore. What’s more, it shows that our governing institutions in Washington are incapable of addressing the nation’s problems even in a time of economic catastrophe. It’s like having the Depression without the New Deal. FDR said he was trying to “save capitalism from the capitalists.” Well, in 2010 the capitalists have won and they’re devouring their young.

Emanuel seems to have nothing but scorn for grassroots activists, as if they played no role in electing Obama. His former boss, Bill Clinton, left the Democratic Party in shambles. Yes, he won reelection in 1996, but everything he did paved the way for George W. Bush. We tried the Joe Lieberman/DLC way and it failed. And the country is worse off because of that failure. Millions of people who worked hard to change the party in power in Washington are being told, in effect, elections don’t matter. There’s been no accountability for any of the Bush era crimes. Wall Street got off scot free after blowing a $7 trillion hole in the U.S. economy. And Rahm’s answer is incrementalism?

If people who worked hard to elect Barack Obama in 2008 conclude that Washington is not only incapable of solving the nation’s problems, but it’s actually working against them, they will simply shift gears and work at the local level for causes that have little to do with electoral politics. They’ll still be engaged in “politics,” but not the Emanuelian kind. They won’t waste their time and money on DLCers and other Democratic politicians; they’ll channel their energy into more fruitful pursuits that have nothing to do with campaigns or elections like workplace battles (plenty of those these days), environmental issues, and community politics. I guess in Rahm’s world going that route is just more evidence that grassroots citizen activists are “f#@king retarded.”

Joseph Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on March 17, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).

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