Like Bill Clinton, who normalized Ronald Reagan’s trade, deregulation, anti-trust, and welfare policies, giving them the bipartisan sheen of Washington orthodoxy, Barack Obama has normalized George W. Bush’s Wall Street, education, and “anti-terrorism” policies (among others).
A common narrative circulating among progressives today is that President Obama moved steadily away from our positions because we didn’t stay organized to press him to engage in more bold reforms. Obama didn’t betray us; we betrayed him by “going home” after the election of 2008 and, in effect, demobilizing the social movement that attempted to counter the authoritarian right-wing surge of the George W. Bush years.
But this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Progressives were ready to fight alongside Obama on all the key policy choices of his first year in office:
- holding Wall Street banks accountable for fraud; winning a “public option” in the health-care bill;
- enacting the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would bolster labor unions’ organizing ability;
- swiftly ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan;
- reasserting the rule of law in anti-terrorism cases;
- closing Guantanamo;
- even ridding the U.S. Senate of the filibuster rule that cornered Obama into the absurd position of having to line up supermajorities to get anything passed.
It was unconscionable that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his fellow Senate Republicans abused the filibuster in a time of crisis on purely partisan and ideological grounds to prevent the federal government from working. But President Obama chose not to deploy his rhetorical skills and use the “bully pulpit” to rally his foot soldiers to beat his opponents in the Senate. Did he go on television and ask his progressive supporters to hit the streets and demand that Wall Street be held accountable? Or call for a bigger “stimulus bill”? Or a “public option”? Or EFCA? Or to change the filibuster rule? Did he travel to obstructionist senators’ states and make a show of it?
Progressives didn’t expect Obama to do the heavy lifting in Washington without the power of a social movement behind him. But it was Obama’s many “compromises” with the same people whose policies ruined the economy and destroyed the United States’ reputation that reached a point where his base was no longer “Fired Up and Ready to Go.” In 2010 the Democrats got walloped largely because Obama failed to keep his base mobilized going into the first midterm election he faced as president.
During his first year in office, Obama’s single biggest catastrophic error was to lose the handle on the Wall Street criminality narrative. The Obama “brand” was irredeemably tarnished when he coddled and conspired with Wall Street at a time when the electorate wanted justice. He also botched the narratives on the “stimulus” and health-care bills. (Now, Bill Clinton is criticizing the Obama campaign for using Romney’s days as a vulture capitalist at Bain Capital against him. According to many big-shot Democrats, Obama’s embrace of Wall Street wasn’t strong enough!)
But another failure that gets little attention was Obama’s education policy. By allowing his basketball buddy from Chicago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to continue the George W. Bush education policies under a new name, he showed continuity between his administration and Bush’s that was devastating to a significant part of the Democratic base. Secretary Duncan kept up the Bush-era teacher bashing even when about 300,000 of them were being handed pink slips. Not only is teaching a highly feminized public-sector profession but teachers and their unions comprise a vital component of the Democratic base.
Midterm elections are base elections. Obama and his political geniuses should have known that by denigrating teachers, they were beating down people who walk precincts, phone bank, and lick envelopes for Democratic politicians at the local level. Their demobilization helped cause the shellacking of 2010 and Obama being reduced to a lame duck. Organized money defeated organized people in 2010 because so many of the people whom Democrats needed to win had gotten fucked for two years. Now the president has a much more difficult task to get reelected, because Speaker of the House John Boehner and the House Republicans have been killing him politically ever since.
And then there’s the abject betrayal of Obama’s supporters among civil libertarians who value the rule of law in the nation’s anti-terrorism policies. Obama has normalized or expanded some of the worst excesses of executive power from the Bush-Cheney years. It’s now “normal” for a president to assume the role of judge, jury, and executioner against any person deemed a “threat” to the realm: foreign nationals living anywhere in the world; U.S. citizens, their friends and relatives, passers-by, and associates; people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (like at an Afghan wedding party) — all are considered “legitimate” targets for liquidation by the state at the Chief Executive’s whim. The “kill lists,” the crackdown on whistleblowers like Pfc. Bradley Manning, a flourishing Guantanamo prison, and the National Defense Authorization Act‘s sanctioning of the throwing of U.S. citizens into the federal pen without due process are now normal fixtures of American life.
This new normal, where Wall Street criminals go free and whistleblowers are prosecuted, has been brought to us by a Chief Executive whose political enemies call him the most radical left-wing socialist president in our history. Wall Street banks should be pouring money into Obama’s reelection since he’s been so good to them, and the neocons should be rejoicing in his establishing precedent for more unchecked executive power. And either next year or four years from now, when the Republicans get their guy back in the Oval Office, he’ll be able to point to the Obama years as justifying an even greater expansion of presidential powers.
Joseph Palermo’s Blog
Posted: Monday, 4 June 2012