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Elected on Hope, Obama Governs Through Fear

Randy Shaw: Obama ran for president preaching hope and rejecting appeals to fear, but now has become exactly what he railed against.
President Barack Obama has lunch with Toledo Mayor Michael Bell at Rudy’s Hot Dog in Toledo, Ohio, June 3, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama has lunch with Toledo Mayor Michael Bell at Rudy’s Hot Dog in Toledo, Ohio. (Photo: Pete Souza)

I got two emails last week from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). One said, “Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. This is unacceptable.” The other asked me to tell “Republicans that Social Security and Medicare cuts are off the table. We refuse to let Republicans balance the budget on the backs of seniors, women and people with disabilities while supporting tax breaks for millionaires.”

Of course, President Obama put Social Security and Medicare “on the table” and extended “tax breaks for millionaires,” but scaring Democrats over more draconian Republican proposals has become the Obama way. And it works. Activists have not mobilized against Obama’s record military spending and multiple wars, slashing of domestic spending, phony Race to the Top, or massive deportations, and will not launch mass protests over any debt ceiling deal. Obama ran for president preaching hope and rejecting appeals to fear, but now has become exactly what he railed against.

Obama defenders make two points. First, they say Republicans have thwarted his agenda. But when critics note that it was Obama who escalated the costly Afghanistan war, boosted deportations, and appointed agents of Wall Street rather than reformers to key economic policy positions, the fallback becomes: “well he’s a lot better than any Republican. Have you not heard what Michelle Bachmann (or Sarah Palin) recently said”?

Obama’s initial set of appointments, his private deal with health insurers to kill the public option, and his abandonment of commitments to labor and immigrant rights groups in 2009 are among a large body of evidence confirming that he never really tried to realize his followers hopes for change. The President is far more comfortable motivating his base through fear.

Not fear of terrorism, but fear of a Republican takeover. It’s a strategy that allows him to move the nation to the right without any backlash from his base, and which even lets the President get away with redefining reality.

Obama’s Education Whopper

Barack Obama is now routinely seen as more moderate than progressives prefer, but intellectually honest. His explanations for Afghanistan have cast doubt on the President’s intellectual integrity, and now Paul Tough has an illuminating assessment of Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech that further shows his willingness to openly deceive his political base.

In his July 7 New York Times Magazine article, “No, Seriously: No Excuses,” Tough describes how Obama used his 2011 State of the Union address to praise his controversial Race to the Top initiative by citing the high performance of the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, Colorado and the Urban Prep Academy in Chicago. Obama cited these as examples of “what good schools can do.”

Tough writes that education reformer and Race to the Top critic Diane Ravitch actually examined Obama’s model schools – and remember, it was the President and not any Republicans who picked these examples – and found the facts contradicted Obama’s account. As Tough describes:

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By any reasonable measure, students at Bruce Randolph are doing very badly. The average ACT score at Randolph last year was 14, the second-lowest average of any high school in Denver, placing students in the bottom 10 percent of ACT test-takers nationwide. In the middle school, composite scores on state tests put students at the first percentile in reading and writing (meaning that at 99 percent of Colorado schools, students are scoring better).

As for Chicago’s Urban Prep, only 17% of its 11th grade students passed the statewide achievement test last year, while citywide the figure was 29%. And its students reflect the district’s demographic and economic diversity.

Obama defenders would argue that it’s not his fault that his staff gave him bad information about these schools. But the more likely explanation is that Obama, whose Race to the Top (with its obsession with standardized testing) has been widely criticized by classroom teachers – does not care anything more about the actual results than he does when he announces “progress” in Afghanistan, or claims that he cares about investing in public infrastructure projects to get Americans back to work (a strategy his stimulus package avoided).

Obama Redefines Reality For His Base

After inspiring millions to renounce cynicism and dare to dream, Barack Obama has redefined the politically possible sharply downward. While Republicans believe no program or policy is beyond their grasp, Obama tells Democrats that Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable, that he cannot slow deportations, and that there is no additional money for schools, affordable housing or even for local governments to keep libraries open.

While Bill Clinton triangulated, he was always fiercely partisan. In contrast, Obama tells Democrats that they have to accept whatever he metes out. Or as he put it yesterday, “I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done.”

His defenders may still talk about Obama as a community organizer, but the first rule of that job is listening to your base. Obama has no need to consult his core backers on the debt ceiling deal or anything else, as they have refused to publicly mobilize against him regardless of his actions.

And when they do publicly mobilize, as gay rights activists did for the repeal of “Don’t, Ask, Don’t Tell,” the President caves. Yet despite this success in holding the President accountable, activists on most other issues are still giving Obama a pass.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

Fear has won out. And Obama will turn to fear rather than hope when he squares off against Bachmann or Romney in 2012, as by then even most Democrats will have lost faith in the President’s commitment to progressive change.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron
Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.