For all practical purposes, the Obama presidency is over. I hope I’m way off-base but it seems to be the truth. The weeks following the mid-term elections have been so discouraging that I’ve barely been able to summon the motivation to write about them. After two years in which Change didn’t come fast enough, it now looks as though the plan for the next two years is to slow down significantly, and possibly even move back in the other direction.
In case any of you decided to tune out completely after the election, this is what’s been going on in the wake of the GOP’s electoral victory:
Obama gave up his campaign pledge to let the Bush tax-cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans expire and signaled a willingness to extend them, thus adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit and validating the Republicans’ demonstrably false argument (just look at the last ten years) that tax cuts for the wealthy lead to jobs for middle-class Americans.
The Republicans wrote a letter to Obama threatening to filibuster any and all legislation until the tax-cut issue was addressed. Obama is now offering to extend the tax-cuts for the wealthy in exchange for allowing an extension of unemployment benefits. The rich are essentially holding the unemployed hostage, and Obama is playing along.
Some say he’s just doing what he has to. Well how about the bipartisan summit on Tuesday? Obama came out of a meeting with Republicans saying “Today we had the beginning of a new dialogue that I hope — and I’m sure most Americans hope — will help break through the noise and help produce gains.” In spite of all of the obstruction of the past two years and the open admission on the part of the Republican leadership that defeating Obama in 2012 is their Number One goal, Obama still wants to pretend that he can work with them.
Even before the meeting, Obama announced that he would freeze the salaries of federal employees for two years. He did this in exchange for nothing. The only upside was to boost his conservative credibility, the stated reason being that he wants to win back those independent voters who switched to the Republican side this election over concerns about the deficit. More on these elusive independent voters later.
And speaking of the deficit, a bipartisan commission appointed by Obama put forward a proposal to slash the deficit mainly by taking the money from programs that help the middle class such as Medicare and Social Security. Meanwhile they want to give more tax cuts to corporations. It’s less of a deficit-reduction plan than it is a wealth-redistribution plan to accelerate the funneling of money from the bottom to the top. Obama has refused to take a stand on protecting Social Security and he won’t make the argument that perhaps when the wealthy are doing extremely well and the middle class is suffering, it should be the wealthy who take on the larger share of the economic burden.
And as icing on the cake, it looks like the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy of banning gay soldiers from serving openly in the military might actually remain on the books in spite of all of the promises and assurances Obama made that it would be repealed on his watch. Not only has he refused to lead on this issue, but his justice department has been actively fighting to keep the policy in place.
There are still a lot of people out there who will defend Obama no matter what, and while I think it’s necessary to have voices out there defending him (especially considering the volume and viciousness of attacks leveled at him from the right) I just don’t understand how anyone could honestly believe he’s doing the best he can.
To those of you who still support him I just want you to consider this: Is this really the best we could have hoped for?
But even more importantly, should we believe that this is the best we could have hoped for?
I’ve written before about the feeling I often get that what goes on in American politics is all a show that plays out according to a certain script. I’ve expressed my sneaking suspicion that Barack Obama is a part of that script, that he was the answer to the public’s frustration after eight years of blatant hard-right conservatism from the White House and that the power elites who really run the country decided to let him take the reins for a little while in order to pacify progressives.
If that’s the case, they’ve done a superb job of it. By making it look as though Change is practically impossible, he’s got us all convinced that there’s nothing more we can do. The conservative media has worked tirelessly to paint this president as the most far-left ideologue to ever occupy the White House, and even though progressives may not take Fox News seriously it could have had the subconscious effect of making us believe that this is as good a job as a progressive president could possibly do.
But I refuse to believe that’s true. Let me return to this idea of independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 but went to the GOP in 2010. The conventional wisdom is that what these voters most want to see is both parties working together in a bipartisan fashion. These are low-information voters who know only what they see on the nightly news (if they watch it), and in 2012 they’re supposedly going to go to the polls and pick the candidate who looks as centrist and moderate as possible and whose rhetoric of bipartisan cooperation is the most believable.
I don’t think these voters exist. Maybe I just never encounter them because I live overseas, but I just can’t imagine any actual person with a functioning human brain who doesn’t care about particular policies but votes solely based on what kind of happy “let’s all hold hands and sing kumbayaa” feeling they get from a candidate. “I don’t care about unemployment, I just want to see the parties working together.” Sorry, I’m just not buying it.
If Obama really believes that it was his promises of bi-partisan outreach that got him elected in 2008 and that continuing to offer concession after concession to the other side is what will get him re-elected in 2012, he’s either an idiot or just completely out-of-touch. I don’t believe he’s an idiot, so I have to believe his mind is just so full of beltway-media talking points that he can’t think straight. The only other alternative is that he’s completely dishonest
Progressives stayed home in 2010 because they didn’t feel the reforms he got passed in his first two years were strong enough. We can argue all day about whether or not they were, but one thing I think we can agree on is that he never really made a strong case for why these reforms were necessary. Perhaps it was because he knew that if he made people understand just how dire the health care and financial situations were in this country, people would expect far more drastic measures than he thought he’d be able to deliver.
But what we needed from the president was someone willing to aim higher than that, to shoot for more than what he believed he could deliver and only then, after a long and spirited battle to win public opinion, to make whatever compromises necessary to get the legislation passed. Obama’s strategy has been to compromise right at the very beginning, hope for the beltway media to pat him on the back for being such a good centrist, and then let the bill drift as far to the right as necessary for it to pass.
Nowhere in that strategy is there an attempt to make an argument, to shift public opinion in favor of reform and then use that public opinion as leverage to get your political opponents to vote for it.
Instead, Obama validates the opposing side’s dishonest arguments time and time again by attempting to meet them half-way. Everyone paying attention can see that the Republicans have no interest in helping anyone other than their rich friends—that they’re willing to let the unemployed suffer and even jeopardize national security just to fulfill their obligation to their campaign donors, but Obama would never even dream of pointing this out.
After Tuesday’s summit, this is what he said of his political opponents:
We have two parties for a reason. There are real philosophical differences, deeply held principles to which each party holds. Although the atmosphere in today’s meeting was extremely civil, there’s no doubt that those differences are going to remain no matter how many meetings we have…We understand these aren’t times for us to be playing games…I think there was a sincere effort on the part of everybody involved to commit to work together and try to solve the problems.
This is the fundamental problem with Obama and it’s the reason why his presidency is likely to be considered a failure. Obama’s opponents are not honest actors but he continues to treat them that way.
Instead of calling them out for their obstructionism, instead of holding their feet to the fire and demanding that they explain to the American people why they’re going to block an extension of unemployment benefits for those who need it most in order to give tax cuts to those who need it least, he instead just wants to find “common ground.”
Instead of pointing out what corporate shills they are and explaining to the American people how their intentions have nothing to do with benefiting the country as a whole and everything to do with increasing the power of the already-powerful, he chalks up their behavior to honest “philosophical differences.”
This is a war. It’s being fought between the upper class and the middle and lower classes, and we need a general—someone in a position of great power fighting for our side. Barack Obama is not that general. He’s the colonel who always wants to negotiate a cease-fire before the battle is even fought. His dispirited troops left him on the battlefield in the 2010 mid-terms and those that remained weren’t enough to prevent the other side from gaining significant ground. And now instead of trying to reassemble his forces and find a real path to victory, he wants to negotiate a peace treaty on the other side’s terms.
The Obama of Hope and Change is dead. The Obama of appeasing the power-elites is what we’ll have for the remainder of his time in office, whether it’s for two years or six.
At least he won’t do as much damage to the country as someone from the other side. Long live Obama.