The problem with the new Obama administration is that it is turning out to be not about change at all, as he claimed during the campaign, but rather about more of the same—and these are not times that call for more of the same. Nor is more of the same the reason Obama won the election.
The economic team President Obama has put in place is composed of the same Wall Street hacks and conservative economic theologians who helped produce the current crisis, many of them as part of the Clinton administration, and some, like Timothy Geithner, actually as appointees of the thoroughly discredited Bush administration.
Obama’s military team is essentially composed of holdovers from the Bush administration, starting at the top with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and retreads from the Clinton administration.
Little wonder that the president’s economic team is still talking about throwing more money at banks, with the only real tweak making this boondoggle different from the Bush administration’s fall bailout that there will be some limits established on executive pay. Banks will still be able to use their taxpayer bailout cash to buy other banks. And there will still be no way to force them to lend money. Little wonder too that there is no real effort aimed at propping up the struggling public—no job sweeping job creation programs (except for expanding the military), no major income supplements for the poor, no expansion of welfare benefits, no mandatory mortgage renegotiations or mortgage payment holidays. And so far, no real effort to pass labor law reform to protect workers who try to form labor unions.
Little wonder too that Obama seems to be backing away from his key campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, and that the one area where he is moving rapidly is in expanding the war in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of western Pakistan.
If there is any new thinking going on in the new Obama White House, it seems focused on ways to neuter the progressive forces that put him in that building in the first place. In this, Obama is running true to form for a Democratic president. Traditionally, at least since the days of the New Deal, Democrats have run for office promising progressive government, and have then run away from their promises as quickly as possible. The difference with Obama is that he is betraying his base faster than any of his predecessors. His latest appointment of New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary is a case in point—a man deeply conservative, opposed to the very existence of the Commerce Department he will head, and to top it off, Obama worked out a deal to have the Democratic governor of New Hampshire fill Gregg’s vacated Senate seat with a Republican appointee, forfeiting the right to add a Democrat to the Senate and eliminate any chance of Republican filibusters.
In this instance, Obama’s strategy is growing increasingly clear. He and the Democrats in Congress don’t seem to really want to pass progressive legislation, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, and they probably don’t really want to appoint true liberal judges to the appellate and the Supreme Court, either. That being the case, they are happy to leave Republicans with 41 Senate seats and at least the theoretical power to block Democratic legislation. That way, they can simply not offer up such legislation or such nominees, claiming these efforts would be doomed by a Republican filibuster. It’s a fraudulent claim, of course. When the Democrats were in the minority in the Senate during the penultimate four years of the Bush administration, they didn’t use the filibuster weapon to prevent Republican legislation. And the Republicans today are in a much weaker position, with a Democratic president who, at least theoretically, could bring considerable pressure on Republican legislators to do his bidding, or see their home states suffer.
One can puzzle over why a Democratic president would so quickly abandon his base, when Republicans, in contrast, have always strived so mightily to cater to theirs. My guess is that people like Obama cling to the long-discredited theory that the way to win elections is to appeal to some mythical “middle-of-the-road” electorate, and that thusly, he and his advisers, their eyes already on the 2012 election, are trying to position him as the candidate of the center.
Sadly, for both him and for all of us, this is a doomed strategy. The economy and the wars in the Middle East both call for dramatic action of the kind that Obama’s voters and especially his activist base wanted and expected from him when they backed him last fall: In the case of the economy, a return to a kind of modern New Deal that would vastly expand funding for education right through college, that would dramatically expand unemployment compensation, job training benefits and welfare and child-care programs, that would expand Medicare to everyone, and that would end the subsidies for outsourcing of jobs and the relocation of businesses overseas; In the case of foreign policy, a prompt end to the Iraq War, a winding down of the Afghanistan War, and a termination of the so-called “war” on terror, with a refocus on international police cooperation and action against terrorist organizations.
Some of these things may eventually come to pass, but only when it becomes painfully obvious that the half measures and worn out strategies being applied to the economy have failed, and after the US faces being driven out of Iraq and Afghanistan—and even then only after the people who elected this president have taken to the streets to demonstrate against his betrayals. That awareness, of course, will come after the wasted spending of trillions of misdirected “stimulus” dollars and the wasted loss of hundreds or thousands of American lives, not to mention perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani lives.
It is, of course, still early in the game. Perhaps, with Obama’s shabby appointments of people like Geithner, Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer causing an uproar, with his top generals openly trying to undermine him, and with Republicans starting to regain their confidence and refusing to play his “non-partisan” game, opting instead for a strategy of political obstruction, he may realize that he needs the enthusiastic backing of his liberal base. If this happens, that base needs to make him realize that, in the wake of his early betrayals, he is going to have to earn their support.
The “Kumbaya” and “This Land is Our Land” singing is over, and unless Obama starts singing a different tune soon, he will spend the next four years presiding over a shattered economy and a nation mired in a distant, pointless and unwinnable war.
About the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
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