When President Barack Obama lashed out at the liberal base of the Democratic Party – condemning many on the Left as “sanctimonious” purists – he underscored how profoundly his actions have alienated some of his past supporters and how little he understands why.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Obama compared the current liberal furor over his tax-cut deal with Republicans to the fury on the Left over his abandonment of the “public option” in health-care reform. But the latest anger among progressives reflects more than that; it is a cumulative disgust.
What the Left sees is a politician who ran on a platform of “change” – who cited Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now” phrase – but then blinked at reversing disastrous policies of his recent predecessors. Instead, Obama offered more “continuity,” a change of heart that was pleasing to an entrenched Washington/Wall Street Establishment.
Though the cave-in on extending George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich may have exposed the growing void in Obama’s support among progressives, the hollowing out of his base has been underway since shortly after his election.
Despite promises to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and to respect the rule of law, Obama soon began moon-walking those commitments. He ducked a fight with Congress over Guantanamo and found excuses not to enforce U.S. and international laws regarding torture and other war crimes.
Unlike politicians in Great Britain, Obama and congressional Democrats didn’t even conduct fact-finding investigations into how the Bush administration led the nation into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or how Bush waged the “war on terror.” Obama insisted on “looking forward, not backward.”
Yet, while devising legal rationalizations for not holding Bush and his aides accountable for torture, aggressive war and other serious crimes, the Obama administration has explored novel legal theories for indicting WikiLeaks for releasing internal government documents revealing details about the brutality of Bush’s wars and the often cynical U.S. diplomacy that surrounded them.
Progressives have found these double standards – which put Obama in league with the likes of neoconservative Sen. Joe Lieberman – galling.
Obama also infuriated progressives by failing to chart a significantly different course on war policies. He kept Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon, the first time in history that a newly elected U.S. president of a different party hasn’t made a change in that key job.
Gates and other Bush holdovers in the military high command then mouse-trapped Obama into an escalation in Afghanistan by limiting his access to less confrontational options. Obama’s Afghan War strategy won praise from Washington’s influential neocons but not from Obama’s core supporters.
The surrender on the “public option” was also not the minor detail that Obama described at his news conference. Though it’s true that the whittled-down version that was finally abandoned would have affected only a few million people, a broader “public option” – say, one available to all businesses – might have attracted tens of millions and saved trillions of health-care dollars.
But Obama portrayed the “public option” as something of a pet rock for leftists.
“If that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then, let’s face it, we will never get anything done,” Obama said, showing an uncharacteristic flash of public anger. “People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.
“And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of pre-existing condition.”
Yet, as Obama himself has acknowledged, his “signature” health-reform bill and its mandate that Americans must obtain private-sector insurance from profit-making companies was actually scripted by Republicans, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Obama’s new tax deal with the Republicans is a similar abandonment of Democratic principles. Most Democrats would favor paying Americans to work on improving the nation’s infrastructure or other domestic needs, rather than trusting Republican faith in tax cuts to stimulate the economy.
Indeed, the idea of running up the federal deficit by another $900 billion to pay for the tax cuts might undercut the prospects of creating meaningful infrastructure jobs. There’s little doubt that the Republicans will cite the widening deficit as a reason to block any direct government plan to put Americans back to work.
So, the tax cuts (and the 13-month extension of jobless benefits) in the Obama-Republican compromise might spur some short-term consumerism but won't address the nation’s long-term structural deficiencies.
It will mean Americans buying many manufactured goods produced in China or other low-wage countries, adding to the balance-of-trade deficit as well as the budget deficit. But the deal won’t bring the kind of sustained growth that a healthy economy needs, nor will it make the United States more competitive.
The compromise doesn’t devote a penny to high-speed rail, or investments in research and development, or a boost in green jobs. However, by adding nearly $1 trillion to the deficit over two years, it will increase pressure for draconian cuts in social and other domestic spending in the future.
The new tax cuts also don’t address the disturbing disparity of wealth in the United States. Indeed, they make the problem of two countries (one rich and pampered, the other increasingly poor and desperate) worse.
Not only do the rich get the lion share of the benefits – with at least a quarter of the benefits going to the top one percent of earners – but the working poor will actually see their taxes rise slightly because the Making Work Pay credit will lapse. [For the breakdown, see NYT, Dec. 8, 2010]
There’s also little prospect for this deal to create a healthier political climate.
Obama made clear he was making these concessions because the Republicans had, in effect, taken the American people “hostage” and that he saw his response as comparable to police negotiating with hostage-takers.
In a remarkable comment, the President said: “I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.”
However, when police negotiate with hostage-takers, the goal is not to give them whatever they want and then let them get away. It is to wear down the hostage-takers, making minor concessions (like pizza deliveries) in exchange for letting hostages go and – if that doesn’t work – sending in the SWAT teams to kill the hostage-takers and save as many hostages as possible.
If police made hostage-taking a sure-fire way to get rich and face no accountability, the nation would be awash in hostage-takings. But that is what President Obama essentially told the Republicans – and it’s a sure bet that they will dream up other instances where Obama will have to choose between harm to the American people and caving in.
In fact, the Republicans will be offered a chance early next year to block an increase in the debt limit. They could demand major cuts in social programs as they did in 1995 – and if Obama doesn’t comply, they could force a shutdown of the U.S. government, with suspended Social Security payments, no Medicare for elderly patients, shuttered national parks, etc.
What will Obama do then or in some similar instance? Now that the Republicans know that he can be easily rolled, what is stopping them doing it again and again?
And what lesson will foreign leaders take from Obama’s admission that he can be coerced? It’s a safe assumption that foreign embassies in Washington are sending home cables about this public display of presidential capitulation.
This spinelessness may be what upsets the Democratic base the most.
Although Obama faults progressives for an unrealistic desire for purity, they see a need for courage and principle even in the face of pain. They believe the Republicans have become stalwart defenders of corporatism and thus tenacious enemies of any government effort to constrain corporate power and to address the nation’s needs.
Many progressives had hoped that Obama would emerge as an articulate advocate for a more energized government that would fight for the interests of average citizens against the power of money.
Instead, what they see in Obama is an obsessive conciliator, always looking for ways to compromise even with the most intransigent (or corrupt) foe. To them, Obama may have drawn many lines in the sand (as he said) but he’s too quick to rub them out and draw new ones.
To be fair to Obama, he was confronted with extraordinary crises when he took office. The economy was teetering near collapse; two U.S. automakers were heading toward permanent bankruptcy; the federal deficit was near $1.3 trillion; and American troops were at war in faraway countries.
The choices before Obama were not easy ones. If he had chosen to shake up the political-economic system – rather than settle it down – he might have tipped the country and the world into a full-scale depression. And he would have taken a pounding from the U.S. news media and the political elite.
The high-decibel accusations about Obama as an anti-business, closet-Muslim socialist would have been even louder than they were. Egged on by the powerful right-wing voices on talk radio and cable news, the surge of gun-toting Tea Party anger might have been even more intense.
The Left’s longstanding neglect of media would have left Obama standing much more exposed than some on the Left like to admit.
Obama is also correct when he says many progressives are unrealistic about what can be achieved when the Right has a huge megaphone to the American people’s ear and the Left has done little to match it.
Still, realism does not have to mean surrender; compromise does not have to mean repudiating principles and endangering long-term prospects.
From failing to hold Bush and his aides accountable for crimes of state to letting the Washington/Wall Street powers-that-be frame the parameters for what’s possible, Obama repeated many of the mistakes that President Bill Clinton made, with a parallel result – a resurgent Republican Party and an empowered right-wing extremist faction.
Obama now faces the risk of more demands and more “hostage-taking.” Though he may wish to avoid confrontation, it will surely find him.
For those on the Left – whether Obama loyalists or critics – there are daunting challenges ahead.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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