A gullible portion of the electorate here in the Homeland and a gullible slice of the entire world expected a great deal from Barack Obama. But anyone who paid close attention to his run for the White House, and who managed not to succumb to the promise of hope that radiated out from the Rorschach figure Obama then was, expected nothing more than a Clintonite Restoration with cosmetic changes.
Still, even those of us with expectations as low as that thought it obvious that an Obama administration would be a vast improvement over what we had endured for the preceding eight years. And, once the Democratic field narrowed to a choice between Obama and Hillary Clinton, there was ample reason to prefer that the nomination go to him. He seemed less inclined to make fast and loose with soldiers and bombs, and less unfriendly than she would be towards what remains of the affirmative state generations of Democrats helped fashion and that her husband did so much to undo.
Still, no matter how low the expectations, it did not take long for disappointment to set in. For me, it began the day Obama made Joe Biden his running mate. It’s not that Biden’s politics is worse than other Democrats’; it’s that this purported foreign policy wise man has no idea how clueless he is about the world or how off his enthusiasms and animosities are. Even after the election, I, along with other Obama skeptics, would still, in moments of weakness, let myself think that great things might happen yet; that Obama was only being god-fatherly with his appointments, keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. That was, after all, the conventional wisdom among liberal pundits, and the will to believe is strong.
But the illusion became harder to maintain as Inauguration Day approached ? with Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers and other Wall Street toadies slated to manage economic policy, Hillary Clinton chosen to be Secretary of State, and George Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, kept on to run Bush’s wars. It was in that period too that it became clear that, under Obama, there would be no settling of accounts with the historical crimes of the Bush era. As if that wasn’t enough to cause despair, Obama’s silence on Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on Gaza, was deafening.
Then, for a while, it looked like the situation Bush and Cheney handed over to the fledgling President was so desperate that common sense would prevail, forcing him to act in the ways his supporters expected he would. He resisted the pressure. By the time Rahm Emanuel made it clear that the administration would scuttle the “public option” to get its milquetoast health care (actually, insurance reform) bill passed, all one could say in Obama’s behalf is that, no matter how disappointing he might be, at least he was better than Bush.
How could that not be right? Anybody would be better than Bush! It is therefore telling that one rarely hears that faint praise these days ? and not just because memories of Bush’s awfulness have faded. It isn’t said much anymore because it has come to seem less obviously true. Nowadays, what one hears instead is just that Obama is better than the loonies running for the Republican nomination.
That claim is unassailable. But it doesn’t speak to the question at hand: whether Obama is still better than Bush. On election day 2012, it may become relevant ? especially to voters living in states whose electoral votes are up for grabs — that the Republican candidate is worse, probably much worse, than Obama could ever be. But that has nothing to do with what is an urgent task now: coming to a clear understanding of what the Obama presidency has been about, and what its trajectory is likely to be.
Because circumstances change and because each president is awful in his own way, comparing presidents is, as a rule, a fatuous exercise, fit only for TV pundits and pop historians. But, in this case, the time frame is narrow enough and the circumstances similar enough that a comparison can be instructive. In that spirit, I would venture that George W. Bush’s first administration, from the weeks following 9/11 until the 2004 presidential campaign got underway, was exceptionally awful in every respect. If that is the point of reference, it would be hard for Obama, or anyone else, not to be better than Bush.
But if we focus instead on Bush’s second term, and especially on the years after the 2006 election, it’s not at all clear that Obama has been a better president. Indeed, one could make a case that, style apart, the Obama administration has continued along the lines its predecessor established. To the extent this is so, it would follow that his administration has not improved upon what came before it except, at most, in superficial ways. Lately, some erstwhile Obama supporters have even suggested that, in key respects, the Obama administration has been worse than Bush’s ? especially on environmental matters and on a host of issues pertaining to the rule of law.
For some diehard Obamaphiles, Libya was the last straw. This latest war of choice, in no way attributable to Bush, is a blatant imperialist venture, undertaken on a disingenuous pretext that fell apart almost from Day One. Intended, supposedly, to save civilian lives, the US/NATO bombing has unleashed a civil war. Libya also exposes what Obama’s vaunted “multilateralism” amounts to: empowerment of right-wing politicians from the “old” Europe ? miscreants like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy — keen on reviving the bad old days.
But the main problem with this latest war is that the way Obama launched it is in plain violation not just of the War Powers Act but also of Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution; and that he did it that way not because Congress wouldn’t have gone along, but so that in the future he could claim that, as Commander-in-Chief, he has the right to launch drones and drop bombs more or less as he pleases; Congress be damned. We now know that his top lawyers told him that this was illegal, as it plainly is. He did it anyway, finding lower-level lawyers who told him what he wanted to hear.
At least Bush and Cheney did not deliberately not ask Congress to authorize their wars. If only for this reason, Obama, the peace candidate and Nobel laureate, is certainly no better than his predecessor on questions of executive power. Arguably, he is worse.
Because there is likely to be movement on this front in the near future, it is worth noting an area in which Obama’s defenders can fairly say that he is is indeed better than Bush, though only slightly.
He is better on gay politics. Until recently, one could not have said that. For almost two years, Obama neglected gay issues as much as he did the concerns of the rest of his base. But then, when he and his advisors thought it expedient to shore up liberal support, he finally “nudged” Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He also declared that his administration would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, though it will continue to enforce it. These are small moves in the right direction; they advance equality. But note, first, that Obama never leads, he only follows when it is plain that the public has his back; and note too that these issues are ones that “progressives” should feel ambivalent about supporting.
It is fair to say that one reason why Obama threw this sop to his base is that the radicalism that once animated the struggle for gay liberation has gone missing. Advancing equality is a good thing of course, but should progressives militate in favor of measures that aid military recruiting and retention? And shouldn’t they be proposing civil unions, not marriage, for all?
The issue is not or should not be about “marriage,” the word. It is about how the institution the word designates is understood by proponents of gay marriage today. Their understanding, like the understanding of their adversaries, offends the separation of church and state. That principle was important at the time of the founding of the republic and it is important now as theocratic currents swell around us. This is why progressives should fight to keep religion out of our political and civil affairs. But by seeking to advance equality in the way proponents of gay marriage do, they implicitly legitimate its presence.
Needless to say, if, for any reason, people want clerics involved in validating their relationships, that is their business and they should be free to do as they please. But the state’s interest is limited to the civil aspects of marriage (or civil union). It therefore has no business allowing clerics to confer the rights that marriage (or civil union) entails; the state alone should regulate the institution. Unfortunately, this rather obvious and far from radical point has not registered much lately in the struggle for equality. Proponents of gay marriage don’t want to change the institution; they only want same-sex couples brought into it.
The comforting conservatism of gay activists, along with the fact that gay issues don’t materially affect the interests of the corporations or wealthy individuals Obama courts, makes it possible for him to overcome the disabling (and largely unrequited) “bipartisanship” that usually governs his political maneuvering, especially when, as in this case, substantial majorities are on board. And so Obama has and likely will again “give” something to this part of his base, to the great approbation of his otherwise taken for granted supporters. Bush had to deal with a far more retrograde ? and intolerant ? base. That, more than anything else, explains why, in this respect at least, Obama is better than Bush.
However, it seems that, in general, Bush at least believed in what he did; he didn’t know better. It is hard to think the same of someone of Obama’s intelligence, education and experience of the world. And although there was nothing in the record, beyond “paling around with terrorists,” that his enemies could use against him in 2008, there was enough to suggest to those who were determined to think well of him that Obama’s views, however compromised, were at least reasonable and humane. Yet, on almost every front, he has taken up where Bush left off. Bush was a simpleton ? morally and intellectually. Obama is a knave. One needn’t be an old-fashioned moralist to think knavery worse.
But that is a moral reproach, and the question posed at the outset is about politics, not ethics. It does not call for passing judgment on the man so much as for reflecting on how much better or worse it is having Obama, rather than Bush, in office. To address that question properly, we need to take into account not just the effects of the Obama presidency on the interests of his core constituencies, but also on their capacity to work for “change.” From that vantage point, it doesn’t look good for Obama.
We have wars aplenty ? in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Libya, and with varying degrees of openness and intensity in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan and who knows where else. Yet we have no peace movement to speak of, not even to the extent we did in 2006. Wall street continues to bring ruin to the bottom 98 per cent of the population, but there is no opposition strong enough to stop the predators in their tracks. Our government has given the nuclear industry license to play Russian roulette with the future of the planet, and the opposition has largely acquiesced. The administration’s other energy policies are outrageous too, and its heedlessness of urgent environmental concerns is staggering. Worst of all, organized labor is more on the ropes than ever, despite overwhelming popular support for unions and union rights. In these and other ways, there is, as Brecht said of pre-War Germany, only injustice and no resistance.
It would be different if Bush were still in charge. No matter how cowardly Democrats are and no matter how servile corporate media may be, there would be more resistance than there now is, just as there was before Obama became President. Obama rode liberal discontent into the White House and then, deliberately or not, he put the fire out of liberal bellies. That’s what disappointment and disillusion does when the potential opposition is riddled with people determined to keep on cutting the man endless slack.
Part of the reason for their debilitating passivity is fear of the Tea Party/Republican alternative, a fear stoked relentlessly by Obama apologists and Democratic Party cheerleaders. But fear-mongering is a two-edged sword. At the same time that it encourages standing by the devil we know, it also makes plain how pitiful Obama’s opposition in the 2012 election will likely be. That awareness can undo the caution that currently afflicts the political scene.
Yes, the economy is in poor shape and Obama is widely (and correctly) thought to be partly to blame. And, yes, for an incumbent, that should be a cause for concern. But perhaps not so much when, as in Margaret Thatcher’s expression, there is no (remotely plausible) alternative. This is why conditions are ripe for forcing change upon the powers that be. But it isn’t happening with the intensity it should. Indeed, the most fervent resistance these days is coming from the right, which opposes Obama for all the wrong reasons. How pathetic is that! And how urgent that it change!
Is Obama still better than Bush? The bar is so low that the answer may still be Yes. But it’s looking increasingly like maybe not. And it is becoming plainer still that being better than Bush isn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.