There has been considerable head scratching and hand wringing in the left-of-center commentariat of late over the seemingly inexplicable political behavior of the President. Even savvy observers like Jim Hightower appear at a loss to explain why Obama does the things he does, and avoids the things he doesn’t do. The puzzlement is puzzling: what part of ‘he does what he believes necessary to get re-elected’ is hard to understand?
It may be that some pundits still suffer from "Obama as Savior" complex. Those who still see him as the anti-George Bush or anti-John McCain?not merely the lesser of evils?are flabbergasted by the President’s playbook. Why doesn’t Obama take the lead in negotiations with Republicans? Why does he roll over so easily? Why won’t he fight for progressive values or policies? Why does he ignore his base? Why doesn’t he end rather than start wars? How come he let Wall Street off the hook? Why does he leave Main Street to suffer?
These questions all have the same answer: to do otherwise might?he and his advisors think?place his political future in jeopardy.
We don’t need psychological analyses to make sense of the President’s political practice. Sure, his absent father, growing up biracial in Indonesia and Hawaii, the supportive grandparents, left their marks on the boy. Obama’s undergraduate career at Occidental and Columbia undoubtedly had an impact on the young man. His Harvard Law years shaped the adult that he became. The Chicago experience inevitably colored his approach to electoral politics.
Instead, we can rely on the decades-old political science finding that re-election is, with rare exceptions, the top priority for national politicians in the United States. Surprised? Of course not. Why then the confusion regarding the President’s politics and policies? They are carefully calculated to appeal to middle-of-the-roaders, the vaunted swing voters.
This isn’t about ideological consistency, let alone purity. Barak Obama isn’t even a reluctant progressive, an FDR, JFK, or LBJ liberal, let alone the radical many want him to be. The substance of any given Obama policy proposal is much less important than the political signals it sends, the flanks it covers, and the powerful constituencies it serves.
This does not mean that the President and his advisors have perfect political pitch. Far from it. Thus the distress felt by many on the left by the President’s frequent retreats and compromises. They believe Obama could win with an in-your-face populist platform, backed by an enraged public. That this is not the President’s view ought to be crystal clear by now.
Let’s take a look at some of the particulars, foreign and domestic. It should be a familiar survey. Rather than leftist sour grapes?some few of us never had any illusions about BHO?these are simply observations from a left perspective.
Obama’s vaunted senatorial opposition to the "war of choice" in Iraq? A position consonant with public opinion, and with the activist base of the Democratic Party which he needed to get elected. His amazing willingness to keep thousands of troops in Iraq beyond the deadline negotiated with al-Maliki?a considerable threat to the latter’s political future?evinces the weakness of the peace movement and his unwillingness to face campaign charges that he "lost Iraq" should things get even uglier on the Tigris.
Support for the ramped-up "war of necessity" in Afghanistan? A brilliant case of flank covering. Obama took away the Republicans’ electoral advantage on national security issues by promising to wage the war more fiercely than George Bush, escalating drone strikes in Pakistan, and intensifying covert interventions in Yemen and Somalia.
Conservatives complain that Obama never uses the word "victory" when making a speech about Afghanistan. They don’t get it either. The two troop surges, the replacement of McKiernan by McChrystal and of McChrystal by Petraeus, the confusion between counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, the night raids, the support for Karzai and the warlords, the short-sighted development projects, the slow draw-down?none of this is about "victory."
Obama is too smart to believe "victory" in Afghanistan possible. It’s about being seen as actively waging the War on Terror (even if it’s no longer called that), and about "reducing the threat to the Homeland" so as to prevent untoward incidents on his watch. And even if something bad happens between now and next November, this is the president that killed Osama bin Laden.
US participation in the Libyan civil war? Obama deftly threaded the needle. The only people pissed off at him are neoconservatives who’d have him fly yet more bombing sorties, some libertarians, peace activists, and Tea Partiers for whom this is one war too many, and that handful of us still concerned about the rule of law. Not a single American death, a few billions down the drain, a Libyan opposition in his debt, a cooperative effort with some NATO allies, a Republican opposition unwilling to really challenge him on this, a novel interpretation of the word "hostilities" in the War Powers Act. What’s not to like from the re-election perspective? Keep your eyes on the prize.
Israel/Palestine? Netanyahu has been a thorn is Obama’s side?it would’ve been politically useful to claim progress resolving the conflict?but worry not. The President need not even reign in the Palestinians most days; large bipartisan majorities in Congress do it for him. Beyond the issue of illegal settlements, Obama’s loyalty to the Israeli Right appears boundless. His State Department virtually invited Netanyahu to commit piracy against Gaza Flotilla 2, opposes United Nations approval of Palestinian independence, and otherwise protects the Israeli government from the application of international law. What’s all this really about? Zionist campaign contributions. And it appears the President is already on pace to break the records he set in 2008.
Push the corporate domination schemes also known as "free trade agreements?" Check. Unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers ("worse than Nixon" thinks John Dean)? Check. Appoint safe, establishment types as cabinet secretaries. Check. Another general to helm the CIA? Check. A new Defense chief who thinks the US is in Iraq because of 9/11? It wasn’t easy, but Obama found one of those too.
Guantanamo still open? The Republicans wouldn’t let him close it. A secret CIA prison in Somalia? Nothing we can’t deny. Holding a suspected terrorist at sea for months in contravention of domestic and international law? Yes, we can. More money for the nuclear weapons complex? A small price to pay for New START. Another giant defense budget? No problem, we’ll get around to cutting it in the second term.
Got civil liberties? Who cares except the ACLU and Glenn Greenwald? Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare on the chopping block? If slashing benefits for granny and your disabled cousin will confer political advantage, then so be it. But it might not, so we’ll float trial balloons until the political direction of the wind becomes clear. Medical marijuana? Not if the DEA can shut down legal state dispensaries. The warehousing of millions in jails and prisons? Beats having to find jobs for them. Immigration reform? Can’t do it without the Republicans. Sustainable agriculture? Don’t be a "professional leftist;" only GMOs, plus a lot of oil, crop subsidies, and petrochemicals can feed the world.
Nuclear energy? Fukushima can’t happen here, our nukes are safe, the NRC can be trusted, and the administration never has to say no to a sector of the energy industry. Clean coal? It’s not an oxymoron, it’s the key to votes in West Virginia. Fracking? Natural gas is the "bridge" to a green energy future. Offshore oil drilling? BP’s Gulf geyser was a tough couple of months, to be sure. But we innovated a new regulatory agency, learned some tough lessons, and can now move forward. Risk it all again in the Arctic? Energy policy is for serious people, not polar bear huggers.
Historic health care reform? The single greatest accomplishment of the Obama administration. Medicare for all is simply not the American way, and pharmaceutical and insurance companies were OK with it. Avoidance of any anti-poverty or urban renewal initiatives that might smell of "black politics"? Check. Lousy mortgage adjustment program? At least the big banks were saved.
Serial offshorer Jeffrey Immelt as jobs czar? If he can’t do it, who can? Bush tax cuts? We extended those. A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Republicans really hate? OK, we won’t appoint a genuine watchdog to run it. Lingering high unemployment? The stimulus saved a couple million jobs. Quantitative easing laid the groundwork for a bunch more. Government jobs programs are so 1930s.
The Politics of Re-election
Obama might lack Bill Clinton’s folksiness and common touch; he does not lack his political instincts. Triangulation works to anchor the Obama administration in the New Center (much further to the right than a generation ago). Surround yourself with conventional, cautious political advisors lacking any vision except for re-election and this is what you end up with. You can ignore your base with impunity?where will they go? "Centrism" enables Obama to vacuum up campaign cash at record pace.
There is no progressive there there. Those inspiring speeches of 2008 (and before)? The memoirs? The promises? All designed to get him into office. Any liberal values or genuine interest the President may have in peace and social justice must take a stretched limousine backseat to re-election.
Again, politicians will generally do what they think it takes to hold on to their positions; Obama is no different. If this claim can still shatter illusions in 2011, well, it’s about time. The complete absence of a "left agenda" is calculation, not ignorance. This President believes you don’t hit the political sweet spot by playing to your base. And he knows from experience that you don’t succeed in Chicago or national politics by biting the hands that feed you.
What would it take for Obama to change? How to influence this president? A massive sustained mobilization of angry citizens demanding radical change? Maybe. And in the mean time? Campaign cash. Lots of it. Nader was right: only the super-rich can save us.
Steve Breyman is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org