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Austerity Politics

Barack Obama: Two Kinds of Awful

by ANDREW LEVINE

There is something to be grateful for: lesser evil arguments for reelecting Barack Obama are “so last year.”    Should we be grateful too that he won?  Very likely.  But that is small consolation for the fact that we must now look “forward” to four more years of him.

This is not the time to rehearse arguments against lesser evilism or to identify the lesser evil in an election that already took place.  The time for that was before November 6.  What is urgent now is to understand how the results of that election burden us.

Those burdens fall into two distinct categories: those that follow from Obama’s ineffectualness, and those that follow from his being on the wrong side of the main issues of our time.  For those in the former category, it is unfortunate that Obama is not more effective than he is; for the others, it is fortunate indeed.

*  *  *

It is generally accepted that when Obama tries, as he did in this year’s State of the Union address or when he is out campaigning, he can be a pretty good salesman – not in all demographic sectors, but in enough.

It is equally clear that when it comes to leadership, he is not much good at all.  His sales pitch can draw majorities to his side, especially when public opinion is already more or less on board; but the man can’t get anything done.

Liberal pundits are understandably reluctant to concede the point, but they know it is true.   For proof, if you can bear it, watch them on MSNBC every weekday evening.  Watch how they praise the persuasive figure Obama cuts when he mounts the bully pulpit, and then how they struggle to explain away the disappointment of the day.

Tea Partiers and GOP establishment types know it too; they set their course by it.  No doubt, right-wing pundits rub the point home every chance they get.  But, on that, I can only speculate; watching or listening to them is more than I can bear.

From the “left” to the (hard) right, there is therefore no dispute over the fact of Obama’s ineffectiveness and remarkably little disagreement about its extent.  Where they part ways is on how to account for it.

Right-wingers have no patience for complexity; they think that Obama is glib and weak because that is how he is — it is his nature to be that way.

If pressed, more than a few of them would probably add that this is only to be expected from a foreign born communist-fascist-Muslim who wants to confiscate guns, tax “job creators” all the way to the poor house, establish death panels, impose sharia law, delay the End Time by not supporting Israel enough, and who knows what else!  I await word that, for good measure, he also wants to restore the Caliphate and direct it from the Oval Office.

In other words, the right has more than its fair share of morons and lunatics.  But so what?  On Obama’s character, they are more right than not.  Der Hass sieht scharf, as the Germans say — hatred sees sharply.

Liberals, on the other hand, blame the shortcomings of Obama’s first term on Republican obstructionism and political inertia.  If Obama is at fault at all, it is for not realizing what he was up against; for not appreciating how little Republicans care for the public good. Having been in national politics for only a couple of years, he was still a neophyte, not yet wise in the ways of getting things done.

They also fault the political culture of official Washington – for turning private virtues into political vices.  During his first term, “No Drama Obama” was too cool for his own good; too inclined to cooperate the way a “reasonable” person would.  It isn’t his fault that, these days, nice guys don’t stand a chance.

On the other hand, voters pick up on how admirable Obama’s character is, and this serves him well at election time.   It is why ever since 2000, when Bobby Rush beat him for the Democratic nomination for Illinois’ first congressional district, he has never lost an election.  But reasonableness serves him poorly when the task is to bring a fractious Congress, full of obdurate Republicans, along.

For that, the story goes, he needs to turn himself into a later day Harry Truman or LBJ.  And, yes, he can.  All he need do is set his mind to it.  Obamamania is by now a distant memory, but lapsed Obamamaniacs still think the man can do anything, even change himself.

What they cannot figure out is why he hasn’t already made himself over.  All they know, or think they know, is that his heart is in the right place, and that his efforts have been stymied at almost every turn.

But not, they insist, at every turn; to the extent that he is effectual, he does good.  There is the Affordable Care Act, for example, and he did end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and also speak out for gay marriage.

Never mind that the Affordable Care Act reinforces the power of health care profiteers in the insurance, pharmacy and for-profit health care industries and that it does almost nothing to keep health care costs down.  Never mind too how eager the Obama administration was to jettison “the public option,” the last best hope for salvaging anything good out of an effort that would have been better spent promoting Medicare for all.  As was the case after the Clintons’ debacle almost twenty years ago, we will now have to wait another generation for another chance at genuine reform.

Never mind too that Obama had both public opinion and the Pentagon brass on his side by the time he finally acted on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and therefore took almost no political risk; or that his words on gay marriage are so far only words.  It is significant too that, in both cases, Obama’s position is one that “compassionate conservatives” of a worldly bent, who have no reason to pander to the old-time religionists in the Republican base, can easily embrace.

But, even as they laud Obama’s legislative “accomplishments,” his apologists must still concede that, for the most part, his first term was a major disappointment.  Maybe it was because he was too good a person or because his opponents were infantile and vile, but the fact remains: he was an ineffectual leader.

Even so, don’t blame him.  Being reasonable to a fault is what a super achiever with an African father has to do to make it in this racist world.  If his virtues equip him poorly for his job, blame the job, not the man.

Obama apologists feel in their bones that this is about to change; that the second term will be better.  Never mind what Freud called the Reality Principle; they can’t stop investing hope in the hopeless.

They put a lot of faith in the fact that he was reelected, claiming that this somehow shows that the 2008 election wasn’t a fluke; that his victory then wasn’t just the silver lining in the worst economic debacle in seven decades or a lucky consequence of John McCain’s bland ineptitude and his choice of Sarah Palin.  They feel that, having reelected Obama, the people now have his back.  That should make him bolder, they think, and more audacious.

But for the fact that they are Democrats themselves, Obama apologists might even be tempted to say that the election provided their hero with something in short supply in Democratic circles: a backbone.   But that is not their style.  Liberal pundits abide by George F. Babbitt’s motto: “boost, don’t knock.”  For proof, again, flip on MSNBC.

I would wager that, in a few months time, even the most abject of Obama’s cheerleaders will be touting a different line; that they will again be looking for excuses in all the wrong places.  But, for the time being, they can still revive his promise of “hope” and “change” without seeming obviously delusional.

And this time around, they may not be entirely wrong.

After all, he has not yet backed off on gun control.  Of course, the controls his administration proposes are more symbolic than substantive.  But the old Obama would never have challenged the military/national security/armaments industry complex, and neither would he have taken on the National Rifle Association, their de facto lobby.  Also, except in private (or in remarks he thought no one would overhear or record), the old Obama would have gone out of his way, in vain, to pander to those decrepit pot-bellied geezers who can’t get guns into the hands of “the good guys” (themselves) fast enough.

And that’s not all.  In addition to militarizing the Mexican border and deporting “illegals” at a more furious rate than any of his predecessors, he is now also mouthing off about immigration reform.  Since sane Republicans want it too, maybe we’ll get some.

In short, he does seem a little less acquiescent than before, a little more averse to being pulled rightward by the most retrograde forces on the political scene.  We will soon find out if there is anything to any of this; if it is not all just for show.

My guess is that present circumstances won’t change Obama very much and that, as memories of the election fade, so will the chances that Obama’s second term will be any less disappointing than his first.

I would also bet that instead of making the best of the situation that now exists, he will, true to form, make very little of it.  Maybe we will get some gun control and immigration reform – it is good for business, so why not!  It would be good for Obama’s “legacy” too; better probably than the Affordable Care Act or anything he has so far done for equality for gays.  He must realize this.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

This is unfortunate because there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there, changes that the public would back and that the corporate paymasters wouldn’t oppose, that a President with an ounce of gumption could grab.

He could do a great deal, for example, to reinstate the privacy rights Americans have lost in the so-called war on terror and to restore the rule of law at least back to the level that existed before the Patriot Act and before he and Attorney General Eric Holder took it upon themselves to continue and extend their predecessors’ war on civil liberties and international law.

And were he really to make himself over in the image of pre-Clinton Democratic Presidents, he might care less about pleasing Wall Street and actually try to fulfill some of the promises he made to organized labor four years ago – for example, by moving forward on the Employee Free Choice Act and other measures that would reinvigorate the labor movement and restore a modicum of workplace justice.

He could also take strong measures to hold back impending environmental catastrophes.  In his first term, there was little action emanating from the White House; only vague talk.  Now with the Keystone XL Pipeline decision pending, he has a chance to show if he indeed has it in him to do what he says he will.

By now, the vast majority of Americans know that we face clear and present dangers from global warming, and that it will only get worse unless our reckless market system is brought under control.  It is relevant too that, the capitalists who would lose out, were Obama to do the right thing, are mainly Canadian, not American, and that the bulk of the tar sands oil they want to move from Alberta to Texas is destined for Asia, not the United States.

The issue has already brought many tens of thousands of protesters to Washington.  Last weekend’s demonstration was reminiscent of the major, worldwide mobilization that preceded George Bush’s 2003 assault on Iraq.   Whatever else he may be, Obama is supposed to be at least better than Bush, and less disdainful of the vox populi, the voice of the people.  We’ll see if he is.

  • *

In his heart of hearts, Obama probably is on the right side of many issues, perhaps even on the Keystone XL pipeline.  And there is certainly much good that he could do if he would lead decisively.  It wouldn’t be easy; there are economic and political constraints to overcome.  However the constraints are not insurmountable. What has been holding him back is mainly himself — his fear of going against the grain, of incurring the wrath of the powerful.

But there are at least two areas of overwhelming importance where Obama has been and is likely to remain on the wrong side – not out of necessity or cowardice, but because that is where he wants to be.

One has to do with domestic and global prosperity, the other with global order and therefore with war and peace.  These issues are interconnected, though they seem far apart.

Even at a superficial level, however, there are similarities.  In both cases, there is more “bipartisan” consensus than is usual in our polarized political scene and, in both, the justifications offered for doing the wrong thing have been empirically confounded countless times.

This is why it is fair to say that, in both cases, the purported justifying theories function ideologically; that they privilege particular interests over compelling arguments and evidential support. The interests in question are those of the people known, not long ago, as the one percent.

Finally, in both cases, it is impossible to tell the extent to which Obama and the others believe their own ideology — whether they are true believers or servile flunkies or, more likely, a little of both.  It hardly matters; the consequences are the same.

Of the areas where Obama is not just weak but wrong, the one that has the most immediate effect on the well-being of the public is his neoliberalism – his reliance on markets and privatization, on (selective) deregulation, and on assuring the best possible outcomes for too-big-to-fail banks and corporations.

Along with almost everyone else in our bought and paid for political class, Obama would have the state to do as little as possible for people, not out of malice and not because this would make outcomes better — only willfully blind ideologues could think that — but because there is no percentage in it for the one percent; indeed, because the opposite is usually the case.

Austerity politics, the neoliberal nostrum of our time, has become the scourge of the capitalist world.  It is far better here than, say, in Greece, but the kind of thinking that has done Greece in is at work in the United States too, as politicians of both parties, Obama included, hasten to drive yet more nails into the coffin of our remaining New Deal-Great Society advances.

We are likely to see many manifestations of this mania in the weeks and months ahead, as Obama “grand bargains” away as much as he can of Social Security, Medicare and other so-called “entitlements.”   Since Republicans are even more adamant in wanting these achievements undone, one would suppose that a Grand Bargain would be easy to negotiate.  However, Republicans want to do Obama in even more than they want to undo progress, and so Obama may not get his Grand Bargain after all.   While there is obstinacy, there is hope.

But, whatever happens, the process grinds on, making life worse for some ninety-nine percent of us, at the same time that productive capacities grow to unprecedented levels.  This is an inevitable consequence of reverting back to economic doctrines that were superseded long ago.

Obama has been, and will continue, to carry this process on.  The sheer folly of it, and of Obama’s role as a perpetrator of it, is best addressed on a case-by-case basis.  Expect the number of cases to multiply in the weeks and months ahead.  Sadly, there will be ample opportunity soon to discuss particular cases, and to put Obama’s misdeeds on display.

It is unlikely that there will be as many fresh examples in the near future of the other area where Obama is on the wrong side: his adherence to the bipartisan consensus on the need to maintain America’s role as the world’s hegemon.  At least, we can hope that we have seen the worst of it for a while.  Were Obama to multiply cases where he acts on this conviction, he could do even more harm than just by bringing the world to economic ruin.

There are several variations of the consensus view, but they all converge on the idea that, with the Cold War over and America the only superpower left, the first imperative of American foreign policy should be to retain world dominance by any means necessary.

This is not just another case of economic interests leading us astray.  To be sure, American supremacy enriches influential sectors within the fraction of the one percent that owns almost everything.  And because they and their fellow one-per-centers corrupt the political system through barely regulated campaign contributions, lobbying, and in countless other ways, it is hard to resist the conclusion that, notwithstanding our democratic institutions, it is they, not  “we, the people,” who are calling the shots.  True enough.  But this is not the whole story.

American world dominance is good for some capitalists.  But, on the whole, the United States would probably do just as well if it were only a player, like other leading capitalist countries, and not running the show.  From a strictly economic point of view, being the hegemon may actually be more of a burden than a blessing.

In any case, efforts to retain hegemony are not driven, in the main, by economic considerations.  Since the end of World War II, geo-political considerations have been at least as important.

Back in the twenties, Calvin Coolidge famously said: “the business of the country is business.”   It still is.  But, as the Cold War unfolded, geo-political maneuvering came to mediate and sometimes to supersede commercial concerns.

In parts of the world where it was still possible to use American military and diplomatic power to advance the interests of politically influential capitalists, they were used to do so, just as they had been since the country’s founding.  But where development made outright bullying impracticable, or where rivalry with the Soviet Union was a factor, the old ways could no longer be sustained.

And so, for a while, it fell to political “realists” to chart America’s course.  Realism, essentially an up-dated version of nineteenth century European power politics, became the prevailing foreign policy doctrine.  However, for nineteenth century Europeans, there were several major and minor powers with which to contend.  For the United States in the Cold War, only the Soviet Union mattered.

By the 1970s, China was also starting to matter, casting the idea of a bi-polar world into jeopardy.  But realism itself was not in jeopardy yet.  Its only rival, “Wilsonian idealism,” never more than a chimera as long as the American people remained indisposed to what George Washington called “foreign entanglements,” was still only a memory from that moment at Versailles when the world’s powers made a mess of what survived “the war to end all wars.”

To be sure, during the Carter administration, there was talk of human rights.  But, in practice, the only human rights that mattered were those denied people east of the Elbe.  Human rights talk was a weapon in the Cold War arsenal, not a basis for a view of foreign affairs in which moral concerns played a prominent role.

After Communism imploded in 1989, and the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, realism lost its bearings.  Diplomacy muddled along.

Meanwhile, Wilsonian themes revived, mainly in policy circles not connected directly to the exercise of power.  And so, at least in theory, American diplomacy is now torn between realist and idealist poles.

There is a case to be made that, in practice, the idealist currents that came to the fore in the Clinton years, much like Jimmy Carter’s invocations of human rights a decade earlier, changed nothing except perhaps how policy makers conceived their own activities. The history of so-called “humanitarian interventions” – those taken and those merely contemplated — supports this suggestion.

Of course, we can only speculate on the extent to which ideologues, like the ones running foreign policy today, believe their own ideology.   But, again, it hardly matters because no matter what they think they are doing, idealists and realists do more or less the same thing.  Moreover, no matter where they see themselves on the realist – idealist continuum, and no matter what their level of competence, their military and diplomatic initiatives seem uniformly clueless and poorly informed.

This is not surprising. What even the most austere realists want is what Woodrow Wilson also wanted, indeed what all stewards of American capitalism have wanted for as long as it has been remotely feasible — a pax Americana. a world order achieved through American domination.

Much as idealists are realists at heart, realists take for granted what idealists assume: that “the American way” is good for the world.  They do not value order for its own sake; despite the representations of vaunted realists like the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, they do not follow the thinking of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the great defender of order for order’s sake.  They value a particular kind of order, the kind they think American domination brings.

Given American diplomacy’s legacy of untoward unintended consequences, this would be cause enough for concern.  But the new realism is worse than that.

Rome, in its heyday, could establish a pax Romana throughout its vast empire by suppressing rebellions when and where it chose.  It had time on its side.

America does not have this luxury.  In the world today, thanks to the ease of communications and transport and the nature and distribution of weaponry, rebellions and other emergencies can arise at any time, and can do incalculable harm.  The idea therefore is not so much to suppress rebellions as to prevent them.  To that end, realists contend, it is sometimes wise to act preemptively.

The Afghanistan war was politically expedient; for a public bombarded by videos of the Twin Towers collapsing, revenge seemed sweet, and those who offered it were bound to garner popular acclaim.  But even for such miscreants as George Bush and Dick Cheney, it was never just about revenge.   Their rationale was to demonstrate, like any gangster would, that you don’t mess with the Man.

They also thought that a war in Afghanistan would help prepare public opinion for a war against Iraq.  That war was never about weapons of mass destruction; it they thought there were any there, the chicken hawks would never have risked it.  And it wasn’t exactly a war for oil either, though Iraq mattered to the degree it did because of the oil under its ground.   It was a war, the first of many envisioned, to make a new order in the Middle East; one that was reliably subservient to American interests.

And because, under Bush and Cheney, neo-conservatives effectively high-jacked policy making, it was also a war to make the world safe for Israel to enjoy the freedom of action that the United States normally reserved for itself.

Neo-conservatives generally clustered around the idealist pole, or at least thought of themselves as doing so.  But they were realists too – wedded, however, to the transparently false idea that things go best for America when its actions accord with the desires of the Israeli Right.

The neocons were, if anything, even more clueless than ordinary foreign affairs experts and Defense intellectuals.  By getting their way in Iraq, they did effectively remove an obstacle to Israel’s freedom of action, at least for a while.  But they did so by inadvertently empowering Iran, providing Israel with a far more dangerous “existential threat.”

Ironically, that might be good for the Israeli Right too; they need existential threats to thrive, and the more credible they are the better.  But vilifying large countries with big armies is a risky game to play; one that could well turn into a disaster for the United States.

Fortunately, our wiser realists have always understood this.  Fortunately too, the neocons have been out of favor at least since George Bush’s second term.  We have therefore so far avoided a catastrophe.

This was not particularly Obama’s doing, though credit is due him for keeping the neocons at bay.  We should bear in mind, though, that, under Obama’s leadership, we have not been spared the determination to maintain world dominance by any means necessary.   It is too soon to tell what the consequences of his distinctive purchase on that imperative will be.

Among the perils that lie ahead there is sure to be blowback from his drones and his “special operations” assassinations.  Putting Murder Incorporated in charge is not likely to lead to genuine security or real and lasting peace.

The hapless General Petraeus and other leaders of the Obama phase of the Afghanistan War tried and failed to get counterinsurgency right.  They should have known better.

Obama, it seems, is trying to get Donald Rumsfeld right – to get the empire’s business done with as few troops and war materiel as possible, and with lots of high tech weaponry.  The technology is more advanced now than it was a decade ago, but also, thanks to twelve years of Bush-Obama wars, the battlefields are more numerous and more diverse.

Are the chances for success, whatever that means in this context, greater?  Time will tell.    I, for one, would not be surprised if we find, in the end, that Obama, like Rumsfeld, has much to answer for.

And this will not be because he does not do what he says, or stand up for what he believes..  It will be because he does.

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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).