Were Barack Obama as clever at being President as he is at running for President, he would now declare a national emergency, take a pile of sequestered money, print some more if there isn’t enough, and then hire everybody who wants a job to read all the emails and text messages and to listen to all the phone calls the National Security Agency, the NSA, can pack onto its hard drives.
I don’t mean outsourcing the work to politically connected private contractors; the government has been doing that for years and it hasn’t exactly worked out. I mean getting everybody in on the act.
Since everybody now knows that everything is already available for Homeland Securers to peruse, there is no point in maintaining old fictions about privacy rights and Constitutional constraints.
It would be far wiser now to get as many people as they can on board with the program.
Madeleine Albright, that “humanitarian interventionist” avant la lettre, famously said, in so many words, that there is no point in having a huge military and equipping it with the latest gadgets, if you don’t use it to kill people now and then.
A similar point could be made for the surveillance data the Bush and Obama Administrations have collected. What is the point of having it, if you don’t actually read it or listen to it?
If you’ve got it, use it. If even Madeleine Albright could figure this out, surely Obama can too. They are of one mind on so many other things – for example, the merits of wreaking death and destruction upon millions of people through sanctions.
Perhaps Obama was persuaded by the arguments of statisticians and computer scientists that mining “meta data” is more informative for most “national security” purposes than outright snooping.
But Obama’s surveillance regime is no more about keeping people safe from terrorists than the Clinton-Albright sanctions, the prelude to the Iraq War, were about getting Saddam Hussein to make nice. His surveillance state exists to keep “we, the people” quiescent, and the sanctions were put in place to maintain the prerogatives of empire.
By deputizing hordes of snoops, Obama could do himself a great deal of good. It might even save his presidency. How can he not see that?
Could it be, as they say at the NSA, that he hasn’t yet connected the dots? For his sake, therefore, I’d better explain.
* * *
The late Sidney Morgenbesser once called a colleague a quantum philosopher – because no one could understand him and his position at the same time.
In that sense, what Paul Wellstone used to call “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” – what is left of it after Clinton and Obama – is comprised of quantum legislators.
One can understand them; for the most part, they are good people who mean well, and who support the New Deal – Great Society liberal consensus. But what they are seems to have no connection with the positions they take.
To get a handle on their positions, one need only imagine what Republicans would now be doing had their party not been taken over by know-nothings, theocrats, and Ayn Rand libertarians; and were they not sublimely unreasonable and concerned only to advance the interests of their paymasters and, of course, themselves.
“Progressive” Democrats and the positions they take are each understandable, but not at the same time.
Understanding them is of little use, however, for understanding contemporary American politics; not just because there are so few of them, but also because they are a marginalized lot.
The Obama Administration and the national leadership of the Democratic Party are mainly to blame for this, but the victims have much to answer for too. If only they had been a tenth as obstinate as ordinary Republican legislators have been in recent years, who knows what mischief they might have prevented or what good they might have gotten done and might still be doing!
Obama is not now, though he may once have been, part of his party’s Democratic wing. Perhaps, therefore, he too was once a quantum pol. If so, there are no traces left.
From the beginning, Obama’s positions have confounded — and disappointed — the expectations even of those who never expected much. But their underlying logic is discernable.
The political figure Obama has become is another matter.
Before the 2008 election, the man was a Rorschach figure on whom voters projected their hopes.
This is why it is fair to say that, for all practical purposes, there is no Obama apart from the positions he takes.
The man is not like a sub-atomic particle or, for that matter, a progressive Democrat. He is more like a ghost, a figure with no real substance.
To understand his presidency therefore, there is only one way: forget about trying to figure out what he is, and look just at what he does.
Obama apologists, the ones who blame Republicans for everything and insist that their man is the best of all possible Presidents, would disagree.
They still hang on to the persona that many voters in 2008 inferred from what is known about Obama’s intelligence, education, and experience of the world. Perhaps they also bolster their illusions with selective readings of what he wrote and said before he entered national politics and while running for office in 2008.
In any case, by 2012, full-fledged Obama apologists had become a vanishing breed. Fortunately for Obama, Lesser Evilists rose up in their stead. For that, Obama will be forever in Mitt Romney’s debt.
Were they not mindless ingrates, the grandees of the Grand Old Party would also now be thanking Romney for being such a bust. Of course, they would prefer to have one of their own running the show; in high capitalist circles, class solidarity generally trumps enlightened self-interest.
But with a Democrat in the White House, especially one whose base routinely cuts him endless slack, they have less reason to fear a revival of social movements that would challenge their power and privileges.
Such a revival is long overdue. Only two years ago, the Occupy movements seemed to portend its emergence. Wise capitalists would take heed and be grateful that they have Obama, not Romney, for a protector. But wisdom these days is in short supply in capitalist quarters.
Be that as it may, we have the President we have.
Perhaps he is conflicted as a person; perhaps he has misgivings about the killing his minions do and about the mayhem his policies stir up. Perhaps he regrets his government’s violations of basic rights and liberties, and the impunity it grants to war criminals and banksters who are too big to fail. Perhaps it sickens him to toady up to the worst of the worst, the fraction of the one percent who are leading the country and the world to ruin.
But it doesn’t matter. As a public figure, Obama is what he does. And so we can only look to what he does, to the positions he takes, to see what would make sense for him to do in the circumstances he has helped to fashion.
* * *
When we do, several themes emerge.
An unflinching devotion to “bipartisanship” is one.
The idea is not to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans. That would be pointless because there already is a far-reaching consensus at the level of basic ideological commitments. Both parties are in thrall to corporate America, and both see the world the same way.
What Obama wants is cooperation in advancing the objectives Democrats and Republicans share. There has never been less of that than there now is.
In view of how much harm those shared objectives do – domestically, internationally and environmentally — this is not an altogether bad thing. But the government’s dysfunctionality has gotten so out of hand that the socially useful things it does are in jeopardy. This is a problem that must be addressed.
For this sorry state of affairs, we have mainly the obstinacy of Republican legislators, and the mischievous connivance of their party’s leadership, to thank.
Obama is right; this has to change. But his determination to turn the situation around by anticipating every Republican desire – only to be rebuffed, over and over again — borders on the pathological.
He takes for granted the constituencies that support him, not bothering even to toss an occasional crumb their way. The labor movement gets the brunt of his malign neglect, but they all do to some extent. It is the other face of the contempt for him evinced by those for whose approval he yearns.
Obama-style bipartisanship is only indirectly about changing the way Washington works, and only incidentally about deflecting criticism as he advances policies only Republicans could love.
It isn’t even about ingratiating himself and his party with the pillars of American capitalism, the dream of many a Democrat since the Clinton days.
That would be a fool’s errand because Republicans are not about to lose their sugar daddies. They would sooner bring the entire government to a halt than let Democrats take their place.
Yet, like Charlie Brown, Obama keeps trying. In the comics, it is funny; in the real world, it is only pathetic.
Then there is Obama’s commitment to what people nowadays euphemistically call “the private sector.” That means facilitating the predations of banksters and corporate moguls and imposing austerity on everyone else, ninety-nine percent or more of us.
It means privatizing and outsourcing and reckless disregard of the public good. Anything to keep profits up, including the timeworn way – keeping wages down.
In saner times, President Eisenhower’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, General Motors CEO Charlie “Engine” Wilson got into trouble when he said that what is good for General Motors is good for the country as a whole – and vice versa.
If we substitute “corporate America generally” for General Motors — and if we understand “good for” to mean not literally good for but believed to be good for by the greediest of our capitalists and their ideological flacks — we have Obama’s position to a tee.
Needless to say, Obama is all for enriching the rich. But, for him, insofar as we can infer a him from the positions he takes, bolstering a sense of the legitimacy of the economic system that makes the rich richer is an even higher priority.
The evils of capitalism have been evident from the moment of its inception. But the system’s irrationality, its inability to translate the enormous wealth it produces into corresponding improvements in peoples’ lives, though long evident, has by now become so thoroughly transparent that not all the ideologues in the world can keep this reality from being widely acknowledged.
Hence the need to make it seem that capitalists still do something useful, that they are, in the current phrase, “job creators.” Of course, they are, if there are no alternatives. But governments create jobs too – better ones, in many circumstances.
Were that fact to take hold of peoples’ consciousness, the obvious question would be: who needs capitalists anyway?
And so, the threat of a good example must be beaten down. To that end, the hope and change President is there – making sure that government does no more job creation than is strictly necessary for keeping the private sector afloat.
This is not a stance that serves him well, especially with the economy still in a wretched state. But Obama has backed himself into a corner, and there is no clear way out.
Then there is Obama’s fascination with high tech killing and daring-do killers.
The Nobel laureate seldom passes up opportunities to “support the troops,” and he speaks eloquently of America’s “warrior heroes.” But it is plain that he has no special fondness for GI Joes or their beleaguered female equivalents.
He prefers weaponized drones, Navy Seals, and other special ops forces.
The man has his very own Murder Incorporated, and he seems to enjoy putting it to use. Traditional warfare may be necessary from time to time, to keep the empire in line. But that is so twentieth century. How much cooler is it to set flesh and blood action figures loose upon the world, and have them do the empire’s business!
Unfortunately, though, Obama isn’t just playing games. The friends and families of dead Afghanis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis and others can testify to that. The families and friends of at least four American citizens can testify as well.
Obama’s self-proclaimed “balancing” of “security concerns” with Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and First Amendment defenses of free speech and freedom of the press is of a piece with his general disregard of the rule of law.
Indeed, the surveillance state he has helped fashion is in plain violation not just of Constitutional protections, but also of the spirit behind them.
The authors of our Constitution were supremely aware of the close relation between democratic governance and governmental transparency. This is why they accorded pride of place to the free flow of information. It may have been an accident, but it is nevertheless revealing that they put the First Amendment first. They understood that, without its protections, a democratic state cannot endure.
Who knows, or cares, what the Constitutional scholar, Professor Obama, thinks about that. What matters is that when he does his balancing, their concerns hardly register.
And so, he punishes whistle blowers, encouraging a compliant media to vilify and mock them. He treats a free and open media as if it were an enemy waiting to pounce.
The official rationale is that national security requires no less.
Leave aside the obvious point that the main threat to national security these days does not, and could not possibly, come from the “terrorists” whom the Bush and Obama Administrations use as pretexts. It comes from impending ecological catastrophes.
Precious little is being done to guard against, much less hold off, those threats.
This is wildly irrational, just as it is wildly irrational to turn the world upside down to fight Bin Laden’s ghost. But that, at least, does make some sense once we realize that the surveillance state Obama et. al. have concocted is directed more towards protecting the authorities from embarrassment than towards protecting the people they purport to serve from political violence.
* * *
Obama’s 2012 victory restored some of the political capital he squandered after 2008, but this time only for a few weeks. Practiced now in the art of obstinacy, Republicans took immediate aim – and brought his presidency to the brink of ruin.
In Obama’s first two years, when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, he did manage to get some significant legislation passed. His signal achievement was the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.
It was, in the main, contrived, years earlier, in right-wing think tanks in an effort to stave off genuine health care reform, and it bore an uncanny resemblance to the Massachusetts plan put in place by his rival in 2012, Governor Mitt Romney.
It was a milquetoast insurance reform – beneficial, but insurance industry and health-care profiteer friendly, and calculated to set back the cause of genuine health care reform for yet another generation.
But those were Obama’s salad days. The first two years of his second term are unlikely to produce anything comparable – not even a pale semblance of needed immigration reform, notwithstanding a vaunted bipartisan “compromise” designed to feather the nests of those who stand to benefit from an increasingly militarized border.
Still, Obama’s presidency is not a lost cause. A powerful dose of prosperity could turn it around.
However to get from here to there, he needs a serious job program, and that much “big government” is anathema to the Obama we have come to know from the positions he takes.
A jobs program that was far too small for the situation it addressed was acceptable in 2009, when the economy was on the brink of catastrophe, and when Democrats and Republicans still cooperated a little. But that was then.
The situation now is more hopeless, and so is Obama – now that his deficit hawk persona has crystalized along with his determination to give the private sector pretty much everything it wants.
If he is to salvage anything from his second term, the time is therefore past due for him to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the proverbial hat. What better way could there be than to deputize everybody to snoop on everything?
Since mining meta-data can be more revealing than outright listening in, this would be something of a make-work project.
But, again, the point is not so much to bolster national security as national passivity, the kind that comes naturally to a dumbed down public obsessed with gossip and titillation.
Because the plan Obama should launch is so vile, Republicans would have to go along; they have a reputation for vileness to maintain. How could a Lindsey Graham object, and he isn’t even the worst of them? And how could Obama not salivate at the prospect, at last, of a real bipartisan consensus?
Moreover, the proposal is high-tech enough too to be enthralling, and mind numbing enough to be truly useful. The media have been dumbing down public discourse with intrusive, titillating gossip from time immemorial. Why not make what is already a national pass time an official national priority?
Best of all, this is a jobs program that no one can fault; because, in a perpetual war regime like ours, national emergencies trump all. And who knows – maybe Obama’s economic team can figure out a way to privatize it as well.
Vile, capitalist friendly, techie, intrusive and moronizing – the perfect Obama plan. What is he waiting for? What more could he want?
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).