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In the early 2008 primaries, Barack Obama ran to the right of everyone except Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. By the time it became a two-way race, it took a keen eye to discern even trivial differences between Clinton and Obama.
Nevertheless, it was reasonable to expect that if Obama won the nomination and then the general election, a full-fledged Clintonite Restoration would be less likely than if Clinton won. Obama would be more inclined to make at least cosmetic changes and to bring in fresh faces. There was no evidence supporting this conjecture however and, as it turned out, it was too optimistic.
But in 2008 that wasn’t yet clear and, for want of any more promising expectation, it should have been reason enough, for anyone planning on voting Democratic, to seal the case for Obama. What right thinking liberal would not jump at a chance to say adieu to the Clintons once and for all?
But liberals are a strange bunch. There are even polls that suggest that many of them hold Bill and Hillary in high regard. Incredible, but true.
For most well-meaning liberals, it therefore came down to whether skin color or genitals mattered more. Skin color won.
Meanwhile, a collective disorder, Obamamania, had broken out.
Obamamaniacs expected Obama to launch a Second Coming of the New Deal (or rather of popular perceptions of it), but without the racism of the original and without a World War at the end. Obama would wipe the slate clean of Bush-Cheney misrule and make everything right.
The illusion had legs: it persisted for well into the first year of Obama’s first term.
But, even in the heyday of Obamamania, anyone of a moderately sensible bent who had been paying even casual attention to Obama’s campaign had ample reason to be skeptical.
To be sure, nothing Obama said or did during the campaign provided any inkling of the assault he would launch on the First, Fifth and especially the Fourth Amendments.
But there was every reason to expect that, as president, Obama would kowtow shamelessly to Wall Street and to every corporate predator that might come along; and that he would be faithful to the neoliberal agenda: austerity politics, milquetoast regulation when full-fledged deregulation is impossible, free trade, deficit reduction, and the rest.
There was also a large grey area, where the evidence was equivocal.
Candidate Obama gave the impression that while he was not about to end George W. Bush’s wars, he would not just take up where Bush and Dick Cheney left off.
However anyone who believed this was grasping at straws. That the Afghanistan War would be intensified was clear enough, as was the repackaging of the war and occupation of Iraq.
Those wars had been lost long before Obama took office. But it was plain that Obama intended to take over stewardship of the empire, and therefore that his highest priority would be to save face.
Bush and Cheney had made that objective Number One years earlier; they might as well still have been in charge.
However Obama did give signs that he would continue the perpetual war regime of his predecessors in a more “multilateral,” transparent, and kinder and gentler way. That would have been a welcome change.
That, in office, he would instead launch or intensify military and paramilitary campaigns in new theaters of operation in Asia and Africa, or that he would do so, as best he could, in secret, was far from obvious.
It was even less predictable that the supposed peace candidate would morph into President Drone; though, in retrospect, the signs were there.
And, of course, no one could predict which campaign promises Obama would forget about – the Employee Free Choice Act is a prime example — or reverse outright, as he is now doing by asking for fast track authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. With the TPT, NAFTA’s former critic is now hell bent on afflicting upon the world what even Obama-friendly pundits regard as NAFTA on steroids.
In retrospect there too, however, there is a discernible pattern: if it benefits working people, don’t count on Obama to do anything about it; count on him to serve and protect his paymasters instead.
But even in retrospect, the extent to which Obama has sided against organized labor could not have been predicted – not in view of how dependent the Democratic Party is on the union movement for foot soldiers and money.
That Obama did nothing to support the unprecedented popular mobilization that came into being early in 2011, in response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on public sector unions, speaks volumes.
And even when mass demonstrations gave way to a recall campaign a year later (the delay being required by Wisconsin law), the most Obama would do was send out a tweet the night before election day.
Had he campaigned for Tom Barrett, the anodyne Democrat running against Walker, Barrett probably would have won. The former Milwaukee mayor was not popular with African Americans in and around Milwaukee County. Obama still was; he could have gotten them out to vote.
But, with the 2012 election looming, the President decided that there was more percentage in keeping mum. And so, instead of coming into the state to campaign, he very conspicuously courted rich donors across the state line in Minnesota and Illinois.
Blame Republicans, blame the Great Recession, blame “we, the people” for not forcing him to do what he supposedly wants to do, blame whatever and whomever Obama apologists like: the fact is that Obama’s allure was always out of sync with an abundance of evidence, and that the reality has turned out to be even worse than anyone looking at the evidence could have imagined.
However the will to believe is a mighty force, and candidate Obama was good at turning himself into a Rorschach figure upon which unwary voters could project their hopes for change.
Ever resourceful, they claimed, for a while, that in running to the right, Obama was only doing what he had to do; that he was faking right in the campaign so that he could turn left after he won.
Then he did win, and news of his appointments began to trickle in. The true believers had a new set of “disappointments” to make the best of.
For a while, the word was that it only seemed that he was re-empowering Clinton era poltroons. In fact, like Abraham Lincoln (according to pop historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), he was concocting a “team of rivals” from whom he would take what he needed but still call the shots. How shrewd!
But the excuses could only prevail for so long. It started slowly but, in time, the true believers began to fall away. By the summer of 2009, the pace accelerated. Even so, it took almost half a year more for the tail of the comet to break off for good.
By now, Obamamania is a distant memory. It could hardly be otherwise; the Rorschach figure is no more.
At what point did the illusion – an unconscious wish, in Freud’s terminology – give way to a delusion, an illusion maintained in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
I would suggest that the unmistakable tip off came even before Obamamania peaked — in the summer of 2008 when he announced that Joe Biden would be his running mate.
Biden was not just the right most, or second right most, of the early contenders. He was a creature of the Democratic Party establishment; too whacky and too loose a cannon to stand alone, but a good choice for Vice President, if the idea is to signal (yet again) that the ruling class would have nothing to fear from an Obama presidency.
Before he entered national politics, Obama had said things in passing that might suggest an independent streak and a penchant for decency and reasonableness that could trouble key constituencies. Biden could help too with that.
There was no leading Democrat more servile to the Israel lobby or to other nefarious right-wing ethnic pressure groups. Biden takes to them like a duck to water; all they need do is court him, and he jumps on board.
I thought of Obama’s choice of Biden when it was announced that New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, the great progressive hope (along with Elizabeth Warren), chose Bill Clinton to swear him in at Gracie Mansion. Could this have been another tip off moment?
De Blasio talked up a “populist” storm at the inauguration, as Clinton – the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral – and his official wife smiled on. He pledged to reverse New York’s “tale of two cities” — one for the filthy rich, one for everyone else – just as he had during the campaign.
The incongruity is staggering: two Clintons presiding over a speech berating inequality.
No president did more to give inequality a boost or to make the neoliberal agenda the order of the day. Because he could pull liberals along, Bill Clinton was an even more effective Reaganite than the Gipper himself.
On the root causes of the concerns that led voters to support de Blasio in landslide proportions — trade policy and financial deregulation – no president did more to establish the villainous dictum of Reagan’s political soul mate, Margaret Thatcher: “there is no alternative.”
To be sure, de Blasio and the Clintons are not strangers. In the early 90s, he was a regional director in Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development and, in the 2000 election, he worked as a campaign manager for the First Lady when she was parachuted into New York to run for the Senate.
But we shouldn’t make too much of this. To get where he now is, de Blasio, like the young Bill Clinton, had “to remain viable within the system.” He could hardly not have latched on to powerful Democrats.
It is relevant too that, at least in his first administration, Bill Clinton was less wary than Barack Obama of appointing genuine progressives to low and middle echelon jobs; de Blasio was not the only fish out of water.
Indeed, Clinton’s first Secretary of Labor was Robert Reich, a left-leaning, equality-friendly liberal who mostly kept mute back in the day, but who now, from his perch at UC-Berkeley, sounds rather like de Blasio.
Nevertheless, it was a bit much for the new mayor to have gone on about how “honored” he was to have had the opportunity to work in the Clinton administration.
I know: having asked the former president to administer his oath of office, he had to acknowledge his presence by saying something nice. But “honored”? Really?
Working for Hillary, at any time under any circumstances, is even harder to stomach. But a Democrat’s gotta do what a Democrat’s gotta do. Maybe de Blasio should get a pass on that as well.
At this point, having not yet done anything awful, the man deserves the benefit of the doubt.
More than that: he deserves praise for talking up equality in Clinton’s face. That is like talking up privacy or peace or the rule of law at an Obama event.
Still, the incongruity remains. Why would anyone with a progressive bone in his body bring the Clintons in at all?
The New York Times claims “it was a nod to the pragmatic approach of the former president.”
A more plausible way to put it — also suggested by the Times, though not in so many words — is that de Blasio’s idea was to signal what they euphemistically call “the business community” that it would be unwise to stiff the mayor the way their counterparts in other countries with Third World levels of inequality would. De Blasio wanted to make a show of having the Democratic Party establishment on his side.
That would matter locally of course, and it is becoming more important nationally too, now that the Republicans are engaged in a fratricidal war between hapless, old order, establishment plutocrats and Tea Party loonies; a war the loonies are winning.
The Times also claims that, for their part, the Clintons are interested in acquiring a “progressive sheen” as the Democratic Party shifts left, and as Hillary “positions herself for 2016.”
In other words, the conventional wisdom, for now, is that de Blasio is playing the Clintons and vice versa.
Maybe that is what de Blasio thinks he is doing — taking advantage of the opportunism that runs in the Clintons’ blood. But it is a fool’s game; the Clintons don’t take left turns – not for real, anyway.
For as long as that wretched family has been on the scene, their way of dealing with left-leaning currents within the Democratic Party has been to coopt what they cannot purge.
With Hillary Clinton “positioning herself for 2016,” don’t count on that changing just because New York City now has a progressive mayor or because polls show that increasing inequality has got the public’s goat.
If de Blasio thinks he can play the Clintons, he should think again.
He has as much chance of coming out on top as, say, the Palestinians do in negotiations with Israel – with or without John Kerry playing umpire. The power relations are too lopsided.
Yes, there are Democrats who think of themselves as “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and there are left leaning Democratic organizations like Progressive Democrats of America.
It is telling, though, that one can hardly utter that name without the word “oxymoron” springing to mind.
This is why, if de Blasio truly deserves the benefit of the doubt — if he is not, like Obama, just another Clintonized Democrat in disguise – the man is in a terrible fix.
New York isn’t exactly a company town, but the “financial industry” (another euphemism) does have enormous power within it. A war on banksters, urgent and necessary as it surely is, cannot be fought by one city alone, not even New York City.
De Blasio could hardly fail to worry that banksters and other corporate malefactors will bring his administration to grief; they have motive and opportunity and all the means in the world.
But their power would be nothing without the sufferance and support of the state. It would therefore help enormously if de Blasio really could get the Democratic establishment on his side.
But that support comes at a steep price. De Blasio would have to sell out his principles – assuming, again, that, unlike Obama, he really does have principles to sell.
There is no easy way out of this situation. And the problem is not just de Blazio’s. It is every genuine progressive’s.
Trying to fix the rot from within is, at best, a waste of energy and time. The way forward is to break free from it altogether. De Blasio is bound to realize this soon, if he hasn’t already. But what will he do then?
Being elected Mayor of New York is a far bigger deal than being elected to the City Council in Seattle.
But Kshama Sawant’s victory there may, in the end, be the more historic achievement.
Sawant ran on the Socialist Alternative ticket – in express opposition to the Democratic Party of Barack Obama and the Clintons.
That she won – at a time when “socialism” has become a term of reproach for both Democrats and Republicans, and when the media all but ignore third parties and independent candidacies – is attributable not just to her political skills, but to the fact that public support for the two-party system and for capitalism itself is now extraordinarily low.
The Occupy movements provided more than an inkling of this, and the polling evidence is clear. There has not been a better time in years to shake our duopoly party system to its foundations.
The Democratic Party, in the Age of Clinton and Obama, is beyond redemption. The only thing it is good for is fighting Republicans back.
This is why the only argument Democratic Party cheerleaders, like the ones on MSNBC, still have is the lesser evil argument. And, by now, everyone knows or should know where lesser evilism leads; all one need do is look around.
But as de Blasio’s victory in New York shows, disgust with the status quo is so far-reaching and profound that, in the right circumstances, progressive candidates can sometimes win electoral contests under the Democratic Party’s aegis.
But then the next step, if de Blasio is not to go Obama’s way, is just the opposite of the one he took at Gracie Mansion. It is to break free from the forces he invited in.
De Blasio is of an age when, like everyone else learning to type in the United States, he must have encountered the old drill sentence “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.”
That well-worn phrase is thought to have been contrived by a typing instructor named Charles Weller some hundred years ago. It has performed yeoman’s service as a teaching aid to generations of students. But, for de Blasio, it is terrible advice.
What he and other progressive Democrats should realize, the sooner the better, is that Weller got it exactly wrong. Now is not the time to come to the Democratic Party’s aid.
Now is the time to defect.
This is advice Elizabeth Warren too should heed, along with a few other elected officials. Progressives, real ones, are not about to become players in the Democratic fold; they are not going to move the party leftward or anywhere at all.
No matter how outrageous inequality has become, that option is foreclosed. For that, we have not only the GOP but also, more importantly, the Clintons and Obama to thank.
Kshama Sawant won her City Council seat running for office as a socialist. We need more of that; a lot more.
But it would also be enormously helpful if de Blasio and others like him, who ran and won as Democrats, would join her – if not on the same party ticket then in some other way – by breaking free from the Democratic Party’s control.
A good slogan might be: “Kshama yes, Hillary no.”
For making the world a better place, electoral politics can only be part of a larger story – especially in today’s world where, thanks to neoliberal globalization, democracy deficits are everywhere; in other words, where the outcomes are more or less the same regardless who gets the most votes.
In the United States, where very nearly the only politics there is is electoral, elections are an especially important part of the larger story.
This is why making common cause with the Clintons is such a dangerous game.
Fortunately, though, it is not the only game in town; not after Kshama Sawant and others like her.
A better world is possible; de Blasio’s victory, like Sawant’s, shows that. But there is the problem of getting from here to there. The Clinton way is no way at all.
Will it be de Blasio’s way? Inviting Clinton to do his master of ceremonies routine at Gracie Mansion was an ominous sign. But, in all fairness, it is too soon to say it was his Joe Biden moment; a tip off of what to expect.
At this point, the jury is out. It could hardly be otherwise: in all likelihood, de Blasio hasn’t yet figured out what his way will be.
The choice is still his – and everyone else’s who genuinely does believe that a better world is possible, and who is prepared to do something to bring it, not just its “sheen,” into public consciousness.
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).