There are precious few things that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, but one of them is that Barack Obama is a liberal.
That rare manifestation of consensus might ordinarily be occasion for celebration (according to conventional wisdom, at least ? though certainly not mine ? which celebrates consensus), except for one pesky problematic detail: the notion is utterly ludicrous.
Consider a batch of recent headlines as merely the most proximate examples of a phenomenon that’s been on display since before the president was inaugurated.
Last week, the New York Times ran a front page piece, entitled “U.S. Pressing Its Crackdown Against Leaks”, in which it was noted that, “The Justice Department shows no sign of rethinking its campaign to punish unauthorized disclosures to the news media, with five criminal cases so far under President Obama, compared with three under all previous presidents combined. This week, a grand jury in Virginia heard testimony in a continuing investigation of WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy group, a rare effort to prosecute those who publish secrets, rather than those who leak them.” Though the article doesn’t mention it, we should also note here that the Obama administration is also all but Gitmo-style torturing Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of releasing documents to Wikileaks.
The article does allude, however, to the gross inappropriateness of the charges in many of these cases, a sentiment that is even joined by several conservative commentators and national security experts. In particular, the White House is bringing down the hammer on individuals who appear to be fully patriotic public servants, who acted as whistle-blowers in order to live up to their own patriotic standards. In other words, the secrets they were publicizing had no effect in terms of jeopardizing national security, unless one defines protecting the nation as covering up malfeasance, corruption or waste in government. No doubt some people do define it as exactly that, since, by some purely random coincidence, doing so happens to serve very well their own interests. Evidently the big liberal now in the Oval Office concurs.
In general, Obama’s record on civil liberties is so flat-out abysmal that it has caused a friend of his to publicly repudiate the president for his disastrous undoing of the Constitutional protections he is sworn to uphold. This week, law professor Geoffrey Stone published a New York Times op-ed that began like this: “As a longtime supporter and colleague of Barack Obama at the University of Chicago, as well as an informal adviser to his 2008 campaign, I had high hopes that he would restore the balance between government secrecy and government transparency that had been lost under George W. Bush, and that he would follow through on his promise, as a candidate, to promote openness and public accountability in government policy making. It has not quite worked out that way. While Mr. Obama has taken certain steps, notably early in his administration, to scale back some of the Bush-era excesses, in other respects he has shown a disappointing willingness to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps.”
Stone goes on to detail the many ways in which the Obama administration has matched Bush/Cheney in its eagerness to shred the Bill of Rights, detailing how the great liberal in the White House has not only “followed its predecessor in aggressively cracking down on [whistle-blowers for] unauthorized leaks”, but also “followed Mr. Bush in zealously applying the state secrets doctrine … asserted the privilege in litigation involving such issues as the C.I.A.’s use of extraordinary rendition and the National Security Agency’s practice of wiretapping American citizens” and, most remarkably, blocked legal recognition of a journalist-source privilege which is essential to any hope of investigating government crimes and failings: “In what seems to be a recurring theme, Senator Obama supported the Free Flow of Information Act, but President Obama does not. In 2007, he was one of the sponsors of the original Senate bill, but in 2009 he objected to the scope of the privilege envisioned by the bill and requested that the Senate revise the bill to require judges to defer to executive branch judgments”.
In many ways, Stone is actually too charitable, because in many ways Obama has gone even further than the Bush administration in trampling on people’s rights and very lives in pursuit of the “War on Everything” which now seems to be the modus operandi for American policy, both foreign and domestic. Obama has radically increased the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, wantonly killing civilians there, and he has claimed the right to assassinate American citizens whom he alone deems enemies of the state.
And, oh boy, we do have a lot of enemies under Barack Obama. Liberals were sickened, as they should well have been, when Boy George lied the country into a war in Iraq that had little to do with anything beyond ameliorating his own massive and well-deserved personal insecurities, and when he promulgated a far too vague, misguided and misguiding ‘war on terrorism’, which was of course in fact really a war on anyone who wouldn’t play ball with corporate-controlled Washington, DC. (Truth be told, tin-pot potentates could use any tactics or weapons they wanted to, or not do so, and that was irrelevant to whether they would end up on the bad guys’ list. It was all about playing ball with the money guys. Ask the once-favored Saddam. Ask Noriega.) In any case, if you put it all together, Bush had us fighting three simultaneous wars, which I’m pretty sure is a personal best, even for a country as addicted to war as America. Or, I should say, it used to be a personal best.
Not to be outdone by a mere actual Republican, Barack Obama has now fully doubled Bush’s prodigious achievement. As Tom Engelhardt reports, we are now fighting “Six Wars and Counting”: “With the latest news that the U.S. has launched a significant ‘intensification’ of its secret air campaign against Yemeni tribesmen believed to be connected with al-Qaeda, the U.S. is now involved in no less than six wars. Count ‘em, if you don’t believe me: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and what used to be called the Global War on Terror.” It is, of course, a measure of the sickness of our times that we can be fighting six wars at once. But it is even worse that nobody even particularly notices. And it is truly bizarre that those on the left and those on the right would no doubt agree that liberal Barack Obama runs a much less militarist foreign policy than George W. Bush, even whilst fighting double the number of simultaneous wars. Say what?
Well, okay. Maybe Obama is just a captive of the military-industrial complex like every other American politician, and therefore has no latitude to move on any of these fronts, and blah, blah, blah… (I say that not, in the slightest way, to mock this notion of iron triangle control either in concept or in application. It’s very real and very powerful. It’s just that, what’s the point of being president if you’re not going to do the hard things?). But at least this progressive president, this socialist chief executive, can move boldly on social issues, right? I mean, we’re talking about stuff where the military doesn’t have a dog in the race, and ? most importantly ? there are no Wall Street weenies to control the national agenda so that they can purchase their eighth yacht. So, Kapow!, right? Slam! Bash! Isn’t social policy where this presidential product of the civil rights movement can run hard, knees churning high, knocking over any obstacles in his way?
Try again. Here’s another New York Times headline for you, from an editorial last week: “Gay Marriage: Where’s Mr. Obama?” Where, indeed? Ya wanna know where he was while New York was doing something truly historic (if ridiculously overdue)? Cashing in on the issue without remotely committing to it, that’s where: “On Thursday night, when same-sex marriage in New York State was teetering on a razor’s edge, President Obama had a perfect opportunity to show the results of his supposed evolution on gay marriage. Unfortunately, he did not take it, keeping his own views in the shadows. The next night the Republican-led New York State Senate, of all places, proved itself more forward-thinking than the president on one of the last great civil-rights debates in this nation’s history. Speaking to the Democratic Party’s LGBT Leadership Council at a fund-raiser in New York, Mr. Obama ran through the many efforts he has made on behalf of gay rights, including his decision to end the government’s legal support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The act should be repealed, he said, since marriage is defined by the states. Mr. Obama’s legal formula suggests he is fine with the six states that now permit same-sex marriage, and fine with the more than three dozen other states that ban it. By refusing to say whether he supports it (as he did in 1996) or opposes it (as he did in 2008), he remained in a straddle that will soon strain public patience. For now, all Mr. Obama promised was a gauzy new “chapter” in the story if he is re-elected, and his views remain officially ‘evolving’.”
Bold Barack. Brave Barack. He’ll come speak moving words to your caucus. You know, shit about “bending the arc of history”, and “we’ll get there together”. He’ll take your money. And then, when it comes to actual policy decisions, where it counts, his position will be so lame that he’ll manage to be outflanked by Republicans, even the thuggish freaks who are more or less the only kind of Republicans there are in 2011. Brilliant. And so liberal.
And about as sadly ironic as it gets. The heterosexual Obama on gay rights ? unquestionably the central civil rights issue of our time ? reminds me of nothing so much as the Caucasian Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy trying to fudge the moral imperative of the African American civil rights movement that was shoved in their faces in the Fifties and Sixties, pathetically splitting hairs, trying to placate their racist constituents while history was happening all around them, much to their chagrin. Imagine if, by some certain quirk of science fiction, that Barack Obama had been president then. What would he have done, as his own people demanded justice, prosperity, freedom and democratic rights? He would have done what he is doing to gays today. And for that matter, what he is doing for racial minorities today (which is nothing), an issue on which he has been the most silent president of my lifetime. I’m not joking about this. Even if it were his own people whose lives and fortunes and destinies were in the balance, blacks would have gotten Mr. Bigtalk at the campaign fundraiser, but Mr. Laylow in the Oval Office.
Ah, but timidity is far less the issue with Obama than sometimes seems apparent, and that interpretation of the guy’s politics is a fundamental mistake made by most of those Democrats who at least once in a while have the good sense to be disappointed by their president. Think about it. When you’re timid, you don’t fight six foreign wars at one time. You don’t claim the right to assassinate American citizens for their rhetoric. You don’t shred the Constitution.
The thing about Obama that neither Democrats nor Republicans understand is that this guy is fundamentally regressive in his politics. That is the essence of his presidency, though ? astonishingly ? very few people get that. Look at the litany of issues addressed above. If you honestly asked yourself for each of them what, in the abstract, would a progressive president do, and what would a regressive president do, you can immediately decipher the true nature of Barack Obama. A progressive president wouldn’t triple American forces in Afghanistan and launch three new wars abroad, but a regressive president would. A progressive president wouldn’t out-do Dick Cheney in wrecking the Bill of Rights, but a regressive president would. A progressive president wouldn’t follow behind the lead of Republicans on civil rights issues, but a regressive president would.
And that’s just what this regressive president has done, all down the line. Never mind that we’re just getting started here. We could go on and on with this, issue after issue. What do you think a regressive president would do about the planetary nightmare of global warming? Nothing, perhaps? Gee, does that sound familiar? How about giving out unprecedentedly gigantic oil tracts off the Atlantic coast? Or multiple rounds of additional tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy? Hey, where have I heard that before? Even Obama’s signature ‘liberal’ issue, his health care plan, was just dandy from the perspective of the insurance industry, with whom he cut a deal at the very beginning of the legislative process. I’m sorry, but if those guys are happy with the bill (maybe ? I’m just wildly guessing here ? because it forces about 35 million people to buy their expensive and useless product?), what does that tell you about the legislation, and about the president who crafted it?
Democrats are stupid about this. They still mostly like Obama, to the tune of about 75-80 percent job approval, though they might grumble here and there about this or that perceived failing of the president’s. It is a measure of their abysmally low standards and our pathetic national political discourse that policies like Obama’s can satisfy his base, so much so that he won’t even face a primary challenger from his left. We saw the same thing with Clinton as well, who first sold out the party of the New Deal and Great Society. Idiotic Democrats still adore Clinton to this day, not realizing that he was more Reagan than Reagan when it comes to economic policy, including the deregulation of banks that created the current deluge under which so many non-elite Americans are drowning, while the rich are fatter than ever.
These attitudes are also a measure of bias as well, or what one might describe as a sort of political tribalism of the uninformed. On the rare occasion where you might hear an exasperated Republican say of Obama’s supporters, “If George Bush did the exact same thing, they’d string him up for it”, he or she has got it right. As clearly demonstrated above, Obama actually out-Bushes Bush in many areas ? imagine, if you can do so without hurling, what a Dick “Dick” Cheney presidency might have looked like ? and yet brain-dead Democrats still support their guy.
Why? I suppose some of it is because he’s black. And some of it is because he’s young and articulate and energetic and photogenic. Mostly, though, I think it’s because he’s a Democrat, and people are so tuned out from public affairs ? despite what public affairs policy decisions are doing to their lives right now ? that they simply go with that in-group vs. out-group rubric: “Democrat good, Republican bad”. Chances are they got that from their families and communities, along with their religion and nationalism and so on. Of course, to a certain extent, one of the key functions of political parties has always been simply to serve as precisely that sort of short-hand. Don’t know who Smedley Goodfinger is, the candidate for local dog catcher? That’s fine, just check his party label and vote accordingly.
But there is a point at which such guiding assistance can cross a line into negligent laziness. More importantly, as in our time, there is a very real danger that today’s Democrat is far from being your father’s Democrat. At which point, using party labels to make otherwise blind decisions about politics becomes not just laziness or negligence, but complicity in a crime. And a crime where you’re one of the victims, no less.
We have been at that point since at least 1992 ? and arguably 1976 ? when “New Democrats” threw the program of FDR and LBJ overboard, but continued to benefit from the inertial habits of well-trained traditional Democratic voters. Bill Clinton was, historically speaking, every bit as great a national disaster, if not greater, than Ronald Reagan. At least with Reagan you had a clearer sense of his real politics and values. What Clinton and now Obama have been successful at doing is getting Democrats to support them while nevertheless running policies that favor the same plutocratic constituencies as a Reagan or a Bush would. Let’s be honest, individuals like Geithner and Summers and Rubin could have just as easily served in a Republican administration as a Democratic one, and their policies would have fit just as well. Or look at Bob Gates, who not only could have done this, but in fact did.
In short, Democratic support and defense of Barack Obama is a sad joke. This guy is no liberal. He is, in fact, using liberal votes to join the Gingriches and Cheneys and Palins of this world in the project of destroying liberalism and its great achievement of massively widening the middle class and sharing national prosperity. Hey, not a bad gig, if you don’t mind the whole cynicism part, and the whole spending eternity in Hell thing.
Republican haters of Obama are every bit as guilty of negligent laziness, of course, but for them there is an added element of sickness. They could never admit it, but one simply cannot dismiss all the rhetoric of foreignness and other forms of fundamental illegitimacy they revel in when it comes to Obama. You know… He wasn’t really born here. He’s a secret Muslim. He’s a socialist. He’s going to take away our guns. He’s not really an American. He bows to foreign princes. He hates America and its core values. He goes around the world apologizing for his country. He’s actually really dumb, and can only sound intelligent because he uses a teleprompter. His health care bill is a nefarious plot to kill off grannies.
This shit is so stupid it’s embarrassing. Or, it would be, if the folks trading in these tropes were capable of embarrassment. Beyond the fact that they, like Democrats, are unable to decipher Obama’s obvious political commitments with the slightest degree of accuracy, despite the plainness of these for all the see, Republicans add to the mix their equally transparent personal insecurities when it comes to Obama. It’s not just that he’s black and sitting in their White House (though, now that you mention it, that’s not right!), or that he’s a Democrat that bothers them. What makes them go ballistic is that he is so clearly more mature and responsible in his mien. That undermines their license to be reckless and irresponsible ? and to favor national policies that are the same ? with impunity. That’s what they loved so much about Bush, and what the codes words of “the politician you’d most like to have a beer with” really meant. It’s the guy who doesn’t threaten your greed and laziness and prejudice and stupidity, as Obama kinda does. It’s the guy who doesn’t make you think, the guy who provides political cover for your worst instincts.
I think that’s the real reason why regressives hate Obama so, despite the fact that his politics are exactly their politics ? yes, even including the extravagant spending, where Obama is merely replicating the crimes of Reagan and Bush, though for slightly more defensible reasons.
It’s not a good sign when so many people ? basically all of us ? have politics which are so flat-out wrong. And if these feel like the worst of times politically in America, that is not such an exaggerated perception, notwithstanding the country’s more overt crises throughout the past two or three centuries. There are significant differences now, however. One is that the national trajectory is manifestly downward, really for the first time ever in US history. Another is that our body politic is so diminished that it can no longer recognize basic political facts anymore. Nothing is more emblematic of that than the case of Barack Obama. Democrats love him for being a good old liberal Democrat. Republicans hate him for the same reason. Both are so politically dumbed-down that neither can recognize how absurdly wrong they are on such a central question as the politics of the country’s chief executive.
But, of course, the biggest single problem facing the polity is that nobody is talking about the biggest single problem facing the polity. The country has been hijacked by hyper-greedy elites, who have demonstrated that there is absolutely no bottom to what they are willing to do to the rest of us, and to the country, to milk it and bilk it of every last remaining penny of value. There have always been people like that, of course, but where in the past they have been effectively countered by those with a sensible and public-oriented agenda, no such beast exists anymore, at least outside of Vermont and one or two odd congressional districts. Your choice at the ballot box today will be between a Democrat who bends you over and screws you with a smile and a modicum of foreplay first, or a Republican who dispenses with such niceties and just gets the job done, to the glee of every insecure cracker cheering from the sidelines, not realizing which end of the pelvic thrust he himself is actually on as well.
But that’s not actually the worst news. If you think about it, every disaster facing the country today has been a product of insane right-wing politics deployed over the last thirty years. But, truly remarkably, every such disaster has then produced public acquiescence, if not support, for a yet more regressive response to address the mess made by the initial one (what was it that Einstein said about the literal definition of insanity?).
Keep that in mind while contemplating the fact that our current trajectory is completely unsustainable. Bad conditions are about to get much worse.
Given such a track record, which way do you think the American public will be turning when the shit really hits the fan?
Yeah, me too.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.