Obama Surrendered (But Got What He Wanted Too)

I suggested in CounterPunch several weeks ago that Barack Obama, an awful president, would make a better king, since he’s good at making vacuous speeches and presenting an uplifting image to the world. But since that is impossible, thanks to the republican convictions of America’s founders, a second-best job for him would be to become the Republican standard bearer in 2012. Too bad that Tea Partiers are so hostile; there is no one else in sight who could do the job as well.

On further reflection, I think I may have been too hasty in dismissing the king idea. If, despite the Constitution, the president can start wars and lob drones as he pleases, and if he is free to violate basic constitutional rights in the name of “national security”, why should we take the founders’ proscription of monarchy seriously? The Supreme Court wouldn’t care – so long as the “free speech” rights of corporations and unaffiliated plutocrats remain undisturbed. But, again, those Tea Partiers would get in the way. They hate the very thought of Obama in any office, no matter what the job description, and since he won’t fight back, they have de facto veto power in the America Obama purports to govern.

Thus I would propose yet another job for our Commander-in-Chief: he could lead corporate seminars on how, at first blush, to negotiate ridiculously badly and then, in the final analysis, to get what one ultimately wants. Even Tea Partiers should be OK with that.

Obama could do that job better than anyone in politics today. Starting out from a position of enormous strength, he managed in just a little over three years to negotiate away not only his own “political capital” but also the (modest, though not insignificant) historical achievements of the past eight decades! But that is only part of the story – because, in failing so badly, he did what no American president had done before. For at least three decades, every one of them has tried, but none of them even came close to Obama in pulling it off. “Grand bargains” were off the table entirely until the “change” president came on the scene!

To be sure, it seems to all the world, and to liberals especially, that Obama just surrendered – and indeed, in a sense, he did. Confronting, the sublime obstinacy of Tea Partiers and the Republicans who fear them, he helped manufacture a “debt crisis” (if not quite out of thin air, then very nearly so). Then he executed his usual negotiating strategy: conceding 90% at the outset and negotiating away most of rest. It was the health care reform story all over again. The winners then were the insurance companies and health care profiteers; the winners this time were Obama’s ostensible arch-foes, the leadership of the GOP.

But Obama was a winner too, though not in a way that is as apparent as his abject defeat. Because there is a tendency in our political culture to identify politics with elections, we naturally suppose that everything politicians do is mainly about getting elected or reelected. From that perspective, Obama didn’t help himself, and he certainly hurt his party. He played a strong hand badly. But that is not the whole story.

Contrary to the view presented relentlessly on the cable stations and in what remains of print media, there is more to politics than elections, and more to Obama’s capitulations as well. For it is now plain, even if it wasn’t all that clear before, that what Obama is up to is not what voters expected of the Rorschach figure upon whom they projected their hopes in 2008; if anything, the opposite is true. This is a point recovering Obamamaniacs don’t like to acknowledge, but there is really no other conclusion to draw.

The damage Obama’s capitulations will do to himself and his party in the coming electoral season is probably not fatal – because, lucky for them, the Democrats have Republicans for opponents, and they have now established beyond a reasonable doubt that they are empty-headed and insane. Those “independents” whom Obama assiduously courts are sure to take notice, even as Obama himself attracts their contempt. Thus, without putting his electoral prospects in too serious jeopardy, he got what he really wanted. He got it big time.

Obama delivered, as no Republican could — for Wall Street. This is hardly what Obama supporters had in mind in 2008 or 2010, but it does resonate deeply with the aspirations of mainstream Democrat since even before the Clinton days. They want their party to supplant the Republicans in the hearts and minds of America’s ruling elites.

With Tea Partiers calling the shots in the GOP, Obama’s gratuitous capitulations just might succeed in realizing this ambition. That is his hope, as surely as it was Bill Clinton’s. This is why I think he did not exactly stumble into this latest, spectacular defeat; rather he took advantage of the situation the Republicans presented, and made the most of it. There is no other plausible explanation.

A cynic might say that however horrendous the consequences for the country and the world, Obama acted as Wall Street’s man so that, in the fullness of time, he would be taken care of well. No doubt, he will end up well off, just as Bill Clinton has, but that’s not why he surrendered to John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. The man is ideologically driven; not personally corrupt.

Though billed as a non- or post-ideological “pragmatist,” Barack Obama is an ideologue – as much as any Tea Partier. Those benighted souls gravitate around an obtuse version of libertarian economics and political theory; a hodgepodge of Milton Friedman’s market theology and Ayn Rand’s pseudo-philosophy. Obama is drawn instead to a more reasonable but no more justifiable set of beliefs, according to which what is good for Wall Street is good for the country and the world. This latest bout of crisis mongering may not actually redound to Wall Street’s advantage; that remains to be seen. But that’s what he was trying to do – and, at some cost to himself, he did it well.

When good old Charlie Wilson opined back in the Eisenhower era that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” he was duly castigated. But there was a certain logic to his contention when what was good for General Motors, or rather manufacturing generally, was crucial for the flourishing of American capitalism. And if capitalism is assumed, what is good for a country’s capitalist economy is good for the country at large.

In recent decades, our overripe capitalist system has moved into a different stage. Nowadays, what is good for capitalism is what’s good for Goldman Sachs, or rather the “financial industry” generally – in other words, for those who don’t make things (or do much of anything that is socially useful), but instead make money out of money. And, again, as long as capitalism is assumed, as it is now more than ever, it is still plausible to think that what’s good for the financial sector is good for us all.

From a moral point of view, Wilson had by far the better case. In the Eisenhower days and for a long time thereafter, capitalist development led to diminishing inequality and a general improvement in the condition of the working class along with other non-elite economic strata. Needless to say, capitalism was manifestly irrational as it long had been; it undergirded a consumerist ethos based on false needs, and required production for waste (especially by an ever expanding military-industrial complex). But at least it delivered the goods tolerably well. This is not so obvious anymore – especially not to the growing ranks of unemployed, underemployed and increasingly impoverished Americans.

In place of greater equality and improved life prospects, the vast majority of us now must deal with increasing levels of anxiety and alienation and diminishing social solidarity. And we must confront the havoc wreaked on the democratic quality of our civic and political life as capitalism proceeds on its course. On the off-chance that his wars don’t get even more out of hand than they already are or that his environmental policies (or lack of them) don’t lead to catastrophe, this is the legacy Obama is forging for himself: making the instruments of our discontent, the pillars of Wall Street’s empire of finance, even more secure.

That is what Obama is about. And so, in the preposterous episode of political theater our political class staged in the past few weeks, he gave his all. He did negotiate badly enough that Business Schools could make a case study of his machinations, but he was more disingenuous than inept. Obama surrendered for one overwhelming reason –because he wanted to; because he is not just in the game to win, but to win for Wall Street. The time is long past due for liberals to face that reality, and to deal with it not, not as Obama and his advisors expect, by acquiescing out of fear that the alternative is even worse, but in a constructive way. If a Dump Obama cannot get going now, then when?

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. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).