A New Obama?

As President Obama negotiates with House Speaker John Boehner and other leading Republicans on avoiding the “fiscal cliff” and addressing the ballyhooed  “deficit problem,” he is adamant on one point – that marginal tax rates on the top two percent of earners be restored to their Clinton era levels.

Has he turned over a new leaf?  Could he have overcome his first and final instinct, on display countless times over the past four years, which is to let know-nothings walk all over him?

Liberals who can’t let go of the idea that Obama is a “good guy,” doing the best he can in hard times and in the face of Republican obstinacy, seem to think so.  Few dare say it outright, however; and who can blame them?  Obama has confounded their expectations so often that, when things are looking up, they dare not jinx the outcome.

With our two semi-established, like-minded but bitterly polarized, political parties monopolizing elections, and with the electoral process more than ever corrupted by money, the information elections convey is always, at best, garbled.  But Obama did campaign on restoring Clinton-era tax rates on household incomes greater than $250,000, and on persons filing singly with incomes over $200,000; and so he has as much right as anybody, reading the election results, to claim that he has a “mandate” to raise taxes on the top two percent.

His defenders hope that, on this at least, he will hold fast; that the new Obama has more backbone than the old.

They are setting themselves up to be disappointed – again – because Obama’s steadfastness was never really the issue.  His negotiating tactics may indeed be bolder now than four years ago, when he squandered the stores of political capital he gained in the 2008 election.   But it will become clear, before long, to all but the willfully blind that neither his goals nor his strategy have changed.

What does Obama want?  Plainly, not what his liberal boosters think.  To be sure, like all Democrats, he does need to appear to side with the constituencies Democrats draw on for votes.  But neither he nor they could care less about advancing the interests of those voters.

If they did care even a tad they would be mobilizing now to reverse Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s sneak attack on working people, the “right to work” legislation he pushed through the Michigan legislature.  Thanks to this one foul deed, the bastion of American industrial unionism has been turned into safe territory for the likes of the Koch brothers and their ilk.  And what is Obama doing about it?  The question answers itself.

Everyone knows what Obama and Company did – or rather did not do – in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere in the spring of 2011, in the face of similar machinations initiated by bought and paid for Republican governors and legislators.   As a working-class based mass movement, the first in decades, took shape in opposition, they bided their time until they could intervene to assure that popular outrage would become lost in the miasma of meaningless electoral contests.

Despite all that organized labor did for Obama and the Democrats in 2012, he and they are back at it now.

Finding himself in Michigan, speaking to workers about taxes on the very day of Snyder’s infamy, Obama could hardly not voice disapproval.  But don’t expect to hear more from him about that any time soon.  The change President doesn’t change.

If only the union movement, in fighting back, would take on the Democratic Party too!  Don’t count on that either.  Obama’s inclination to let Republicans have their way with him pales before the readiness of labor leaders, and leaders of the several other constituencies Obama malignly neglects, to stand by their man no matter what.

Before the November 6 election, they at least had Mitt Romney and the Tea Party for an excuse.  Now they don’t even have that.

What Obama and other Democrats want is not what Democratic voters want.  It is instead  what Democratic Party leaders have wanted ever since Bill Clinton (gently) purged the party’s left wing.  They want to supplant Republicans as the electoral favorite of America’s financiers and corporate tycoons.

They’ll never get them all: family traditions and ideological blinders run too deep, and some of them are just too mean spirited.  But, as the Clintons realized decades ago, there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there waiting to be picked off.  After all, how much enlightened self-interest does it take to realize that Democrats can deliver for the ruling class in a way that Republicans never can?

Democrats have been courting plutocrats for years now, and their efforts have not been in vain.

The main obstacle in their way is that Republicans have a lock on the yahoo vote, and a genius for mobilizing it in support of plutocratic (and therefore anti-yahoo) interests.  Plutocrats appreciate that.

For this, Democrats are themselves partly to blame.  Because they are fundamentally of one mind with their pro-bankster, pro-corporate rivals, their message too is plutocrat-friendly; they too miseducate the voting public.

And so, the only alternative they project, clearly enough to register in the minds of the misled and uninformed, is cultural, not economic or political.

Of course, in the real world, the cultural chasm between plutocratic elites and the Republican base is easily as great as the one that separates social liberals who vote Democratic from cultural reactionaries who vote Republican.

But Republicans, with the corporate media in tow, are good at masking the former chasm and better still at exaggerating the one that makes decent, reasonable people seem like a supercilious “other” to likely Republican voters.  This is why cultural contradictions and class animosities that would undo political formations in saner climes are not the obstacles they would otherwise be here in the Land of the Free.

But demography is destiny; and so, even Republican strategists have come to understand that there aren’t enough yahoos around any longer to outvote the large and growing components of the Democratic “base” — especially as age takes its toll on the geezers who still call the shots in large swathes of the country, and as new generations, no longer wedded to the nostrums of their elders, assert themselves, as Obama might say, not just in “red states” or “blue states” but throughout the United States.

The news is even beginning to reach the plutocrats themselves.  More than a few of them are coming to realize that if they want to get their way, replacing the Republicans their useful idiots vote for with compliant Democrats can sometimes make sense.

So the pertinent question is not: what does Obama want?  It is: what do the plutocrats whose hearts and minds he yearns to win over want?

There is no mystery about that: they want to repeal the New Deal and Great Society, and if they can get rid of bothersome Progressive Era reforms as well, they want that too.

In other words, they want to restore the political, social and economic regime that their counterparts enjoyed in their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ day.  In this new Gilded Age made possible by neo-liberal globalization and the “bipartisan” consensus that deforms our political culture, they want near total immunity from state interference.

Libertarian economists and philosophers are at the ready to provide them ideological cover, but the rationales they contrive, no matter how clever, are window-dressing.  Of course, the rich are as good at self-deception as anyone.  But whatever they may say, or even think, for them, it’s not about ideas; it’s about money.

Plutocrats want the affirmative state gone, the better to enrich themselves – not just by paying lower taxes but by privatizing everything that can be privatized and then some; and by freeing up state revenues for enhancing the already ample subsidies paid out to the many complexes, military-industrial and otherwise, that blight our political scene.

This is what the self-declared “job creators” at the commanding heights of American capitalism have wanted for as long as they have perceived the state standing in their way.  Too bad for them that getting from here to there is not as easy or straightforward as they used to think and as Republicans still assume.

Even now, despite their losses last month, Republicans set the agenda.  However they can’t deliver; that pesky Democratic base is standing in the way.  But Obama and the Democratic Party leadership see an opening, and damn if they’ll let it pass by.

Once we realize this, Obama’s newfound boldness in insisting on raising tax rates for the top two per-cent – or, rather, restoring the rates that were in place a decade ago — starts to make sense.


Though they say it is, in truth it’s not about fairness.

For one thing, when fairness is the issue, it seldom makes sense to separate out particular institutional arrangements, much less their technical details, from the economic and political systems in which they operate as integral parts.

But setting that intractable problem aside and supposing that we can meaningfully focus on tax rates alone, how do Obama et. al. get to the conclusion that all will be fair – or is it fairer? – if the rates on the top two percent return to pre-Bush levels?

If they have a plausible answer, they are keeping it to themselves.  But, of course, there is no plausible answer.

Philosophers have been discussing what fairness involves for millennia; and at no time more than in recent decades.  All this attention has been productive; it is possible nowadays to make defensible, and relatively uncontroversial, claims.

But connections between the philosophical literature on fairness and on the larger topic of justice and the position assumed by Obama in his negotiations on avoiding the “fiscal cliff” and the  “deficit problem” are non-existent.

Obama and other Democrats just throw the word “fairness” around in the hope, apparently, of appealing to widespread intuitions that will win popular support.

Their idea seems to be that if we find ourselves in a situation in which sacrifices must be made, it is only fair that everyone sacrifice equally or perhaps in proportion to their ability to shoulder the burden.

Obama and the others would like people to think that we are in such a situation now.  Republicans would like everyone to think so too.  Not surprisingly, the media has fallen in line as well.

Nevertheless, it is far from obvious that the fiscal cliff or the deficit are as dangerous as all sides make them out to be.  But even if we let that pass too, it is hard to see how Obama can get the Clinton tax rates, or anything like them, out of the intuitions they seem to be relying on.

For that, Obama needs to conflate issues pertaining to the distribution of benefits and burdens, the subject of theories of distributive justice, with concerns about retributive justice; in other words, the distribution of punishments and rewards.

And so, implicitly, Democrats appeal to the widespread understanding that the well-off – maybe not everyone in the top two percent, but surely everyone in some fraction of the top one percent – have been making off like bandits, taking unfair advantage of the sacrifices of others.

That would justify increasing their tax burden – not so much to make the resulting distributions more fair, but to rectify the wrongdoing of the beneficiaries of the system in place.

In that context, it doesn’t matter so much that the amount is arbitrary; this is normal where punishment is involved.

For example, people might feel that five years in prison is too lenient a sentence for some particular criminal offense, that a twenty year sentence would be too harsh, and that some number within that range would be fair or fair enough.  Within those boundaries, a judge could exercise discretion in sentencing without fear of anyone gainsaying the result on the grounds that the sentence is unfair.

Similarly, if Obama’s insistence on raising rates for the top two percent has anything to do with fairness at all, the idea would have to be that Clinton level rates fall within an acceptable range, while Bush level rates do not – for roughly the same reason that a nineteen year sentence for the aforementioned crime would be acceptable, but a twenty-one year sentence would not.

However this is no more plausible than any of a host of contrary judgments that rely on similarly vague intuitions, and it is certainly not defensible in any more principled way.  Strain as we might to find some substance behind Obama’s appeals to fairness, I would venture that we are bound to come up short.


But if it’s not about fairness, what is it about?

The short answer is: it’s about getting the plutocrats what they want.

Whatever else they may do, and whatever hardships and dangers they involve, crises, real or imagined, provide opportunities for politicians.

This is why Democrats and Republicans have concocted a “fiscal cliff” and why they agree that a looming “debt crisis” must be avoided at all costs.  Crises like these enable them to do, or attempt to do, what they would stand no chance of doing, or even attempting, in the normal course of events.

And so Democrats and Republicans negotiate – Obama leading one side, Boehner, obdurate as ever, leading the other.  And tax rates on the top two percent of earners are among the points in contention.  Both sides have seen to that, though for different reasons.

Negotiations involve give and take; short of unconditional surrender by one side or the other, each of the negotiating parties will have to give up something for the sake of achieving some gain.

Republicans predictably are giving their all for the plutocrats’ maximum program.  They are therefore holding out for keeping the rates for the rich and super-rich as they are.

But with his “mandate” in place, Obama has the stronger hand.  And he knows that the plutocrats he is courting know that he is in a better position than Boehner to get what he insists upon most adamantly.

Obama is counting on those same plutocrats, the enlightened ones anyway, to realize that they stand to gain more if they side with him, and lighten up, just a little, on their wish list.

Reason is on his side; plutocrats who still have the wits they were born with should be able to see that pursuing their maximum program, in the present circumstances, is likely to result in an outcome worse, for them, than the one Obama is offering.

The reason why, again, is that Obama can deliver on setting progress back to a degree that Republicans cannot, and because a small adjustment in marginal tax rates is a small price to pay for that result.

Clinton was better even than Ronald Reagan in delivering on Reagan’s goals — on trashing regulations and and on ending “welfare as we know it”– because he could neutralize the opposition and bring Democrats along.  Had Republicans, not succumbed to the temptation to impeach him, he might have delivered on Social Security too.

But circumstances now are such that if Obama can find it within himself to keep up his resolve, his legacy will be to have left his predecessor and mentor standing in the dust.

And that is what will have become of hope and change – unless we, the people, mobilize well enough and wisely enough to stop him in his tracks.

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).

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).