Obama Takes Care of Business

The dawn of a new year is a fine time to reflect on the year just passed.

This is why, around New Year’s Day, with hard news in short supply, retrospective accounts of the year just ended abound – especially in the so-called quality press and on National Public Radio.

Much can be learned from these reports – not so much about the past year as about what our rulers would like their subjects to believe.

This year, a major effort is underway to nail down the official line on the evils of Vladimir Putin. It is mostly transparent nonsense, but the fact that a propaganda offensive is on portends trouble.

Most year-end retrospectives are more anodyne; many are just lists of notables who died since the last New Year’s Day. References to mortality can be unsettling, but coming at a time of year when they provide relief from Christmas carols, Dickens, and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” even the unsettling ones are welcome.

This New Year’s Day also marks the beginning of the end of the lull before the 2016 presidential election season gets underway. Soon potential candidates will be declaring their interest in running for the nominations of their respective parties.

This means that MSNBC will soon become watchable again, as Republicans make themselves available for Rachel Maddow to mock. Republicans are easy prey, and Rachel and her colleagues become tiresome quickly. But at least it beats beating up on Putin.

This quiet time is also a fine time to assess the Obama presidency; in particular, to reflect as best we now can, on how it will be viewed in the near and distant future. This is not just an idle exercise.

There is some urgency to it because if the Clinton juggernaut is not turned back in the next few months, we will soon be staring into the face of a future in which, no matter what we think future historians will make of his presidency, Barack Obama will be sorely missed – not for himself, but for what we can expect from his successor.

As personalities, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are worlds apart, but as actors on the stage of national politics, they are effectively the same — except that where Obama is hesitant, Clinton is inclined to rush in shooting, especially on matters of war and peace.

Obama is fond of drones and bombs and bands of assassins, but he is more hesitant than Clinton would be when it comes to putting “boots on the ground.” Were she calling the shots, there would be more corpses arriving at Dover Air Force base for processing, and more “wounded warriors” on their way to underfunded veterans’ hospitals. And there would be many more people dead and injured in the places where they would be coming home from, and more devastation.

Clinton’s bellicosity is why she would be an even worse President than Obama has been. She lacks his irresolution, his one saving grace.

Were she running the show, we would therefore be pretty much where we would be if somehow an Obama clone succeeded the original – but for this one enormous difference.

This is why getting clear about the Obama presidency is key to understanding what the world will be in for if and when the Clintons move back into the White House. The world will be like it now is – only worse because more racked by perpetual wars.

And how is it now? One way to get a purchase on this question is to imagine how the present will look to historians in the years ahead.

*  *  *

Needless to say, it is harder to speculate about the future than to reflect on the past. To borrow an expression from Donald Rumsfeld, arguably the most risible of the unindicted war criminals the Obama Justice Department is protecting, there are too many “known unknowns.”

Among other things, we don’t yet know what will come from his administration’s increasingly transparent efforts to provoke Russia into a new Cold War or what harm its “pivot towards Asia” will do.

Neither do we know how Obama’s revival of the Iraq War – and his extending it into Syria – or his machinations in Afghanistan, now that the war there is officially over — will work out. And we don’t know what the consequences will be of Obama’s not very secret wars in other parts of the historically Muslim world.

Nor do we know what environmental disasters future historians will attribute to Obama’s malign neglect. This is by no means the only “unknown unknown.”

However, there are more than enough “known knowns” upon which to ground speculations about how the Age of Obama will look before long.

We know, for example, that his Justice Department will get poor marks for not maintaining the rule of law when “too big to jail” financiers and corporate moguls engage in criminal activities. We also know that Obama will be judged poorly for his record on privacy rights; they have suffered mightily since he took office.

And we know that Obama is willing to violate international law whenever doing so suits his purposes, domestic or foreign. Future historians are likely to take note.

However these and related failings only continue policies set in motion by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Bush’s éminence grise. It is hard to see how, in the future, those two, Cheney especially, won’t get the lion’s share of blame.

Obama did pick up the ball they dropped, and ran with it as best he could – even while Cheney lambasted him from the sidelines. If only for this, future historians will surely deem that repugnant miscreant a world-class ingrate.

But, regardless of the affinities joining his administration with his predecessor’s, Obama is less likely to be blamed for his own crimes against Constitutional and international law than for his hypocrisy.

As François de la Rochefoucauld declared centuries ago, “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”   It is a vice to which human beings are highly susceptible. Not surprisingly, therefore, it has always been with us.

But by talking such a hypocritical mouthful about matters that concern his “base,” Obama has done for hypocrisy what the Clintons did for opportunism: he has given it a bad name even in circles where it is normally considered par for the course.

* * *

Hypocrisy is generally more evident in retrospect than at the moment. This is why, from a contemporary vantage point, Obama’s popularity is, and long has been, in decline for more salient reasons.

Rising inequality is high on the list of reasons why Obama’s stock has fallen so precipitously.

For a long time, diehard Democrats in the labor movement and in other key Democratic constituencies have been more than willing to cut Obama slack, and to acquiesce in the misfortunes befalling them. In a political universe populated by Democrats and Republicans, what else could they do?

But, for some time, there have also been flickers of resistance along with more intangible signs that large sectors of the American public have had enough of taking from the poor to give to the rich.

There are signs too that there is increasing awareness that the declining fortunes of the vast majority are not just contingent side effects of neoliberal, “pro-growth,” economic policies that Democrats would reform away if only Republicans wouldn’t stop them.

These policies are what neoliberalism is about, and promoting neoliberalism is what politicians these days do.   Even within the Democratic base, the realization is dawning that Democrats, though not quite as blatant as Republicans, are just as culpable. They too do what their paymasters demand.

It is also becoming harder than ever to deny that the trade policies that some Democrats, along with Republicans, have championed since the Bill Clinton days are a root cause of the discontent now rising to the surface.

Despite the drivel emanating out of the White House, “free trade” is emphatically not good for nearly everybody.   Quite the contrary, nearly everybody is now on to what neoliberal trade policies do.

Nearly everybody nowadays understands that the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, and NAFTA-like agreements with other trading partners, are responsible, more than any other factor, for the deindustrialization that has cost American workers so dearly, and for the ruinous financial shenanigans that define this phase of capitalism’s history.

Therefore, even in Democratic precincts, the word is out: we have Clintonesque trade policies to thank for the loss of manufacturing jobs, wage stagnation, the decline of the labor movement, and the massive loss of wealth suffered in recent years by nearly everyone who is not hyper-rich.

Just before Inauguration Day 2009, with the Obamas looking on, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and others sang Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “this land is your land,” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Along with Obama’s post-election acceptance speech in Grant Park, this is likely to be remembered as the high point of his presidency.

Future historians can hardly fail to notice that both feel-good moments occurred before Obama took office. Once he did, hope died. This is why memories of what happened in Grant Park and at the Lincoln Memorial make erstwhile Obama supporters feel like victims of a cruel joke.

“From California to the New York island” everybody now knows that Obama’s victory did not make this land our land – not on Inauguration Day and, except in an aspirational sense, not now. Six years into the Obama presidency, that aspiration seems more remote than ever.

The unexpurgated version of Guthrie’s song, the version sung at the Lincoln Memorial, names “private property” – or rather, by implication, the fact that a few have lots of it while everybody else has little or none — as the obstacle to overcome before this land can truly belong to its people. This has become more obvious than ever over the past six years.

It is now so obvious that even economists who are not too ideologically blinded to be moved by evidence or persuaded by arguments are beginning to agree.

Public opinion is increasingly on board as well. Corporate media have been unable to prevent the idea from taking hold; and not from want of trying.

In these circumstances, Obama could hardly not speak out against inequality too.

And so, speak out he has – many times.   He has said that he opposes inequality as much as anyone – if not for its own sake, then for its effects on his base and on what Bill Clinton famously called “the great forgotten middle class.”

But words are one thing; deeds are something else. Words are Obama’s way of paying “homage to virtue.”

In the world beyond words, Obama never stopped doing what all American Presidents have been doing since, at least, the final years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Every one of them has helped make inequality worse by reviving the failed economic policies of liberal capitalism’s distant past.

Carter was a reluctant neoliberal. As both stagnation and inflation followed what the French call les trente glorieuses, the thirty “glorious” years of economic growth in developed capitalist countries that followed the end of World War II, he felt he had no choice but to do what his neoliberal advisors advised.

Even at the time, the neoliberal turn was perceived as a step backwards. Prosperity had made those thirty years glory years for social democracy in Europe.  In the United States, they were glory years for the liberal settlement that began with the New Deal – in other words, for social democracy American style. Neoliberalism was widely understood to pose a threat to the progress that had been made.

Carter’s hope was therefore that with some fiscal belt tightening and modest deregulation, the crisis would end and progress would resume. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, was a true believer in neoliberal nostrums; in his mind, they were gospel truths. Reagan’s slightly less inane, but equally villainous, trans-Atlantic counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, thought so too.

For both of them, government was, as Reagan famously put it, not the solution, but the problem. His fiscal policies were designed “to starve the monster.”

By this, he meant the part of the monster that actually did people good. Reagan and his successors were all in favor of giving the Pentagon and the national security state everything they wanted, and more.

Reagan’s dedication to small government was therefore, to put it mildly, confused.   So is the dedication of those who now regard what Obama called his “transformative presidency” with veneration.

But at least when Reagan said one thing and did another, it was ideologically motivated guile plus stupidity, not hypocrisy, that was to blame. The same cannot be said for all of his successors, the Democrats among them especially.

Reagan articulated or, rather, superintended the resurrection of classical, early nineteenth century, liberal political economy. He helped make its core ideas mainstream, but he was seldom able to put them into practice.

While he was President, progress was stopped in its tracks. But Reagan never succeded in undoing what remained of the New and Fair Deals and the Great Society. In the pre-Clinton era, Democrats wouldn’t let him; back then, a few of them still had backbones.

Bush the Father fared no better. It took a Clinton to implement Reagan’s plans for America. To this day, Bill Clinton remains the most effective Reaganite President ever, more effective even than Reagan himself. He may never have believed in Reagan’s vision, but he got it done.

Bush the son did his best to carry on, but was in so much over his head that he couldn’t add on very much to the harm Clinton had already done

In any case, after Iraq and Afghanistan and torture and generally doing “a heck of a job,” future historians will have plenty to talk about besides his administrations’ role in further intensifying income and wealth inequality. There are too many more glaring malfeasances for which Bush will be blamed.

This is why it would not be surprising if, in the future, Obama gets most of the blame for the rise in inequality in the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century.

This would not be entirely fair: after all, he hasn’t done much more than come in late and watch it happen; not so far, anyway.

But by now, the situation is so bad that sins of omission are beginning to seem as reprehensible as sins of commission.

The Democrats’ loyal base is catching on too. If only to survive, even organized labor is coming to the realization that it will have to rethink its subservience to the Democratic Party and to the Obama White House. So too will organizations representing the poor and persons of color.

Despite all this, Obama is about to try to overtake even Bill Clinton in the making-the-problem-worse department.   He even has a bipartisan plan for getting it done.

With Republican help and with centrist and rightwing Democrats taking the lead, he has evidently decided to forge full steam ahead on trying to win legislative approval for granting his administration fast track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, a trade agreement aptly described as NAFTA on steroids.

Obama wants it done before serious electioneering gets underway – so that those pesky workers and people of color and “the great forgotten middle class” will forget all about it by the time Democrats call on them yet again to do yeoman service getting them elected.

He is pulling out all the stops – taking care of business.

What for? Maybe he just wants those “savvy businessmen” who vetted him and then selected him to run the state in their behalf to get what they paid for.

Perhaps he is also angling for the kinds of riches that the Clinton family has accumulated in Bill’s post-White House and Hillary’s pre-White House years.

In any case, forget all those fine words of Obama’s on inequality! The man is hell bent on making more of it.

If this makes life worse for the ninety-nine percent, so be it; collateral damage happens. Just as you can’t hurl drones or drop bombs or dispatch assassins without killing innocent civilians, you can’t take care of business without making lots of people worse off.

In the Age of Obama, collateral damage happens a lot. If and when Clinton picks up the ball, it will likely happen even more – especially to peoples of whom she knows little and cares less.

But will even she be able to do more harm to more people than Obama, if he succeeds in getting the TPP through?

The Clintons are inveterate proponents of neoliberal policies on trade, and there is nothing they will not do to further the interests of their corporate sponsors.

But, years from now, when all the dust has settled, it may turn out that, in these final two years of his presidency, Obama, not Hillary or even Bill, became the greatest Reaganite of all.

If this happens, chalk it up to the TPP.

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).