According to recent polling data, former Vice President Joe Biden has a two-to-one lead over his next closest rival in the Democratic primary contest, Bernie Sanders. According to a Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll, Biden has 34 percent support from registered Democratic voters compared to 17 percent who support Sanders. This will surely embolden those in the establishment wing of the Democratic Party who claim that a moderate, centrist figure like Biden stands the best chance of defeating Trump next year.
Of course, this is completely contradicted by the outcome of the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton’s association with the failed “New Democrat” policies of her husband and, above all, the corrupt Washington status quo of state capture by corporate and financial interests played right into Trump’s hands. He was able to (falsely) portray himself as an outsider standing up for the common man who, as an uber-wealthy billionaire, was not subject to these malign special interests. Of course, this was from the beginning, a transparent con job; once in office Trump has shown himself to be every bit as beholden to corporate and financial interests as any of his predecessors – whether it be his appointment of corporate crooks to positions within his administration or his shameless pandering to business interests via deregulatory legislation. In such a context, unless the Democrats offer a genuine progressive who really does represent an alternative to both Trumpism and the stale neoliberalism/imperialism-lite of the Democratic Party establishment, Trump may well be able again to channel enough disaffection amongst the benighted masses of Middle America into another narrow electoral college victory.
But there is a bigger reason why Biden would be the worst choice for the Democrats to face Trump in 2020: the fact that he served as vice president under Barack Obama. Establishment Democrats and faux-left figures like to reminisce about Obama’s presidency as if it were some kind of golden era in US politics. And some pseudo-progressive publications treat comments he makes denouncing the Trump administration as the words of a wise old sage whose counsel we should seek in this time of darkness. The reality, however, is that Obama’s presidency was a sordid compendium of reactionary policies that barely deviated from those of his predecessors or his successor. The attempt to characterize Trump as an aberration obscures the fact Obama’s legacy is one of death and destruction abroad, and austerity and graft at home. Far from representing the beginning of the imperialist spread of tooth-and-nail neoliberalism across the globe, the transition from Obama to Trump is more akin to ripping off the mask that obscured the hideous face of the monster beneath.
Bailing out the banks, continuing the neoliberal orthodoxy
On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama waxed lyrical with lofty rhetoric about “hope and change.” In particular, he claimed that if elected, he would steer the country toward a different course that would improve living standards across society. Once in office, however, his economic policies were largely a continuation of the neoliberal orthodoxy of his predecessor, George W. Bush. With the 2007/2008 financial crisis having raged over a year as he entered the White House, he had the opportunity and strong public backing to take firm action against the banks and other financial institutions whose recklessness had caused the crash. But far from pushing for radical reform, he instead continued with Bush’s bank bailout program that essentially rewarded these institutions’ greed and malfeasance, and also shielded their shareholders from the wipeout that would have happened had capitalism been allowed to function normally.
But while he extended this government largess to the actual culprits behind the economic crisis, he provided only measly help those who had done the least to cause it but nonetheless suffered the most from its devastating consequences – via a process Noam Chomsky has dubbed “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor.” For instance, underwater homeowners whose equity had been decimated by falling house prices were offered only measly government relief.
Perhaps worst of all, far from taking the opportunity to gut Washington of the finance sector shysters and “free” market ideologues whose deregulating policies had paved the way for economic catastrophe in the first place, he stacked his administration with these very same Wall Street insiders and peddlers of voodoo economics who had presided over the crash. No one should have been surprised, however – Obama received more in campaign contributions from Wall Street sources than his Republican rivals during both the 2008 and 2012 campaign cycles. Indeed, ever since the Clinton era, US politics has essentially been a contest between the financial wing of capitalism (represented by the Democrats) and the corporate wing of capitalism (represented by the Republicans).
Playing fast and loose on trade
On trade policy as well, Obama’s record represented a continuation, if not a worsening, of the so-called “free” trade orthodoxy of his predecessor. Despite campaigning against it during his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama signed the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The trade pact was fiercely opposed by progressive Democrats in Congress due to Colombia’s horrific experience with anti-trade unionist violence, which is one of the worst in the world. As happened with NAFTA, the agreement also risks decimating the livelihood of Colombian farmers who will not be able to compete with the flooding of the food market with goods produced by US agro-industrial giants, which benefit from huge economies of scale – not to mention plentiful subsidies from the US federal government, in a bizarre and hypocritical violation of the tenets of so-called “free” market economics.
In early 2016, Obama signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – another so-called “free” trade agreement that included six nations that share a coastline on the Pacific Ocean. As with other treaties like it, TPP establishes investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms that allow multinational corporations to sue governments that dare to enact new laws that might harm their bottom line, such as environmental protections or labor regulations. This not only gives these unaccountable private entities, which naturally operate according to the dictates of profit rather than public welfare, massive unprecedented powers, but also undermines much more fundamental principles such as national sovereignty and, arguably, even the very concept of democracy itself.
Under Obama’s watch, both the TPP and the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement were rushed through Congress using the secretive “fast-track” procedure. In a flagrant violation of transparency, this allowed them to get signed into law without the media or wider public having any opportunity to see their contents and barred elected representatives from adding any amendments – allowing them only to cast a simple yes/no vote on the original and final version.
Trampling over civil liberties
Obama’s record on civil liberties was, again, scarcely better than that of George W. Bush. He failed to repeal the Patriot Act, which Bush enacted in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Widely criticized by civil liberties activists as a knee-jerk response, the law curtails even basic rights such as habeas corpus in certain circumstances. In 2011, Obama renewed several of its major provisions such as the use of roving wiretaps. The next year, Obama signed a five-year extension to the FISA Amendments Act, which allows for further government wiretapping and data collection.
The year after that, in 2013, The Washington Post published a damning investigation showing that the National Security Agency had “broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.” The investigation found evidence of widespread unauthorized, illegal surveillance of both US citizens and foreign intelligence targets located in the US, including interception of emails and telephone calls.
Most disappointingly of all on the civil liberties front, Obama also failed to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center – which the US operates illegally on Cuban sovereign territory – in spite of repeated promises to do so during his 2008 campaign for the presidency. During his two terms in office, the torture, renditions and indefinite detention without trial that had taken place there during the Bush administration – and all of which is illegal under international law – continued apace and unabated.
Despite making overtures to Latinx and other immigrant communities, once in office Obama betrayed these communities by embarking on a ruthless policy of deportation. Hundreds of thousands of deportations took place during his two terms, with the rate of expulsions at times reaching 20,000 per month. The average deportation rate throughout Obama’s presidency was, in fact, higher than it was during Trump’s first year in office.
But his failure on immigration goes deeper than simple figures. During both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns for the presidency, Obama promised radical, lasting reform to the country’s immigration system. To be sure, he did (unsuccessfully) try to get the DREAM Act, which would have granted residency to those who entered the United States illegally as children, passed by Congress. And his administration also stopped deporting undocumented immigrants who met the criteria set by the legislation and instituted the DACA program, which granted a two year deferment for undocumented minors. But when he left office in 2016, he nonetheless left behind an unreformed and outdated system in which roughly 11 million undocumented people were left in limbo. Perhaps most unforgivably of all, he attempted to do a deal with congressional Republicans in which, in return for their acceptance of a path to citizenship, he would have simultaneously increased funding for so-called border security and enacted “business-friendly” (i.e. exploitative) reforms to the system of legal immigration. (Fortunately, he was unsuccessful.)
Murderous foreign policy
As terrible as all of the above enumerated aspects of Obama’s presidency were, they all pale in comparison to his record on foreign policy. Though there were a few meager steps in the right direction, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the renormalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba (that nonetheless kept the devastating economic blockade in place), Obama’s record was, once again, in large part a continuation of that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Within the first year of his presidency, Obama doubled US troop numbers in Afghanistan, adding a total of 50,000 soldiers to what has become the longest war in US history. During the 2008 campaign, he pledged to end the Iraq War. But, after initially fulfilling his promise by pulling troops out during his first term, he then redeployed ground forces half way through his second.
Obama also failed to end Bush’s campaign of covert drone strikes. In fact, there were ten times as many of these attacks – which killed thousands, including hundreds of civilians – during the two Obama administrations than during the eight years of George W. Bush. And far from taking a more balanced position toward the Middle East, Obama strengthened ties with the region’s most notorious human rights violators – namely, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Both of Israel’s most recent massacres in Gaza – Operation Cast Lead and Operation Protective Edge, which led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in both cases – took place during Obama’s presidency. Yet far from taking a firm line against these atrocities, Obama consistently bowed to the right-wing government of Ehud Olmert and later the hard-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu. On July 18, 2014, at the height of Operation Protective Edge, for instance, Obama issued a statement affirming Israel’s “right to defend itself” (as if there was anything defensive about what was being done to the inmates of the world’s largest prison camp!). Two years earlier, he gave a fawning speech at the annual AIPAC conference in which he stated: “I have Israel’s back” and “we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism.” (By “we” he presumably means him plus the Zionist and neoconservative foreign policy interests who he answers to.)
Obama’s groveling to the Saudi dictatorship was just as bad. Far from distancing himself from this absolute monarchy and brutal human rights violator, Obama met with the then-King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, twice within the first year of his presidency. The next year, Obama finalized the largest US arms sale of its kind in history with King Abdullah’s government. The $60 billion deal included the sale of fighter jets and helicopters along with a package to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s navy. About six years later, a Saudi-led coalition launched a brutal war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, including a famine in which 17 million people are at risk of starvation. It’s all but certain that Saudi forces have used US-purchased arms as part of the their military campaign, which has included multiple acts of state terror including dropping a bomb (a 500-pound laser-guided MK 82 manufactured by US arms giant Lockheed Martin, to be precise) on a school bus – an attack that claimed the lives of 40 children. The Saudi dictatorship seemingly repaid the favor by allowing the US to operate part of its aforementioned drone assassination program from a base located within Saudi borders.
When King Abdullah died in 2015, the White House issued a fawning tribute to the deceased, heralding him as one of Washington’s most reliable and valuable allies and partners. The fact that he was the head of an absolute monarch where only minor local officials are elected and that, moreover, has a human rights record that includes public beheadings and brutal suppression of political dissent, was seemingly forgotten – or, rather, forgiven since his government loyally served US economic and geostrategic interests. What made the exercise all the more nauseatingly hypocritical was the fact that it came just weeks after the White House issued a statement about the death of Hugo Chavez, who had passed away a few weeks earlier, which implied that his presidency had seen a breakdown in “democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.” Washington’s minions in the corporate-owned press, meanwhile, had been practically dancing on his grave. Whatever one thought of Chavez, what’s certain is that even if the most overblown, cartoonish caricature of him were accurate, he still would have been a saint compared to Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. So what explains the disparity in treatment? Well, since Chavez did not dutifully serve US interests and instead challenged US neoliberal orthodoxy in Washington’s “backyard,” his government was singled out for criticism, isolation and even outright hostility, including a set of sanctions enacted by the Obama administration predicated on dubious allegations of involvement in narco-trafficking. The Saudi dictatorship, on the other hand, has been faithfully doing Washington’s bidding in the Middle East, giving the US plentiful business in terms of arms sales, and providing favorable access to its massive oil reserves. Therefore, there was seemingly nothing it could have done wrong that Obama wasn’t willing to overlook. The reality behind this double standard, which Obama’s administration attempted to obfuscate, has been completely unmasked by Trump, who in November 2018 openly admitted that the US’s favorable treatment of the Saudis is because it is good for US economic interests.
Obama’s Latin America policy elsewhere in the region, incidentally, was hardly better. In addition to continuing Bush’s destabilization campaign against the Chavista government in Venezuela, Obama’s State Department also played a hand in the coup against the democratically-elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. Like Chavez, Zelaya had been resisting the US’s preferred neoliberal economic system by building schools, raising the minimum wage and investing in infrastructure – exactly the kinds of things that are considered an affront to the interests of Washington and its allied internal elites. A plan to rewrite Honduras’ constitution was the straw the broke the camel’s back, and Washington’s internal quisling class launched a coup in which Zelaya was dragged from his bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night while still dressed in his pajamas and exiled to Costa Rica.
In her own memoir, titled Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton – who at the time was serving as Secretary of State in the Obama administration – admitted her role is aiding the coup by helping to prevent Zelaya’s return to office. (The section of the book in question mysteriously vanished from its paperback edition.) Under her command, the State Department proceeded to assist successive post-coup government’s with propaganda campaigns to “scrub” their image and improve public perceptions of their legitimacy at home and abroad. That such an exercise is needed is evident from the fact that ever since Zelaya’s ouster, the Central American nation has degenerated into a human rights nightmare in which state security forces routines commit human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, often with impunity. Forces allied to corporate power, meanwhile, have been waging a campaign of violence and intimidation against indigenous and environmental activists who dare stand in the way of development projects. This reality was tragically rammed home in March 2016 when Goldman Environmental Award recipient Berta Caceres – famous for her activism against the Agua Zarca dam at the Río Gualcarque – was shot dead by masked gunmen inside her home in the town of La Esperanza.
Honduras’ status as a dictatorship and narco-state has been cemented in the years since Obama left office. In 2017, the election victory of Juan Orlando Hernandez was widely denounced as fraudulent, including by the pro-Washington Organization of American States, which called for new elections (which, of course, have not been held). Washington, however, accepted the result without question. Hernandez has subsequently faced questions about his possible role in drug trafficking in the region following the arrest of his brother, Juan Antonio Herndez, on drug-related charges in Miami in November 2018. Taken in sum, the situation in Honduras has exposed the flagrant double standards that both the Obama and Trump administrations have had on hemispheric policy. After all, (far less credible) accusations of breakdown in democratic norms and state involvement in drug trafficking form part of the rationale for their hostility toward the Chavista government in Venezuela.
Not a whisper of regret from Biden
As vice president during both of Obama’s terms, Biden is indelibly tarred by the legacy of this sordid record. And far from distancing himself from it, Biden has so far been championing Obama’s legacy on stage at the various Democratic Party televised debates. He has even expressed bafflement that some of his opponents in the primary race would express the slightest criticism of any aspect of Obama’s time in office. On July 31, the day after his first debate performance, he said: “I’m proud of the job he did. I don’t think there’s anything he has to apologize for and, I think, it kind of surprised me the degree of the criticism [from the other candidates].” If he doesn’t think that Obama has anything he ought to apologize for, then he essentially thinks that his presidency was completely without misjudgment, mistake or even imperfection. It’s as if he considers the former president to be some kind of demigod whose presidency represented some kind of pinnacle in US statesmanship. Central to this narrative is the presentation of the difference between Trump and Obama as akin to the difference between Hitler and Gandhi. A better analogy – especially when it comes to foreign policy – would be the difference between John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who was known for dressing up as a clown at public events, and Ted Bundy, the tall, handsome serial killer who enticed his victims into his car with his charm and good looks.
Worse still, Biden has been presenting any attempt to offer a policy platform that even slightly deviates from Obama’s brand of neoliberalism/imperialism-lite as treacherous heresy and as a de facto handing of the 2020 election to Trump on a silver platter. In the current context, the best on offer seems to be two to three candidates who can be said to be a) vaguely social democratic in orientation and b) not out-and-out psychopaths on foreign policy. Bernie Sanders might not be an actual socialist or actual anti-imperialist, but his candidacy represents a historic opportunity to at least knock the trajectory of the neoliberal and imperialist status quo slightly off kilter. Progressives need to fight tooth and nail against this cynical attempt by Biden and his establishment backers to squander this opportunity to take a small but imperative first step away from the global imperial capitalist system that both Republicans and establishment Democrats like Biden wish to preserve.
Emily Dosal contributed research to this article.