The Obama Legacy: Reform Versus Revolution

Photograph Source: Robert Hoge – CC BY 2.0

Those factions of the Democratic party which worked so hard in 2016 to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ chances for the nomination have been nervous for some time about the persistent popularity of the progressive agenda. We’ve been witnessing the blowback from this assault. The arrival of the “squad” in 2018 and Warren’s addition to the slate of candidates for the upcoming election are striking symptoms, unthinkable without the Sanders’ “revolution.” Sanders tapped into the desire for change that lay dormant in the party, above all the pressure to represent excluded citizens but also to reform a process that enabled the sabotage. The power of Super Delegates, entrenched insiders whose choices are immune to actual voting, for example, that pre-decided Hillary Clinton’s status. We owe Sanders for the challenge to this archaic practice and the seeding of passion for participatory democracy. Sadly, it took this independent outsider to make this desire manifest.

Nervousness has apparently morphed into dread as establishment insiders now want to expel or repress the influence of anyone associated with this popular progressive legacy that’s found tenuous sanctuary in the Democratic party. They believe these “outsiders” have hijacked it, taken it too far to the left. But this is a false charge since the progressives mostly want to restore the liberal foundation that predated the turn to the right (“Demonizing the Few to Alienate and Sway the Many,” CounterPunch). The real hijackers are the elite that pushed the party ideologically toward the Republican party in the 70s, refusing to acknowledge the popular pressures from a strain of citizenry that will become today’s excluded.

Barack Obama’s recent comments are a potent addition to the rhetorical lashing-out at these alleged outsiders, and they’re very curious indeed since he was hailed as a species of outsider himself in the run-up to the 2008 election. He warns the candidates that they should stay focused on improving the system rather than radically transforming it, “tearing it down.” We are not a country that endorses “revolution,” but one committed to reform. This is the authentic American tradition.

A curious read of history! Since virtually every “reform” passed during his tenure is being or has been dismantled by the Trump administration, you’d think he would ally with the candidates who will give the Democrats the best chance to at least retrieve the status quo that he inherited. The ease with which his legacy is being reversed and modified is testimony to the limits of his actions in creating real hope and change. Like Obamacare, his signature retooling of a Republican plan, proposed by the Gingrich Congress early in the Clinton administration in response to its efforts to pass Single Payer, and realized during Romney’s stretch as Massachusetts Governor. He and the Democrats spent nearly two years crafting this “reform,” years when they had control of Congress and could have produced at least some form of public option if not full-blown Medicare for All.

No question that Obamacare tackled pre-existing conditions, mandated coverage for more people, and expanded the Medicaid buffer. But then the private insurance system it props up is flagrantly inadequate, the plans it offers guarantees of indebtedness through exorbitant copays and sub-standard, profit-driven services, leaving thousands to die prematurely every year and a country with the life expectancy of roughly 30th on the global chain. This corporate, overhead-driven system is responsible for the fact that its expanded costs have far outstripped wages (Alex Matthews et al, UC Berkeley Labor Center, 12/3, “Health Care Costs Under Job-based Plans”).

Obama celebrated his win as a victory for democracy, a passionate reach across the partisan divide to negotiate and compromise. Unfortunately, he compromised ahead of the process, admitting that Single Payer would be the best option but that we have a private insurance industry that must be party to any solution. This let these private players off for their successes over time in blocking progress toward the best solution, giving the adversaries a victory without a fight. His mantra of “hope and change” was not about getting the best after all. Why would the Republicans need to compromise in the face of such advance support?

Obama’s “reforms” of the economy were similar. They worked the financial system in place. But this was what he lambasted in his speeches during the summer of 2008 as the economy tanked, the system the neoliberal “revolution” spawned during the Reagan years and solidified under Bush. This had to be reversed, he claimed. And he was positioned to do exactly that, campaigning for the Democratic nomination at the very moment when the flaws in this system were being exposed. It was the historical opening progressives pined for, but Obama blew it, appointing Wall Street interests to reform themselves (His cabinet appointees were mostly from the establishment, some even from the Bush administration).

Instead of implementing enlightened fiscal policies to kickstart this reversal, these figures relied on the same ole monetary tools that had directed policies in the past and which had encouraged the speculative frenzies that destabilized the financial system. Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary in the early years, organized efforts to sanction filter-down economics. The Fed, though supposedly independent, was in lockstep. It offered interest free loans to banks which unfortunately didn’t pass their gains onto many borrowers in the form of debt forgiveness, loan modifications, refinancing opportunities, or new mortgages. A filtering-down strained through government censors! The tight borrowing conditions were justified to defend against the return of instability as the profits of the financial sector soared. Dodd-Frank, the legislation passed by the Democratic Congress in 2010, standardized this exclusion, its formula debt-income ratios over-reactive penalties against legit borrowers that usurped the power of small banks to capitalize their communities and revive the sectors lagging behind in the “recovery.”

The skewed nature of this reform was of course already exposed when the administration passed checks to the big banks right out of the gate. This was nominally about the need to replace their reserves and keep the banking system solvent but letting so many bad actors off the hook for inefficiencies raised questions about whose circumstances were being reformed. Getting a pass on the consequences of the free market mechanisms sent a conflicting message. It meant that these entities were granted privileged positions to compete against the rest of the field, free to gobble up smaller banks which they did with alarming efficiency.

The latter, especially community banks, were more sympathetic with the needs of the lower-income borrowers most impacted by the crisis. So why did they have to fail? Why weren’t they part of the “reform?”

Such questions were smoothed over by claiming that the borrowers caused the crisis, that they shouldn’t have taken out loans they couldn’t afford. But the overly expensive, guaranteed-to-fail nature of these loans, ignored by these claimants, couldn’t be excised from the record.

The real tragedy is that we live with this contradiction and its effects now in the form of a significant drop in the percentages of homeowners, as well as in access to capital assets, that have paralleled the exponential increase in the fortunes of the 1%. The widening inequality gap under Obama manufactured a culture of alienated citizens, many who dropped out of the 2016 election, or switched to the Republicans.

However persuasive as an inspirational figure spouting pre-election snippets of economic populism, Obama’s post-election accommodation with power unfortunately embraced the familiar path of “liberal reform.”

The practitioners of this kind of “reform” wield compromise as their ultimate strategy. They’re “problem solvers,” pragmatists who do the right thing and get things done. They position themselves in the center, the space of reason and moderation, where they claim to process the voices from the spectrum surrounding them without bias. This center, however, is far from a neutral battleground. It’s a staging arena where players can mask their sympathies with voting formulas and procedural codes that signal the absorption in credible democratic processes while mostly legitimizing the status quo. This is an attractive notion for moments of extreme polarization when partisan bickering replaces productive cooperation. But claiming this staging space in the center to deliver compromise is not the same as actively seeking common ground through a process that challenges the interests working behind the scenes to set the agenda and position the goalposts, the lobbyists who usurp the democratic process. This search is about exposing the imbalance of power and struggling to correct it, compromising only after sustained commitment to principles, refusing to accept the artificial construct of the political center as a given. The positioning in the center in advance leads to skewed “compromise,” the easy accession to the agenda that forced the need for compromise in the first place. It means abdicating common ground and shifting with the power of the adversary, ignoring the movement of the goalposts.

And no question the conservatives Obama courted through much of his administration pushed the goalposts to the right, having little interest in compromise or neutrality. They ignored his overtures to democratic process. In fact, they were not really interested in reform. Emboldened by Obama’s weakness, they pushed to further strengthen the Republican platform crafted in the early 70s. This constituted a virtual counter-revolution, an all-out effort to roll back the liberal gains of the 60s, the variable reforms of the Great Society. These were entrenched by the end of the decade, nurturing the political soil that sprouted Reaganism. This left changes in place that were more structurally rooted than what the liberal-left activists of the earlier era could offer. The sudden collapse of SDS and large-scale movement pressure on the system left a great deal of unfinished business.

And Obama’s enemies across the aisle were naturally more extreme than when the counter-revolution commenced, having a generation of time to convert the effects of this ongoing revolution into our naturalizing center-right order. The Democratic party itself has shifted with these changes.

Obama’s centrist “reform” regime could only ever be anachronistic—lost in the imaginary of some pluralistic model of power—in the face of a counter-revolution in progress this formidable. It mostly served the interests of the entrenched. As Raoul Martinez claims, centrism is the “gateway drug to the far right,” the powerful needing “centrist politics to rationalize and protect their extreme privilege” (“The Centrist Delusion,” Information Clearing House, December 12, 2019).

Obama needed to deliver substantial change during his administration. This didn’t need to be radical, or “revolutionary,” merely something that would stick and be difficult to reverse. A revamped, progressive tax code that could authorize a continuing distribution of wealth to approximate the kind of economic populism he touted in his speeches, for example. He needed to counter the counter-revolution with the right’s brashness. That he’s now ascribing “revolutionary” pretensions to those candidates—particularly Sanders and Warren—who want to institutionalize progressive change does a disservice to the democratic process. His demonizing of outsiders who he claims are revolutionaries is part of the problem. He should’ve fought to restore the progressive liberal tradition while exposing the counter-revolutionary aberration.

There’s no surer way to discredit a position or person than to associate them with the sentiments of “revolution.” The phrase “tearing down,” used to suggest what progressives will do if given power, conjures angry, bereted, gun-toting males transforming the system extra-legally, a sure put-off for the average citizen. It meshes nicely with “revolution.” Obama goes after the “outsiders” in his own party with charges of extremism for actions alleged to eventually occur, yet sanitizes his vocabulary with respect to the counter-revolution, the narrative stretch of actions and the actors attached to them responsible for preventing many of the reforms he once espoused. This continuing revolution, sustained through laws and the political pressures of mercenaries working the system, uproots the structures for securing freedom and prosperity while pitching the opposite. Why can’t Obama, and the string of insider Democrats, properly name this narrative?

Failing to name it, it’s hardly a shock that he also fails to specify how these outsiders are revolutionaries. They’re certainly not advocating anything that would justify a tearing down of the system. And this isn’t even their phrase. As opposed to a tearing down, they advocate a serious retrofit that preserves what’s consistent with the progressive liberal tradition but adds reforms that substantially strengthen it. Crafting a progressive tax code, which once existed in this country, and pushing for a living wage, more access to education, and a more humane immigration policy, hardly qualifies as a tearing down. They’re reforms which catch us up with most of the rest of the advanced industrial world. The advocacy of Medicare for All is similarly a reform that merely builds on an existing structure, the mid-1960s legislation that created Medicare. Critics contend this expansion will mean the elimination of health care plans people want, but the real message tends to get lost. The gist of these health plans will be reconstituted within a comprehensive plan that improves care and minimizes financial burdens.

And attempting to do something about the excessive inequality we’ve inherited, the manufacturing of the 1%, hardly qualifies as a tearing down either. The Founding Fathers certainly didn’t expect America to evolve into another aristocracy. A recent Reuters poll shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents support taxing the rich at higher rates to support programs that would benefit all Americans (Julia Conley, Portside, 1/10/20.). And there are certainly not that many radicals lurking in the shadows of mainstream America.

Pushing reforms legislatively to the edge and putting external pressure on the system that blocks them, will dissolve the center and help re-build this country, not tear it down. The only entities in danger of being torn down at this moment in the election cycle, according to Leland Nally, are insurance companies, corporate profiteers, climate deniers, and immigration reactionaries (“Obama Is Wrong to Push Democratic Party Centrism,” Common Dreams, 11/26/19).

Obama cited Martin Luther King religiously, maligned as an outsider in his day who fought vigorously for full social justice. Unfortunately, Obama slighted his complete narrative, most evident in the few years before he died, that embraced economic populism. King laid the foundation for critical perspectives on diversity, an expanded notion that linked issues of race and class, the formative concept for the Rainbow Coalition that Jesse Jackson marshaled to challenge the Democratic party in the 80s. And these perspectives constitute a remarkable mesh with the current progressive agenda. Had Obama absorbed King’s full social justice into his policy approaches the Congressional Black Caucus would not have slighted him, relatively early in his administration, for virtually ignoring the economic plight of African-Americans. This is the reason why, according to Michael Eric Dyson, the liberal left is having a difficult time reconciling Obama’s legacy with what must be done to move forward and win the election (Meet the Press, 12/24).

Real reformers are invariably outsiders, and if their ideas slip into the mainstream they tend to be sanitized, their complete contributions to the improvement of society repressed. The resulting amnesia allows the insiders to selectively appropriate their significance and repeat the farces of history.

If one of the liberal-reformer Democrats is elected, how will they script the Obama legacy?

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His next book, From Hyperion to Erebus, is due out this year from Wapshott Press.

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class