Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of Obama

Could it just be a year ago that so many were so willfully deluded that The New Yorker, attuned to the mood of the time, ran a caricature of Obama in an FDR pose on its front cover? Back then, a new New Deal seemed just around the corner, and happy days were here again. Nowadays, Obamamania is a spent force; it’s the tea-baggers who own enthusiasm. Republicans are not good at much, not even at coopting tea-baggery, but they can smell blood in the water and go in for the kill. The military can too; it’s their stock and trade. Thus the Gates-Petreus-McCrystal axis has gotten a chance in Afghanistan to redo Vietnam. This time, they think, they’ll get it right. Of course, they are as deluded as any Obamaniac ever was; and pity the victims of the murder and mayhem they unleash.

The Afghanistan escalation is high on the list of Obama’s greatest disappointments, but there are so many others. It was clear enough, even before Inauguration Day, as Obama loaded up his administration with Clintonites and as he turned over management of the economy to the architects of the disaster he inherited. But liberals still dreamed that the Obama of their imagination would prevail over his “team of rivals,” putting their expertise to use while forging his new New Deal over all objections. The hope persisted even when Obama turned his signature issue, health care, over to the “stakeholders” (profiteers) and to their bought and paid for legislators. That mistake was clear for all but the willfully blind by mid-summer, and it has gone downhill ever since.

A year ago, one could believe that the leaders of the world’s greatest polluting state would soon deal with global warming and other impending environmental catastrophes. A year ago, one could still hope that the main perps in the Bush-Cheney torture regime would be brought to justice by an administration dedicated to restoring the rule of law. A year ago, it would have been reasonable to bet the ranch that organized labor, which did so much to get Obama elected, would by now have won a few perks – maybe even the Employee Free Choice Act, which Obama officially supports. Who would have imagined that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would still be in force? Or that America’s relations with Latin America and Africa, not to mention the Middle East (remember Obama’s Cairo speech in June!) would be so little changed? The list goes on.

Back in July, Kevin Baker wrote an excellent piece in Harper’s Magazine comparing Obama not to FDR, but to Herbert Hoover. The similarities are striking. Hoover, like Obama, was smarter than the average President (including FDR), better educated and more thoughtful. At an intellectual level, he understood what had to be done to get the country out of the Great Depression. But he was too much a prisoner of conventional wisdom and the powers that be to do more than fall back on old, discredited ways. Do we see a pattern here? In the current issue of The Nation, Eric Foner likens Obama to Jimmy Carter, another smarter than average Commander-in-Chief. Both are too nice and therefore too weak not to be swamped by the forces they set out to oppose; both unnecessarily adopted “ if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em” strategies.

There is merit in these comparisons. But history doesn’t repeat itself neatly, and each presidency is bad in its own way. If the future is like the past, Obama’s presidency will fail mainly for a reason that is unique to his – and his advisors’ -- patently false view of good governance. Obama’s failures to date and the ones to come, unless he radically changes course, stem from abject servility towards the right, and arrogant neglect of the left. This would be bad enough in the circumstances other Democratic presidents confronted. But now, with a unified and disciplined Republican Party determined to bring the Democrats down, and with a Democratic Party populated by right-wing Clintonites and worse, pandering to the right is as sure a recipe for failure as escalating America’s never ending war in Afghanistan. There is only one way to advance or even just stay afloat in the circumstances that now exist, and it is just the opposite of what Obama has been doing. To survive and flourish, it is necessary to move relentlessly left; to beat the tea-baggers and their political representatives at their own game.

We will find out soon enough if Obama is on track to taking a “populist” turn, as the media calls it; in other words, if he’s going to address the needs and concerns of the constituencies who voted for him. If he does, maybe he can salvage something from the shambles of his first year in office. After the Brown victory in Massachusetts, the signs were hopeful. But now, just a few days later, Obama’s Clintonite advisors seem to have won the day. If he goes through with the idea of a freeze on discretionary spending – a proposal of John McCain’s that Obama rejected explicitly in the debates -- it will be clear that his administration is taking precisely the wrong lesson from Massachusetts. Then Obama will have repudiated the one good thing about his first year – his dedication to an activist economic role for the government.

By ruling so incompetently and stupidly, Bush and Cheney and the morally and intellectually bankrupt Greater Evil Party handed Obama and the Democrats an unprecedented historical opportunity, which he and they have squandered. Unless Obama abruptly changes course, he and his fellow Democrats will pay the price for this “bipartisanship.” Thus Obama will return the favor given him by the Democrats’ electoral rivals – and we will all be even worse off than we would otherwise be.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Coakley v Brown: Should Anybody Care?

If by “democracy,” we mean what the word says, rule by the demos (the people, as distinct from social or economic elites), it is plain that all liberal democracies are undemocratic. They may (somewhat) respect the form, but not the content, of genuine democratic governance. But each undemocratic “democracy” is undemocratic in its own way. Still, in all cases, the party system is mainly to blame. It has been that way for more than a century and a half – from the time it became clear that with suitable institutions and with political parties mediating public deliberation and collective choice, the propertied classes had nothing to fear from extending the franchise to the propertyless masses. The party system made democracy safe for capitalism.

However, in most countries, the party system allows for the electoral expression of the views voters actually hold – once the elites’ ideological apparatus has had a go at shaping opinion. In recent decades, mass media has been the most important component of this ideological mechanism, but we should not discount the impact of the educational system and, in benighted quarters (which is to say, almost everywhere), of churches, synagogues and mosques. In nearly all cases, the demos gets to vote its will, more or less. That will is then thwarted at a later stage; usually, as parties shape ruling alliances. In the very rare instances where even that does not suffice, capital has other, less directly political, means to assure that its will be done.

But then, in this matter as in so many others, America is “exceptional.” Here, in the Land of the Free, our semi-institutionalized parties have all but duopolized the electoral system, even to the point of making ballot access for “third” parties costly and difficult. The result is that we progressives are effectively disenfranchised – except insofar as we can sometimes exercise our “voice,” impotently in most cases, in primary elections. Thus the compromises and betrayals that normally happen after general elections in most countries happen here before general elections even take place. In many respects, the results are similar; elite rule is maintained. But the American way impoverishes the political culture even more profoundly than happens elsewhere. Elsewhere, it is generally possible to vote for something, and therefore to organize and militate for what one believes. Here all we can do is vote against the greater of two evils.

Of course, when the right candidate appears, progressives, if they are sufficiently muddleheaded, can delude themselves into thinking they are voting for something. That’s what happened in 2008. Barack Obama ran a center-right campaign; if the gossip mongers who wrote Game Change can be believed – and there’s no reason to think they can’t – he was the establishment candidate from the get go. But because he could present himself as a Rorschach man, in whom voters saw what they wanted to see, he raised expectations; and because so many voters – left, right, and center -- allowed themselves to be deluded, many of them now feel betrayed.

But no one should feel betrayed because, while nothing (or almost nothing) has been delivered, nothing was promised either – as anyone who paid attention to what was really going on, as distinct from what they wanted to believe, would realize. Disappointment is another matter. I never expected much from Barack Obama, as readers of this blog know. But I did think that he was better than Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Now, I’m not sure. So I’m disappointed. But even before he started filling his administration with Clintonites and Wall Streeters, it was clear as day that, though the first of his hue to crack the ultimate glass ceiling, Obama is still just a Democrat. And, the name not withstanding, Democrats are anything but the party of the demos. All that can be said in their behalf is that they are the party of the Lesser Evil.

Thanks to American exceptionalism, there is no constructive way to express this disappointment electorally – because to vote against a Democrat one must vote for a Republican or at least vote (or not vote) in a way that makes it easier for a Republican to win. This is what the Coakley v Brown election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts is about. This is why in the bluest of blue states [I still can’t figure out how the Republicans got red] a tea-bagger in sheep’s clothing might actually win.

I confess that I am ambivalent about the prospect. In a more democratic political system, it would be salutary to lose one for the (new) Gipper, even if it means electing a Republican Senator. But with our media and with our party system, it’s all but a sure thing that the wrong lesson would be drawn from a Coakley defeat. Though it is hard to imagine how anyone could think anything of the sort, the lesson that will be drawn will be that Obama’s “agenda” is somehow too left for the country at this time; that, like a good Clintonite, he ought to move even farther to the right. Needless to say, the opposite is true – had he and the Democratic leadership used the political capital they had a year ago more “audaciously,” they’d be no worse off than they now are, even if it all came to nought, and, win or lose, the country would be on a better track.

But, of course, the election is not just a (deformed) referendum on the Obama administration’s first year. Obama’s health care initiative is also at stake. Conventional wisdom has it that, if Coakley loses, Obama and Company will pressure House Democrats to accept the Senate’s version of health care reform and then ram through a vote – so that Obama will have a “victory” under his belt.

Maybe, this would be better for the country, not just the Democrats, than an outright defeat, though that is far from clear. There are some worthwhile insurance reforms in the Senate bill and it would increase the number of insured persons. But it would do so at great expense to the public and at some expense to many “middle class” workers. And it would benefit private insurance companies and other health care profiteers egregiously. It wouldn’t just enrich those malefactors either; it would entrench their power.

It would be far better, of course, to start over with a clear and defensible plan to make health care a right, not a commodity; a plan that would insure universal coverage, lower costs dramatically, and benefit everyone (except the profiteers). But nothing so sensible has a chance of happening – not in this “democracy.” More likely, if nothing passes, the cause of health care reform will be set back for another generation, just as happened with the last Clintonite reform adventure.

So, on balance, I suppose there is no choice but to hope that Coakley wins. But I wouldn’t mind if it doesn’t come out that way. What it boils down to is whether we should care more about consequences or desert. The consequences of her winning or losing are debatable, though it probably is true that, all things considered, it would be better if she wins. The one sure thing, though, is that the Democrats deserve to lose, and Obama with them.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dems to Base: "Drop Dead"

They should call it the Obama Doctrine and we should thank the Democratic leadership in the Senate for making its nature clear – most recently in their efforts to craft a health care reform (actually an insurance company enrichment) bill.

The Republican leadership, such as it is, follows just the opposite tack. Either out of guile or because they are controlled by the useful idiots they’ve been recruiting for decades, they play to those idiots, aka the Republican base. Whether this is a recipe for winning elections in 2010 remains to be seen. Maybe not because there’s a limit to how buffoonish Republicans can be and still win back the apolitical middle they lost thanks to George Bush and Dick Cheney. But as a recipe for influencing policy – which is, after all, what anybody who is not a party functionary or one of their media hacks cares about – it is a sure winner. It was Republican obduracy that empowered the Democratic right. Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson were the lucky beneficiaries; but for Republican nay saying, they’d never have been able to act out their obstructionist strategies or to stick it to their colleagues (never mind the voters).

Mainstream Democrats responded like the cowards they are. At a time when “bipartisanship” means surrender, they were happy to oblige.

It should now therefore be clear to all that, win or lose, Obama and his Congressional comrades are weak and unable to govern; that all they can do is betray the hopes of their base. The Petreus-McCrystal-Gates axis realized this long ago; so has the Israeli Right, which could have been tamed but is instead, as usual, calling the shots. And despite their moral and intellectual deficiencies, Congressional Republicans have figured it out too. The time is long past due for the Democratic base to realize what has been going on and to react accordingly – which means taking initiatives and restricting Obama’s choices, as much or more than Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson do.

Meanwhile, even if Obama finally gets a bill that is not, on balance, an unmitigated disaster, what a difference a year makes!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lose One for the Gipper!

Like the Clintons before him, the Obama health care reforms began with the Commander-in-Chief giving away the store, and then negotiating down. Add to that Obama’s self-defeating “bipartisanship” and his unwillingness to stand up to right-wing Democrats – and Joe Lieberman – and voilĂ , an historical opportunity has been lost. [This is just one of many examples. Obama’s first year in office should go down in history as a year of lost opportunities.]

Spineless Democrats now seem poised to acquiesce in what amounts to a give-away to private insurance companies – and also to Big Pharma and the for-profit health care industry. They are satisfied, it seems, with minor insurance reforms which, they insist, make the best of a bad situation. But the bad situation is of their own making and Obama’s. And their real motive for acquiescing is to win one for the New Gipper, Barack Obama – at no matter what cost. Not that anything that can be represented as a victory is likely; at least not before Democratic spinmeisters and their friends in the “liberal” media get on the case.

In the minds of Democrats, it’s a “now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of the party” moment. But if their heads were screwed on right and if they had half the courage of their convictions, they’d scuttle the whole effort and start over – without the “stakeholders,” the health care profiteers, calling the shots, as Obama insisted they must from the outset.

Now is the time to lose one for the Gipper. It will be good for America in the long run, and good practice too – for standing up against the Petreus-McChrystal axis that seems to have our War is Peace Commander-in-Chief in its thrall. Not that, with the Party of Pusillanimity in the majority (for what that’s worth!), there’s much chance of standing up to anybody.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Obama's War is Peace Prize

Would Orwell have believed it: Barack Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize just two weeks after he fixed the Petreus-McCrystal plan for perpetual war in Afghanistan and for a not very secret war in Pakistan in stone; while the occupation of Iraq continues; and just days after the Obama Justice Department intervened on behalf of torture lawyer John Yu, arguing that he cannot be sued in civil courts? This from the man who was elected to restore the rule of law and who has done nothing but protect Bush-Cheney era war criminals from prosecution.

The Nobel Committee claimed that Obama was chosen for his potential, not his accomplishments, and for his promise to reintegrate the United States into the community of enlightened states. That was a lame contention back when the prize was announced; by now, it is simply preposterous. Just ask the negotiators for developing countries how “multilateral” the United States is being, at this very moment, in Copenhagen. And reflect on the fact, announced while Obama was on his way to Oslo, that Attorney General Eric Holder, who was one of the good ones (compared to the unreconstructed Wall Streeters and Clintonites), has authorized death sentence prosecutions at about the rate Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey, Bush’s last two Attorney Generals, did. [Bush’s first AG, John Ashcroft, maintained a slightly higher pace, but then he was an in-your-face Christian.]

One can only avert one’s gaze. But how can anyone whose head is still screwed on right not be revolted by the praise liberal commentators have been heaping on Obama’s speech? Yes, in a low-grade way and compared to what George Bush’s speech writers used to concoct, it was eloquent, thoughtful, and nuanced. But, for anyone with eyes to see -- for anyone who lacks Obama’s confidence that his, Obama’s, saying it makes it coherent and true -- the speech was intellectually shallow and morally depraved.

Notwithstanding the praise it has drawn, the part of what he said that actually made sense was hardly news. Obama declared that war (or, more generally, violence) may sometimes be necessary to advance peace (or non-violence). Thus he referenced the timeworn case for the permissibility of non-pacifist means for pacifist ends. Need I point out that this is what almost all non-pacifists already believe or that the case for it is or rather ought to be familiar to all educated people? Obama’s point is the theme, for example, of Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation”; an essay he could hardly have failed to read back at Columbia along with a host of other classics that argue for a similar point. Still, the nuance Obama added was troubling. He introduced an explicitly religious motif – about the inexorability of Evil. As commentators on the Right, including Karl Rove, were quick to point out, this was vintage Bush boy. So too was his embrace of the Commander-in-Chief title and his insistence on his prerogatives as “head of state.”

Obama declared Al Qaeda evil. In passing, he maintained that America’s “enemies” in the Balkans and in other “humanitarian interventions” fall in the same category. It should be almost as unnecessary to correct these errors as it is to dwell on the Orwellian aspect of the whole event. But I can’t resist pointing out, yet again, that, by being in the thrall of warmed over Petreus-McCrystal “counter-insurgency” nonsense, Obama is inciting Islamicist resistance, not suppressing it. And neither can I fail to restate the obvious: that 9/11 was not an other-worldly eruption of Evil, but an understandable consequence of decades of American policy in the Middle East – that it was blowback for what the U.S. has done in Israel/Palestine, in Kashmir, in Afghanistan itself and, especially, for its support for corrupt but subservient Arab regimes. What is the Nobel laureate doing about these and other root causes? The short answer is Nothing. The slightly more eloquent, thoughtful and nuanced answer is not much different: from time to time, he talks a good earful, raising expectations he then betrays.

Whatever Obama may think, his saying “X” does not make it the case that X. And, despite what liberal pundits may think, his saying “X and not-X” simultaneously -- as in “escalate” and “wind down” -- is hardly a sign of greatness of mind. It only shows that his thinking is incoherent. Now that Obama has embraced the role of Commander-in-Chief, not just of our bloated armed forces but of American capitalism and its empire, this incoherence threatens to give rise to outcomes that are infinitely more worrisome than anything several hundred “evil” Al Qaeda operatives can contrive.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bipartisan At Last!

Letting Bush era war criminals get away with murder didn’t do it. Neither did giving away the store to Wall Street or sacrificing the public interest to the insurance, pharmaceutical, for-profit health care and dirty energy industries. Abject servility before the NRA and AIPAC and their ilk didn’t do it either; nor did putting the interests of the constituencies who put him in office – labor especially, but also gays, Latinos and even African-Americans – on the back burner. No matter how far to the right he veered, Barack Obama just couldn’t get the Party of No to say Yes.

Until now! In somber, “pragmatic” tones, Obama made his case for escalating the Afghanistan War and prolonging the occupation indefinitely. [Or until the impending 2012 elections necessitate rethinking. Does anyone believe that, if the troops really do start “transitioning” in July of 2011, it will be for any other reason?] The incoherence of his rationale – build an Afghan state, the better to defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan – was staggering. [I will leave for a later time or for others to elaborate why, for any conceivable American national interest, the Obama escalation is transparently counter-productive.] But the Republicans could hardly dissent. If they did, it would mean they don’t “support the troops.” It would also require them to break ranks with God and General McChrystal. Clever Obama! In one foul stroke, he won what he most longs for -- a Yes from the GOP.

I don’t expect that many will agree with this diagnosis. How, it will be asked, can bipartisanship explain such an obviously ill-conceived leap into the abyss? But it’s as good an explanation as any of the other contenders: that Obama is the prisoner of his own campaign rhetoric or of hapless Generals eager to get “counterinsurgency” right; that he fears what the Right will do if he “loses” Afghanistan; that the military industrial complex has something on him; that, as the acting steward of the American empire, he can’t be perceived to back away. No doubt, these factors have something to do with Obama’s dreadful decision, as does the inertia of war (we’re there because we’re there), and the willful impotence of what passes for a Left in this country, eager as it has been to cut Obama slack. But I stand by my contention: the main culprit is Obama’s obsessive, reckless bipartisanship.

Over the past year, it has become clear that the guiding principle of Obama’s governing style is to win the hearts and minds, or at least the grudging acceptance, of Republicans and Blue Dogs and Joe Lieberman – in other words, of the most execrable of the execrable. That was the Clintons’ idea too but, for them, it was, like everything else, just opportunism. Obama really believes in it. And, with a little help from his friends Petreus and McChrystal, he figured out how to get what he so desperately wants. Joy to the world, he must be thinking. Until the Party of No figures out how to get back on course, over in the West Wing, it will be a season to be jolly.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Obama Is the Enemy Now

The Afghanistan War is not and never has been “a war of necessity,” as Barack Obama has claimed. By now, it is not a “a war of choice” either. It’s a pointless, inexorable, nightmare.

In the beginning, the Afghanistan War was arguably less pointless. It was a war of revenge. Too bad that it was fought mainly against the wrong target, against ordinary Afghanis, not “terrorists” or their protectors. Those pesky terrorists were just too hard to round up and kill. Most of them weren’t even in Afghanistan, even then. Still, back in the day when George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld set the moral compass, revenge was the best revenge.

As a legal scholar and reader of Euripides, Obama should know that revenge is a motive that civilized societies are supposed to rise above. But never mind: after 9/11, there was not holding back the Furies. Never mind too whether Osama bin Laden might have been captured “dead or alive” years ago but for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-neocon obsession with Iraq. The fact is that the Afghanistan War could never have been “won” in any plausible sense, and it certainly can’t be won now. If history teaches anything, it is that occupations breed resistance, not acquiescence. And if, say, the history of the Vietnam War is no guide (as apologists for escalation have lately been proclaiming), then surely common sense is. Put enough troops on the ground and, of course, the level of violence will diminish while they are there. But even if our economy were not wrecked, and even if the Home of the Brave was not already war-weary, it would be impossible to keep enough troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. Eventually, Obama’s “exit strategy,” whatever it may be, is bound to give way to the only sensible exit strategy there is: cut and run. The question is only whether that day will come sooner or later, and how much more murder and mayhem there must be before it arrives.

The sad fact is that Obama knows this at some level; and so do his advisors and all but the most deluded Democrats in Congress. Maybe even some Republicans know it too, if there are any sane ones left. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever “it” is, we’ll be there for as long as “it” takes. Why? Because we must “support the troops,” of course; in other words, because we’re there.

Is it that Obama is the prisoner of remarks he made about Afghanistan during the campaign? According to the conventional wisdom, he had to say that he was gung-ho for that war in order to show that, despite his opposition to Bush’s Iraq War, he’s no sissy; that, as well or better than Hillary Clinton, he could play Commander-in-Chief. [It is worth noting that, despite Obama’s supposed opposition, the occupation of Iraq continues unabated!]

Or maybe the problem is that Obama is the prisoner of forces in the military, the Petreuses and McChrystals and their demented ilk, who, having come of age as Vietnam was sputtering out of control, are aching for a chance to get “counterinsurgency” right?

Or is it, as many on the left now believe, that Obama is afraid of the right? Fear of the right is now the favored explanation for why Kennedy and Johnson did their own Afghanistan thing in Vietnam. Why not Obama too?

Or perhaps it’s the Nixon-Kissinger preoccupation with “credibility.” After all, a successful bully can never just walk away. I favor this explanation, though the correct answer is probably “all of the above” and then some.

I think credibility is the main culprit because I believe that Obama is nothing if not foolishly consistent. Our vaunted agent of “change,” has proven himself a good steward of the interests of the powers that be: not just on Wall Street but in the corporate boardrooms of health-care profiteers, reckless polluters, and wherever else contributions for Democrats lie waiting. Surely Obama would not treat those who benefit egregiously from U.S. world domination and perpetual war differently.

But whatever the reason, one thing is clear – that for many months many Americans were in the thrall of an illusion. Remember how all the Clintonites and Wall Streeters Obama brought into his administration were there only for their expertise, and how Obama, from his perch on Mount Olympus, would use them to promote the changes people thought they’d voted for? Can anyone be so deluded any longer? The problem isn’t just Obama’s needlessly excessive servility. It’s worse than that. Bush’s wars didn’t have to become Obama’s wars; not with all the political capital he had to squander. But they are Obama’s wars now. Thus the great non-white hope of the willfully blind months ago has become, for all to see, the enemy today.

It never made sense to cut Obama endless slack, but it surely makes no sense now that he has proven himself an enemy, not an agent, of “change.” Obama is no savior. He’s not even part of the solution -- not now, anyway. Can it still be made otherwise? Hope fades fast but, to the extent it still survives, there is only one way: fighting back. Militance is again abroad in the land – witness the building occupations at University of California and Cal State campuses and the demonstrations marking the anniversary of the Battle of Seattle. The time is past due to make Obama and his wars its target. Gentle lesser evilists will just have to deal with it! There is no other way.