Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A primary challenge to Obama would be good for democracy and the country

We got a taste of President Obama’s re-election strategy when last quarter’s fundraising numbers came out: Money, Money, Money.  It’s sad that the candidate who promised to be different and who promised change is set to run not on the strength of his ideas or convictions, but on his ability to raise masses of cash, not all of it from “ordinary, hardworking Americans”.  The huge influx of cash into our politics, some of it sparked by the Supreme Court’s absurd Citizens United decision, others by our political structure, is a detriment to our democracy and only the latest failing of an administration of which we had great hopes.

Many of us who voted for the man who ran as a progressive against Hillary Clinton’s more statist campaign expected Obama to reign in corporate excess and regulate on behalf of working- and middle-class consumers who were struggling in a system rigged by the Republican Party and its allies to favour the insurance, energy and financial industries.  We expected the man who rose to political prominence on the back of his condemnation of one ruinous war to oppose our continued and escalated involvement in another. 

Obama’s abandonment of progressivism is set to go unchallenged as the Democratic Party seeks to rally ‘round its candidate and his funds.  In so doing, they are wildly deviating from the set of values that ought to characterise any progressive party: a commitment to standing up for the rights of workers; a dedication to some kind of basic equality in rights and opportunities; a defence of an ethically-grounded foreign policy; a recognition that a well-funded and –conceived education system is the basis for economic prosperity, social innovation and a vigorous democracy; an argument in favour of the idea of a socially, economically, politically and environmentally-defined public good ; and an acknowledgement of the fact that the well-off amongst us should not rake in record profits while other members of our community are struggling to survive. 

Too few of these values are being articulated, let alone defended, and Obama bears much of the responsibility for this glaring omission.  He placed his faith in a consensus-oriented mode of politics which, while commendable, badly underestimated the entrenchment of corporate greed, the almost violent individualism which that greed promoted, and the vigour with which interests, vested or otherwise, were prepared to resist incursions on their profits and spheres of influence.

We are paying the price today in California for an undemocratic primary in which progressive gubernatorial candidates were deterred by the fundraising prowess of an otherwise lacklustre candidate, the party hierarchy, and the cost of mounting a challenge based on principle and policy rather than cash.  Jerry Brown never had to defend his record, explain his policies or take positions on the critical issues of the day.  He drifted into office on a wave of confidence, fuzzy language and good feelings, and promptly shafted the progressive supporters whose energy and enthusiasm brought him to that office.  Having staked out neither principles nor policies, he has been easily outmanoeuvred by the Republican Party (and this in a state that is more conventionally progressive than the nation as a whole).

Now there’s no guarantee that a serious primary would have a positive outcome.  California’s dynamic is altered by the referendum system (though it shares, with the antediluvian U.S. Senate the predilection for minority rule).  And Obama, after all, faced a formidable primary opponent in Hillary Clinton in 2008.  But she positioned herself to his political right and the debate became more about personality and experience than philosophy and policy. 

Pragmatics aside, a primary would empower voters—generally a good thing.  And a progressive alternative to Obama is desperately needed, given his poor track record of defending the economically-marginal in our society and his embrace of reprehensible wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  What we increasingly have is a president who doesn’t stand for anything in particular besides his own electoral interests.  His brand, and progressive politics in general, are severely compromised, and working class voters, those on the economic brink, our soldiers and the civilians of the nations in which they wage war are all paying a high price.

·         When he had a chance to close Guantanamo Bay, Obama backed down in the face of domestic opposition to civilian trials for prisoners, demonstrating a painful lack of moral fibre (‘we need to pick our battles’) and faith in our justice system.  The message: “I’m only committed some of the time and my momentum is easily-stalled”.

·         When he had the chance to overhaul our financial and economic system which had proven to be so susceptible to avarice and greed in the wake of the housing crisis and great recession, Obama instead appointed the very people whose leadership and penchant for deregulation caused the crisis to positions of prominence in his administration.  The message: “Change you can believe in...until you can’t”.

·         When he had the chance to advocate for a truly comprehensive, once-in-several-generations overhaul of our healthcare system, Obama made concession after concession to the insurance industry and its hired hands in Congress, resulting in a mangled system which ameliorated some inequities whilst leaving others untouched, and which doesn’t address the basic problem posed by private insurance.  The message: “Push me and I fold”.

·         At a moment ripe for serious education reform, Obama endorsed a series of plans that rely on the charter school concept, dedicated to reinventing the wheel, creating multiple tiers of schools and exacerbating the already yawning achievement and opportunity gaps while scapegoating teachers and ignoring the funding gap.  The message: “Inequality is okay and public servants are expendable”.

·         When given the opportunity to repeal the Bush Tax Cuts for the wealthy, Obama backed down from the Republican Party’s challenge and let the tax breaks stand, contributing to growing inequity, a lack of revenue for important programs, and a deepening deficit.  The message: “All taxpayers are equal, but some taxpayers are more equal than others”.

·         When voters of all political stripes expected Obama to break from neoliberal sycophancy towards the oil industry, his Department of the Interior refused to release details of Ken Salazar’s meetings with executives, pressured scientists to realign their findings around electoral arithmetic, abandoned even the most limited energy reform, and has opened the way to drilling in the Arctic.  The message: “Open season for Big Oil”.

·         When protestors in Egypt rallied to force their dictator Mubarak to step down, Obama vacillated, called on protestors rather than the Egyptian secret police to exercise caution, and allowed his Vice-President to defend Mubarak.  The message: “Democracy in the hands of the people is a dangerous thing”.

·         As he discussed re-branding our foreign policy, Obama allowed a $60 billion arms deal with the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia, propping up an amoral arms industry instead of re-orienting our manufacturing and foreign policy goals towards sustainable moral markets that will do good at home and abroad.  The message: “Bush Mark II”.

·         When Gulf States governments used American- and British-armed Saudi forces to brutalise protestors who challenged these U.S.-backed monarchies, Obama didn’t emit so much as a whimper of protest.  The message: “Democracy talks, but Arms Sales are louder”.

·         When Obama had the chance to appoint a champion for working- and middle-class consumers, in the person of Elizabeth Warren, to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he balked at the challenge from big business and the Republican Party.  The message: “Work hard, fight for what you believe in, practise progressive politics, don’t just talk the talk...and you’re out of a job.

·         As gay and lesbian couples fight for their rights around the country against seething bigots like Michele Bachmann, the first black president has declared his position to be “evolving”, and asserted that he is comfortable sitting on the fence and “believes that this is an issue best addressed by the states”.  The message: “I don’t know a thing about American history”.

·         When he became president and assessed the on-going war in Afghanistan, Obama made a political-electoral calculation rather than a moral, human one, and ramped up fighting in Afghanistan while expanding our war into Pakistan.  The message: “I was against dumb wars before I was for them”.

·         As the Republican Party and its corporate paymasters launch an all-out assault on organised labour in Wisconsin and elsewhere, determined to strip public sector workers of the benefits and protections already denied their private-sector counterparts, Obama continues to waffle, to leave workers under the bus, and to allow the Republican Party to set the agenda.  The message: “Corporate profits are more important than the well-being of the workforce, and citizenship is defined by wealth rather than by membership in a shared community”.

Obama clearly needs to be reminded of why people voted for him three years ago.  Such a reminder would drive home the fact that he shouldn’t take progressive votes for granted.

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