If the present trend continues, historians will recount in awe the cynicism with which a young Senator from Illinois constructed an inspirational, wide-reaching and transformative campaign to reach the highest office in the land on the backs of a progressive alliance, a generation whose political participation had been written off, and a story of how progress could be won, before betraying his movement, abandoning his supporters and governing like the party he so eloquently criticised.
I occasionally, through habit, get outraged about the prospect of being disenfranchised as a Democrat in 2012 before I remember that Obama’s war in Afghanistan and California’s undemocratic 2010 primaries already drove me out of the party that should otherwise be a decent fit. I’m now one of those organisms floating around the political soup called ‘decline to state’. As such, I should be much in demand, but of course all the media wants to know is how many of us there are and which of the two major parties’ candidates we’d like to support.
Which misses the point of ‘decline to state’ and is a travesty to the idea of political choice. The intellectual Lilliputian hacks at CNN, FOX and their brethren assume that ‘decline to state’ makes a voter a ‘moderate’, whatever that means. What they don’t stop to consider is that ‘decline to state’ likely indicates unhappiness with the existing policies on offer from two parties that, in some election cycles, bear a nightmarish resemblance to one another.
Because whatever the party affiliation besides Obama’s name in November of 2012, he will be running on the political right, in diametric opposition to many of the things he purported to support in 2008, and in support of virtually no important progressive cause.
-The President might have declared the war in Iraq over and done (another President tried that, I seem to recall), but his words are undoubtedly cold comfort to the families of the over forty servicemen and –women who were killed in 2011. Another 12 died in 2010 between his announcement and the end of the year. Over 2,000 Iraqis died this year as well, although they have got precious little attention in our newspapers and television reports.
-And then there’s Afghanistan, where over 300 U.S. soldiers were killed this year. As of today, the U.S. body-count for Obama’s war in South Asia since 2009 (which, let’s remember, he expanded to Pakistan unannounced) stands at 1,126. Over 20,000 Afghans have died. And we should remember that this President stridently declared himself against “dumb wars”. I personally can’t imagine a dumber, more unsavoury, morally vacuous war than one fought for the sake of opinion poll numbers, except, perhaps, one fought for the appeasement of Congressional warmongers and industrial war profiteers. Obama’s war is both.
Not only that, Obama has very likely replaced George W Bush as the best recruiting sergeant any would-be terrorist could ever ask for. The more the United States throws its ill-considered military might around abroad, the more likely we are to make ourselves unnecessary enemies.
-The wisdom of intervention in Libya is still very much up for debate. But what the conflict has marked is Obama’s aggrandisement of executive power in a manner and with a warped logic that would make the Vulcans in the Bush White House proud. Obama made the incredible claim that because “U.S. operations [in Libya] do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof...”, those operations do not constitute military action that would be governed by the War Powers Resolution—aimed at reining in an over-mighty and unresponsive executive. In other words, the sustained pummelling, via drones, of another country’s armed forces, infrastructure and government centres does not constitute war.
Not only is this logic offensive and immoral, it has dangerous implications. To refute that something like our bombing of Libya constitutes war, in an era in which bombing from afar is likely to increasingly characterise warfare, is to ensure that much conflict of the future will be the sole preserve of the executive. Well, we might think, Obama is level-headed enough that this shouldn’t be a problem. But he is currently directing wars in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan, at least three of which are imperilling our security, and two of which are primarily using drones. And can you imagine the damage a Palin, a Perry, a Santorum, a Gingrich could do with this authority and the concomitant sidelining of Congress? Santorum has called out Obama for a passive, weak foreign policy, and Gingrich has declared his desire to wage a ‘Long War’ against recalcitrant Muslims. Obama has opened the gates of hell, because this move also makes the calculation to wage war solely about the consequences for us. Yes, we might not be at risk of casualties in Libya, but we’ve killed quite a few Libyans, and are their lives not worthy of consideration? Not in the Obama White House.
-Obama has also empowered a national security apparatus that most, in the sunset days of the Bush administration, would have agreed had grown too strong, too blinkered, to war-minded. Not only has Obama’s approach to detention and imprisonment without charge, assassination, denial of habeas corpus, immunity for torturers, etc, mirrored that of the Bush White House, his appointments have solidified a dangerous relationship between the intelligence and military communities. By putting back-stabbing General Petraeus in charge of the C.I.A., Obama is doing even more to ensure that our intelligence services become an arm of the Pentagon, aiding it in the waging of useless conflict, instead of gathering and processing information to see how we might better deal with problems around the world.
On the domestic policy front, Obama has borne an equal resemblance to Republicans.
-Obama’s healthcare reform is less progressive and less comprehensive than plans proposed by right-wing Republican presidents. He buckled again and again under pressure from special interests, putting the welfare of voters and citizens a distant second.
-No less than Jon Stewart has criticised Obama for keeping the people whose short-sightedness and irresponsibility cast our country into economic turmoil at the tiller. The President's lack of honesty and imagination on this count only shows his willingness to ignore both campaign commitments and the concerns of constituents.
-Obama spent years, in an unholy alliance with the Right wing of the Republican Party, defending civil rights violations and discrimination directed at gay and lesbian couples. His intractability on the issue (right down to his invocation of States’ Rights) made him sound like something out of another, altogether more unsavoury era, ironic given the heralding of his own electoral victory as a glass ceiling-breaking, transformative occurrence in the history of our country’s civil rights struggle.
-In just the past month, Obama has set back the environmental and energy reform movements significantly, dealing Bush-like blows to regulation. First, he approved the construction of a pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands field to the Gulf of Mexico, thereby condoning the environmentally and socially destructive exploitation of the tar sands, the destruction of habitat and trampling of property rights that the pipeline would necessitate, and the threat that such a pipeline would pose given our deregulated, free-for-all, profiteering climate.
Next, Obama decided not to pursue tougher pollution standards that he had asked the EPA to pull together. The reason? They would pose too severe “regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty”. Our economic recovery, it would seem, is being tied to corporate welfare and the subsidisation of interests which, untouched by scrutiny and unmoved by the public good, have done grievous damage to our environment, our energy industry and to our health through their pollution of the very air we breathe.
“A Portrait of California” has called areas that include swathes of California’s San Joaquin Valley “The Forsaken Five Percent”, to encompass those people who, below even the “Struggling Californians” who make up 38% of our state’s population, are working in low-paying, insecure and physically back-breaking jobs, bear the brunt of cuts to public services, and who have poor health indicators (37). This region’s air quality is designated as “serious” in the categories of ozone and particulates. Breathing what has been called the worst air in the country, struggling with incredibly high asthma rates, drinking water contaminated by fertilisers and run-off from unregulated dairies, inhabitants of California’s San Joaquin Valley will bear the brunt of Obama’s casual repudiation of environmental good sense. A person born in the south of Stockton in the San Joaquin Valley will live, on average, 15 years less than a person born in Newport Beach, Orange County. The refusal to take the impact of polluted air and water seriously is central to this yawning gap that continues to open between people in different segments of society.
I don’t know whether progressives during the Clinton years felt that the President dealt them a body-blow just about every day of the week, but there is a key difference (Obama’s poll numbers amongst his ‘base’, it has been recently noted, are falling). However much he might have courted the wrong interests, however inept his handling of the economy might have been, however misguided his eleventh-hour buy-in to Ronald Reagan’s soulless economic program, George H W Bush wasn’t his son.
Barack Obama became President on the heels of one of the most corrupt, destructive, inept, hegemonic and immoral administrations our country had ever seen. The difference should have been stark. Obama should have shone.
Instead, the President has failed. Dismally. His Presidency has been a failure of achievement, a failure of imagination and a failure of conscience. It has achieved virtually nothing of substance in line with the historic philosophy behind the Democratic Party, has confirmed the rule of greed and warfare, of petty profit over the health and welfare of the majority, and the strength of a few wealthy interests and industries over the weakness of the politically, socially and economically marginal—who together constitute a large majority of the people in our country.
We will indeed have a choice in November of 2012. One candidate will have a ‘D’ next to his name, the other an ‘R’. One will be black and one will be white (sorry Herman Cain, but let’s be realistic about your chances). One might be a woman.
But there will be no choice in those things that matter most.
One candidate will believe that war is the best way of settling disputes and that staging armed interventions abroad will make us safer at home. The other candidate will agree.
One of the two will believe that we can take our environment, our air, our water, our forests and fields for granted, and put off making serious decisions about growth and consumption. The other will concur.
One candidate will argue that we can trust industries—whether financial, energy or otherwise—to regulate themselves, to treat their workers right, and that if they don’t, a little fantasy called the Free Market will make it all okay in the end. The other candidate will agree.
One of the two will suggest that the power of organised labour needs a check, that it inhibits our economic recovery, and that the evidence suggesting that unionisation brings benefits to workers which flow across our entire economy is wrong. The other will concur.
One candidate will note that when making decisions about regulation, environmental protection, the provision of healthcare and the setting of wages, we should consult first with those making large profits to ensure that doing right by the people whose labour makes our country work doesn’t inconvenience them. The other candidate will agree.
One of the two will argue that it is more important to lighten the tax burden of the obscenely wealthy, to allow loop-holes for corporations and industries to stay open, than it is to provide social services—healthcare, education, childcare, parks and recreation—for the many. The other will concur.
One candidate will spend millions of dollars—perhaps a billion—on an election campaign that will effectively empower special interests whilst spurning the average voter. The other candidate will do the same.
I can’t call this a choice. The 2012 Presidential Election will be a GOP Primary. But those of us who feel left out will be kept waiting, because the real election isn’t going to roll around.