Friday, January 6, 2012

Obama and the Alter Defence

I was never an unbridled Obama enthusiast. To my great embarrassment, I would likely have voted for the pre-scandal John Edwards had he remained on the ballot during the California primary in 2008. But given Hillary Clinton’s departure from conviction on issues like healthcare, her unbridled enthusiasm for ill-judged military interventions, the fig-leaf her supposed progressivism provided for neocon foreign policy, and her relentless pandering to the most base common denominator during her arrogant and defamatory primary campaign, it was easy enough to vote for Obama, and to get enthusiastic about the prospects for a demonstrative change of direction as his prospects waxed in the run-up to what people described as the historic election in November, 2008.

I’d worried about his fuzziness, and his willingness to run on a ream of platitudes, but his eloquence seemed just the thing to bring the divisive and destructive Bush years to a close. I was nervous that running on generalities would undercut any mandate he won and make him an easy target for the corporate-funded Republican machine. But it was easy to put those doubts aside when I celebrated election night in the euphoric atmosphere of Berkeley’s International House and watched the likes of Jesse Jackson break down in tears on television upon seeing a black man elected President in a country still plagued by supposedly insurmountable racial, cultural and economic divisions.

And it’s been downhill ever since. Many of us, disappointed at Obama’s Treasury and State Department appointments, worried by his half-heartedness on healthcare, concerned by his lack of narrative, consoled ourselves for far too long by assuming that he really was a progressive deep down inside, that he was constrained by forces beyond his control, and that he was going to avoid the chaos and pointlessness that characterised too many of the Clinton years because he had a plan and a strategy that would reveal themselves in good time.

And when it became obvious that clinging to this excuse was an exercise in intellectual and rational self-betrayal, it was still possible to blame the Republicans for the country’s sorry state of affairs given their openly-avowed project of destroying the President at all costs. It is this anger at the Republican project, which translates into almost a hatred of all things Republican for some self-identifying liberals, which has kept Obama’s support on the left from haemorrhaging even more violently than it is. The trouble is, supporting Obama unconditionally because the Republicans want to destroy his Presidency gives him the cover to move as far to the right as he pleases without facing any consequences.

My final moment of disillusionment—when I realised that it would take some massive deviation from his current trajectory to allow me to vote for Obama in 2012—came when, outmanoeuvred by the unconstitutional behaviour of high-ranking military officers, and given cover by right-wing Democrats like Clinton and California’s own Dianne Feinstein, Obama approved a massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan—precisely the kind of war he had castigated in the process of riding discontent with Bush’s neocons to the top.

Surely, I thought, this would raise the ire of progressives around the country? Surely when he secretively extended that war to Pakistan, reneged on his promise to close Guantanamo, buckled on environmental protection and regulation of the energy sector, failed for far too long to even verbally chastise the scions of corporate responsibility who were fighting tooth and nail for the continuation of corporate welfare while middle- and working-class Americans struggled...surely all of this would create a backlash and either make Obama reconsider his approach or else spawn a significant primary challenge to his rightward drift.

I realised that none of this was likely to happen about a year ago when I sat down to read Jonathan Alter’s well-written book, The Promise, documenting the early months of the Obama Presidency. The “Alter Defence” has come to be the favoured tool of both grassroots voters who continue to support Obama wholeheartedly in spite of his lack of a progressive agenda, and by beleaguered members of his administration who are routinely coming under fire from both right and left.

It works like this. The defender in question takes one of two tacks. One is to actually have the audacity to suggest that Obama has a strategy of incremental change. Like Alter, they point to any number of changes to financial regulations and institutions, marginal gains in the area of environmental protection, cosmetic changes to our foreign policy that leave its overall moral bankruptcy firmly intact, unchallenged and even strengthened. These incremental changes, they suggest, will issue in progressivism by the back door and transform our country for the better.

Others, less blatant, point to the same minor alterations and argue that this is the best that Obama can pull off. So even if he didn’t come into office with this strategy of change by a thousand miniscule cuts, it is what he has settled on, and small change is better than the radical change in the other direction that the economic fundamentalists in the Republican Party are promising to inflict on our damaged economy and people.

The problem with the Alter Defence is that even if they are right, and that in the right circumstances you can bring about significant progressive change by tinkering around the edges (there is zero historical evidence to support this, and lots that shows that leadership is about taking a stand and developing a big argument), and that this is Obama’s plan, our current political trajectory blows the idea to smithereens.

The conversation in our country has actually, I would argue, drifted right-wards since Obama’s election. Part of this has been of the President’s own very deliberate making. He has added the veneer of articulateness and intelligence to neoconservative foreign policy, and has put corporate wants ahead of environmental, social and health-related needs. Another element in the shift has been Obama’s pathological unwillingness (not inability...I think it has been a calculated choice on his part) to unveil any big, coherent progressive agenda. He might be daunted by the scale of the challenge, but his confidence makes me think that this is not the case. He might feel constrained by the vicious strength of the Republican challenge backed by the filthy dollars of economic gangsters, but pragmatism alone doesn’t seem to explain his reticence.

No, I think that we’re living with the wreckage wrought by the ticking time-bomb left by Bill Clinton. Try as he might to play the role of Democratic Party wise-man, settling—or wriggling—back into interview chairs on the leading networks with that self-satisfied, Cheshire Cat grin, the steepled fingers and the ‘aw shucks’ manner, Clinton did serious damage to the Democratic Party, to progressivism and to politics in general during his years in office.

Together with the leaders of formerly progressive political parties across the Anglophone world, Clinton embraced the unholy strategy of Triangulation which transformed the practise of politics into a totally amoral game rather than an exercise in the principled crafting of coherent policy. Instead of setting out from a principled position or identifying a moral end, Clinton and his brigade of morally-stunted hacks would identify the two leading interests on a given policy question, and position themselves equidistance from the two, not based on the merits of either position, but rather on the premise that each interest will give, of necessity, a certain amount.

The result was totally mangled policymaking, far removed from the needs of people in the country or any moral imperative, and devoid of principle. But the soulless strategy also won elections, and became the playbook for successive electorally-successful Presidents and Prime Ministers. The final result is that neither Clinton nor Bush nor Obama will be remembered for any policy innovation or major social change in the domestic sphere. This hamstrung form of politicking neuters ideology, the genuine fount of innovation, and precludes the kind of change Obama promised. The policy changes that result from it are either so rag-tag as to be ineffective or else fall apart because of their disjointed character.

In the spirit of escapism and futility which characterises our politics today, I’ll hope that 2012 is the year when Obama finds a spine or is pushed into doing something useful by outraged progressives. However, his small moral stature and electoral strategy make this highly unlikely.


  1. "Unholy strategy of triangulation"
    nice turn of a phrase. thought it does sort of imply there was ever a sanctified political strategy......when your hero winny C was bravely fighting the good fight trying to keep the empire together?......manifest destiny?......or do you have to go further back?......william the conqueror living up to his name?

  2. I think you are wrong in your characterization of Obama's efforts on Afghanistan. Even during the campaign in 2008, he was calling for an escalation in Afghanistan. He was never for withdrawing from Afghanistan in the same way that he was for ending the War in Iraq.

    By and large, I think it is remarkable how closely Obama has stuck to the things he promised to do.

    I think you are broadly right about the Democratic Party - but then, they have been a fairly neo-liberal party for at least 20 years now (a trend that is interestingly on the rise in India as well, across the political spectrum)

  3. Also, there has been a very interesting history of counterinsurgency (the military strategy under which the escalations were justified) developing in the last 3 years.

  4. My problem with how he handled Afghanistan was that he held this review, in which most of the evidence suggested that our presence was exacerbating problems in the region. The Pentagon's reports for those years (they've stopped, so far as I can see, releasing these publicly now) all seemed pessimistic. But because political hacks in the military like Petraeus, and powerful legislators in the Democratic and Republican parties were calling for this escalation, Obama appeared to ignore a great deal of evidence (particularly the very basic evidence suggesting that the more we wage war abroad the less secure we are as a nation). My problem isn't with him doing broadly what he said he would, but with his willingness to ignore the evidence.
    I think that the Republicans are absolutely right when they attack Obama for formulating his policies on Iraq and Afghanistan nakedly around polling. I think that he's decided that these two wars are things he can use to bolster his numbers in a place where Democrats are traditionally seen as weak (the war Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the military attacks in Yemen, Somalia, etc) while also placating the anti-war left (Iraq).
    I'll read these links you've posted later (the amtrak wireless connection is slow).